Here we are again, poised on the brink of a new year, one of the few remaining in what historians have called "the American Century." This should be a happy time, a time of renewal and anticipation.

Yet I am tactless enough to present on this special occasion a home-grown Jeremiah, University of San Francisco economist Michael Lehmann, 52, who dares to say out loud what many of us fear to even think.He says America is another year closer to the dustbin of history.

"The future will be grim," Lehmann told me. "The fundamental problems won't go away.

"Everything people complain about now will get worse. Pick 'em: crime, homelessness, dysfunctional families, the average person's standard of living. I don't think our society can handle them.

"There won't be a meltdown in the next year or two, but America's sun is going to set much more quickly than people think. The situation is just going to deteriorate."

In 1984, Lehmann published the highly successful "Business One Irwin Guide to Using The Wall Street Journal," a primer on the methods and madness of our financial markets.

Now he's shopping around a new, more ambitious title - "Flash in the Pan: The Institutional Roots of American's Economic and Social Decline."

For blame, Lehmann singles out nothing less than America's attitude - our tradition of rugged individualism.

"Let me be clear about this. It's not just specific problems, like imperialism or the deficit. It's American institutions and ideology. Among all countries, we are the least able to come to grips with our problems."

The Soviets bellied up because their collectivist political philosophy stifled initiative. The U.S. will founder for the opposite reason, the economist said: too much individualism, too little collectivism.

The rules have changed and not only are we without a clue as to what they now are, Lehmann is saying, but we have a serious learning disability.

"You have to go back to our laissez-faire tradition," he said. "It worked for most of our history. We had wide open spaces, tremendous opportunity and a huge market. The prevailing business and social ethic was as much freedom as possible.

"You could do whatever you wanted as long as you minded your business. If you were a misfit, you just moved on.

"The society never took responsibility for troublemakers. There was no notion of `society,' really. Everyone was too busy. We didn't care about folks until they rubbed up against the system."

The bubble burst in 1929 when the stock market crashed and it became painfully apparent that the bottom could fall out for all of us. True economic revival didn't come until a national crisis, World War II, gave Americans no choice but to act as one in order to survive.

Through the '70s, Lehmann said, the bubble continued to grow again, spurred by skyrocketing, government-promoted consumer debt and spending.

"The U.S. has been living in a cocoon, really - a high consumption society we invented and then supported by ever more borrowing and spending."

In the early '80s, the Federal Reserve moved to permanently wring unmanageable inflation out of the system by forcing up interest rates and making borrowing prohibitive. The bubble leaked, and the nation experienced a major slowdown in 1981-1982.

While we've long since recovered, Lehmann said, booms like those of the past never will return because of the Fed's anti-inflation stand and the pressure of competing global economies.

"The pie has stopped growing and it's being sliced more ways. U.S. manufacturers are unable to meet the challenge because they aren't used to competing on the basis of quality, just on the basis of mass production.

"Our guys are still back in the free-for-all stage, the pre-World War I rugged individualism stage.

"The Japanese, on the other hand, have evolved a new set of institutions that have found ways to mobilize capital and talent in order to exploit marketable technologies and develop new ones."

What's necessary to turn us around?

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A crisis on the order of World War II or the Cold War, Lehmann said.

I began to suspect he never would get "Flash in the Pan" published. Most people won't pay to be depressed and frightened.

At the very least, he needed a final chapter giving us reason to hope. He agreed.

"My wife tells me I'd better come up with solutions," he said. "But I don't know how."

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