Two portraits, two Americas:
As many remember the loss of a president 29 years ago, it occurs to me there is another kind of loss to think about - the loss of the America of John Kennedy's time.I spent the day gathering numbers to explore what the country was like then, and now. The two portraits are sobering.
Certainly, there were difficult challenges in Kennedy's times: Back then the Cold War was at its most tense, posing its gravest threats. Now it has ended, and with it, the fear of nuclear confrontation has ended, too.
But perhaps even more troubling challenges have risen in its place.
If the Cold War was at its peak in Kennedy's time, so was America's prosperity. In all the world, no other country came close to our wealth. Among the industrialized democracies, our standard of living was the highest, without even a close second.
Today, our standard of living is ninth out of the top 20 nations, trailing both Germany and Japan.
Then there is our debt.
Our total government debt in 1960 was $284 billion, which came to $1,572 per person. It took us almost 200 years to run it up that high. In the last 30, it's increased more than tenfold, to around $3.5 trillion. That comes to $13,000 per person.
And it's draining money we need desperately for other things.
The interest on our debt in 1960 was $9.2 billion, or about 10 percent of federal spending. It stayed around that rate right through 1980. In 1991, however, the debt service paid by Washington came to more than $250 billion or 21 percent of federal spending. Even those who are most hopeful about resolving paying it back concede we will be leaving much of the burden to our children.
Since Kennedy's time, we've also seen the world's companies catch up to our own. In 1960, half the world's manufactured goods bore the stamp "Made in the USA." By 1990, that was down to a third. In America today, manufacturing is 19 percent of the total economy; in Germany, it's 32 percent and Japan 29 percent. While Germans remain mostly employed making high profit products, Americans are increasingly oriented toward lower-profit service jobs.
Result: The world now sells us far more than we sell in return. In 1960, we had a trade surplus of $7 billion. In 1991, our trade deficit was $113 billion - triple that of England, in second place. Germany and Japan both had surpluses, each around $77 billion. They've replaced us as the world's most successful sellers. Meanwhile, we've become its biggest buyers, leading Carlo De Bene-detti, chairman of Olivetti, to make this observation: "We have all, in Europe and Japan and Asia, expanded on the shoulders of U.S. consumers."
And so we've moved from the world's banker in Kennedy's time to its biggest debtor today. In 1981, the world still owed us money - $2,500 per American family. By 1989, it was the other way - to pay our total foreign debt, each American family would have to come up with $20,114. And it continues to rise.
Some would say that there is a more important geopolitical change since 1960 than the end of the Cold War: the change to a global economy. Other nations have understood this change better than us, learning to create wealth faster than us, often at our expense, and it has left the United States facing something it never thought possible in 1960: that American children might one day be inheriting a nation less prosperous than the one inherited by their parents.
Now, a new young president comes to office facing a simple question. Thirty years from now, will it be said that he allowed his country's economic trend to continue? Or that he began to turn it around?
Two portraits, two Americas.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service