THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

by Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- As far as news is concerned, these are the best of times, these are the worst of times. It hurts your head to open a newspaper like the The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or flip through your favorite websites. Television, I admit, is giving us a bit of the break because all those folks care about is the royal wedding.

But it seems to me there are only two stories (or questions) that are worth as much time as we have to think about them:

1. What, post-Cold War, is the United States' role in the world?

2. What, post-industrial age, is the role of the United States government at home?

The first question is very Chinese, in the sense of being careful of what you wish for, and in the sense of China -- and, next, the Middle East and North Africa -- becoming part of the modern world. This is what we wanted isn't it? The "backward" countries moving toward democracy and market capitalism?

Well, they are. God, what a mess! They see us not as the great innovators or visionaries. They see us as great customers.

On our own terms we have won a couple of history's great battles. Communism collapsed, unable to sustain itself against ideas and power pushed and sustained by the United States. And the ancient, stagnant world of Arabic Islam is being pushed toward liberal democracy in idealism, chaos and blood.

There have been three American victories since World War II -- again by our own definitions -- if you count the one we now take for granted: Europe is without armies ready to march against each other for reasons Frenchmen, and Germans and the British feel but don't understand. One of the revelations of the U.N./NATO moves against the evils of Libya is that only the United States has the military technology and expertise to take on the rather primitive militaries of countries long ago left behind -- and it is possible we can't really defeat them; that victory depends on their determination, not ours.

But we are on the right side of history, even if we can't control it, and that's what we wanted. Right? I am not saying that the American way is always better than others, but we are on a roll. We are on the right side of mega-history.

At home, things seem to be changing almost as quickly as they are around the southern Mediterranean. The very ideas of free-market capitalism that we pushed onto the rest of the world have prevailed -- and we may end up poorer for that. If national prosperity -- the profits of corporations -- depends on nothing but cheap labor, then our model of creating a middle class out of what used to be called the working class may no longer be a viable model.

Liberals, like me, believe the government must then deal with the problems of middle-aged, middle-skilled working men and women by building a safety net that includes things like subsidized medical care and heavily subsidized education. The world changed in a wink, people lived longer, overloading medical care and pension funding, greater skills were needed and needed quickly, and it turned out that countries like India -- India! -- could produce technical elites as quickly or even more quickly than we could.

If American liberals seemed confounded by all this, American conservatives seemed to believe the answer was turning the clock back to a gilded age when we were a cheap labor country without social obligations. The "good old days" seemed good to them because working people died young, which put an effective cap on health care costs and such frills as Social Security. And if you go just a bit further back, there was no such thing as income taxes -- now branded on the right as "job killers."

So, for the moment, it seems that the Chinese get the last and best lines:

Be careful what you wish for.

May you live in interesting times.

And we do.