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.

 


Trump and Jobs

March 14, 2017

Last week I commented that scholars of intolerance tell us that feeling threatened often leads to hate. That’s one reason the economic threat to some American workers matters to all of us.

Trump is clearly working with the free marketeers. The free market is not about your, or workers’ rights; it’s about your boss’s or your company’s right to close your plant, move, lower your wages, reject your union, or just skip protecting your safety.

Trump makes different noises when talking about your jobs and when writing rules and hiring his cabinet. But his Republican Senate will insist on a free market, and Trump is counting on it.

Trump told us he wants to eliminate 75% of regulations. Those regulations protect employees and consumers; in other words, you and me. They protect our wages, require safer working conditions, ban poisons from our food and water and require companies to give us what we paid for. That’s how Trump shows us his true colors.

Obama saved thousands of jobs by saving American auto makers and growing the economy by hundreds of thousands of jobs per month – but gets no credit. Trump may have saved a few hundred but people think he takes action. With victories like that we can all starve.

Trump’s focus on the optics of small victories keeps us looking the wrong way. U.S. factory output is growing. But the jobs have changed. Missing are factory jobs for poorly educated people. I don’t say that out of disrespect. My Uncle Hershel, a truly lovely man, was a factory worker. I remember him sitting by my bed when I was ill. What I’m talking about is how to get good jobs for people like him. If we expect jobs to show up the same way they did a century ago, we’re whistling in the wind. If we think Trump can trump marketplace change by jawboning a few companies, we’re spitting in the wind. He doesn’t have the time or tax cuts to do it that way.

Central New York was once a manufacturing powerhouse. What’s left are mostly small towns far from traditional jobs. Yet one can now work thousands of miles from where things have to be made or done. We could be linked in to the world IF we invested in and rebuilt the economy, instead of jawboning the owners of obsolete factories.

And education must be available and affordable for everyone who wants a good job. Education sounds like elitism to many workers. But what made America an economic powerhouse was our system of mass education. And that’s part of why those who think we can go back to a prior era of American greatness are spitting in the wind – the rest of the world has caught up. To provide jobs, we need to provide retraining for mid-career workers on top of excellent schools, pre-school and after-school programs – all of which provide jobs.

Yes education will have to change. I’m a dinosaur, standing up in front of a class of students, even though the alternatives, so far, are not working very well. But when people figure out better methods, education will take off again – here or elsewhere. That’s where we need evidence-based experimentation – science. We rely on science from morning till night for the things we touch and use. Denying science is the height of idiocy, not a mark of greatness.

Trump yells about foreigners and markets. It’s our job to address reality.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 14, 2017.


American scientific capital

August 19, 2014

A panel at a national meeting of historians I attended was devoted to the relation between the study of history and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One speaker explained that practical skills were widespread early in our history. Those skills, like surveying, sailing, or building canals, required both hands-on skills and the ability to perform calculations and experiment. American surveyors, navigators and builders were doing what we now call science and math, though they rarely got the credit. One surveyor wrote to a Frenchman around 1814 that no one was paying for astronomy, and no one was paying him for his astronomical investigations and calculations. But the speaker then pointed out that this gentleman was in fact being paid by the government for surveying and that his surveys required the astronomical observations he was making. He was doing the work, though not being recognized for it as his French friend would have been. Read the rest of this entry »


WAMC – An Oasis Of Sanity

June 3, 2014

This station is an oasis of sanity in a suicidal world.

So many people refuse to let the reality of climate change seep into their comfortable thoughts. But sealing their minds against reality will not keep it at bay. Changes are coming, and the more we close our minds and eyes the more serious it will be. We and our children and grandchildren are the hostages to the foolishness of our generation. This has got to stop. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Environmental Catastrophe Ringing from the Pulpit?

May 27, 2014

Let me lead with a question – Is the threat of environmental catastrophe ringing from every pulpit and ethical organization in the country? If not, why not? The Bible records many prophets and the price of ignoring them. Surely making clear the moral and religious imperative of preventing catastrophe is a basic function, a duty of the clergy. Read the rest of this entry »


To Fight Brush Fires or the Whole Enchilada

October 22, 2013

Should we fight against the brush fires or tackle the whole enchilada? I’ve often wondered about that. People find it easier to tackle the little pieces. I’ve heard that Napoleon, retreating in Russia, broke the retreat into a series of small objectives to keep up his men’s confidence. But then we know the man in charge had his eyes on the big picture – getting out of Russia before he lost his entire army.

There is no guy in charge of the whole world. Americans like to brag that we’re the greatest. And many of them think we can accomplish anything and, if we don’t, the president’s to blame. I don’t share that misconception. Even in the U.S. no one is really in charge. Politics, democracy, is about conflict and compromise. And no one is in charge.

So how do we deal with environmental problems before it’s too late? Read the rest of this entry »


Medical research

June 25, 2013

The Supreme Court’s decision that no company can patent genes but can patent its tests for genetic information is the tip of a large iceberg. We have gotten used to believing that the patent process is the only way that new drugs and treatments are developed, and that private industry is the only source of that work. Nothing could be further from the truth but the attack on government activity may make it true. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s Wrong with Spying?

May 1, 2012

The AP recently revealed a spying operation by the New York City police on Muslims and Muslim institutions. What should we think about that? Read the rest of this entry »


Public Health

April 23, 2012

As I write this, I just listened to another story about people who want to drink raw milk. When I was 11, recovering from an illness, my doctor, the chairman of pediatrics at a New York City hospital, told my parents to put me on raw milk – but specific milk medically supervised to make sure that it didn’t carry the botulism and other diseases that could have killed me quickly.

Let me make one other disclosure. I never met my sister. She died in 1927 at the age of three. I came along many years later. It was only in my generation that parents no longer expected to lose some of their children. So I have a foot and a heart in and an understanding of both worlds. Read the rest of this entry »


Sources of American Strength

February 21, 2012

Let’s talk about some basics – the sources of American economic power.

  • We were always an immigrant society, peopled with those who had the drive and courage to leave where they were, cross the ocean and begin again with nothing.
  • Initially we were agricultural. One innovation was small, “republican,” landownership by independent farmers. Their efficiency made everything else possible.
  • We were among the leaders in the banking revolution which simplified and facilitated commerce.
  • The transportation revolution began in England but it had an enormous impact on the American economy because of the sheer size of the country.
  • Our system of democratic schooling  – education for all, rich and poor, boys and girls, immigrants and natives – was revolutionary and made us an international leader.
  • England pioneered the scientific revolution. But America took advantage of the land grant colleges, and with the appreciation for learning that came with both the Christian and Jewish communities that relocated here, America became a major source of invention.
  • Americans led the revolution in manufacturing – inventing and perfecting the assembly line.

Now what? Everything we achieved is out there. Read the rest of this entry »


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