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High School Seniors…gotta read this January 16, 2009

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The United States is entering a phase of its

existence that is not too dissimilar to a

man’s mid-life crisis. Over its time to date,

the nation has become very accomplished.

And yet, it is searching ardently — and

with a hint of despair — for a vision that

will continue to engage its ambitious spirit.

America is also confronted with a growing

sense of vulnerability — and a certain dose

of self-doubt.

ome of these feelings were triggered by the events

of September 11, 2001 — and reinforced by the

great Blackout, which crippled parts of the nation’s East

Coast and Midwest in August 2003.

Beware the 40s

These internal and external threats to the nation’s

self-confidence are akin to a

man’s recognition of his own

mortality, once he reaches his

forties.

For the United States as a whole,

these experiences also translate

into unprecedented existentialist

fear on a personal as well as on a

national level.

Yet, unlike people, nations have

the capacity to reverse the

effects of the “aging” process.

America can reinvent itself,

change course — and prepare the

way for greater stability,

economic growth and prosperity.

This nation’s resourcefulness and creativity have been

the main drivers of what made the 20th century

“America’s century.”

Patchy record

President Bush was right when he described the

blackout fiasco as a wake-up call. Of course, the

President has been consistently wrong. His record to

date is distinguished by the pursuit of the most

laissez-faire economic policies since the disgraced period

of Manchester capitalism during the 19th century.

This unfortunate track record will — in the long term —

only further aggravate matters. President Bush’s

solutions are aimed to serve special interests, simplistic

in nature — and generally unrelated to the real problem

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Gallup

Read more about

public opinion

research.

U.S. Treasury

Department

Learn more about the

shape of the U.S.

economy.

State of the Nation

Read U.S. President

George W. Bush’s

latest State of the

Nation address.

Liberty and the

pursuit of

happiness will

flourish in a

society that

protects

individual

freedom — while

it accepts

community

response and

responsibility.

Bill

Richardson’s

remark

post-blackout

that the United

States is a

superpower with

a Third World

grid applies to

much of the

at hand.

Only small government is good government

The challenge for Americans today is much deeper and

broader. Ever since the Reagan Administration, the

American people have been inundated with disparaging

comments about government, especially by those who

govern them.

Public service, once an honorable

ambition, has been converted into

a leper ward in the public’s mind.

To many conservatives, there is

no such thing as good “public

service.”

Only small government is good

government. With near religious

fervor, most Americans are

convinced today of the absolute

power and total efficiency of

markets. The proverbial “invisible

hand” has achieved God-like

stature.

Seeking alternatives

Already I can hear the moaning of proponents of this

philosophy. In short, they are prepared to pull the old

stunts of negative labeling — such as “liberal”, “tax and

spend” and “death tax.” Even many Democrats will dive

in for fear of “inelectability.”

And yet, this is not an essay in defense of

cradle-to-grave European welfare states, which have left

these countries with non-dynamic societies and

entrepreneurial deficiencies.

My argument is, however, to suggest that there is an

alternative to the Bush Administration’s ardent pursuit

of happiness for the rich by cutting taxes, mortgaging

the fiscal future of America’s children — and failing to

provide for basic services.

An alarming list

Let us remember then that well over 42 million

Americans are without health insurance, that privatized

and deregulated energy markets have caused brownouts

and blackouts on the West and the East Coast.

Let us also recall that U.S. roads have more potholes

than there are craters on the moon — because local and

state governments lack the funds to repair them.

Running water, cracking bridges

Let us not forget that New York City’s water mains are

over 100 years old and poorly

maintained and that the city’s

bridges have structural defects

due to lack of maintenance.

The U.S. primary and secondary

education system is patchy at

best, cementing ever-growing

income differentials between the

haves and the have-nots. The list

goes on and it sounds alarmist —

because it is.

country’s

physical and

human

infrastructure.

Nobody

questions the

need to pay their

grocery bill.

Why then is it so

hard to

comprehend

that providing

health care too

has a price?

