Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Growing a Stronger America - More Self-sufficient, a Stronger Citizenry, a World-Class Infrastructure

America is a great country.  But we are slipping.  If we want to remain great, we need to grow a stronger America.  America must become more self-sufficient.  It must do everything it can to create a better educated, healthier, more engaged citizenry and rebuild a strong middle class.  And it must either replace or repair an aging, often archaic, infrastructure with one that will both meet the needs of the citizenry as well as support our economy’s competitiveness into the next century.

More Self-Sufficient:  The impact of globalizations has been a disaster for America’s well-being.  Instead of the advertised promise of globalization, it has become a curse for all but the multi-national corporations engaged in it.  Yes, most of us do like spending less money for all sorts of merchandise, and it has kept the inflation rate down, but we have paid a heavy price for that benefit.

First there is the well-publicized loss of good-paying, middle class jobs.  This has resulted in millions of previously well-employed men either being unemployed, employed in a new field at a fraction of their previous wage, or at the same job but at a wage that has stagnated for decades.  This has decimated the middle class.

That impact may have gotten the most publicity, but there is much more.  The loss of earning power by a large segment of the population has resulted in a weaker domestic economy.  You can’t buy as much when you’re not earning as much.  It’s as simple as that.  And the influx of less-expensive goods from abroad together with our dependence on imported oil has worsened our balance of trade deficit, thus weakening our economic independence.  Foreign countries own 34% of US debt, and China alone owns over 7% or $1.2 trillion.

Beyond weakening the domestic economy by reducing spending, globalization together with tax policy has increased income inequality.  From 1980 to 2014, the US per capita GDP increased from $28,133 (adjusted for inflation) to $50,211.  That’s an increase of 78%.  (The figures vary considerably, so I used the ones showing the least growth.)  By comparison, the increase in the US median personal income (not the average, but the center point) rose from $20,919 to $28,829, an increase of only 37%.  By contrast, looking at the increase in average personal income, which is skewed by the increase of those in the top income categories, the increase is 104%.  

The economy has grown, multi-national corporations have profited, the rich have gotten richer, but the average worker has not.  Without question, the middle class has been left behind and adversely impacted by these forces.  This is not healthy for our economy or our society.

Further, we have now become more dependent on the health of other, specifically Asian, economies.  The fortunes of our corporations and thus the stock market are subject to the vagaries of these economies, as we’ve often seen.  The stock market has been more volatile since globalization than before.  And surprisingly it doesn’t matter how strong or unconnected with global trade a company is … markets are so interconnected that when there’s a rumble in Asia’s economy, all U.S. stocks go down.

Lastly, but significantly, because what is happening in distant corners of the world has become even more important to American corporations and our economy, it has given more credence to the argument that we need a huge military able to go to any spot in the world to defend our national security.  We are witnessing an increased blurring between what is in our national security interest and what is in the interest of our multi-national corporations.  But they are not the same.  

That’s really what happened in Iraq, as our national security was never at stake, not even had there been WMDs in Iraq. We should never be in a position of going to war to protect corporate supply lines.  We should never expend the lives of our youth and our material wealth for such a purpose.

For all these reasons, we must do everything we can to make America more self-sufficient.  We must bring manufacturing back through tax and other policies.  And we must engage in a serious effort both to conserve energy use as well as wean ourselves from our addiction to oil by developing alternative energy sources and alternative energy transport.

A Stronger Citizenry.  The United States, when compared with the rest of the industrialized world, ranks nowhere near the top, more often near the bottom, on various markers that measure the strength of its citizenry:  education, health, and political engagement.

Education.  Whether we look at the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) math and science scores which show the US ranking  25th and 24th, respectively, among 30 OECD countries, or data that places us 18th out of 23 comparing high school graduation rates, or 15th in college completion, or 10th in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds holding an associate degree or higher, the status of US education is definitely not world class.  (Note: the number of OECD countries used for comparison varies because of the number that have available data.)

