Once upon a time, the United States was the world's most powerful economic engine, a job-producing machine that propelled a broad swath of its citizens into a comfortable middle class. They bought tidy little houses they could afford. They bought big, shiny Chevrolets and Fords with bench seats.

They used their health insurance to pay for the occasional tonsillectomy or appendectomy. They retired with pensions generous enough to purchase nice gifts for the grandkids.

That period of broad prosperity was relatively short, no more than 50 years after the end of World War II, but it looms large in the national psyche, supplying the cultural icons and touchstones that furnish the "American dream." And that era depended as much on the weakness of other nations &

the backwardness of China and India as well as the postwar devastation of Europe &

as it did on American enterprise.

But it's a tricky business to announce to voters that the golden age is over. Just ask any of the current crop of presidential candidates.

As the era of widely shared prosperity staggers to its end, globalization &

"NAFTA" is the shorthand &

looks like the enemy, a con job foisted on ordinary Americans by greedy corporations and pointy-headed intellectuals. There may be a bit of truth to that.

Back in the '90s, when not just hard-core Republicans like Newt Gingrich were proselytizing for free trade but also moderate Democrats like Richard Rubin, the consensus was that everybody would benefit &

eventually. It was President Clinton's version of a "rising tide lifts all boats." A few good jobs would be lost here and there, but many more would materialize. Granted, that was the "macro" &

or big picture &

view, usually sold by tenured economics professors who'd never seen a pink slip, or by Wall Street titans with mansions in Provence and Monets in the master bedroom.

The micro view, down where ordinary folk are struggling to make ends meet, has turned out to be quite a bit harsher. Even before the telltale winds of recession blew in, average workers were struggling with the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, which left for cheaper terrain in China and Vietnam, taking with them middle-class wages and benefits.

It also turns out that the effects of globalization may be more severe than the experts anticipated. Princeton economist Alan Blinder, a longtime proponent of free trade, now says that it will create more severe social and economic upheavals than he once thought. He predicts that between 30 million and 40 million Americans jobs are likely to be shipped overseas in the next 10 to 20 years. Not only will the lunch-bucket crowd feel the pain, but college-educated, white-collar types will, too, as occupations such as graphic designer, film and video editor, financial analyst, microbiologist and, ironically, economist are outsourced.

That doesn't mean the next president should scuttle old trade pacts and build a wall of protectionism. Globalization will continue to push labor to the cheapest locations; any effort to change that outcome will likely create more problems than it solves.

Nor does it mean that the United States is consigned to a future of penury, with jobless workers living in shantytowns. Great Britain and Germany boast successful economies that produce jobs while still providing substantial safety nets, including universal health care. (And those citizens are perfectly happy with their health care, despite what you've heard from American right-wing talk show hosts.)

Our government could spend money to generate jobs rebuilding roads and bridges. We can fund vast investments in solar and wind power and energy-efficient technology. To have money for that, we'd have to give up the idea of empire &

projecting our might around the world &

as the Europeans have done. They couldn't afford it. We can't, either.

But we seem unable to face this simple fact: We've spent nearly $750 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and most of it was money we didn't have.

Not one of the remaining political candidates &

not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, much less John McCain &

talks about significantly downsizing the military-industrial complex and decreasing our military footprint around the world. Superpowers are darned expensive, and the United States simply doesn't have the money for all that anymore.

is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.