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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Monday, October 31, 2016

#459: Why Can’t We Make America Idealistic Again?—Part 3



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?”

This time I look at our investment in infrastructure and employment.
White Lake

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#458: Why Can’t We Make America Idealistic Again?—Part 2



The 2016 election has forced me to reflect on the many ideals that both our major parties—and my own generation--have abandoned. Last time I reflected on Transportation. This time: Education.



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. 

Far from fulfilling our mission to change the world, we have betrayed our mission by failing to even sustain the ideals of our past.  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. We now risk leaving our country less idealistic than we found it!

Ironically, this does not mean that idealism is dead. 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?”

This post is the second in a series that surveys such issues.  In each case, I reflect on our past embrace of idealistic change. I observe how we have fallen behind our allies as we have quit on that ideal while they have taken our place and sustained such idealism. In each case I ask “Why can’t we?”

This time I look at education.

Perhaps my idealism derives from where I live, since Massachusetts has in many ways been a land of idealism since its founding.
Boston Latin School Then....
 My three children are graduates of the Boston Latin School, the first public school in America, founded in 1635.  It was designed for Boston’s elite, and funded mainly by donations, but was followed in 1644 in Dedham Massachusetts by the first public school supported completely by taxes.  In 1820, Boston English School became the first public high school in America, offering a publicly funded 12th grade education to all.  And an 1827, a Massachusetts law required that all grades of public school be open to all students free of charge in every town and city in the Commonwealth.  This means that, for nearly 300 years, publicly funded universal education has been the law in Massachusetts.


This ideal soon spread across America, which became the first country in the world to establish universal public education for its people.  And for most of our history as a nation, we have led the world in literacy and the educational attainments of our population.

By the period immediately following World War II, the majority of Americans were achieving a high school education in schools that were free of tuition.  In addition, many others had access to professional training programs (such as the apprentice program in which my father trained during a 39 year career at General Electric).

Of course, over the last 50 years, a high school diploma has been losing its career value, as increasing numbers of Americans have gone to college. 

In most high schools across America, the majority of graduates are now going on to some college study.  Soon the majority of the working age population will have received a college education. College is now the rule, not the exception as it was for my father’s generation.

By now, for many careers, a high school diploma is no longer competitive in the workplace.  This means that, for most Americans, a K-12 education cannot provide the career benefits that it used to.  Yet the United States has not extended publicly funded, tuition-free education beyond high school. 

This means that our world-pioneering ideal of public education, providing free schooling for all, has been frozen in place since 1821!

The result is that the United States is no longer the leader in providing public education for its people.  Instead, our allies are bypassing us by establishing free (or heavily subsidized) higher education.  For more than a generation, this has been happening in Canada, France, Germany, and throughout much of Europe.  The result is that most young people in those countries can acquire a college education without acquiring any debt.

American students, by contrast, face the daunting prospect of assuming levels of debt comparable to the mortgage on a house.  I remember my shock when, as my oldest child entered college, the chief financial officer of her school predicted the day when entering freshmen would sign a 50-year loan to pay for their education!  The very image of an 18-year-old committing to debt that would last past retirement age boggled my mind. To this day, my European friends are horrified to hear of U.S. college costs.

So we should not be surprised, as our allies pass us, that more and more American students are leaving the U.S. to study abroad.  In 2012, 46,500 Americans were enrolled in degree programs in 14 countries. (NOTE: These are NOT “semester abroad” students who return to their U.S. schools; these students are receiving foreign diplomas). 68% of these were in the United Kingdom and Canada, with France and Germany close behind.

Germany has become especially popular because university study there, even for international students, is tuition-free.

Jeffrey Peck, the Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College, City University of New York, described the “ideal-gap” between Germany and the U.S.:

"College education in the US is seen as a privilege and expected to cost money and in Germany it is seen as an extension of a free high school education where one expects it to be provided,"

The Germans are not simply altruistic in this regard. The hope is to attract skilled foreign students who will stay in Germany. Sebastian Fohrbeck, of the German Academic Exchange, reports that 50% of foreign students stay in Germany.

Other US allies are nearly as generous.  Public universities in France, including the Sorbonne, cost approximately $250 per year of study.  Belgian universities cost $960.  Finnish universities cost $1500.  Italian universities cost of $1000, Spanish universities cost $1500.  And Norway, like Germany, is totally free.

