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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.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

#462: How to Judge Trump? By His Fruits You Will Know Him


Pope Francis on Trump: "Wait and see"

Everyone knows we are divided, and no one thinks that’s good. But we seem at a loss for a solution. Can the Catholic Vision help? How?

 Sometimes teachers learn more than they teach!

Recently I conducted a session for adults preparing to join the Roman Catholic Church.  An important question surfaced: are Catholic Social Teachings just general principles without much practical direction, or do they include specific actions to implement those principles--or are they someplace in between?

The question would be important anytime, since the answer determines how relevant Catholic Social Teaching  (CST) is to our daily experience of the society and the culture we inhabit.  But the question is especially urgent now, when Americans are divided into two equally unhappy camps.

One camp is convinced that America is in grave danger from terrorists, illegal immigrants, refugees, rampant crime, lost jobs, unfair trade deals, the media, and the power of establishment elites.  The other camp is equally convinced that America is endangered by a dishonest, incompetent, paranoid administration that is bent on conning the public and curtailing our rights and protections to achieve its mission of self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.

Observing these two unhappy camps locked in a power struggle, I recall a key theme from Vatican II (1962-1965): that the Catholic Church must position itself as a public source of wisdom, to help steer power away from evil and toward good.

This begs the question: can Catholic Social Teaching do that job? Can it provide the wisdom we need to steer this current power struggle in the US toward good results?

Pope Francis has been speaking to this question quite a lot recently. His comments focus on two notions of great practical value for people of faith.

Notion #1: “Wait and See.” One thing both unhappy camps share is inflated rhetoric.  One side invents its own facts: immigrants are pouring in, refugees import terror, crime is soaring, joblessness stems from free trade and regulation.  The other side spins hypothetical horror scenes of mass deportations, treasonous collusion, police state tactics.  Such rhetoric fuels the conflict but provides little basis for resolving it.

Francis prefers to wait for concrete facts.  In his January 22 interview with the Spanish newspaper  El Pais, when asked about of his own opinion of the new American president, Pope Francis avoided both alarmism and cheerleading.  He suggested, rightly I think, the prudence of basing any response on actual events rather than invented fears or anticipated outrages:

I think that we must wait and see. I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not be either. We will see. We will see what he does and will judge. Christianity always rests on the specific, either a position is specific or it is not Christianity.

…We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We lose sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from the concrete. What did you do, what did you decide, how do you move. That is what I prefer to wait and see.

The public response to Trump’s travel ban is a perfect illustration of “specific” action.  The very day the government began detaining immigrants, green card holders, even those with visas, protesters thronged airports, vast crowds filled city squares, and the courts acted swiftly to halt the ban. This fits rather neatly with Francis’ advice.  Rather than jump to conclusions, we should respond to results. 

But this leaves open the question: on what basis do we judge the results?

Notion #2: The Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching.  Of course, specific responses presume preparation.  They require the ability to mobilize people who are ready to act and who know when the time for action has arrived.  Pope Benedict XVI famously said that the Church cannot stand on the sidelines in the fight for justice--but to arbitrate any contest, one must master the rules. So in many recent statements, Pope Francis has been demonstrating how Catholic Social Teaching (CST) can provide practical rules for the conflicts we face.

Such practical teaching must avoid two extremes.  If CST offers only general principles, arguing about how they apply might lead to endless debate that frustrates rather than promotes action.  But if CST attempts to dictate specific policies or actions, people may argue that the Church is stepping beyond its expertise into technical areas where its competence is suspect.  In short, if the Church wants CST to provide practical wisdom, then it must go beyond theoretical platitudes but avoid technical solutions.

And here Francis guides us, for in comment after comment he makes it clear that CST offers something different.  CST offers neither mere principles nor specific solutions; instead, it offers concrete criteria for judging actions that we or others take to solve problems.

This makes CST highly pragmatic.  Instead of obsessing over hypotheticals, it focuses on actual results.  Instead of claiming to provide concrete solutions, CST provides clear criteria for evaluating concrete solutions.  It’s not enough to take actions that achieve results; those results must fit CST criteria or be rejected. In this sense, the gospel message is radically pragmatic: we need not argue about rhetoric or theories, but ask rather which theories are working or not working. Thus CST cannot dictate solutions, but it can judge them.

