Is America Out to Lunch?

The New York Times, Aug. 30, 1988

SARASOTA, Fla. — What happened, America? You used to work so well. For a decade, in my travels as a foreign correspondent, I wrestled with telephones and plumbing in godforsaken corners of the world, wistfully recalling the American efficiency I'd left behind. Did I have an idealized memory of the United States? It's beginning to look that way.

In places like Bujumbura in Burundi, you expect airlines to be overbooked and cab drivers to get lost. But not in the U.S. of A. Have you flown Continental lately? Or braved a New York cab? You have a better chance getting a driver who speaks English on Jomo Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi, Kenya, than on 42d Street.

And then there are the phones. From Beirut, I could dial direct to New York. But from Florida, if I want to call overseas, I have to go through an operator. Even within the United States, long-distance calling is an exercise in frustration. "Glad I could get through," says a relieved executive on the television commercial. We used to take that for granted.

It's not just phones. The Italian post office sells a $17 stamp that guarantees overnight delivery. But that's chaotic Italy, right? Here, the Postal Service spends millions advertising its $8.75 overnight service, but you're often told, "We can't guarantee it will be there tomorrow."

"More for less" now means more cost for less service. My Blue Cross/ Blue Shield insurance plan promised comprehensive coverage. But when I submitted a claim, I was informed that since my policy had been written in 1958, my claim would be paid at 1958 doctors' rates. I was being charged 1988 premiums, of course.

America's shop door is still open, but everybody seems out to lunch. Salesmen act like they're doing you a favor by waiting on you; deliverymen don't show up - or when they do, you just feel worse. Five times, Sears delivered new dressers to my home; each one was damaged. When the couch we ordered finally arrived, it was badly scarred. The manager was genuinely surprised when I told him to take everything back.

Not that he really cared. And that's precisely the problem: People are concerned about little but themselves. Litigation has become the national pastime. Neighbors sue neighbors, employees sue bosses, even the local pastor is no longer immune. Some obstetricians have stopped delivering babies, fearing malpractice suits. You can get a lawyer, but you can't get born.

The energy for which the world admires the United States isn't gone. Americans still charge through life at an astounding pace, but everyone seems to be going in a different direction. Maybe it's the frenzy of exhaustion: Setting the pace for the world can be tiring work. Maybe eight years of leadership by cliche is catching up with us. Or maybe Marx was right and the decay has set in.

Perhaps it's time to pause and reflect: Are we going to stride into tomorrow or limp alongside Britain, exchanging stories of the days when we led the world? The band plays on. Or is that fiddling I hear?

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