"I observe that things tend to move in cycles . . getting better and getting worse, and getting better again, etc. I see that America 40, 50+ years ago was doing better than it is today."
A more accurate term might be "epicycles", since the cycles never end exactly where they started, but that would also imply a larger cycle. "Oscillation" might be the best term - ups and downs upon a path.
"If we follow the downward spiral, we might eventually come out the other end doing OK again. But, as we are (I believe) much closer to the good of the past than we are to some hoped-for good of the future, I think it might be a better move to reach back and preserve what we can a little longer of those things that made the USA a great country during 1940's, 50's and 60's."
You might think, as many others to, that going back would be easier or more convenient, but that ignores that if there are cycles, that means there must be something driving those cycles. And since there has never been anything able to stop this cyclic behaviour in the past, is must be a powerful force, likely unstoppable by mere wishful thinking. If so, there is no alternative than to ride forward and deal with problems as best you can.
Nat has described some of these cyclical social forces in earlier postings.
"Many of those things we have control over: "
Depends who "we" is. Unless "we" is "everyone", I would dispute that there is much control over those things:
"Work ethic, morality (as taught, not inherited), respect for our government and each other, together as a people."
"Other things (like the supplies of energy and unrest in other countries) we have little or no control over, but I think the US and its people would be more able to deal with and adjust to those things if we were more like the WWII generation."
I would dispute that as well. While the people of the United States were far more unified after U.S involvement in World War II began, the country was also extremely inflexible. There was an artificial prosperity in the post war period due to most competitors having nearly obliterated themselves, which hid many problems, but that very inflexibility eventually created most of the severe problems which later occurred.
"I don't know why you would think that the world needs the United States. [...] if the USA suddenly vanished from the face of the Earth, the rest of humanity would do just fine. Any function that is or has been served by the United States would, if necessary, but taken on by another country or group of countries."
It's not what the United States as an entity does that is important. It is much like a stone bridge - remove an important stone, and the bridge collapses.
For example, some 60% of U.S capital is owned by foreigners. If the U.S collapsed, a fraction of world wealth would disappear, affecting everyone in the world. The primary backing currency for most world treasuries is U.S dollars. If the U.S dollar devaluation became severe, most of the other world currencies would also collapse (Argentina pegged its peso directly to the dollar, but was unable to sustain it and in 1999-2001 it collapsed, dropping to a quarter of its value - other wold currencies might fare the same or worse).
At the same time, Americans own a large portion of foreign capital. A U.S economic collapse could see a giant sell-off of these assets, causing a glut on stock markets and leading to a stock crash.
A large fraction of economic activity flows through the U.S, and economic recessions in that country affect others directly - the recent recession might have had an influence on the recent European slowdown. In the same way, Japan's decade long recession (which it is only now emerging from) has had a slowing effect on the entire Asian region (it was dubbed the "Asian flu", as trading partners seemed to catch it from Japan). A complete collapse would kill many economic sectors, and cripple many countries' future growth. In particular, China has a trade surplus against the U.S, but a deficit against Germany and many other countries. Without the U.S as a customer, China may find itself in the deep end without a life jacket.
U.S military power is still a stabilizing force in some areas - specifically Korea and Taiwan (oddly, it is most effective in situations where it is never used - a lesson some should learn). I don't think the world is quite prepared for that loss yet (Japan would be the most likely candidate to take over, but would need constitutional changes to allow its armed forces to a) exist, and b) deploy outside its borders).
The term to describe most of this is "globalization", which most people use inaccurately to just mean "corporate greed". It really means the increased integration of the economy, and increased distribution of goods and services by a reduction in physical or political barriers. The benefit of integration is efficiency and prosperity, but the cost is dependency. One bad apple in an important position can disrupt the whole business, which is why U.S behaviour is so much of a concern, where it was completely unimportant a century ago.
 Japan's military, though the second largest in the region next to the U.S presense, is not strictly speaking a military service - it is a branch of the civil service, because its constitution imposed by the U.S after the war prohibits it from having a military. It has a military because the U.S government insisted that it should. Really, U.S foreign policy is like a schizophrenic who refuses to take his medication sometimes...
"I have a friend who says much the same: [...] Unfortunately, I don't see the new jobs he is talking about. For, the change is not one type of an obsolete job being replaced by a newly-needed job so much as it is that still-needed jobs are disappearing from the US to move elsewhere. And, its not just low-education, factory and manufacturing jobs that are leaving . . it is high-tech jobs [...] The change is not from one type of job to another . . . the change is that jobs are leaving a higher-wage economy like USA to go to slave-wage economies in Asia."