Back home, the average cost of public universities for out-of-state students is $23,800 per year.  The average cost of private universities is $31,231 per year. The old idea of "working your way through college" has become a bad joke.

The results of such astronomical fees should not surprise us. Americans have accumulated $1.2 trillion nationwide in college-related debt.  300,000 Waiters and waitresses in  the United States are working to pay off such debt.  30% of such Americans are indebted despite having dropped out of school.  Altogether, 40 million Americans--more than the population of 200 countries--are burdened by college debts.

We’re now looking at an entire generation of Americans who are forced to choose between 3 unhappy options.  First: they may go without college and suffer the competitive disadvantage for the rest of their careers.  Second: they may get a college degree and carry lifelong debt for up to 50 years.  Third: they may go to a foreign country for less costly or even free study--and many of them will remain there, draining away the brainpower of our country.

Do not be surprised if the numbers who choose option #3 keep growing—many after dropping out of an American university due to its cost. (Ironically, the colleges rich enough to guarantee students they will have no debt are largely reserved for the highest-achieving high school students. In other words, we are back to Boston Latin’s model of school for the privileged elite).
.......and now: Boston Latin School today
 So while we were once first in education, first in publicly funded schools, first in educational attainment, first in literacy--now our allies have bypassed us, and we face the challenge of catching up.

Yet in our political life, in our public policy, the idea of “free college” is regarded as an impossible ideal--something it is unrealistic to expect or even campaign for.  We seem to be a people no longer willing to fund what the public needs.  We seem to be a people no longer capable of maintaining our own ideals.

And so, as I observed with transportation, so with education: I look around the world, I observe what our allies have been doing to pursue the very ideals that we originally inspired in them.  In so many countries where education was once a privilege reserved to a tiny elite of the population, our American experiment in public education inspired them to see education as a human right (as the Catholic Church teaches) and to invest in the spread of free education for all. And they have kept that ideal alive as times changed.

So as I observe what they have accomplished, and compare that with our failure to keep our own educational ideals alive, and hear so many fellow Americans proclaim that such a goal is romantic, naive, and unrealistic, I feel compelled to point to our allies’ real-life experience, their success at making the ideal a reality, and I ask the sad question that keeps coming to my mind: “Why Can’t We?”

NEXT time: Employment

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Monday, October 10, 2016

#457: Why Can’t We Make America Idealistic Again?



The 2016 election has forced me to reflect on the many ideals that both our major parties—and my own generation--have abandoned.



Since the end of the Republican and Democratic conventions I have suffered a case of “blog-block” (not unlike writer’s block).

Oh, I’ve posted my share of Facebook comments, but these have been consistently negative critiques of specific points or events.  The depressing spectacle of this election has stymied me.  I feel acutely discouraged by our country’s sad condition but I have struggled to formulate a comprehensive account of those feelings.

Until now.

The low quality of the candidates, the uncivil and uncivilized tenor of their campaigns, and the dysfunction of our electoral system have all bothered me.  But my discouragement was about something deeper.

Two things, really. 

For one thing, this electoral season has clearly failed my personal expectations.  As an American, I expect the opportunity to vote for someone representing my civic concerns and values.  And as a Catholic, I expect to support someone who supports the social vision I get from my faith.  The 2016 campaign is defying me on both counts.

I admit, those expectations are perennial--and they have been perennially frustrated in nearly every presidential election since I reached voting age more than 40 years ago.  But the 2016 campaign has been even more discouraging than previous campaigns.  Not only is it failing my personal expectations, it has also failed the promise of my generation.

In 1992 Bill Clinton became the first baby boomer elected president.  Since then, boomers have been the dominant cohort in presidential elections: Clinton again in ‘96, George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, Bush again in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, Obama again Mitt Romney in 2012, and now Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. By 2020, boomers will have occupied the White House for 28 years.

Like me, they all grew up as part of the largest generation in U.S. history--and one of the most idealistic.  Anyone going to high school and college in the 1960s lived through a ferment ranging from Rock and Roll and hippies to moon landings, from civil rights to Vietnam, from feminism to ecology—all amid assassinations and protests and a clash of ideals. 

Amid such chaos, we 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?

Personally I always found a lot of my peers’ idealism na├»ve and romantic, and I tended to think our real “revolution” was more cultural (or even spiritual) than political. I knew the status quo’s hold on our way of life was powerful, so I did not really expect America to abandon all of its institutions and traditions.  I did not expect our future to break with our past.  But I did expect my generation to reject the nation’s worst traits (for example, its racism, its materialism, its intolerance to non-conformity) while embracing and expanding its key ideals.

