What Ails America


By David Halberstam

Morrow -- 126pp -- $16.95

When I was young, my parents worked long, hard days in dingy factories without complaining. They embraced the American dream: They believed hard work would lead to opportunity and achievement.

Today, this sense of the promise of work seems to have disappeared. I don't assume, as my parents could, that the next generation will be better off than the present one. My pessimism was crystallized by reading The Next Century, David Halberstam's thoughtful evaluation of the nation's condition.

Halberstam cites familiar reasons for our diminished prospects: the decline of the work ethic, the deterioration of our school system, our buy-today-pay-tomorrow mind-set, and the rise of Japan as an economic superpower. Yet, he writes: "I still do not think we as a nation get it." We remain passive about our collective economic and social problems.

The book is as much memoir as essay, and Halberstam's gathering of impressions from more than 30 years of distinguished reporting makes great reading. Despite the title, the book is less a glimpse of the future than an eloquent synthesis of the recent past, from the unraveling of the Soviet Empire to Japan's challenge to the U. S. economy.

The Japanese, Halberstam notes, value making things more than Americans do. "Those who run the industrial lines are considered far more important in Japan . . . ; as a nation they are closer to being the true children of the original Henry Ford than we are."

The Japanese have fears and doubts about the future, Halberstam believes, but Japan will enter the next century in a position of strength. Not so America. Halberstam foresees an increasingly polarized country with a productive population of only 40 million out of some 260 million. He predicts sharper class divisions and a decrease in the forces that work for economic, educational, and social democracy. Halberstam's concise, vivid telling makes this a persuasive plea for America to confront its problems.