What makes a successful nation? What makes a failed society? Can a nation be both at once? Aren’t we now? America is an enigma. We are a nation of unprecedented wealth, might, and achievement. Yet, we have millions living paycheck to paycheck, without health care, with substandard education. How can we be both successful and fail so many?
After World War II and the Great Depression, America found itself in a brief recession. Our economy had grown incredibly during the war, in part because we had an abundance of starving workers going back to work to help with the war effort, and in part because of massive government spending to win that war. With the war over, millions of GI’s were returning to an economy not prepared for them. Fortunately for American policy makers, the Korean War was going to give them a brief respite from those problems, and the American dollar was now the fiat currency sitting in the vaults of most foreign capitols. This gave them options.
In the early years after the Korean War, policy making made sense. Eisenhower invested in the interstate highway system, he and his successors invested in home ownership and expanding America into the suburbs, and heavy investment in science (mostly through NASA and the Pentagon, but I digress) marked those years. JFK cut taxes for the middle class and LBJ invested heavily fighting poverty. No one elected nationally from the 1950’s until 1980 dared muse about tearing down the “safety-net” for workers in our economy. Unionization was widely accepted, Social Security and Medicaid were viewed as sacred, Medicare was created, and protecting our quality of life (Nixon creating the EPA) was considered a government job. Pensions weren’t some odd anomaly, but a normal part of worker compensation. CEO’s did well, but the separation between them and their workers wasn’t insane. The American economy wasn’t ever perfect or ideal, but fairness was a part of the deal- because an active government made it so. A successful nation understood that it had to try and not leave people behind.
Then something happened- the social contract broke. Reaganism took hold. Union power was crushed. Taxes for the rich were sliced by more than half. “Serious” Washington took aim at “entitlement spending.” Military contractors made windfalls as defense spending skyrocketed. Regulations on industry were eliminated, putting profits over consumer protections and quality of life. Greed was good. Corporate profits were good. Getting more capital in the hands of entrepreneurs was the key to our economy, so they told us.
And for a while, they did pretty well. The 1980’s were good. Reigned in just a bit in the 1990’s, the economy exploded, a boom we never saw before. The richest nation in the history of the planet saw its market skyrocket. To be clear, this isn’t at all, “all bad” for working class people (your retirement funds, if you have them, benefitted a lot). It’s also worth noting though, the only people really getting “rich” from this were Wall Street brokers. We didn’t all see the same benefits from the successes of the 1980’s and 1990’s. That’s because the social contract that used to bind us all together was broken.
The real failure of the past 75 years of American power boils down to this: America achieved unparalleled wealth and power, and most of it went to the wealthy, and very little of it went to the people. Most of the riches of America went to the super rich, while the basic necessities of life- health, housing, food, education- were denied to too many. Most of America’s middle class is living paycheck to paycheck. Millions of people with jobs have no retirement or savings. Millions lack health insurance. Our college graduates are leaving school with more debt than earning potential. While I like Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t deserve more money than he could ever spend, while his consumers aren’t living with any level of safety for their labor. The money that middle class Americans pay in taxes isn’t coming back to help them often enough- not as our budgets spend hundreds of billions on defense, and even more on debt services. We’ve squandered so much of our power on too few, rather than re-investing in our population.
You should not read this as to say “everything is rotten” in America. I don’t believe that at all. So much of the world would kill for our public services. Most of us have paved roads, public safety insured by our cops and firefighters, clean, running water, food that is inspected and safe, public schools, air that is safe to breathe, and so many other things we take for granted every day. There’s a reason people will do anything to come to America, and why I won’t leave it. America is simply the greatest place to live. You can believe that, and still see our failings.
We’ve wasted decades now as the greatest super-power in the world, decades where we could have insured and invested in our people. Guaranteed living wages, health care for all, a clean environment, good public schools, modern infrastructure, and protected public lands are all doable in time, if we prioritize them and do them responsibly. This is not an embrace of the wackos and loons who promise everything can be done for free now, and to hell with the details. It’s to say the lead-infested water of Flint, Michigan should never happen in a country this powerful and wealthy. No kids should be in failing schools. We should have been better than this, our people should have been the priority.
Some of our failings are the result of greed. Some of our failings come from our failure to accept change. Most of it is a lack of vision and priorities though. America’s elite classes couldn’t see beyond themselves. The result of their failings is the bitter division and incompetency we’re living with now.