Millions of Americans are models of industriousness as they show up faithfully for jobs in thousands of workplaces more diverse than anywhere on the planet—science labs, school classrooms, airliner cockpits, industrial tool shops, building sites, buses, military bases, retail stores, hospitals, veterinary clinics, farms, banks, government offices, space flights.
Not so, however, in what was once the symbol of America's widely envied energy, imagination, statecraft, boldness and vision—the U.S. Capitol and the deliberative bodies that could be setting the nation's course.
The current "revolution" of angry splinter groups—the Tea Party, for one—has so poisoned Washington's waters that the national political system is in devolution.
Republicans obstruct virtually all legislation. Democrats shrink into submission at the first GOP objection. The White House dithers on promises and boldness.
Washington's news media are mostly voyeurs obsessed with reporting absurdities and myths uttered by oddball political newbies whose agenda of trivia and folly would qualify as a freak show.
Contenders for coveted seats in Congress have moved discourse into the realm of the inane and bizarre. Delaware's new Republican political star is convinced that U.S. scientists have created mice with human brains through brain cell transfers. This joins the non-existent "death panels" of health care reform and FEMA detention camps for political dissenters.
While intelligence is on hold in Congress and an adult agenda stagnates, America's principal competitor as a world power—communist China—races ahead.
China watcher Tom Friedman, The New York Times international columnist, returned from China awed by crash industrial programs there—a network of modern new airports, high-speed trains, a booming stem-cell industry using 128 American DNA sequencers and a crash program to shift cars from oil to batteries, which also means computer and electronic byproducts for a new automotive industry.
China's oil industry is a major investor in, not an obstructionist to, car batteries, aware of the potential bonanza in electric power.
Climate change is no hoax in China, as it is to some U.S. politicians. Beijing is planting an artificial forest of 988 million acres to absorb carbon dioxide. It now may also be the world's largest solar cell producer.
As Friedman notes, while China invests heavily in new industry and facilities, Washington sinks deeper in debt to fight an expanding war in Afghanistan rather than, say, repairing the crumbling U.S. infrastructure.
No American would swap the U.S. system for ruthless Chinese methods. However, American politicians once showed vision, unity and spontaneous action that helped create the world's most startling economic powerhouse.
Are we now settling for second best, or worse?