April 17, 2006

The American Dream May Become Just That: A Product of Sleep!

As graduation time approaches for many college seniors this year, I wonder how many of them realize the burden the older generations have placed on them. There's lot of talk about education and how beneficial it is, not only for the individual to better his lot, but it's good for the whole nation to have educated citizens. But, access to education isn't easy, because it carries a big price tag; and, it's not getting any better. Not only the US is losing talent to other countries but we are not producing enough engineers and scientists. Fewer people go into the creative arts too, as there's a prevailing cultural attitude that sends young people into fields "where the money is." The conservative bend the country has taken under the current national political leadership is producing a deficit in the three "T"s--Technology, Talent, Tolerance. It is my contention that you need all three "T"s to be a leader and a prosperous country especially in this inter-connected world.

The income gap between the bottom 20% and the top 20% was 30 fold in the 1960s. Today, it's over 70 fold! Obviously there's been a re-distribution of wealth, and since no person operates in the vacuum of space, the national policies implemented in the last 40 years have established certain priorities and have benefits certain groups over others. The argument that rising water lifts all boats might be true, except that in the US the yachts have risen while the rickety boats are sinking. Real wages, or, in other words, the buying power of the mid & lower strata has decreased in the same period. Many Americans have taken a paycut while our economy grew.

What would you say if told that there's a country that has the second highest GDP (behind Luxemburg) but because of its inequality in the distribution of this wealth, this country ranks dead last among all advanced industrialized nations? Not good! Wait, it gets worse! That country is dead last also in fighting poverty! Among the same rich countries, it has the highest percentage of its people that live on half or less the median income. If this isn't a skewed way to divvy up the national wealth, I don't know what is. The working poor and the middle class in our country find it harder and harder to achieve their American dream since the doors of opportunity are fewer today. The commonwealth, the public avenues, the common good are all under attack.

Millions of Americans did achieve their American dream because they could read at the public library when they couldn't afford to buy books. They could go to public schools, and on to higher education, which was public and inexpensive. The GI Bill was a great success--not only in broadening people's horizons through education, but for every federal dollar spend, the economy got $2 back from having an educated and more wealth-producing generation. What happened to this notion of the common good? We've seen a huge surplus turn into a huge deficit in a just few years time, while there are ever increasing cuts in education and in funds that support the commonwealth, that is, all those good things that make a positive difference in the "average person's" life.

The report by the American Political Science Association makes it clear that "increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country and even reversed." Further, a quarter of all whites in this country have no financial assets, the median white household has 62% more income and twelve times as much wealth as the median black household and that 61% of blacks in this country and half of all Latinos have no financial assets at all!

The illusion that still holds well in this country is that anyone can become anything he/she wants. But, mobility in America has become a myth. Surely, there are exceptions, and we all know of someone who came from very low and rose to heights. But, if we examine the nation as a whole, it's been very hard (impossible to millions of Americans) to climb to economic ladder. Our national leaders speak of an agenda that would further shrink the social services, the scope of the commonwealth, and those mostly affected are the ones with the fewer means. The rich don't need a universal-coverage healthcare system, they don't need libraries, they don't need loans or scholarships to go to college, they don't need the subways & buses to run on time; don't need them at all as a matter of fact.

Yet, our elected leaders who shape our national agenda manage to convince Americans to vote against the latter's own interests! No wonder why the elites want a largerly un- or under-educated public. It's easier to confuse it with a bumper-sticker approach to complicated issues. Sadly, many college graduates are failing the test of citizenship by not being interested & engaged in the political affairs of our country. Politics reflects the people involved in the process, and democracy is as good as the quality of the people. Aristotle characterized politics in the normative sense--as the ultimate duty of a citizen; as the activity in which responsible people ought to be engaged in.

The American dream was about opportunities, about pride in a country as the leader of the free world, about personal & national prosperity, and individual choice and self-fulfillment. Instead our graduates are facing job prospects with lower pay, longer hours, no pensions & health insurance, and a national debt that amounts to $30,000 for every American! [did I hear: bring in the immigrants to share some of this burden] Of course there is hope, but hope for action won't happen by itself. We have to face our problems and deal with them in a responsible way. Dreaming about something we want won't make it so until we decide to wake up and face reality. Otherwise, the American dream will be just that, a dream.


JS_VP said...

Your concerned essay may err in some respects out of unfamiliarity with social strata not represented fully in the above-board economy.The result of bad policy has not been to impoverish striving people. It has been, rather, to send certain strivers out of the mainstream tax-paying economy, into alternative economies, such as criminality, social services fraud, cash-and-carry, barter, and dual nationality/dual identity bleed-off schemes.

Yes, college imposes an insurmountable wealth barrier, blocking many, or an insurmountable debt barrier for others not blocked, but less prestigious institutions train many at simple job skills, so that what you are observing, is the self-imposed isolation of an academic system more attuned to its own survival, than to the survival of the American polity, as we had known it in the 20th century. The prestige once accorded Bachelor's degrees has withered to nil, the high school diploma is worthless, and a PhD, tenure, and a publishing deal seem to be broadly equivalent to hitting a ground ball single. Perhaps the $60,000 per annum expended on academic non-success ought be better spent jump starting a small multinational import company, or financing a budding auteur's first film. I don't know.

National policy has very little effect on the non-taxed economies, except to from time to time shift the street corner on which the deals are made. Never forget that the bourse in many countries, began as street trade.The progressive notion of openness, and equalization of global opportunity, is an idea not controlled buy our progressive community, or their elected champions, but is a shifting, mobile polity not in love with the USA, springboarding off our post-WWII economic advantages, back into homeland economies buoyed up by purloined Americanness. We are not in charge.

America can not ever, and should not ever attempt to return to center stage in this. That era is past. The new Americans demonstrated last week, and care nothing about the old America. Shortly, no craftsperson, mechanic, laborer, driver, shopclerk, or any of their first line managers will be native born, and all will think of "home" as elsewhere, easily reached on a weekend flight.

I go back often to Orwell's Eloi & Morlock populations, when pondering this change. The Eloi, as I recall had no work skills,
and so ended up helpless mock aristocrats, eaten, I believe, in the end by their own Morlock workforce.
And so it may be here, and now.

John Sweeney
Verplanck N.Y.
Utility Workers Union of America
member since 1979

elizabeth said...

May I propose an overhaul of education in America? Democracy is fundamentally dependent on an educated voting public. Unfortunately, because, as you point out, higher education is cost prohibitive, Americans' access to the kind of education that teaches critical thinking is diminishing. Successful entrepreneurs are problem solvers. And today’s high schools do not teach problem solving skills. Public high schools propagate the myth that training the brain is the job of colleges and universities.
I would be more comfortable if students learned to be critical citizens in high school. Then they could vote in their own interest. They could drive this democracy in a better direction. This would hopefully include opening up access to higher education. But if it didn't, I would not argue. As long as the citizens are informed and know how to use that information, that is my only interest in promoting education.