The 2016 election has forced me to reflect on the many ideals that both our major parties—and my own generation--have abandoned.
My generation, children of the ‘60s, invented the “generation gap” by committing ourselves to fundamental change. We expected that when our turn came, we would change the world. And we knew “the whole world is watching.” And now our time HAS come, and the whole world IS watching. What do they see?
Now, so many years later, it seems to me that our generation has lost the capacity for idealism. On issue after issue, our baby boomer leadership (in national office since 1992) has discredited new initiatives as “too idealistic”--meaning impossible to achieve--while allowing other nations to pass America by. In many fields, our allies in Europe and Asia and Canada and elsewhere have been inspired by our pioneering efforts. As I watch other nations embrace American innovations and build better futures on them, I ask myself over and over, “Why can’t we?”
I’m too young to remember the Great Depression, but early on I knew its effects. We spent summer vacations camping at White Lake State Park in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and one day I overheard my father answer a visitor’s question about the pristine, powder-fine sand covering the beachfront and the lake bottom.
“It was the CCC,” he explained. “They drove trucks out onto the ice in the winter, dumping hundreds of truckloads of sand. In spring, the ice melted and the sand settled to the bottom.”
The CCC--Civilian Consolation Core--was one of a cluster of depression-era projects begun under FDR’s “New Deal.” Such projects brought four national benefits: First, they created jobs when millions were unemployed; Second, they recycled tax money back into the economy as workers spent their new income; Third, they reduced inequality by moving funds from those who could pay taxes to those who could not; Fourth, they built things the country needed--roads and bridges, dams and public parks--that otherwise might not be built.
But such projects required massive government spending, and this meant bigger national debt, or higher taxes for some, or both. The will for such spending reflected the main ideal of the New Deal: to utilize the power of government to offset the economic damage and human suffering caused by the failures of the free market. In a word, the New Deal took public action to mitigate the defects of capitalism.
In the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, this idea brought long periods of peacetime prosperity, low unemployment, a thriving middle class, and a robust expansion of our national infrastructure. Roads and highways and bridges spread throughout the USA’s vast expanse as cars became the preferred mode of travel. Private bus and trolley systems gave way to public transit in many cities. New state and national parks were opened. Clean water systems proliferated. As the population grew and expanded out of our city centers, our infrastructure—and our work force and its wages--grew with it.
Over the last 40 years, that growth has slowed. Wealth once again has become more concentrated, real wages have fallen, taxes have been more regressive, and infrastructure spending has not kept pace with the aging structures we had built before.
By 2013, when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluated 16 categories of infrastructure, they gave out 11 “D’s,” four “C.s,” and only one “B”--for an overall score of D+. U.S. spending on infrastructure had reached a 20 year low of 1.7% of GDP. One result: our bridges, most built to last 50 years or less, now average 42 years old; 11% of them are structurally deficient and 14% more are obsolete.
Our bridges and highways are suffering the effects of chronic under-funding: the gas tax has not been raised for 24 years, and the Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy. The current rate of infrastructure decline could cost the economy 700,00 to 800,000 jobs over the next five years.
Meanwhile, our allies continue to spend on infrastructure. After World War II, the rebuilding efforts depended heavily on U.S. support, especially the Marshall plan. But by now, updating and modernizing naturally requires continued high spending levels. The difference is, they are doing it while we are not.
Take the example of our oldest ally, France. With a population less than 20% of the US, their infrastructure spending is more than 30% of ours. And if you target specific areas, like rail, the spending gap is even greater. France spends more than three times the US on rail infrastructure. This month’s Amtrak crash--easily avoidable if speed-control technology had been installed--is but one example of the price we are paying. Anyone who attempts one trip on US trains, and another on French trains, can readily see how far we’ve fallen behind.
If we look at another area, investment in roads, the US not only trails France but 7 other allies, PLUS Russia. We just can’t keep up.
Why can’t we?
The head of the ASCE cites “inertia” as the explanation. The US lacks the leadership, the political will, the courage to keep up with its allies, he says.
But inertia works both ways. We are at rest, so we stay at rest. Others are in motion, so they stay in motion and leave us behind.
But we were once in motion too. Why did we not keep moving? Why did we stop? Inertia cannot explain that.
It seems we lost the vision that fueled our motion. FDR’s “New Deal” responded to crisis by taking action. It established the ideal that the common good of the nation takes priority whenever and wherever markets fail. It established the ideal of using public funds to maintain basic fairness. It established the ideal of a social consensus to recover from depression, recover from war, and create the vast infrastructure, high employment, and steady growth that made our great nation grow.
When economic crisis hit again with the Great Recession in 2008, massive public works projects like the CCC and other New Deal initiatives could have provided millions of jobs to rebuild our infrastructure. Instead, our roads and highways and bridges and dams continue to age and decline, and our rail system is a pale relic of its former self. And as the example of Flint, Michigan shows, even our water systems are at risk.
Catholic Social Teaching makes the common good, and the universal destination of all goods, prime parts of its vision for a more humane world. My generation once promised a commitment to those ideals. But since 1992 my generation’s leaders have not delivered on that promise.
As our allies outspend us and build the modern infrastructure that their future requires, I have to ask:
“Why Can’t We?”
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016