Health.  Looking at health status compared with the other OECD countries, the US again does not fare well.  The US ranks 26th in life expectancy, has the 7th highest rate of infant mortality, ranks dead last (first) by far in the percentage of overweight and obese children and adults, has the 6th highest rate of diabetes, ranks 18th in 5-year survival for cervical cancer though it does rank 1st in breast cancer survival, and ranks dead last in access to health care (2013, so before Obamacare fully kicked in) … oddly the US ranks 1st in people self-reporting that they were in good health … all this despite the US spending 2 1/2 times the OECD average on health care per capita.

Political Engagement.  The US ranks 31st out of the 34 OECD countries in the percentage of voting age population who actually vote.  The result is that a rather small minority typically decides who governs us.  For example, in 2000, the voter turnout was 
51.2%.  Since Bush won with 47.9% of the popular vote (actually less than Gore got), only 24.5% or less the 1/4 of the voting age population elected Bush.  In 2008, the voter turnout rate was higher, 58.2%.  And Barack Obama won with 52.9% of the vote.  But that still meant that 30.8%, less than 1/3, of the voting age population elected him.  

It should be a point of extreme concern and embarrassment, if not shame, that the US … the founder of the modern democratic state and the wealthiest and economically strongest country in the world … has its elections decided by such a small minority of its voting-age population.  That election results express the will of the majority is even more important now that the two major parties have such extremely divergent positions on most issues.

Regardless what the cause is … voter apathy, voting barriers (for example, our elections occur on a weekday whereas most occur on the weekend or a declared holiday), poor campaigns, lack of education … something is not right and it must be addressed.  For starters, just changing the day that our elections are held, or declaring at least Presidential elections a national holiday, would most likely make a significant difference.  

But Republicans seem intent on doing everything they can to create more barriers to voting, not less.  Could this be because studies consistently show that non-voters are disproportionately poor or less well-off, younger, and tend to favor higher taxes and more government spending?  For example, 46% of nonvoters have household incomes below $30,000, while the percentage among voters is 19%.  43% of nonvoters are people of color, while only 22% of voters are.  And 34% of nonvoters are under 30, while only 10% of voters are.

Our democracy is based on the philosophy of majority rule.  But the reality is far from that.

How can we be a great country, let alone the leader of the world, with a citizenry that is relatively poorly educated, less healthy, and not politically engaged when compared with other developed countries?  A country’s strength and competitiveness are not based on the strength of the top 20% of its citizens, but on the strength of all its citizens.  

In addition to these factors on which there is comparative data, I noted in a recent post, “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System,” that America has not lived up to its promise or its potential to provide true equal opportunity regarding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that this was critical to our country’s future well-being.  I noted there that in addition to various factors, including equal access to health care and a quality education, rebuilding a strong middle class was critical.

Improving education, health care, and political engagement, providing meaningful equal opportunity, and rebuilding a strong middle class will require more than a band-aid approach.  We must find the strength to rethink these issues at the most fundamental level and devise a strategy for each that will lift America’s citizenry up to an appropriate level for a country that proclaims itself to be the best in the world.

A Healthy Infrastructure.  In another recent post, “Our Archaic Transportation System,” I lamented how our transportation system is not up to meeting our needs now, let alone in the coming decades.  The same has been reported elsewhere on everything ranging from our electric grid to the state of our water and sewer systems.  

We pride ourselves on being a great and powerful country, on the cutting edge of technology, and yet in many important areas of our nation’s infrastructure, not only is it outdated but it is often crumbling and undependable.  This situation must be corrected if we are to continue being a strong nation and a world leader.  

Addressing most of the issues I’ve noted will necessitate a shift in our national priorities, as I’ve noted in various posts.  If we are serious about growing a stronger America, improving our nation’s health, it will require us to reexamine what is important and how best to use our resources to provide what is needed.  This will require a nation and a Congress who first and foremost ask, “What is in the best interest of the nation,” because they understand that what is in the nation’s best interest is ultimately also in our own individual best interest.