Not If We Rest On Our Laurels

May 10, 2020

Americans like to say we’re no. 1, we’re the greatest, the world’s only superpower. So this is for the America greatsters. Not if we rest on our laurels, we’re not. Our genes came from all over the world. The science that’s been our glory, had many stages of development off our shores. The world doesn’t sit still waiting for the U.S. to create the next big thing. Several Asian countries have nuclear weapons. Several are challenging our digital developments, invading our privacy and platforms in ways that threaten the utility of what gets designed here.

Americans like to say we’re the richest country in the world but seldom want to do more than say it. If one examines the data, some Americans are extremely wealthy, but most of us aren’t and don’t live as well as average people in many industrialized countries. That’s in the data.

We like to say we have the world’s best health care system but it didn’t outperform everyone else in the Covid-19 crisis, and our life expectancy is not so high among westernized countries.

We developed the best education the world had known but we have largely abandoned it, abandoned the grade schools and abandoned the state colleges and universities.

We’re not the greatest if we rest on our laurels. We’re not the greatest if we treat scientific prowess as established, abandon science education from kindergarten through graduate schools and stop investing in scientific research. We’re not the greatest if we ideologically assume that government has been hamstringing our scientific prowess when in fact much American technological prowess was the result of government investment – in nuclear physics, in getting to the moon, in the initial development of the internet – programs which spawned modern broadcast and digital technology and virtually everything we use in modern life. American technological progress didn’t end with Thomas Edison; modern progress developed in tandem with government investment. Most of the important drugs we rely on depended on government investment and it’s crucial for vaccines.

We’re not the best if we assume everyone will still come to American universities while great universities develop abroad. We’re not the best if we insult everyone with our boasting and then expect them to continue coming here to study, live and work. We’re not the greatest if we continue to disparage people from eastern countries while failing to notice that they are closing the gap and even outstripping us in technological development.

We’re not the best if the method people adopt so that we are great again, let alone the best, is by dividing us against each other, blocking half the country from contributing to the extent of their abilities. Our sports teams were not at their best when we had a color line. And no field of activity will continue to rank at the top by excluding people with obvious talent. That’s just deadweight loss, using our energies to fight one another instead of building up our abilities.

No, America cannot be the best, or number 1, or great again if we rest on our laurels.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on May 12, 2020.

 


Worth Fussing About in this Pandemic

March 24, 2020

I don’t want to talk about topic no. 1. I thought talking about politics might provide comic relief. But what’s funny about that? Politics is deadly serious, precisely because people’s lives depend on how elected officials take care of the rest of us, or whether they’re focused only on optics.

Doctors and nurses are being forced to make tragic choices about priorities for medical equipment and facilities in short supply. In this kind of situation there’s always a risk of decisions being corrupted by unexamined prejudices, and that needs to be avoided. But I know that if I get the coronavirus, my treatment will depend on how overwhelmed the facilities are. The usual question is how many lives can be saved. Wherever that would put me on line is reasonable.

But this country, which constantly boasts about being the best, deserves criticism for losing a full two months by comparison to many other countries dealing with the virus. That delay meant we’ll face many more cases and lose many more people than we should have. We refused the World Health Organization’s offer of a test used across much of the globe, while the White House boaster-in-chief treated the pandemic as a hoax. That, and the fact that our health care system still doesn’t take care of everyone, even when everyone’s health depends on everyone else’s, justifies deep disappointment.

Trump repeatedly minimized and mocked the pandemic, describing it as a Democratic “hoax.” It took Fox News host Tucker Carlson to go to a party at Mar-O-Lago and tell Trump this was a serious pandemic before Trump paid attention. It took Sen. Schumer to tell Trump to activate the Defense Production Act when the man in the White House hadn’t bothered.

Now of course he’s playing catch-up, bragging constantly while the governors, mayors, and the professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control are doing the real work, as he well knows.

But let me pull back from the current details. For years we eliminated “surplus” hospital beds, everything not in regular use. This president continued, cutting “extras,” like those at the CDC whose jobs were to plan ahead to prevent epidemics, or the office at the Security Council meant to coordinate responses to global pandemics. With such efficiencies, nothing’s left when we need it now.

This country has long been so focused on efficiency and not crossing so-called bridges before we get there, that we refuse to plan ahead, and wait for problems to become crises. We’ve turned the notion of freedom into a justification for selfishness instead of an opportunity to push politicians to behave like statesmen pursuing the public interest. We’ve reached a point where civil servants, people who have spent their lives and careers on our behalf, can be maligned as the “deep state,” instead of thanking them for their service. We’ve lost a notion of the public interest and a notion that teamwork has been a great virtue of American economic and political culture. We need a balance of teamwork and independence. The combination defines the moral fiber that we have been losing and paying dearly for.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on March 24, 2020.