And this helps us to prepare to act, because we can formulate the criteria in advance of any particular action.  Francis has demonstrated this over and over.  Examples abound:

Asked by El Pais about populism that carries a message of “xenophobia and hatred toward the foreigner,” the pope replied:

Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After (Paul von) Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character…“Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let’s defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other peoples who may rob us of our identity.” And that is a very serious thing…No country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility of talking with their neighbors.

The use of “savior” here is key, since it implies that for Christians such a politics is idolatry—as clear a criterion as any in our faith!

Asked about the treatment of refugees and other religion, the pope was equally concrete:
You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.

Matthew chapter 25 is Jesus’ injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. The pope went on:

It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help…If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.

So if criterion #1 is idolatry, #2 is hypocrisy.

In mid-February Francis sent a letter to a meeting of popular movements in California to express his view of popular resistance movements:
It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice…because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance…For some time, the crisis of the prevailing paradigm has confronted us. I am speaking of a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.

These are signs of the times that we need to recognise in order to act.…The grave danger is to disown our neighbours. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, dehumanisation.

Criterion # 3: Disowning the neighbor leads to dehumanization.

Within the last two weeks some journals headlined the pope's opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline being constructed through US tribal lands. Actually, the pope never mentioned the pipeline. But he offered a clear criterion for addressing that case, when he told representatives of indigenous peoples at a U.N. agricultural meeting that the key issue facing them is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.
Francis at the Conference on indigenous peoples in Rome
Indigenous people, he said, have a right to their ancestral lands. And this provides a clear rule for action:

In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail…Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.

Finally, when Francis takes on the “Trickle Down Theory” for reducing economic inequality (see CrossCurrents #461), he does not talk about equality of OPPORTUNITY--he talks about the actual results of economic structures that, whatever the theory on paper, in practice LEAVE millions excluded from prosperity. We may argue about why this happens, and who is responsible, and how to solve the problem--but we may NOT deny that it is a problem that plagues most third-world countries as well as our own.

The preferential option for the poor is a matter of principle for Catholic Social Teaching, and no system that results in massive inequality can be justified by any theory. The pope believes the current model has had ample opportunity to prove itself, and has failed. So it is folly to expect suddenly better results if we cling to what Francis calls "the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." He believes it is time to give “equal opportunity” to another model.

Thus, on issue after issue, this pope advises that we “wait and see” but also prepare ourselves with clear standards for judging what actually happens. And for THAT job, Catholic Social Teaching provides a valuable legacy.

"By their fruits you will know them...."—and By His Fruits You Will know Him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

#461: Making our Future Great Again—2: Trump’s “Trickle Down” Is No Magic Solution


At 80, Francis remains one of the world’s most popular and dynamic leaders, the most visible spokesperson for a vision of the future unrivaled by any political party or organization. I’m surveying the priorities of the Catholic vision in light of a post-election season that has left me both dispirited and perplexed about our prospects as a people. The topic this time: Economic Justice.
Pope Francis Meeting With Workers

Economic Justice

The Trump campaign clearly exploited the discontent of many working class voters (especially white voters) who feel left behind by the globalizing and automation of our economy. 

The economic dislocations brought by globalization, deindustrialization, and automation have been a long time coming. The challenge was already a topic of my economics studies in the late 1960s. Early on, it also touched my own family.

My father worked at General Electric from 39 years, and by the early 1970s he was president of his local engineering union. America’s jet engine was invented at the River Works plant in Lynn Massachusetts, which since World War II had been producing aircraft engines 24 hours a day.

But as the Vietnam War wound down in the 1970s, defense contracts shrunk and GE began laying off workers—including many members of my father’s union.  As citizen, my father wanted the war to end, but as union president, he was concerned about the welfare of his fellow workers.

Years later, my younger brother also worked at the River Works but was eventually laid off, caught by the continuing general decline of GE’s manufacturing business. At one point, thanks largely to GE’s presence, the New England region as a whole had employed 33,675 jet engine workers--27.8 percent of total US aircraft engine employment. By the mid-1980s, the River Works employment stood at 13,000. But the 1990s brought a drastic downturn, and by 2016 the plant employed a mere 2,850.

Ironically, in 2016, GE decided to move its world headquarters to Boston’s Fort Point Channel, where it will continue to expand its operations in the “internet of things.”  Decades after Ronald Reagan promoted GE’s Manufacturing prowess in television ads (“We Bring Good Things To Life!”), GE’s future lies, not on the assembly line, but in the cloud.

GE’s journey echoes the general US trend away from manufacturing—a trend that has left middle-class incomes falling for 40 years and opened a massive wealth inequality gap.



