Thursday, June 18, 2015

America in Decline? What are you, kidding?

Like so many other subjective discussions, deciding whether the most powerful nation on the planet is in decline is bound to kindle a fire within all who rationally consider the premise. It simply cannot be. Or can it?
Perhaps a starting point would be to think seriously about what defines a consistently advancing society. Decline would be the opposite of that, or so we might agree. Okay, then let’s define it and I welcome any useful additions to that subject. But here are my thoughts for starters:

An advanced society is one that is fair and equitable to all of its participants, that values education and enhances the chances of economic advancement at all levels (both rich and poor), encouraging growth. Throw in an economic base (capitalism will do nicely) along with a robust legal system, a system of social integration and support with guaranteed personal freedoms and you’re pretty much there.

So how do we rate ourselves, using those general terms as a scorecard?

Fair and equitable is a moving target. We’ve struggled with that since our inception, beginning with the avoidance of our slavery issue as the price for agreeing upon a Constitution that was (and is) highly regarded throughout the world. America committed an ethnic cleansing against its native Indian population, but it fought a brutal Civil War to overcome slavery. A hundred years later Martin Luther King led a Civil Rights March with the grudging (but then full) support of the nation. The Statue of Liberty’s torch seemed brighter, but it’s been flickering in recent decades and, what with the CIA disclosures and Edward Snowden’s revelations, I judge fair and equitable to be in decline at the present.

Valuing education depends upon where you are socially and economically. Our primary (K-12) schools are excellent in wealthy areas and pretty much a shambles elsewhere. Teaching skills declined as we scorned those who teach and separated schools from the parents who once supported them. Busing in the name of ‘integration’ is largely responsible. Enjoying the finest universities in the world, fewer and fewer can afford them and those who do so often emerge to a shrinking job market and overwhelming debt. Certainly that value is in decline since the 1950s when I attended university

Enhancing the chances of economic advancement at all levels is the dream upon which America was built and made of us the most powerful nation on the planet. But without further comment, pretty much everyone agrees that economic disparity is upon us, as the gap between wealth and poverty widens. Our Middle Class is shrinking and in serious threat of collapse.

Encouraging growth is a matter of definition. America has grown beyond our wildest dreams in terms of GDP. CEO of General Electric Jack Welch was perhaps the nation’s most successful example of ‘encouraging growth,’ growing GE by 4000% in his 20 years at the helm. Aside from the fact that he took GE down the toilet to $2 a share and then turned it over to Jeff Immelt and retired, Jack remains a modern hero. America is doing fine in military growth as well, as it now sops up 55% of our national budget. Considering that education gets 6%, while energy and the environment must make do with half that and military outlays rose from 7% to 55% in four decades, draw your own conclusions on whether those priorities are in decline. 

Our capitalist economic base has taken us to staggering simultaneous highs and lows. On the high side, the Dow-Jones market indicator, which dropped to 6,547 in 2009, stands today at 17,935. Wow.

On the low side, according to NBC News five million families lost their homes during that period and another three million are due to lose them. Unemployment, when one includes the severely underemployed and those who remain jobless beyond government statistics, approaches a more realistic 24%. Forty million Americans are one serious illness or job loss from bankruptcy and nearly half of college graduates cannot find work. You decide if that counts as a decline.

Our robust legal system works for those who can work it. Privatized prisons work fine economically for those who contract to run them, with occupancy rates guaranteed at 95% in a nation that incarcerates more citizens per capita than any other. Meanwhile banks plead guilty to felonies and get off with fines and no jail time. Search and seizure laws across the country illegally take hundreds of millions from innocent citizens and use the proceeds to support their police departments—regardless of the 14th Amendment that prohibits search without warrants. Our Supreme Court recklessly enables unlimited corporate money to support what should be influence-free elections. More than 60% of those in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities and for Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. 

Police are victims as well, afraid of those who they are sworn to protect and militarized into an 'us against them' mentality. Brutality and fear are the understanding (but not acceptable) result. Not a good example of a robust legal system.

Social integration and support has fallen by the wayside as States and the Federal Government are fighting unsustainable budgets with cuts to services rather than raising taxes. The tax base that once supported these services has corporately fled the country and personally dropped to astounding lows among the well off. 

As citizens, we no longer pay our way and yet the Supreme Court in its supreme wisdom gave corporations the same rights as citizens—except in the matter of paying taxes. A corporation can legally pay off the Congress through lobbyists for preferential laws and pay their way into dominating elections without paying any corporate taxes. If that’s a definition of social integration, I am an alien from Mars.

Guaranteed personal freedoms are slipping away, as everything we communicate, everywhere we go and everything we do is tracked and either sold for profit to corporate interests or illegally shared with the FBI, NSA or CIA. For letting us in on this dirty little secret, Edward Snowden is marooned in Moscow (his passport revoked by America in Moscow Airport) as a wanted man. The Founding Fathers were wanted men as well, but winning the War for Independence freed them from that noose to guarantee independence for American citizens. 

Whistle-blowers no longer share that independence and, if you can’t blow a whistle against abuse in this country, how does free speech stand today?

The good news at the end of this long list of worries is that America is a tough nation and we Americans are tough individuals. Throughout our history we have consistently overcome periodic declines to emerge stronger and more dedicated to our roots as a democratic republic.

We will overcome this one as well. It’s in our genetic makeup.

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