Economists have been expecting a general wage adjustment for the U.S, in response to globalization. The reasons labour and skills costs have gone up in the U.S is many-fold, but one thing that has driven it is an artificially high dollar. If you've notived, the U.S dollar has been falling for the past few years - this is actually a good thing for the U.S economy, as it will drive labour costs closer in line with the rest of the world without requiring wage freezes or cuts, and the unemployment and labout unrest which accompanies it. There still might be some of that (software developers in particular are oversupplied), but Americans don't have an intrinsic right to make twice what someone elsewhere in the world does for the same work.
There are problems with out-sourcing as well - management in particular becomes difficult, as a lot of skilled work needs active coordination in a centre. Plus there is a skills difference - many software projects sent to India need to be completely re-done because the developers have little experience with proper practices, architecture, design and maintenance, so the code (in a word) is crap.
The whole globalization thing is an adjustment, but it will not result in third-world-ness. Foreign wages will rise too, as the standard of living (from the influx of money) also rises and the local economies adjust. This is what has happened in Asia, as a result of positions moving out of Japan (they've gone through all this already) - Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia are moving from being Japan's version of Mexico to independent economies with world class corporations in their own right - with similar wages and expenses. Hyundai, Samsung, LG, TSMC, and others are up there with Toshiba, Sony, Toyota, and Fujitsu. Just like Japan went from a low-cost factory island for U.S goods to a world economic power.
Notice I said that "positions" moved out of Japan - there are still plenty of jobs in the country. Just not the same ones as before.
"You show your bias, loud and clear. Why do you think conservatives are so bad for the country?"
I didn't say they were, in that paragraph. Conservatism, at least socially, has been losing "mainstream" acceptance, in that there is a growing trend in most areas of the U.S for increasing flexibility and acceptance. What has become different in recent years is that conservatives have organized in a way that liberals haven't. The reason liberals haven't is that they largely see their position as one of reason and common sense, which can survive on its own merits, while conservatives feel that they are under attack, and have banded together to fight for their existence.
What's considered "conservative" is a mixed bag in the U.S, and there is where confusion lies. Religion, for example, had been co-opted in many ways for political purposes. That may or may not stick, but if it doesn't, there will certainly be a backlash. And economic conservatism has its conflicts with social conservatism - witness economically conservative stores and businesses avoiding the term "Christmas" for fear of alienating politically correct customers, versus the socially conservative activist groups complaining and calling for boycots.
Because of this, I don't see conservatism as remaining united.
Social conservatives themselves have slowly adopted liberal positions, and now accept them as normal. The idea of bringing back racial segregation is simply not an option, making homosexuality a jailable crime again is ridiculous, and deliberately paying women less for the exact same position is untenable.
This is why I think the number of extreme conservatives will continue to shrink. There will always be a conservative side of society, but I think the extreme conservatives are artificially inflated for a variety of reasons, mainly that American's have a certain binary mindset lately that makes those chosing "conservative" or "liberal" to reject anything with the opposite label, regardless of its merits. But as conservative positions fall (for example, the "war on drugs" is slowly being given up in many states - California is an example), what remains of the "conservative" will be less and less acceptable to the majority, who will give it up and proclaim themselves to be "liberal" (even though they may remain more conservative than the vast majority of their "fellow liberals").
The defensiveness of conservatives viewing a loss of influence has led them to organise to fight it. This can be seen in the media grab - there are very few liberal talk show hosts or commentators, only slightly more columnists. They have also organized protest groups to influence public opinions and politicians - the Janet Jackson "nipple" uproar is an example of a response exaggerated due to the organized actions of conservative groups.
The right wing has assimilated many extremists to bolster their ranks, including militia groups. This is why I expect that if conservatism continues to shrink and become mainstream, and the moderates leave the group, that the remaining conservatives will become more and more extreme, and may resort to violence. Several militias have done so before. It's possible that the presense of the militia movement in the main conservative movement might spread the idea that violent resistance is feasable and productive (most militia groups of that sort are somewhat deluded that they are the equivalent of the original revolutionary army, and have a real chance of success in creating a civil war against an opressive federal government).
If such violence begins, I do not think it will be at all supported among mainstream Americans in a country that is not already suffering a complete economic collapse. As I said before, that is very unlikely because of the number of stakeholders in a sound United States. Even if the economy has collapsed, Americans, especially the rich ones (and more importantly, the corporatocracy which has the most influence - political and media), know that war and violence will only make them more poor. So violence would be confined to a relatively small part of the population.
