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.
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.