Trump’s Solution

Now Trump promises to restore jobs and reduce inequality in four ways: (1) penalizing U.S. companies who attempt to outsource jobs, (2) penalizing foreign imports with new tariffs, (3) investing “trillions” on America’s badly degraded infrastructure, and (4) reducing taxes across the board to stimulate job-producing growth,

The first action (1) may protect some jobs, though I believe (along with many economists) that most such jobs are gone forever. Tariffs and protectionist policies (2) risk trade wars wall as international tensions in an era when all economics--markets, corporations, and government policies--have become increasingly international.  For example, the European Union, for all its flaws, made free trade the cornerstone of its vision to bring peace to Europe after generations of war by encouraging nations to become packers rather than rivals.  And for more than 60 years it has worked.  I doubt the U.S. can simply return to a more isolated posture.

Step (3) might happen two ways. We might use tax money to create public jobs as we did during the New Deal, when FDR crated public works projects that put people to work in massive numbers. Or, we might see tax money going to corporations and wait for them to create jobs. Trump proposes the latter, which is the point of step (4)--reducing taxes across the board, for rich and poor, to produce jobs.

This presumes the working of “trickle down economics”: money at the top builds business, so the economy grows, and the wealth produced trickles down to those at the bottom. But Catholic Social Teaching, and Pope Francis in particular, reject outright this theory as a fraud.



The Catholic View

As Francis wrote in his very first major document, the 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Notice the term “sacralized,” which means “treated as something sacred.” Francis is saying we will fail to build economic justice if we turn the “prevailing economic system” (capitalist market economics) into something sacred—that is, into an idol. Francis even cites the classic Biblical image for idolatry:

The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

In a 2015 speech in Bogota, Colombia, Francis returned to the “idol” image:

Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.

Same people might claim that Francis is merely voicing a personal opinion, which Catholics can take or leave--or worse, he is spouting Marxist theories! But in an interview with an Italian newspaper, he rightly insisted that he speaks as the voice of Catholic Social Doctrine:

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

In his 2015 encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si,” Francis returned to the same theme, saying free  markets cannot work magic:

 Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth…Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.

Some have tried to blunt the force of this critique, but even conservative Catholic commentators have conceded that Francis is setting a standard for all Catholics. Patrick Brennan made this clear while reviewing The Joy of the Gospel for National Review, the journal founded by the famous Catholic conservative William F. Buckley:

The pope’s discussion…is about how Catholics should respond to the overwhelming changes that have come to the world “in our time,” which have made many richer and more secure, but left many impoverished and suffering. Those…changes, as free marketeers would surely agree, are not the product of command-and-control economics, but of free markets. The pope is arguing that freer markets haven’t so far brought us a properly just, caring society, and “in our time,” society has in many ways grown coarser, crueler, and more violent — so Catholics cannot advocate free markets per se. Some proponents of free markets may take issue with that sentiment; most would not.

So here is where we stand: Our new president is proposing to “fix” our economy, produce jobs, reduce inequality, and repair our infrastructure--all by reducing taxes across the board, thus freeing the corporate sector to spend more in a way that will benefit all. Unless he proposes something else to accompany this policy, he is clearly counting on the free market to solve all our problems without major government efforts (aside from tax reform and reduction).

There is no escaping the obvious conclusion: Trump believes the very “magical view” of free markets that Pope Francis (and Catholic Social Doctrine with him) rejects. In my view, the outcome is predictable: as long as we continue to idolize free markets and reject public action to redistribute income, the economic division in our culture will continue to fester and grow. A better future requires us to recognize that inequality can only be solved by redistributing wealth, not by adding to wealth at all levels. And only those who idolize free markets believe that they alone can do that.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017

#460: Making Our Future Great Again: Connecting the Climate Dots



Happy Birthday to our Planet's Protector.
The pope’s recent 80th birthday 
has left me thinking 
that our future may depend on his.


Shortly after Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 at the age of 80, I paid my (almost) annual visit to France to visit friends, among them Michel Pansard, who just happens to be the bishop of Chartres.  Over dinner he expressed his conviction that Benedict was setting a precedent: that future popes might no longer serve for life, but would retire--presumably as he did, at 80 (this happens to be the age at which cardinals become ineligible to vote for pope).

