What must we do then to restore America’s greatness in what many are calling the Asian Century? There are no quick fixes, no one-liner solutions. Restoral will require major sacrifices and substantive changes.
A feature of the American political psyche is the fact that we don’t like to pay taxes. Our colonial forefathers’ mantra was “no taxation without representation,” when they really meant “no taxation, damn it!” As a percentage of national income, at 27 percent we pay less overall taxes than any other developed nation. The Scandinavian countries pay around 50 percent. Germany has only 35 percent of our population, but exceeds us in exports and is second only to China. Germans pay 40 percent of their GDP in taxes.
Am I saying we can tax our way into recovery? Absolutely not.
But in order to restore our aging, obsolete infrastructure and failing public education system, both of which are essential to making us competitive again, we will have to make unprecedented financial sacrifices.
U. S. graduate schools are undeniably the best in the world. But our public primary and secondary schools and many of our undergraduate programs and curricula are hardly world-class. A little tune up will not do it; a major overhaul is required. But here there are entrenched bureaucracies that will not budge without radical measures being applied.
In spite of past fuel shortages and the resultant economic disruptions, we still have no energy policy worthy of the name. But during the Arab oil embargo of 1973, there were no two-block-long lines at the gas pumps in Europe. Europeans had long before imposed high fuel taxes in order to force people to drive smaller vehicles, use public transportation, ride bicycles and (heaven forbid!) do more walking. Although it does a good job of assuring the best quality and prices of socks, underwear, cars, toasters, etc., the free market will not solve our energy problems. It is essentially reactive and does little to anticipate shortages or protect the environment. Although against our basic nature, proactive intervention by the government is required here.
We all agree we need to trim the federal budget, and this includes a close look at welfare and entitlements. But in view of the fact that our bloated military budget exceeds those of the world’s next 17 countries combined, we might reconsider our priorities. Now that we have no real military rival, do we still need almost 700 military bases around the world? It is true that nearly 100 of these are U. S. Marine embassy detachments, but that still leaves almost 600. Our military budget is three times China’s. Wouldn’t just two times assure our security almost as well? In his farewell address, President Eisenhower, himself a career military man, warned against the possible dangers from the military-industrial complex. Obviously, we have paid little attention to his words.
Our two-party system has served us well throughout most of our history. We fought wars of independence in 1776 and 1812, survived a bitter, fratricidal civil war, freed the slaves, won two World Wars and survived the Great Depression, all under basically the same political system and structure. But during those 200-plus years, each party had a liberal and conservative wing. We thereby have avoided the excesses of the European parliamentary democracies when one party is in the decided ascendancy. But since the defection of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party, there are no longer any moderate Republicans in Congress and few conservative Democrats, a clear recipe for ideological and political radicalism.
After Bill Clinton co-opted many of the Republicans’ programs, made them work and rubbed it in their faces, the long era of partisan cooperation for the good of the country ended, and the era of fanatical, partisan obstructionism began. For anything good or constructive to occur legislatively, this situation must end. But to paraphrase H.L. Menken’s comment on American tastes, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the mindlessness and unconcern of the American electorate.”
And to rephrase Patrick Henry’s fiery words on treason, “If this be pessimism, make the most of it.”
I sincerely hope I am wrong.
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-858-3501.