Greased with cash and covered by paint

By Daniel H.
Why We Worry / Middle America Bureau

For at least the last four or five years (longer if you’re a natural pessimist or a good prognosticator), the most important question in America has been What Went Wrong? People felt like they understood what their deal in life was, what the rules of the game were: You’re a citizen of the richest, most powerful country in the world. That country is generally a good place to live (it helps if you’re white and not too poor) and better times are there for the taking. Then, the Recession happened. It wasn’t just that people lost their jobs, their homes, or their retirement savings, it’s that they lost them and couldn’t see how they were going to get them back. Worse, Americans couldn’t, and often still can’t, see how their kids are going to get what their parents once had.

The current sense in the media is that things are getting better. Statistics like a declining unemployment rate seem to support this. Perhaps we never agreed on What Went Wrong? (though not for lack of theories), but maybe whatever it was has been fixed. If it was some deadly combination of greedy financiers, cheap houses, industrious Asians, and lax regulators, have we gotten a handle on it now? I’d say no. GDP may grow for awhile, but Americans should still be worried about the jobs and social safety net available to their children.

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Part of the problem is that while it took the financial crisis and recession for many people to realize it, the American Dream of self-determined success has been more myth than fact since way before 2007. Wages have been stagnant for 40 years among everyone by the richest few. This steady erosion points to deeper-set issues than a housing bubble or unrestrained banks. Deeper, I would argue, then even the rise of China or growing income inequality. If one digs deep enough to uncover the tangled roots of America’s declining promise, one will find an erosion of our basic societal institutions. By “societal institutions” I mean the framework, whether created by government or outside of it, that enabled and encouraged people to lead productive lives.

As an example, let’s take our public school system from start through high school. As it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public education in America became a way to transform rural farmers and newly-arrived immigrants into industrial workers. It did so quite successfully and by the 1950s had created, in barely 100 years, one of the greatest economic powerhouses in history as well as a large middle class. Today, the end product of that system, a U.S. high-school graduate, can barely make enough money to support a family. Clearly, the institution of American education has deteriorated significantly over the past half-century.

Education is not the only institution that is lagging far behind its promise. There are deep problems with our health care, public safety and moral/religious structures, as well. Perhaps most distressing, however, is the pervasive dysfunction of our political institutions. The instruments we created to execute the will of the people no longer can or even want to do so. Any legislation designed to fundamentally correct the problems facing our country is stymied or watered-down to the point of ineffectiveness. The whole process of selecting, grooming and electing political figures is controlled by a homogeneous minority of citizens and greased with cash.

To finally answer What Went Wrong we must look first at the failure of our institutions. Once they can again provide the necessary structure for Americans to lead productive, successful lives, our Dream will truly be revived.

Daniel H. works in renewable energy development in the Houston area. He studied at Rice University and researched energy policy in Denmark as a Fulbright Scholar.

One Comment

  1. Ian

    A few points I will challenge here:

    The first that American public schools do not prepare people for the workforce, as evidenced by the fact those with high school degrees can barely afford to pay their family. This I think is a case of correlation not causation. Wages have not kept up with inflation for quite some time for the lower and middle classes. This isn’t caused by a failing education system. I agree that our education system could use some improvement, but I sincerely believe it is still a very great public good.

    Next I would challenge that the American Dream has vanished in the last few years. I don’t believe that the dream as typically stated has remained present, I would just say it never existed to begin with. Its not like poor people were pulling themselves up by their bootstraps left and right and becoming millionaires ten years ago. The American Dream has always been a nationalistic fantasy.

    Much of this talk about the disappearing dream and the decline of America is cooked up for political gain. I am not naive enough to think we are not experiencing hard times or that we will attain some sort of previous standard of whatever metric you wish to use. I simply think its too easy and far too common to hear people say that now is worse than then. Everyone always talks about how much better things used to be and how bad they are now thanks to whatever group they want to complain about.