The world may be short of fossil fuels and finance right now, but if these and other problems are to be solved, its more chronic need is for more optimism.
Optimism is defined as a disposition toward a positive view of events, with an expectation of the most favourable outcome.
Optimism shouldn’t be confused with naïveté. When the word ‘optimism’ was first coined in the eighteenth century, it was used to describe a belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.
An optimist, then, is a realist who chooses to colour his or her worldview with a healthy does of idealism. It’s not a case of the old glass half-full or half-empty, but more half-empty-but-will-be-full.
In many ways, America has been for most of the last century the most optimistic nation on earth. Indeed, a willingness to find the silver lining in every cloud has been a core part of her charm and greatness and her attractiveness to the millions who seek to migrate to, visit or do business in America.
It was an American President who, in the face of enormous financial and political challenges, told the free world that, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’. This currency of optimism, or realism combined with idealism, has made America both the business engine of the world and, to the chagrin of some, its global policeman.
For all the many challenges facing it today, America still occupies a unique place in the world’s collective imagination. As has often been noted, America is not so much a nation or a system as an idea. It is an idea run through from top to tail with optimism.
Growing up in Australia, I know what a boon it is to be surrounded by the pioneer spirit which is often so evident in young countries. Being a young nation can mean having no sense of legacy, but it can also mean there’s no baggage to weigh you down, nobody to tell you that ‘it can’t be done’.
Yet even in the self-proclaimed Lucky Country we had to hand it to the ‘yanks’. They were more often than not the first in the world to try something new.
The twentieth century was definitely the age of American inventiveness. Even when, occasionally, someone else patented a new idea before Americans, they were often the ones who adapted it, marketed it and made serious money from it.
The world wide web may have been developed by a Brit working in Switzerland, but it first became an industrial, political, economic and social force when people in the U.S. built upon it.
Only America, with its strident calls for ‘truth, justice and the American way’, could have invented Superman. (Sure, the Germans tried it first, but Nietzsche’s Übermensch idea was hardly the stuff that heroic role models or popular folk heroes are made of.)
America’s inherent optimism is important to the rest of the world, not least because it has been the foundation stone of its meritocratic social system.
Notwithstanding its very poor record with regards to Native and African Americans, the U.S. has provided a unique haven for dispossessed, disenchanted or impoverished people from across the seas who wanted to escape the oppression of class-based social structures.
America held out the promise of potentially great rewards for personal talent and effort. For the world, it has long represented a land of opportunity, where almost anyone can metaphorically or literally dig for gold and strike it lucky.
Something like 25 percent of Britain’s personal wealth is inherited even today. The figure would be nowhere near as high across the Atlantic.
There is a school of thought within the U.S. that insists this meritocracy is a fabrication, an attractive ideal within the popular mythology of an adolescent nation.
It is certainly true that had the nation lived up to its claims of equal-opportunity-for-equal-effort, there would have been no need for figures like Martin Luther King, Jnr.
Meanwhile, writers like Malcolm Gladwell have suggested that his countrymen should success less in terms of just-deserts-for-hard-work and more as a consequence of good fortune.
Yet even if elements of the meritocracy idea are mythical, there’s no doubt that it has contributed hugely to America’s sense of self-confidence and its symbolic and practical role on the global stage.
The work-your-way-to-the-top ideal undergirds America’s sense of fair play and its belief that it should play a role – in the hearts of most Americans, a mainly benevolent one – in helping oppressed people the world over.
This meritocratic ideal is important to the global community and it is part of what has made America so attractive to entrepreneurs in every field of endeavour, from business to scientific research and much more.
America has often helped science and business to take huge steps forward because it believes it can, matching a bold self-awareness with bold action and risk.
Today, however, there are signs that the American meritocracy may be failing.
It seems ironic that some of the largest gaps in the social fabric have become apparent during the term of America’s first black President. It seems that for all the gains in race relations over the past forty years, there are huge and growing gaps in other areas related to wealth creation and access to technology, education and healthcare.
The market liberalism of 1970s America, which gave the world Trickle Down Economics, promised more wealth for all. As of 2001, it was proven to have benefited only the top one percent of the working population. At that time, the average salary of CEOs in the top 362 U.S. companies was $12.4 million – 500 times the average income.
Perhaps what is emerging today is perhaps less of a meritocracy and more of a fiscalocracy. The best opportunities across many fields of endeavour are open only to those who have high levels of wealth and therefore the right connections.
Britain, says the BBC’s Andrew Marr, is a ‘bogus meritocracy’, driven by ‘webs of special connections [which are] riven with unfairness, hidden conspiracies and family deals.’ It seems that America seems to be headed in much the same direction and this has set alarm bells ringing.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations attracted their fair share of professional activists, who turn up like rent-a-crowd whenever there is noise to be made against globalisation or any of the other perceived evils of capitalism.
This group misses the point: the real problem in Wall Street wasn’t capitalism as a way of doing business, it was human avarice disguised as entrepreneurship.
Yet within the protests are another, more moderate group of people who are genuinely aggrieved by what they see as the breakdown of the American meritocracy.
They see the pension funds and savings of hard working, get-ahead people being decimated by fat cat financial traders who, having been bailed out by the very people they’ve cheated then proceed to rub salt into the wound by accepting huge bonuses.
Meanwhile, politicians seem unwilling to call these uber-wealthy CEOs to account. This is killing America’s belief in its meritocracy and stifling its natural optimism.
Politicos engage in rhetoric that reflects the rabid babbling of radio talk show hosts – even when they’re speaking about people on their own side of the political divide.
In between the personal attacks, they try to keep things upbeat, but their attempts at offering hope turn out sounding like so much hype. There seems little substance to their promises or strategies for change.
The news media reinforce negative feelings through a constant stream of emotive words like ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘disaster’. This is made worse by the presence of 24/7 rolling news which repeat these words ad infinitum, and social networking platforms, which have a viral impact on ideas.
The cumulative effect is that people start losing confidence in their own ability to invent and solve problems.
Some would say that America, with time, would inevitably lose some of its youthful idealism. I’m not so sure. Yet if optimism is realism combined with idealism, the world needs more of it.
At this moment in time, the best model we have for optimism as a cultural trait is the United States of America. We should all hope that America rediscovers its unique brand of optimism.