I grew up in a country I was proud of and that held out the promise of opportunity to everyone.
I remember delivering newspapers when I was 12 or 13, and generally admiring whoever was Mayor, Governor or President and agreeing with most of what they were doing. I remember being proud of our victories in World War II and of what we had collectively accomplished by becoming “the arsenal of democracy”, being embarrassed when others got into orbit first and proud when we were first to the moon, being awed by all the new roads, dams, buildings and technology being developed and built, being a bit star struck when I first saw New York. I remember traveling in various parts of the world and being proud that America was a country trusted and admired by most of those we met.
I remember political arguments too – Dewey and Truman, Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan and Carter, and other memorable contests. There were always conflicting opinions within the family and among friends, and there were lots of heated arguments – but politics was something widely and often discussed. Almost everyone read the newspapers, it wasn’t considered rude to bring up politics at a dinner party and everyone was expected to have an opinion – and some facts to support it. And though everyone felt strongly, most people wanted to be – and were -- polite.
I went to work when I was 15, and there were plenty of jobs for any kid willing to work. And most kids did want to work, since there weren’t many families passing out big allowances or new cars in that America. Most people had enough money, but very few had lots and everyone was awestruck when it came out that some big shot had made a million dollars in a single year. Almost everyone I knew, except a very few rich kids, went to public schools and if the school didn’t do a good job, the parents were all over the principal and the teachers to get things fixed.
The America I grew up in is gone, and won’t ever come back. As nostalgic as I am from time to time, I also remember that we didn’t have Novocain in those days and I know full well that the politicians of my youth were not inherently better than those who lead today. But there are important aspects of that old America we should all be loath to do without – particularly its ability to build facilities that were the envy of the world, to offer its citizens a best in the world education, to offer abundant jobs and opportunities, and to inspire collective action by an involved citizenry.
But if we want to reclaim those abilities, we are going to have to stop behaving like morons and begin to speak up about the many and obvious lies we hear from our present and aspiring leaders.
Only morons continue to accept statements that are clearly not true. Our politicians – already engaged in another round of the seemingly endless Presidential campaign – this time for an election still 14 months in the future – continue to say things that few if any believe:
• We are told that recovery is around the corner when it is clear that we are either in or about to enter yet another recession and that real prosperity won’t return for many years – and only then if we make major changes soon.
• We are told that jobs can be created by further tax cuts despite the clear reality that our problem is insufficient demand, not a lack of supply. Lenders and companies have ample funds but too few customers – jobs, not lower taxes, build consumer confidence and capability.
• We are told that regulations are strangling our producers, and there are doubtless some excess regulations and some over-zealous regulators. Overall, however, there is clear evidence that ineffective and inadequate regulation empowered those who caused the financial crisis, and that effective regulation is needed to assure safe food, clean water and clean air.
• We are told that Medicare costs must be cut, but our government continues to deny Medicare the right to demand that U. S. drug companies sell it their products at the same prices they charge foreign health care providers or to build a system and staff of quality inspectors to stamp out the billions of dollars of fraud perpetrated against the system.
• We are told we cannot afford to maintain the nation’s infrastructure – our roads, bridges, airports, water and sewer systems, electrical grid, etc. – despite the fact that allowing it to disintegrate will make it impossible for us to compete successfully with other, better equipped countries in the years ahead and doom future generations to an ever lower standard of living.
• We are told that we must spend less on education and must not impose a national educational curriculum despite clear evidence that our children are learning less well than children in other countries.
• We are told that taxes must be cut still further, despite the fact that our government is spending more than it has on services we collectively demand and despite the fact that income inequality is greater than it has been since 1929 and is steadily getting worse.
• We are told that our tax code is too complex – who would not agree – but we lack the will to simplify by eliminating the thousands of pages of regulations that define the many special interest deductions, exemptions and credits.
• We are told that Social Security benefits will exceed Social Security tax receipts sometime soon, but lack the will to increase taxes and adjust benefits to safeguard the nation’s most fundamental safety net.
We all know that what the politicians are saying simply isn’t so. Yet we are increasingly unwilling to talk to one another about our problems, preferring instead to mimic the ideological incantations of the talking heads, whether liberal or conservative. It hasn’t occurred to most of us, apparently, that the words have little meaning and less import. We don’t need labels, we need solutions. Some of those solutions will be “liberal” while others will be “conservative”, and it really doesn’t matter what we call them. To find answers, we need to climb down from our ideological bandwagons and engage one another in real conversations about middle ground solutions that will solve our problems.
We can create a better America, but only if we start tuning out the false messages and focus on the fact that if we want our country to do better, it’s going to take a huge collective effort.
The first step should be to recognize that there is no easy way out of our present problem. We have dug a deep ditch, and to get out, we are going to have to stop digging, and change our ways.
For some time, until we recapture the vitality that has always characterized our country, everyone is going sacrifice something and we will have to coalesce to insist on some major changes:
• Most will pay higher taxes. Like it or not, our government cannot provide the package of services we collectively want without more revenue. Hopefully, we will simplify the tax code, chop out all the loopholes and deductions, and adjust rates to produce the funds we need while simultaneously reducing the enormous inequality that has crept into our country. We’ll raise more money, improve productivity by saving millions of man hours now devoted to filling out tax forms and have some modest impact on equality.
• Some will sacrifice leisure, and either go back to work or seek a second job. Many will sacrifice the larger car, the larger house, or the second home they covet. Some will eat at home more often and many will have to spend more time working to improve the performance of their local school than they would prefer. Everyone will have to either use less or pay more for energy.
• We need to move fast to get America back up to speed. We’re about $2 trillion behind in maintaining our infrastructure, and the very first thing we should do is create a big public/private infrastructure bank and use it to put several million Americans back to work fixing and building the facilities we will need to make America #1 again.
• We need to get our kids back in the game by teaching them more intensively than we have been doing. We need a national educational curriculum administered by attentive local authorities. We need more mathematics and more science, more demanding vocational training programs, longer school days and years, and better teachers. It will cost more – but is there a better investment than our kids?
• We need a national energy program to free the country from dependence on others. We need to use the Infrastructure Bank to build a better electrical distribution grid. We need legislation to require more intensive use of natural gas, higher gasoline taxes to discourage excess gasoline use and better public transportation options.
• We need to fix Medicare. Requiring drug makers to offer Medicare their lowest prices and stamping out fraud are both easy to do – and both will yield enormous savings. To take advantage of Medicare’s low administrative costs, we should offer every citizen the option of joining. While some may choose private insurers, I think most will opt into the public system.
• We need to fix Social Security – and this is one we know how to deal with. Lots of studies have established that a combination of tax increases and benefit adjustments, including means testing for our wealthier citizens, can promptly put Social Security on the path to a solid future.
• And finally, we need to re-create the middle class by restoring the link between productivity and compensation. It’s a sad fact that average per hour compensation has not increased, in real terms, since the late 1970s. Productivity has risen dramatically, but the returns on that productivity have gone almost exclusively to either capital or the highest earners in our society. The result is a higher level of income and wealth inequality than we have had since 1929. Whether that discrepancy gets fixed through revisions in the tax code, by reforming corporate governance or by strengthening the union movement, we all need to face the fact that equality matters, and that we can have neither a dynamic economy nor a politically cohesive citizenry if a small percentage of the people have most of the money.
To accomplish any of this, we’re all going to have to do a better job of educating ourselves, of listening carefully to the other guy’s point of view and talking to one another about how to get America’s mojo back.
I hope we will.