It so happens Pope Francis and I share the same December 17 birthday, and this time it made me very aware of two things.  First, at 80 he shows no signs of resigning his post.  Second, he makes me envy his energy and endurance, for, even at 80, he remains one of the world’s most popular and dynamic leaders, and he has made himself the most visible spokesperson for a vision of the future that, in my view, is unrivaled by any political party or organization. 

I can only hope to sustain his sort of enthusiasm when I am his age.  But I confess the last year or so has challenged me to retain the kind of youthful spark I see in him. For the post-election season has left me both despirited and perplexed about our prospects as a people.

As someone prone to filtering current events through the lens of Catholicism’s social vision, I have never been fond of the Republican-Democratic duopoly of “politics as usual.” And since that politics evolved into neo-conservatism in the 1980s and neo-liberalism in the 1990s, I’ve liked it even less. Now our deeply flawed electoral system has awarded the presidency to the less popular of the two least popular candidates in our lifetime.

It is clear that Donald Trump (like Bernie Sanders) offered an alternative to such politics.  But while “alternative” means “different,” it does not always mean “better.” And I admit that, as I survey the priorities of the Catholic vision in light of recent developments, I find myself not so much hoping for the best as fearing for our future.

I temper my judgments with the proviso that it is seldom clear if president-elect Trump means what he says.  Those who took him literally but not seriously during the campaign were badly wrong; yet those who took him seriously but not literally are hard pressed to do more than guess what he will do.  Since he has contradicted himself on nearly every public issue, he can only mean about half of what he says--but I seldom know which half.  Keeping in mind that predictions about Trump are therefore often unreliable, let me briefly survey some main priorities of Catholic Social Teaching which, I remain convinced, offers the wisest contemporary vision for a better future.  I’ll include climate change, economic justice, human rights, globalization, respect for life, and peace.

Climate Change

I was sadly disappointed that climate change received such scant attention in the electoral campaign.  Trump called it a hoax, while Clinton called it real and requiring action--but neither one gave it much detail or attention.  The topic never came up in the debates, and neither campaign sought to motivate voters over the issue.

Yet for me, this was the overriding issue--not just of the campaign, but of our time.

I say this not only because climate change can disastrously alter the future of our planet, but also because, as Pope Francis has brilliantly shown, climate change is the master key to unlocking most of our biggest social problems.  Once we see how Francis connects the dots, it becomes hard to imagine resolving any of our major problems unless we address the environment.  Let me number those dots:

Francis presents climate change as just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.  He roots the problem in (1) runaway emissions (especially carbon and methane), which are generated by (2) our unsustainable reliance on fuels needed to power (3) a runaway capitalist system that (4) treats self-interest and greed as our most important social virtues.  This system (5) despoils the global environment while generating not only (6) intolerable levels of pollution but also (7) intolerable levels of inequality.  The result, he says will be a (8) progressive degrading of earth’s ecological systems which, while caused by the world’s wealthy, will (9) disproportionately affect the world’s poor.  The effects include (10) mass migrations away from destitute and dangerous regions, especially those ravaged by violence, rising seas, or lack of fresh water.  Such migrations are already being triggered by (11) the persistent terrorism in a world where resentful millions feel victimized by the power dynamics of post-colonial market systems--what Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.”

Connecting the dots allows the “big picture” to emerge: our status quo is already generating deep conflicts the will only get worse as the planet becomes less and less habitable. In this big picture, most of our biggest problems--inequality, the environment, refugees, terror, war--threaten to become intractable unless we act to change the very things that threaten the planet as well.

The solution to this massively dysfunctional global system, says Francis, is nothing less than a planetary ethical revolution that dethrones runaway capitalism as we know it and replaces it with a system that reflects more authentically humane values. He calls for an “integral ecology” that enables global development to be both humane and sustainable.

Thus at 80 Francis has positioned himself (and with him, the papacy) as the world’s most visible protector of the planet.  This also makes the papacy the world’s strongest voice challenging us to face the future of humanity--and especially the future of humanity beyond the prevailing capitalist model.

The United States is the world’s #2 carbon emitting nation, and short of aggressive action our commitment to last year’s landmark Paris accord will falter, and our nation will remain a prime contributor to the degradation of what Francis calls “Our Common Home.”

In this light, dear reader, forgive me if I lament the early signs that the Trump administration may be unwilling to face this challenge.  Its failure on this issue will condemn us to the ripple effects that Francis has already noted. Because of him, we’ve been forewarned, and we ignore him at our own peril—as well as the planet’s.

Next: Economic justice
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

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