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Things getting worse, or better? Here’s my take

Columnist’s swan song looks to future

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

Are things getting worse, or better? That question bedevils me of late. I say worse, though I will note below that other respected sources say better.

After World War II, Americans felt invincible. The predicted post-war depression never materialized, the economy fueled by pent-up savings. Even small towns like mine in central Illinois prospered, as young fellows in town labored “on the line” at Caterpillar, International Harvester and John Deere factories in nearby cities, bringing home middle-class paychecks.

But by the 1970s, the upward trajectory began to level off. Following are several of my concerns as to why the economic and social well-bring trajectories are now maybe pointed downward.

At the global level, I worry that we are pumping so much excess carbon dioxide into a closed atmosphere that a volatile, warming environment may leave much of the world uninhabitable in a generation or two. 

Here in the U.S., we are pulling apart. Fully half the youngsters in Illinois public schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, while prosperous double-professional families seclude themselves behind gated communities.

The U.S. seems adrift, undisciplined, polarized. 

As I have written, the U.S. is in a kind of war with China, and we are losing. In the medieval world, war was economic development; today, economic development is war. The Chinese are focused laser-like on a drive to become, once again, the “central kingdom” of the world.

U.S. goes deeper in debt

In sharp contrast, we in the U.S. lay back, still basking in our long-past, seeming invincibility of post-World War II. We demand more of everything, except of ourselves. Both Democratic as well as the present Republican administrations continue to put us ever deeper in debt, when we should be investing more of our treasure in scientific advancement, infrastructure and disciplined education for our youngsters.

My state of Illinois can’t get its act together, losing people and wealth, while new Gov. J.B. Pritzker appears thus far to be more interested in pleasing people than in leading us.

And, alas, my small town, which provided me such a positive, memorable childhood, struggles mightily to sustain its population and vitality.

Yet at least on a global scale, as to whether worse or better, scholars and demographers contend “better.” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” notes how rates of homicide have dropped dramatically, especially since the Middle Ages, when most everyone had a good chance of falling to the spear.

Historian Barbara Tuchman also reminds us in “A Distant Mirror” that life was even more parlous in the past than I note in this essay. We could have lived, for example, in the 1300s, when the Black Death, or Great Plague, wiped big swaths of humanity in Europe and Asia off the globe.

And demographers have reported widely that rates of poverty worldwide have plummeted in recent decades, largely in developing countries, and most especially in China. 

Since we won’t resolve my musings in 700 words, let us assume for the moment that there is something to my concerns. What to do?

Leadership sorely needed

I can think of nothing other than it all comes down to leadership, and “followership.” Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were incredibly dogged in their pursuits of independence and union, respectively, even in the face of clamoring on all sides for early peace. And enough followers stuck with them to bring the conflicts through to positive resolution.

Franklin Roosevelt saw the nation through the Depression and Great War, and he did so in the face of hateful opposition.

In addition to leadership from the top, there have been instances of mass movements from the bottom that appeared to revitalize much of our nation’s populace. The Great Awakenings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the U.S. represented religious crusades that refreshed many Americans to renewed moral vigor.

We need both top-down leadership and a bottoms-up secular Great Awakening. This is easier said than done, of course.

I am afraid some of my curmudgeonly friends would say it’s too late, will never happen. But if we don’t “rise up,” our nation will slide into mediocrity.

A note to readers: After a decade and more than 500 weekly efforts, I have decided to hang it up writing this column, at least for a while. I feel my writing is becoming stale, and that I am losing touch with a world I haven’t been involved with professionally for years. I do plan to pursue longer public policy pieces for magazines, on topics generally beyond Illinois, and maybe another book.

I want to thank the many thoughtful readers who have informed me more with your trenchant comments, than I you.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon, a former state lawmaker, state official and university educator, can be reached at

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