Instead, now I am reminded of philosopher Frantz Fanon saying “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” It feels like our generation DID discover its distinct mission early on, but has not fulfilled it. Now, so many years later, it seems to me that our generation has lost the capacity for idealism. 

Far from fulfilling our mission to change the world, we have betrayed our mission by failing to even sustain the ideals of our past.  On issue after issue, our leadership has discredited new initiatives as “too idealistic”--meaning impossible to achieve--while allowing other nations to pass America by. We now risk leaving our country less idealistic than we found it!

Ironically, this does not mean that idealism is dead. 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 am thinking of things that shape the way we live and also our presence in the world.  They shape our economy our daily lives, our culture, and our international relations.  I’m thinking of education, of transportation, of health care, of labor relations, of our military, of inequality, of employment and immigration and peace and poverty.

This post is the first in a series that surveys such issues.  In each case, I reflect on our past embrace of idealistic change. I observe how we have fallen behind our allies as we have quit on that ideal while they have taken our place and sustained such idealism. In each case I ask “Why can’t we?”

Let me begin with transportation.

Just look at our past.  Except for Native Americans and some recent immigrants from Central and South America, who arrived on foot, everyone else got here by sea or by air.  The first European settlers called their destination “the New World” precisely because crossing oceans was without precedent, and required a vision and courage and a willingness to risk that presumed high ideals.  Some, like the Pilgrims, came seeking their own kind of religious liberty.  Others, like the Puritans, arrived simply seeking a better life in a new place.  Ocean travel made that possible, and led to the cluster of major ports along the eastern seaboard that we now call Megalopolis.

200 years later, the Erie Canal opened this new world to expansion away from the sea, and gave birth to an inland nation stretching west as far as the plains and its great rivers.  40 years after that, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad stretched that nation across 3000 miles from sea to sea. 

And 50 years later, America succeeded where France had failed, completing the Panama Canal that linked those two seas and made global shipping possible on an unprecedented scale.  40 years after that, a Republican president inaugurated the construction of the Interstate Highway System, enabling Americans to cross the country for both personal and commercial reasons with unprecedented speed and ease.

The American love affair with the automobile soon spread to other nations, who constructed their own super highway systems.  The same was true for international jet travel, dating from about 1960.

But at that point, American leadership in transportation ended.  As oil prices and pollution and congested roads marked the beginning of the end of automobiles’ dominance, nations in both Europe and Asia began to develop new technologies and build new infrastructure.  They constructed thousands of miles of brand new rail lines to accommodate futuristic trains that could cruise above 200 miles per hour.  The rail systems they built enabled travelers to reach distant destinations in half the time of driving, while using less energy.  Once again, train travel became the first option for hundreds of millions of travelers in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Japan, China, Taiwan, etc.

But not in the United States.  We still rely on a system of rails constructed as much as 100 years ago, running trains at laughably low speeds compared to either their past performance (when the rail lines were new) or to the speeds typical among our Allies. 

The failure to keep up with our Allies leaves Americans chronically dependent on automobile travel even for the most impractical of trips.  Currently it is impossible to get from Boston to New York in less than 4 hours of actual travel time—no matter if by car, bus, train or plane.  If we had the high speed rail our allies already possess, the trip would take 2 hours or even less.  The same problem applies to trips between all major American cities. Boston to DC is the same distance as Paris to Marseille; both trips take 7 ½ hours by car. In France the trip by train is 3 hours. We can’t we?

Moreover, our outmoded dependence on cars for intra-city and inter-city travel prevents us from reducing our carbon emissions and leaves us stuck in place as the worlds #1 contributor to climate change, which Pope Francis declares to be the world’s #1 challenge. Our economy, our health, our daily lives, our leisure, and even our connection to each other are all damaged by our failure to retain our leadership in transportation.

When I visit other countries and travel their rails, I am amazed at the vision and idealism they displayed by investing in such technological marvels in order to make them practical everyday realities.  They made their vision real. I feel ashamed that my country is no longer capable of such vision or such idealism.  So when I return home and find myself riding the antiquated systems we still cling to, I cannot help but wish that we could learn from and imitate our allies and once again learn how to make visions real.  And I cannot help but wonder “Why can’t we?”
NEXT time: Education

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016