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More Like Us
210 pp. $18.95
SINCE the start of this decade, Americans and America watchers have been obsessed with the idea that the United States is in decline. Soaring deficits and rising imports mean the eagle is falling, wrote so many doomsayers, who churned out tome after tome documenting their claims. America was losing--or had already lost--its competitive edge to the Japanese, and the only way for the U.S. to climb back to the top was to model itself after Japan.
Most of the research sparked by this startling epiphany focused on Japanese economic strategies, and why they were so much better than ours. In his study of Japan, Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel pointed out the many aspects of Japanese life and society that inevitably led to economic hyper-growth. His book, which quickly became a best-seller in Japan, was simply titled Japan As Number One.
Titles like this aside, most of the books written about U.S.-Japanese economic competition avoided hysteria. Their authors duly noted that the United States was still the world's largest industrial power and was certain to remain relatively wealthy for quite some time. All these works suggested was that by studying Japan's unique economic system, we could adopt those structures that worked so well there.
In his new book, James Fallows '70 writes that becoming more like Japan would be the worst thing for America. Instead, because American culture is so radically different from Japanese culture, we should become More Like Us.
THE sharp cultural differences between America and Japan are hardly new concepts, as anyone who has ever been to Tokyo is well aware. In fact, many of the recent "More Like Japan" books have noted that there are many Japanese attitudes--including intense racism and sexism--that the United States would be well advised not to adopt. The distinction between More Like Us and the others is the emphasis; Fallows insists that the only true cure for America's malaise can come from the attributes that initially made the U.S. a great nation.
Unlike Japan, which succeeds because its strict hierarchical system matches its cultural demands for order, America is at its best when it allows its people to reinvent themselves and create new opportunities, Fallows writes. Disorder makes America great, and great Americans are the ones who aren't constrained by stagnant societal customs. Those who really contribute to American strength are the entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak and Steven Jobs, not to mention the grunts who take jobs in the oil fields when their factories close, confident that they can start their lives anew.
It is, of course, impossible to prove that the American Dream is the power behind the United States' economic strength, but Fallows' many anecdotes are compelling. For instance, his account of the Nguyens, a Vietnamese family of refugees who worked many long hours to improve their economic standing, sounds very familiar. It's reminiscent of the stories told to any second or third-generation Americans by their immigrant parents or grandparents. The moral: Hard work and the opportunity to make a new start are what makes America great.
WHILE these stories certainly reveal a great deal about America and the people who live here, they do start to sound a little bit corny after a while. (If you read More Like Us in a very still room, you can hear "God Bless America" playing softly in the background.) Still, the American Dream is a hard thing to write about without doing too much flag-waving, and Fallows manages to survive with some degree of objective credibility when he writes about these people who have made the American Dream come true for them.
The book, however, quickly loses both its focus and its credibility when Fallows starts writing about himself. Fallows, a former Crimson editor and the Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly, is an interesting person. The stories he tells about his parents moving to California when he was a child would make fascinating material for an autobiography. But it's not really clear why they are in this book, the ostensible purpose of which is to show how America differs culturally from Japan.
Fallows tries to make a case for the inclusion of his history when he argues that he and his family also are products of the American spirit of individualism and determination. He, too, went West and found a new life, only a century after the first squatters did. The connection may be there, but it requires a creative imagination to find it.
And there is absolutely no reason why Fallows should include the story of how as a college senior he sicked-out of Vietnam--an intriguing story that is hopelessly and misplaced in this book. These distractions detract from Fallows' main thesis, the uniqueness of American culture, and serve only as unnecessary interruptions in this otherwise consistent book.
Areturn to American culture may be the cure for America's decline, but Fallows' specific prescriptions for a group of domestic issues may not be acceptable to the patient. For example, the licensing and other regulation of professions--a recent phenomenon that Fallows says creates barriers for competent people seeking new jobs--is certainly not going to disappear in the near future, despite his recommendations.
And Fallows' suggestion for reducing the federal budget deficit--reducing social security payments to the middle-class elderly--would simply remove middle class support from what has been the most popular of federal programs. The change would be so politically suicidal that it is hard to imagine an elected official ever sponsoring such legislation.
For the Black underclass, a group that has been deprived of hope and told to believe that it cannot succeed, no matter how hard it tries, Fallows urges the implementation of conservative solutions like workfare and education vouchers. As for those inner-city schools that repeatedly fail to install confidence or discipline in students, Fallows seems to put out a call for Joe Clark, the New Jersey principal who is known for walking around while carrying a baseball bat and a bullhorn.
Most of these suggestions have been made before, in different guises, although few have been carried out. Politically, they are problematic because they tend remove benefits from people who do not want to relinquish them. Given this, becoming more like us will not be so easy.
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