If these groups try to form an organized "resistance", they will fail because the rest of the country (both government and population/corporations) control everything else, and they can be starved out (no food, no computers, no medical care, no supplies in general). In addition, the U.S military, even if it were reduced in size significantly, would be overwhelmingly stronger than even a large militia group (probably still able to defeat an entire state) - and in an emergency, the army can be grown quickly through a draft.
A civil war would destroy the lives of almost all Americans, economically - and that's the bottom line for most of them. The fear from an armed uprising which occurs, even if it was no real threat, would probably be enough for the general public to demand steps be taken to prevent the possibility. There would also be an anti-conservative backlash, viewing the violent ones as anti-American, which would taint conservatism in general. I think this would be enough to lead to a repeal of the right to bear arms from the Constitution, or legislation defining an interpretation of which would amount to the same thing.
The opposite thing could conceivably occur if liberals were feeling defensive - and there's a possibility of it happening, if the right manages to avoid being drawn to extremism. Except that liberals tend not to resort to violence, so the group would merely be marginalized, and conservatives would become mainstream, but become "left conservatives" and "right conservatives". I just see that as being less likely.
American politics is uniquely disfunctional, and would probably eventually lead to the same sort of partizanship all over again, no matter which side becomes dominant, unless fundamental changes were made to fix the political (electoral) problems of the country.
"Again, why do you (seem to) assume that the rest of the world (developed nations anyway) have the answers, and that the US is somehow backward? If they are so highly-advanced compared to Americans, we wouldn't be the most powerful and prosperous (for now) country in the world."
U.S prosperity is uneven. There are a number of ways of measuring standard of living. One annual ranking by the United Nations places Norway at the top, with Sweden, Iceland, Canada, Australia, and others typically ranking higher than the United States.
Many social problems are dealt with more effectively in other countries. Health care is far better in France. A growing number of countries are using "harm reduction" to deal with drug use. An example, the city of Vancouver has "safe injection sites" where heroin users can shoot up under medical supervision rather than arresting them. This eliminates the spread of AIDS or Hepatitis through shared needles, and users can be counciled and brought into recovery programs. The U.S model of arresting them hasn't reduced the problem at all.
Welfare is another case. In his film "Bowling for Columbine", Micheal Moore traces how a schoolground shooting in Flint, Michigan was influenced by restrictive and punative "workfare"-type welfare programs. This sort of abuse of children through penalizing of their parents is not tolerated in a country like France or Britain. Countries like this have their share of welfare fraud, but while they try to prevent it, it is seen as the price to pay for making sure children are cared for so they can be a productive part of society, rather than part of that same underclass that was revealed in New Orleans.
There is no guarantee that U.S governments will adopt the solutions in use elsewhere in the world, but if they don't, the problems will not get better, and likely will get worse. However, as the most successful solutions practiced in the world becomes conventional wisdom for how to deal with problems, there will be growing pressure to adopt them in the place in the world where the problems remain at their worst.
"Yes, there are energy options, but at this level of world population, what can replace oil? (YOU TELL ME, MR EXPERT). Wind? Geothermal? Nuclear? Coal? Can we GROW enough corn to make a significant amount of fuel for the world market?"
To grow enough corn to meet the U.S energy needs now would require the entire continental landmass. Plus about as much petroleum as is used now, as biofuel actually takes more energy to make than it provides.
Synthetic oil has been available since the 1970's, but simply cost more to make than oil from the ground. It's even cheaper now, but still a bit more expensive. Hydrogen could be a better energy source, if handling problems are solved (as a gas, it takes much more room than liquid).
These would require centralized energy sources to generate the hydrogen or synthetic fuel. Iceland is currently converting from oil to hydrogen, using geothermal energy, which is plentiful on the island. I think that is the most feasable, long term. Some think that fusion reactors are the answer, since they produce no high-level radioactive waste and use hydrogen from ordinary water for fuel, which is almost limitless (if Earth runs out in a few million years, there's several times that amount in the rest of the solar system, and billions of times that amount in the galaxy). The technology can now produce as much energy as it consumes. A project to build a reactor that actually generates energy is underway in France, but the cost is still much higher than oil, so funding has taken a while to obtain.
Cost will be high for a while, but these are energy sources using today's technology that can supply the world for the forseeable future. Future technology might be much better.
I wrote in a previous message of further energy sources that would suffice after a few million years.