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New Generations Aspiring to Greatness

June 1, 2011

Stock and commodity markets reacted negatively today to news that sluggish private sector hiring, slipping domestic manufacturing and sliding Greek sovereign debt ratings. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans met with President Obama to discuss legislation to raise the debt ceiling following a show-vote on Tuesday meant to signal their resistance to any measure that fails to herald a new era of fiscal discipline in Washington. (Which, it should be noted, they regard primarily, if not solely, as cuts to domestic discretionary spending and entitlement programs.)

Although the economic situation in Germany and Japan are not much better than here in the United States (and some would argue much worse), the stories grabbing the biggest headlines in these countries are very different from those here at home. Indeed one might wonder whether the tables have now truly turned since the end of the Second World War.

Those Americans who worked to defeat the axis powers in World War II have come to be known as the Greatest Generation for their willingness both to make difficult decisions and to make significant sacrifices at home and on the battlefield for the sake of future generations. Their leadership benefited not only our generation, but those too of the nations they fought.

The turnabout decision this week by Germany to abandon nuclear power by 2022 and invest heavily in renewables with a target of supplying at least 80 percent of their domestic demand by 2050 reflects nothing short of a payback on our nation’s post-war investment in rebuilding war-ravaged Europe. Germany’s decision and the actions that must follow are no less ambitious than the mobilization of labor and capital required in the United States to supply the war effort 60 years ago. The German people will only succeed in reaching their goal through a combination of expanded capacity, technological innovation and significant reductions in demand through energy conservation and increased efficiency.

A segment of the population of that other great power of the war era has shown a different kind of foresight and fortitude that reflects a more personal sort of sacrifice. The lingering crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has fueled the loss of faith in the government and is now mobilizing a segment of Japanese society that one might assume has every right to sit back and wonder what happened to the country they helped build as the successors to the generation defeated by our grandparents. Instead, this generation of retirees and grandparents is volunteering to expose themselves to dangerous levels of radioactivity by helping cleanup the damaged nuclear reactors rather than leaving the job to younger workers who would be more likely to suffer the long-latent effects of such significant radiation exposures.

In both instances, the decisions and actions we see taking center-stage overseas reflect the sorts of values that made our forebears great. At the same time, their presence, even prominence in the news from abroad makes their absence from our own political debate that much more glaring and indeed worrying for our stability, stature, security and future prospects of success.

What sacrifices are we willing to make to maintain our greatness? How hard are we willing to work? How much would we pay to remain an exemplar of the can-do spirit for other nations to follow?

Judging by the crisis of confidence afflicting both the political and economic spheres, it seems the answers to these questions are “not so much.” Our crisis will continue, if not deepen, unless those who can start doing. Americans should not expect leadership of the sort displayed in Germany and Japan this week to come from politicians alone. As the examples of our former rivals aptly illustrate, we need leadership at every level of our society if we are to restore our greatness.

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