Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What will it take?

These days, there is little good news and lots of bad.  Almost every day brings reports of dishonesty, inhumanity, incompetence, or indifference so inconsistent with our image of ourselves and our country that it makes the blood boil. There is so much bad news that the rage it generates is dissipated by its pervasiveness. It’s hard to choose which of the many  horrible conditions and events we hear about is worst and equally difficult to decide which of many possible causative events is the most likely underlying cause of our many problems.  We know things have gone seriously wrong, but we’re just not sure what we should or can do about it. So most of us, uncertain about the facts and unsure of how to proceed, wait and hope for clarity. 

It makes one wonder what it will take to move us to action.  

Every now and then, someone breaks through with a summary which makes clear just how bad things are.  Last weekend, Charles Blow reported on a recent study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation in Germany. The Foundation has done a comparison of social conditions in the 34 countries that belong to the OECD – The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.  20 years ago, I would have expected the United States to be the leader in most categories.  Since we have clearly abandoned policies that will produce leadership in a host of areas – education, health care, economic equality, and our physical infrastructure among others – I no longer cling to the illusion that we are leaders --- but I was not prepared for a scorecard as bad as what turned up. 

The study ranks the 34 OECD member countries in nine areas: Social Justice, Poverty Prevention, Overall Poverty Rate, Child Poverty Rate, Senior Citizen Poverty Rate, Income Inequality, Pre-Primary Education and Health.  In five of the nine areas, the United States ranks among the bottom five countries – which means there are at least 29 that do better! In two areas – Senior Citizen Poverty and Pre-Primary Education – we rank in the bottom 10, which means there are at least 24 that do better.  And in Health, we rank in the bottom 15, which means there at least 19 – and probably more, since we don’t know our exact rank – that do better.

It’s a very troubling scorecard, which unhappily corroborates  similar results produced by other studies. We’ve heard before that despite spending far more per citizen than other countries, our health care results are worse than those of countries that spend lots less.  We also know that our educational system is failing our kids, and that our academic results are falling further and further behind those of countries with more rigorous, if less expensive, educational systems. And the National Academy of Science has told us very clearly that our infrastructure is no longer competitive and that we are more than $2 trillion in arrears on maintenance spending alone – much less what we should have been spending on new facilities. 
Things have reached the point where about the only area in which we lead is defense spending, which is not buying the assets needed to produce the kinds of society we want to leave our kids and grandkids.  Excessive defense spending also begs the question of whether the values we are supposedly protecting from others are being eroded away by our political system here at home. 

It is increasingly difficult to find any course of action on which a majority of Americans agree.  We do seem to agree that our political system has failed – barely 10% think well of Congress and less than a majority think the President is doing a good job. The” all for one and one for all” spirit of years past has vanished and we seem moribund, unable to agree on either what the problem is or how to fix it.
Whatever else we do, we must find a way to come together again.  We need a political structure that will produce a government we can trust and a plan to restore America that we can agree on.  That’s a tall order and one that seem increasingly out of reach of our bickering politicians. 

But as a wise man once said, the longest journey begins with a single step.  In my view, a big part of our problem can be attributed to the fact that we have less common interests than we had in times past, that too many of us see the other guy as too different from ourselves to be reasoned with, and likely part of a social strata that is either beneath us or one to which we can no longer aspire.  A big part of the America I grew up in was the almost universal belief that anyone could do anything if they really wanted to – and since many of us badly wanted to improve ourselves, the system produced lots of social and geographic mobility. 

One of the things that has cost us our common interest is the steadily increasing inequality of wealth and income in America. In today’s America, the top 1% takes 17% of all income, while the bottom half of the population gets only 13% -- the worst disparity since 1929.  Unless things change soon, the country will suffer from even worse inequality 10 years hence.  Increasing inequality has serious social and economic implications to which our increasingly ideological mind sets have paid far too little attention. If you are interested knowing more about those consequences, and how they are contributing to our many difficulties, you might want to spend 15 minutes listening to Richard Wilkinson go through some very impressive data laying out how income inequality has impacted societies around the world. You can find his talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html 

My own view is that in one way or another – there are various alternatives available – we must reduce both income and wealth inequality, and re-ignite the spirit of the common good.  Doing so will not be easy. 

We are in the midst of a political campaign – they seem  to have become perpetual – during which we should be having substantive discussions of why things are as they are. Unhappily, our prospective leaders assiduously avoid all serious subjects and seem focused on nothing beyond attacking one another about various and sundry trivia.  Even more troubling is the emergence of political action groups of every stripe, handsomely funded by special interests whose financial contributions are no longer limited by law. Unless I miss my guess, this year’s campaign will be the most expensive ever, and it will be even more difficult than it has been in the past for citizens to gather substantive information or for candidates to speak truth. 

This problem isn’t going to be fixed unless we – the citizens of the great United States of America – fix it.  Each of us needs to set aside our ideological pre-convictions, gather information from many sources (including those ideologically inconsistent with our own views),  think carefully, discuss and debate more openly than we have in the past, formulate possible solutions – and insist that those who seek to lead deal with the substance of the country’s problems.  There is no other way back to greatness.