America’s can’t-do list


Lately, I’ve been studying the melting of glaciers in the greater Himalayas. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited.

It is impossible to focus on those Himalayan highlands without realizing that something that once seemed immutable and eternal has become vulnerable, even perishable. Those magnificent glaciers are wasting away on an overheated planet, and no one knows what to do about it.

Another tipping point has also been on my mind lately, and it’s left me no less melancholy. In this case, the threat is to my own country, the United States. We Americans too seem to have passed a tipping point. Like the glaciers of the high Himalaya, long-familiar aspects of our nation are beginning to seem as if they are, in a sense, melting away.


In the last few months, as I’ve roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai, I’ve taken to keeping a double- entry list of what works and what doesn’t, country by country. Unfortunately, it’s become largely a list of what works elsewhere but doesn’t work here. In places such as China, South Korea, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and (until recently) the United Arab Emirates, you find people hard at work on the challenges of education, transportation, energy and the environment. In these places, one feels the kind of hopefulness and can-do optimism that used to abound in the United States.

China, a country I’ve visited more than 100 times since 1975, elicits an especially complicated set of feelings in me. Its Leninist government doesn’t always live up to Western ideals on such things as political transparency, the rule of law, human rights and democracy. And yet it has managed to conjure an economic miracle. In China today, you feel an unmistakable sense of energy and optimism in the air that, believe me, is bittersweet for an American pondering why the regenerative powers of his own country have gone missing.

As I’ve traveled from China’s gleaming, efficient airports to our often-chaotic and broken-down versions of the same, or ridden on Europe’s high-speed trains that so sharply contrast with our clunky, slowly vanishing passenger rail system, I keep expanding my list of what works here at home and what doesn’t.

Over time, the list’s entries have fallen into three categories. There are things that are robust and growing, replete with promise, the envy of the world. Then there are those things that are still alive and kicking but are precariously balanced between growth and decline. Finally, there are those things that are irredeemably broken.

Here is the score card as I see it.

Aspects of U.S. life that are still vigorous and filled with potential:

Biotechnology, which is delivering much of the world’s most innovative research and ideas.

Silicon Valley, which has enormous inventiveness, energy and capital at its disposal.

Civil society, which, despite the collapse of the economy, seems to be luring the best and brightest young people, and superbly performs the crucial function of goading government and other institutions.


American philanthropy, which is the most evolved, well funded and innovative in the world.

The U.S. military, the best-led, -trained and -equipped on the planet, despite being repeatedly thrust into hopeless wars by stupid politicians.

The spirit and cohesiveness of small-town American life.

The arts, including our film industry, which remains the globe’s sole superpower of entertainment, along with the requisite networks of orchestras, ballet companies, theaters, pop music groups and world-class museums.

Aspects of U.S. life that still function but need help:

Higher and secondary school education, in which America boasts some of the globe’s preeminent institutions. Increasingly, though, many of the best institutions are private, and jewel-in-the-crown public systems such as California’s continue to be hit with devastating budget cuts.

Environmental protection, which compares favorably with that in other countries despite being underfunded.

The national energy system, which still delivers but is overdependent on oil and coal, and depends on a grid badly in need of upgrading.

Aspects of U.S. life in need of drastic intervention.

Public elementary education, which in most states is desperately underfunded and fails to deliver on its promise to provide all children with high-quality schooling.

The federal government, which is essentially paralyzed by partisanship and incapable of delivering solutions to the country’s most pressing problems.

State governments, which are largely dysfunctional and nearly insolvent.

American infrastructure, including highways, docks, bridges and tunnels, dikes, waterworks and other essential systems we aren’t maintaining and upgrading as we should.

Airlines and the airports they service, which are almost Third World in equipment and service standards.

Passenger rail, which has not one mile of truly high-speed rail.

The financial system, whose over-paid executives and underregulated practices ran us off an economic cliff in 2008 and compromised the whole system in the eyes of the world.

The electronic media, which, except for public broadcasting and a vital and growing Internet, are an overly commercialized, broken-down mess that have let down the country in terms of keeping us informed.

Print media, which from newspaper publishing to book publishing are in crisis.

Basic manufacturing, which has fallen so far behind it seems headed for oblivion.

I started keeping these lists because I was searching for things that would banish that dispiriting sense that America is in decline. And yet the can-do list remains unbearably short and the can’t-do one grows each time I travel.

American prowess and promise, once seemingly as much a permanent part of the global landscape as glaciers, mountains and oceans, seems to be melting away by the day, just like the great Himalayan ice fields.

Orville Schell is the director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. He is the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the author of many books on China. A longer version of this article appears at