A House Divided Cannot Stand

March 3, 2020

Trump’s base thinks they can make America great by kicking out people they don’t like, people with different heritage, faith or color. Yet the evidence is that there are more and better jobs available in communities with more recent immigrants. A larger economy creates jobs and opportunities. It needs more goods and services. By contrast the effort to get rid of people is what economists call a deadweight loss. Deadweight because it is costly but produces nothing. We accomplish more working together than working against each other.

America’s great accomplishments have all come from making it easier to work together. Even before the Constitution, the states gave each other’s citizens all the “privileges and immunities” they gave their own. Sadly, they left most African-Americans in slavery, but they created a common economy to take advantage of America’s size and scale. The Constitution tightened and enlarged those promises. A single economy gave us the resources to do what a great nation must do and do well.

Before we could adopt what were called internal improvements like roads and canals, we had to learn that jealousy beggars us all. Projects wouldn’t pass without spreading the benefits to the vast majority of us. The Washington Administration designed the first American financial system. The Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and built what they called “the national road,” connecting the seaboard with the Ohio River valley. Steps like that laid the foundation for America to connect the oceans and stave off the European powers that still kept land and garrisons to our north, west and south.

The Civil War threatened everything but for the fact that Lincoln kept the British from intervening on behalf of Confederate cotton, and he kept the Union together.

American power solidified after the Civil War made ours one country, ended slavery, and Lincoln signed, in 1862 alone, the transcontinental Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the act that built the great land grant universities, which together laid the agricultural, commercial, industrial and intellectual basis for America as the dominant twentieth century power.

We can’t have a great nation by fighting among ourselves. We can’t maintain national infrastructure by jealously keeping others from the benefits. We can’t maintain a great educational system by fighting over whom to keep out. We can’t continue to grow and prosper by jealously excluding each other from important national institutions. As Lincoln told us, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Armed ethnic, religious and racial animosities threaten American power and success. We’re all threatened by domestic terrorists who target people because of the color of their skin, the words and language they use to pray, or where they came from.

America’s strength has always been Americans’ ability to work together. Our major institutions understood the importance of cross-cultural cooperation. The U.S. Army worked to unify soldiers with different heritage, faith or color and who spoke different languages so that all could work as a team. Corporations unified their workforces, capped with ceremonies in which new Americans stepped out of what were labeled melting pots. Major sports leagues learned to take advantage of talent regardless of where it came from. Schools taught each new wave of Americans about democracy and gave them the skills to participate in our government and our economy.

It’s time that all Americans get with the program for the greater good of all of us – including any orange-Americans.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2020.

 

 


The “Nanny” State

February 23, 2020

Republicans complain endlessly about “The ‘Nanny’ State”. Do anything good for the people – that’s “The ‘Nanny’ State.” Can’t we do anything for ourselves? What happened to self-reliance?

Actually self-reliance doesn’t work by itself. We call it self-reliance when young people put themselves through college, but jobs have to be available and pay enough for young people to put themselves through. The college has to be there, affordable, with the support needed to to provide great educations. I remember hearing Marty Silverman, one of Albany Law’s major benefactors, describe putting himself through law school on the profits of a small gas station. That says a great deal about the relative cost of a law school education. I started law school in 1962 with a full $1600 scholarship. In today’s dollars it would have been about $14,000. Try that now. My father, by the way, was a high school teacher; mother had just died.

Based on his appreciation of knowledge workers, Peter Drucker, a leading business mind of the twentieth century, saw that our leading industries are where our best and brightest graduates had gone twenty-year earlier. Those graduates created the strength of the industries they entered.

The US built the world’s envy of an education system – everyone wants to study here – though, ironically, we are now letting that educational system atrophy. Power and economic success followed the creation of our educational system. When Kermit Hall was President of the University at Albany he addressed a breakfast crowd downtown at Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna. There were two messages he wanted to get across. One was that he had been to China and studied their university system. He wanted us to know that they were building great new universities with prodigious speed and scale. The other was that corporations that are based on technology, intellectual-property or other special skills locate where they can get the best and brightest to work for them.

That has nothing to do with a nanny state. It is about making excellent investments in workforce development. The same is true of the success of the rest of the so-called Brick countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China; and the Asian Tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. The newer so-called Mint countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey – are trying the same strategy, though international politics and civil wars hold some of them back.

By contrast, Republicans continue to feed us outmoded thinking, outmoded economics, outmoded ideas about how to strengthen our communities, our industries, our education and our people. They deserve an F.

Deriding the nanny state for investing in its people isn’t even efficient in the short run, forcing business to compete for staff on the world market and outsource their work to places where it can be done by the world’s best and brightest. That, by the way, used to be us. And it could be again. But it’s not magic. It’s based on investments in people, not handouts to corporations. Give people what they need to succeed and the values we inculcate into them will have a chance to shine. Deny them the basics and whistle our future into the wind.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 25, 2020.


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