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The belief in an ever better tomorrow, the conviction that obstacles exist to be overcome and that the U.S. has a strong and beneficial role to play in the world—these constitute the American secular religion. For some time now, that religion has been corroded by doubt. Intractable inflation seems to have turned the good life into a treadmill and has shaken our confidence in the future—America's last frontier. Our industry appears to have lost its productive magic, its daring, and sometimes even its competence. Our government is intrusive, inept—and expensive. Our democracy too often produces only mediocrity and deadlock.
Abroad, allies whom we rescued from the shambles of World War II defy us, former enemies whom we defeated now often outproduce and outtrade us. Our power is challenged by growing Soviet ambitions and military prowess; by OPEC's endless extortions; by a chaotic, largely hostile Third World. Much of this situation was symbolized by two recent events that showed the U.S. relatively powerless: Russia's invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Is this what has become of the American Century?
Not really. America's domestic and foreign crises are genuine. But they have been widely exaggerated. The U.S. is more self-critical than any other nation; it is also more resilient than most. The U.S. has not suddenly turned into a second-rate power, nor even (as is sometimes suggested) into just another big power. It remains unique. It has immense resources—physical, intellectual, spiritual—that are not being fully or rightly used. An American renewal is entirely possible. But it is not inevitable. It will not be accomplished by rhetoric, chest-thumping, self-hypnosis. It will take great and disciplined effort and exact a considerable price. It will also require a virtue rare in America: patience.
That is the theme of the special editorial undertaking by all of Time Inc.'s magazines this month: American Renewal.
The need for renewal ranges well beyond economics, politics and defense; it encompasses ethics, morale, social and spiritual values. That fact and a desire to reach the largest possible audience are the reasons why we decided to spread this special project among all our publications, including those not primarily concerned with public policy. In more than a score of articles altogether, each of the magazines treats a different set of issues and offers suggestions about what should be done.
We have not tried to cover every topic worthy of attention, and we make no claims to unique answers or unique wisdom. We expect disagreement and debate. But as journalists who believe that our role should be constructive as well as critical, we have given the nation's problems much thought; we also have made a sizable effort to sift the thinking of others and to present what we believe to be the best and most promising proposals. We hope that concerned citizens and experts, in many groups, organizations, schools and colleges—possibly even in government—will consider these issues anew. Our chief purpose is to dispel the notion that nothing can be done. Thus we also report on many people who have in fact done a great deal, have already begun their own American Renewal.
Work on the project started last May, long before the outcome of the election was discernible. Some of our recommendations parallel Reagan administration policies or promises; many differ sharply from them. In general, we have not worried about what seems politically easy or feasible, but about what seems right.
America's ills are attributed to changes abroad and, variously, to lack of will, failure of nerve, moral decay, selfishness and sloth, the shattering of community-feeling. One can find signs of all of these, but the key may be something else: the fact that Americans want just about everything, without considering or fully understanding the cost. We want freedom as well as order, individual liberty as well as equality, safety as well as the benefits of risk-taking, a wide-open society as well as less crime, material wealth as well as spiritual worth—without stopping to think that each of these values takes something away from the other. To use an ungainly but accurate word, we have forgotten the trade-offs.
At home, the most urgent area of renewal is, of course, the economy: curbing inflation by restoring productivity and by limiting government spending. The solution to this all too familiar problem lies in politics more than in economics: Can American democracy, or any modern democracy, restrain the excessive demands made on the society? Can the drift toward the welfare state and egalitarianism be halted without betraying the ideal of social justice? To accomplish this—and everything else we need and want—one thing is essential: sustained economic growth. This means rejecting the disastrous gospel that growth is impossible or wrong, and that small is always beautiful. Moreover, we should firmly keep in mind that socialist, rigidly planned economies are in deep trouble almost everywhere. These matters are examined in several articles in FORTUNE and MONEY magazines.