David Heinemeier Hansson

April 26, 2023

Getting America's mojo back

There is no end to accounts of America's current ailments. From deaths of despair, soaring crime in some cities, ballooning debts, dysfunctional politics, and a raging culture war. It's easy to be down on those United States. Too easy, in fact.

Take gun deaths, for example. Americans own more guns per capita than any other country in the world, and by a huge margin too. Those guns are used by people to kill others and themselves. But while the homicide rate is up recently, it's still below where it was in the 90s or even the 70s. Suicides by gun haven't really swung that much either.


Is this a great place to be? No. Is it some historical new peak? No. Have past peaks come down? Yes. America is a violent country. It's been a violent country for a long time. This is not a novel situation.

Or what about the economy. Tales of Millennials doing poorly is an entire genre, and so is the story of how inequality is crushing everyone but the one percent. And it's true that the US has the highest income inequality of the G7 countries, and that it's growing.

But it's also true that median incomes in the US have risen faster than comparable economies. Here's The Economist making the comparison to the UK: "Britons, some of Europe’s best-off inhabitants, spent 80% as much as Americans in 1990. By 2021 that was down to 69%." On purely median-income terms, all boats are rising in the US, even if the biggest boats are rising faster. The Economist points to America's increasing rates of productivity to explain the progress, and that does ring true (just measure how long it takes to get a rental car in the US vs in Europe for one vivid illustration!).

And a recent article in The Atlantic did an excellent job of dispelling the myth that Millennials have been uniquely screwed compared to past generations. Not only are Millennial median incomes significantly above past generations in constant dollars at the same time, home ownership is basically the same (48% vs 50%), and even wealth accumulation is largely on track.


It's not all roses and sunshine, of course. There are important regressions, particularly for men without a college degree. (Meanwhile, Millenial women are up 20% over their Gen X peers and double up(!) over their boomer peers!). But the picture is far from this universally grim portrait of a generation lost.

I sense the folly of all of this disproportionate gloom even more vividly now, having lived in Denmark for much of the past three years. Denmark really does have an incredible number of good fortunes going for it. Copenhagen is the safest major city in the world, we have government-funded education and healthcare, and high trust in politicians, the media, and fellow citizens. There's a lot to love!

And yet, I think many middle-class Americans would chafe at a trade. Plenty of Danes, especially in the larger cities, live in comparably small apartments, wash their clothes in common areas in the basement, don't own a car, and contend themselves with long waits for many forms of medical care. The average Dane pays about a third of their earnings in income taxes, too, and another quarter when they spend the money left over on purchases (VAT).

Again, I think the Danish setup is working very well for the Danes. But I also think some Americans have a tendency to romanticize the Nordics. And to think all that's needed to turn the US into a similar society is just to tax some billionaires more. That's just nonsense. Not just because of the diversity and inherent individualism of American society, but also because the numbers just don't add up, and because plenty of Americans would reject the broad taxes and other material sacrifices that would come with the trade.

There are a million other angles you could look at the reason for this American malaise. Plenty of data points that would prove your thesis that it's all going to hell in a handbasket. But if you allow yourself to zoom out a bit,  look at the long historical trends, you might just find that things aren't actually as dire as the constant feed of dystopian headlines would lead you to believe.

America is in a funk right now, there's no doubt about it. Some of that funk is rooted in real, novel, and difficult dilemmas and regressions. But plenty of it also just stems from the general vibe that things are terrible because they feel terrible. And that's the part that seems self-inflicted, unnecessary, and correctable.

America needs to get its mojo back. Its self-confidence. Not the starry-eyed, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil kind, but the realistic kind. The kind that's proud of its incredibly dynamic economy, world-class innovations, agile companies, entrepreneurial spirit, melting-pot achievements, and charter of progress. 

Not only does America itself depend on that, but these little fairy-tale societies in the Nordics do too. Despite all its flaws, I don't actually want to see where the world might go if a strong America is replaced on the world scene by the current prospective alternatives.

It took a break from being in the thick of it to realize that, yes, I am actually on Team America. Proudly so. Rooting for its success, spiritual resurgence, and prominent place in the world.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.