Daily Video

February 16, 2009

America: Pass or Fail?

In our current economic crisis with the fate of the United States uncertain, Economics Correspondent Paul Solman talks to Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond to understand why some societies come out of a crisis stronger while others tear themselves apart and collapse.

Diamond explains that while societies are fundamentally similar around the world, one of the biggest predictors of success is whether political and economic elites feel the effects of their decisions. He compares the situation in New Orleans, where the rich lived on higher ground and were less likely to take care of the critical levees, to that of the Netherlands, where a system of levees protect rich and poor alike.

In the end Diamond tells us that we cannot predict the future of the crisis, it depends on the choices we make.


“I would be cautiously optimistic about the United States. We have professional mobility; we have geographic mobility. Fifty-one percent, I like our chances; forty-nine percent, I don’t like them.”-Jared Diamond, author

“If the society is structured so that the decision-makers themselves suffer from the consequences of their decisions, then they’re motivated to make decisions that are good for the whole society, whereas if the decision-makers can make decisions that insulate themselves from the rest of society, then they’re likely to make decisions that are bad for the rest of society.” -Jared Diamond, author

“I don’t know, for example, whether Obama is going to be able to pull the country with him or whether quickly we’re going to revert to infighting and a stalemate.” -Jared Diamond, author

Warm Up Questions

1. What are some societies that you have studied that collapsed? Why did they collapse?

2. Why would looking at societies around the world help our understanding of what makes a country strong and what makes it fragile?

Discussion Questions

1. Did this video make you feel optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

2. Who are the decision makers in America? Are they rich? Are they feeling the pain of the economic crisis?

3. Diamond says “We have fundamental problems with our energy policy. We have issues with our environmental problems.” What do you think he means? Can you name some of these problems and issues?

4. Diamond explains that if New Orleans were structured like Netherlands (with all people living below the water line) then the dykes would be everyone’s problem, can you think of another example of that in the your community?

Additional Resources

Read this transcript

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