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May 1, 2010

THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM

“We’re in control here. There’s nothing wrong with America that together we can’t fix.”
—Ronald Reagan, February 18, 1981

If all you do is read newspapers, watch the TV news and scan Internet news feeds, you would think the end is near for our nation. It’s a long list of woes: the immense national debt, Middle East wars and conflicts with terrorists that don’t seem to end, falling literacy rates, intrusive government and anti-business policies strongarmed into law by no-compromise Congressional majorities. You sometimes feel as though the inmates really are running the asylum, and it’s difficult to know, sometimes, who to trust.

So let’s turn, now, to something completely different.

Last year, during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, with bankruptcy filings rising 32% to 1.47 million, applications were filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for 485,500 patents, the second highest single-year number on record. That office says it actually issued a record 190,121 patents for designs, devices and otherwise patentable ideas.

Last year, more than 15,000 people asked to join the Peace Corps, which today operates in 76 countries with nearly 7,700 volunteers engaged in education, health, business development, environment, agriculture and youth development programs.

In FY2009, the National Institutes of Health provided $30.5 billion for medical research, including funding through almost 50,000 competitive grants and additional studies done by the NIH’s own staff of nearly 6,000 scientists. Money was spent in 218 separate “disease areas,” including specific diseases and disorders, medical processes, psychological issues and much more.

In the most recent year for which institutional figures are available, 2006, charities and foundations spent $338.1 billion on gifts and grants, the Internal Revenue Service says. In 2008, with total incomes down and capital gains off more than 40%, a preliminary tally shows that individual taxpayers nonetheless donated $161.9 billion to charities.

And last year, despite nearly nine years of war and the high risk associated with that, more than 260,000 men and women enlisted or re-upped in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and their reserve components.

The America we see in Washington and the nation portrayed in the news media is not the only America, or even the “real” America. We should not be characterized by the sad state of our political leadership or the disappointments of the moment.

Let’s not forget that we are, in fact, a land of innovation, compassion, principle, generosity and science in the service of all mankind. And, apparently, despite unstinting efforts to tear us down, we remain a nation of opportunity and freedom, given the record one million people who became naturalized citizens here in 2008, or the 1.1 million people who received “legal permanent resident”—green card—status in 2009.

In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggested that there is a “general air of collapse in America right now, (and) the sense that our institutions are not and no longer can be trusted.”

In my own experience, there are institutions that have seriously failed us in the last decade. Trust is very much on the wane. But what hasn’t failed, despite ample opportunity for it to do so, is our basic goodness as a nation. We remain free, strong and smart enough businesspeople to take on the world and succeed. We remain the world’s brightest and best hope, its largest economy, its dominant cultural influence and its leader. As President Reagan said, “if it’s broke, we fix it.”

Bravo, then, for us, for what we have built that’s of lasting value, and for what we have yet to do as a nation. It’s not over for our ideals, our hopes and our abilities. It’s just starting.

It can be difficult, but let’s never lose sight of the better nature that is our foundation and our guide.