Paying the price

In total, this must be viewed as a

stunning outcome after a full

decade now viewed as another

gilded age. But it is the inevitable outcome of the

nation’s obsession with low taxes — and an almost

visceral reaction to government.

But such self-centered glory — reminiscent of the

shallow self-centeredness of a Sturm-and-Drang youth

as was characteristic of the United States of the 1990s

— does not come without a price. Over the next 20

years, America will experience a series of collapses in its

physical infrastructure and in its social order, unless

fundamental changes are made.

Roosevelt’s challenge

The reasons for this neglect are both cultural as well as

political. The nation is solidly rooted in a belief system

that cherishes individual freedom — and that is highly

suspicious of government intervention.

However, this belief system was seriously challenged

during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt

recognized the need for community response and

responsibility in designing the New Deal.

Setting it right again?

Over the last quarter of a century, conservatives have

successfully chipped away at the

body of the New Deal. They have

been able to convince many

Americans to adopt that the

concept of ”the survival of the

fittest” is at the core of America’s

raison d’être.

In doing so, they have also

created broad-based consensus

within society to deny the sheer

existence — or need — of public

goods. They were helped in their

efforts by the dismal failure of

Western Europe’s over-the-top welfare states.

Shock therapy

It remains to be seen whether the Great Blackout of ’03

shock will mark the beginning of an effort to rethink

America. But it certainly provides an excellent

opportunity to promote the idea of public goods. Health

care is a public good, electricity and water are public

goods, adequately maintained infrastructure is a public

good — and education is a public good.

To define these services as public goods does not mean

automatically that they must be provided by the public

sector, i.e. government. This is an important distinction

from the Western European model.

What is best for society?

It does mean, however, that we must design

mechanisms to assure the fair, equitable, affordable and

reliable delivery of those services. This may be done by

the private sector — with or without regulation or by

joint private/public sector efforts.

Internal and

external threats

to the nation’s

self-confidence

are akin to a

man’s

recognition of

his own

mortality, once

he reaches his

forties.

Unlike people,

nations have the

capacity to

reverse the

effects of the

“aging”

process.

America can

reinvent itself.

In those cases, where the fair, equitable, affordable and

reliable delivery of these services cannot or will not be

delivered by the private sector, however, government

must intervene.

Americans must undertake a long-term cost/benefit

analysis. How will society be served best? What is the

price to pay in terms of taxes — compared to eventual

infrastructural and social chaos? The case has to be

made that taxes are nothing else but payment for

services rendered.

Tax demons

Nobody questions the need to pay their grocery bill.

Why then is it so hard to

comprehend that providing health

care too has a price?

It is interesting and disturbing at

the same time that many

Americans feel entitled to receive

public goods (hence they still

have an subconscious

understanding of their existence),

but that they are unwilling to pay

for them. It will be a tremendous

challenge, therefore, to

de-demonize taxation.

Acting on instinct

In the end, Americans do not need new commissions to

tell them what they already know, at least instinctively.

Bill Richardson’s remark post-blackout that the United

States is a superpower with a Third World grid applies

to much of the country’s physical and human

infrastructure.

The American people have an important choice to make.

On the one hand, they rightfully want to safeguard their

past accomplishments — and secure a role in the world.

On the other hand by weight of tradition, they favor a

balanced approach to economic growth.

Teachers needed

This can only be accomplished when Americans are once

again proud to serve the public — but not only through

the nation’s armed forces.

Teachers, health care providers and guarantors of the

nation’s water and electricity

supply are equally vital. Liberty

and the pursuit of happiness will

flourish in a society that protects

individual freedom, while it

accepts community response and

responsibility.

If the United States once again

embraces these core values, then

it will emerge rejuvenated from

its current midlife crisis slump.

But if it continues on the present

path, the United States will sink ever deeper into a cycle

of self-doubt and unfulfilled promises to itself.

It is up to Americans to decide the future direction their

country will take.

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