A peculiar feature of our country today, says Michael Barone, is that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds. Indeed, American students lag behind their peers in other nations, but America remains on the leading edge economically, scientifically, technologically, and militarily.
The reason for this paradox, explains Barone in this brilliant essay, is that “from ages six to eighteen Americans live mostly in what I call Soft America—the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability. But from ages eighteen to thirty Americans live mostly in Hard America—the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability.” While Soft America coddles, Hard America plays for keeps.
Educators, for example, protect children from the rigors of testing, ban dodgeball, and promote just about any student who shows up. But most adults quickly figure out that how they do depends on what they produce.
Barone sweeps readers along, showing how we came to the current divide—for things weren’t always this way. In fact, no part of our society is all Hard or all Soft, and the boundary between Hard America and Soft America often moves back and forth. Barone also shows where America is headed—or should be headed. We don’t want to subject kindergartners to the rigors of the Marine Corps or leave old people uncared for. But Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping part of our society Soft only if we keep most of it Hard.
Hard America, Soft America reveals:
• How the American situation is unique: In Europe, schooling is competitive and demanding, but adult life is Soft, with generous welfare benefits, short work hours, long vacations, and state pensions
• How the American military has reclaimed the Hard goals and programs it abandoned in the Vietnam era
• How Hardness drives America’s economy—an economy that businesses and economists nearly destroyed in the 1970s by spurning competition
• How America’s schools have failed because they are bastions of Softness—but how they are finally showing signs of Hardening
• The benefits of Softness: How government programs like Social Security were necessary in what was a harsh and unforgiving America
• Hard America, Soft America is a stunningly original and provocative work of social commentary from one of this country’s most respected political analysts.
MICHAEL BARONE is a senior writer with U.S. News & World Report and a contributor to Fox News Channel. He is the principal coauthor of the biannual Almanac of American Politics and the author of Our Country, The New Americans,… More about Michael Barone
“Pick your adjective. He is the brilliant Michael Barone. The encyclopedic Michael Barone. The unparalleled Michael Barone.” —National Review
“A compelling analysis . . . citing news events, politics, and policy, and even novels and pop nonfiction.” —Wall Street Journal
“An ingenious book, a big-canvas, broad-brush picture of America by a man who has spent years immersed in the details.” —Seattle Times
“Barone has given us a fascinating way to look at the past and the present.” —Weekly Standard
10 Questions with Michael Barone, author of Hard America, Soft America
1) What are “Hard America” and “Soft America”? Can you give some specific examples of where we see the divide between the two?
Hard America consists of the parts of American life where you have competition and accountability. Soft America consists of the parts of American life where you do not. Think of the high-tech private sector and high school as examples–one mostly Hard, the other still mostly Soft. But the struggle between Hard and Soft America influences many important parts of our society–schools and work, the public sector and the private sector, the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas, the military and the universities.
2) How did you come to think about America in these terms?
I was prompted by my observation that American 18-year-olds are more incompetent than 18-year-olds from many other advanced countries but that American 30-year-olds are the most competent people in the world. We are doing things wrong between ages 6 and 18 and doing things right between ages 18 and 30. Between 6 and 18, Americans live mostly in Soft America. Between 18 and 30, they live mostly in Hard America.
3) How are we seeing the tension between Hard America and Soft America playing itself out now? Is it influencing the presidential campaign?
George W. Bush’s policies are Hard, designed to increase competition and accountability. These include tax cuts (you keep more of your money and are accountable for what you do with it), the No Child Left Behind Act, and individual investment accounts in Social Security. Democrats including John Kerry favor Hard policies on some issues and Soft policies on others. Kerry opposes tax cuts on high earners, hints that he would reduce accountability in administering No Child Left Behind, and opposes individual investment accounts in Social Security. There are always arguments at the margin over how Hard our policies should be; Republicans usually favor more Hardness than Democrats.
4) What would you say to a new graduate who is making the transition from a world that has been mostly Soft to one that is mostly Hard?
How you end up in life depends mostly on what you do. There are endless opportunities in Hard America, and you should take advantage of them. In the short run a Soft niche is always appealing. But short-term pleasure is less important in life than long-term satisfaction, and by succeeding in Hard America you can gain the satisfaction that comes from performing competently and creatively.
5) You argue in the book that the situation is quite different in other countries. Why is the battle between Hardness and Softness such a uniquely American phenomenon?
In most European countries the schools are Hard and life after high school is Soft. Where you end up in society mostly depends on how you perform in high school tests. After that, you can’t be fired, the hours you work are limited, and you can retire at an absurdly early age: pure Softness. As a result, European countries are much less productive and creative than the United States. Moreover, European welfare and retirements benefits are unsustainable because these countries have declining populations. The United States and other English-speaking countries are Harder societies, as are societies in East Asia and South Asia.
6) Are Hard America and Soft America irreconcilable, or can we bridge the gap between the two?
No sensible society wants to be all Hard or all Soft. We need Soft protections for the helpless and Soft niches for those temperamentally unable to perform in Hard America. But Soft America ultimately depends on the productivity, creativity, and military strength of Hard America to survive.
7) As a country, are we getting Harder or Softer? Where do you see us headed in the future?
In the 1990s we Hardened crime control and welfare, and we are currently trying to Harden education, against the resistance of the education schools and teachers unions. The military and the private sector, Soft in the mid-1970s, were Hardened in the late 1970s and 1980s–and we have seen the results in 25 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth and by the performance of the American military in the 1990s and since September 11, 2001.
8) If too much Softness can be such a detriment to the country, how did we let so much of the country grow so Soft in the 1960s and 1970s?
Softness tends to be promoted by centralized elites–university elites, government elites, corporate elites–who believe that the rest of the population is incompetent and needs Soft protection. These people took charge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the guilt provoked by the success of the civil rights movement and the failure in Vietnam left many Americans open to Softness.
9) Is there a danger of becoming too Hard?
Probably not. We are not going to return to the Hard economy of 1900 described at the beginning of Hard America, Soft America. We may make parts of American life inappropriately Hard: kindergarteners should not be subject to the rigors of a Marine Corps boot camp. But for the most part Americans have an instinctive understanding of what level of competition is too Hard.
10) Why has education remained so Soft when other areas have improved through Hardening? Are there signs of hope?
We succeeded in Hardening crime control and welfare because the cultures of the police profession and, in time, the welfare profession were not hostile to Hardening, and because there were demonstration effects: leaders like Governor Tommy Thompson on welfare and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on crime control showed that Hardening reform could produce results that most considered impossible. In the Hard world of electoral politics, that produced a demand by voters for and a supply by politicians of Hardening policies. In education, the culture of the education schools and the teacher unions are hugely hostile to Hardening, and there has at yet been no demonstration effect of hugely successful Hardening reform.