We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling… the United States.
–Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Welcome to the late great United States – a country in economic and moral free fall. A country in thrall to a cult of greed, selfishness, and ignorance.
A country that is trying to hold onto its belief in its own “exceptionalism,” even as it rejects the very forces that made it exceptional.
Once, the US was a leader in science. Today, most Americans are scientifically illiterate and one of the major political parties – Republicans– largely rejects science and scientists as “elitist.” Research budgets are being slashed. The space shuttle has flown its last flight. Climate scientists are demonized and marginalized, even as epochal storms, heat waves, and draughts sweep across our country and lay waste our planet.
Once, US infrastructure was the envy of the world. Our planes, our trains, our highways, our damns, bridges, buildings and communication systems were the benchmark against which other countries measured their worth. Investing in it created well-paying jobs and wealth-generating capacity. Now, it is a crumbling punch line to a tragic national joke.
Once, the US system of laws and regulations was recognized as the pre-requisite of a civilized and prosperous society. It created transparent markets; honest securities exchanges; level playing fields for all players; equitable sharing of wealth between workers and managers; safe and humane working conditions; a clean and livable environment. Today, most Americans think government regulation destroyed the economy. They even believe that the plutocrats who destroyed this regulatory infrastructure — the most successful wealth-generating machine in the world’s history — are the “job creators” and the source of the formerly shared prosperity that is now disappearing into the coffers of the few from the wallets of the many.
Once, the US educational system was the preeminent model for educating the populace. While our Universities are managing to hold on to their esteemed position by their thumbnails (partly by attracting talented foreign students), our K-12 programs are not keeping up.
What do these all have in common?
They were the source of our national prosperity and they were funded or enabled in whole or part by the government.
Federal research yielded a steady stream of innovation – the agricultural revolution; the aerospace industry; computers; the Internet; most of the important breakthroughs in Pharmaceuticals and health care; the GIS system. While the investments continued, the jobs came and the wealth flowed. But today, the spigots are turned off, the seed corn eaten.
Federal,state and local government’s investment in energy, transportation, communication, and water supply infrastructure yielded enormous financial returns. Now these systems lie crumbling around our collective ankles and workers line up for unemployment as half empty trucks dodge potholes on our national highways.
Investment from around the world flowed into the US, bolstered by the fact that our well-regulated financial markets were not only honest and transparent, but that they fulfilled their fiduciary responsibility to manage risk prudently when handling other people’s money. Now, our markets are a wild-west shoot out, with a few winners, many losers and all the trustworthiness of a tiltable Vegas roulette table.
Education? Take the case of California, which has had a 40 year jihad against taxes. When Reagan assumed the governorship, the state ranked number one in education, and colleges and universities charged no tuition. Now the state’s K-12 school system ranks in the bottom half of the country and college costs are skyrocketing. And ever since Reagan brought his “government is the problem mentality” to Washington, the rest of the country is following suit.
Two important things happened this week, and both point to the decline of America. At the Republican Tea Party debate, a cheering jeering crowd supported the idea that a man who didn’t get health care insurance should be allowed to die. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported that poverty in the US reached its highest level since 1993. In absolute terms, more Americans are below the poverty level than at any time in our history.
These events are connected. When greed becomes our moral compass, then tolerance and humanity die, and prosperity is a casualty.
Alan Grayson compared the Tea-Partiers in Florida on Monday night to the Romans at the Coliseum calling for the lions to eat the Christians.
It is an apt metaphor. The Patricians – plutocrats all – have been using their bought and paid for media to field a long-running circus featuring illusion, delusion, distraction and deception. The populace, distracted by this steady stream of “reality show news,” now regularly chants for the death of the very force which made their lives the apogee of shared prosperity – a government that represented them, not a few fat cats.
Cheer and jeer on, America. But know this: unless we miraculously stand up to the ringmasters, and confront the circus that has become our political process, we are cheering our own demise.
John Atcheson’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, as well as in several wonk journals. He is currently at work on a fictional Trilogy that centers on climate change. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogress.org. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org