The Reality of America
Land of Dreams
Like many Americans; I have always loved America. My grandfather came here during the Great Immigration through Ellis Island. My uncles fought in World War II. As a child I witnessed Apollo 11 put astronauts on the moon; and as a young man I served in the Navy. I always considered myself a genuine American Citizen. I have a good career, I pay taxes, and work hard to have a comfortable place to live. In my heart, my mind and my spirit, I seemed to hold a crystal clear view of what America was and what it stood for.
Although racism and prejudice against newly arrived immigrants were pretty common where I grew up; the difficulties my Irish and Italian ancestors experienced has made me sympathetic towards those who seem different or have difficulties with our language. America has always been the Great Melting Pot since the time of the first pilgrims. Believing this; I just assumed that new arrivals to America would embrace freedom and democracy and eventually find their places as productive members of society. I also rather naively believed that they; or at least their off-spring; would eventually view America the same way I did.
In 1995 the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial was announced and the reaction to the news was celebrated by most African Americans while leaving white Americans in dismay. This was the first real awakening to me that different Americans experience different realities. Today it is plainly apparent that; although Americans share the same geographical boundaries; our concept of what the "reality" of America is varies widely based on our own personal history, our present situation, and our political and religious views. Our reality of what America is can obviously be additionally shaded if our reality itself is modified by drugs, alcohol, traumatic experiences or mental illness.
So what then is the reality of America, if reality itself is pretty much in the eye of the beholder? To answer this question, we have to start out with all of the things that every clear thinking American would agree on. There is no question that we all live together in the same country, and that we share the same Federal Government. The greater majority of us just want to be happy, and at the very least have food, shelter and freedom to believe what we believe. We also hope to do a little better. From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich; doing a little better today than we were doing yesterday, and the hope that we will be doing better still tomorrow, is the greatest commonality we share. So why then; if we are a nation of people who want our situation to get better; are so many people finding themselves stuck in their present situation, where things are not getting better, but are often actually getting worse? This is because; the real reality of life and of America is that life is hard, and that pain and suffering are part of life. Anyone in the third world would agree that this is true, but American's have somehow come to believe that science, technology and industry might somehow make life reasonably effortless and pain free. Unfortunately, the government wants its voters to be happy and has continued to support this false reality. For over sixty years now, the government and its people have borrowed money to support this illusion.
America was once young, and like a young person it was vibrant and resilient and seemed to possess limitless opportunity. From its discovery by European explorers through the second world war, its history was one of hardship and sacrifice. These were the people who built amazing things like the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Hoover Dam. Life was by no means ideal for early Americans, who often worked at dangerous jobs, and resided in less than ideal living conditions. Many people suffered greatly from medical conditions that are easily treatable today. The life expectancy of Americans was also considerably shorter. Racism and sexism were also prevalent and even when there was opportunity for personal advancement it was not necessarily available to all people. It was far from a perfect world, and there was certainly room for improvement; but it was a reasonably sustainable world. Other than the Great Depression; which was caused by greed in an uncontrolled stock market; the economy was reasonably self sufficient.
People can withstand amazing difficulties, challenges and even have natural coping abilities to deal with some amounts of pain and suffering. At the same time, people have difficulty enjoying a comfortable time while those around them suffer. Prior to the 1940s, most folks had to just except this as a part of life, whether they liked it or not. The most common example of suffering people witnessed came from those closest to them. Older Americans who could no longer work to support themselves, would have to live with their children if they were lucky, or be placed in institutions. Many were also left to wander the streets. By 1940 the Social Security act had been put in place as the first real measure to ease the suffering of people who could no longer fend for themselves.
America reached middle-age during World War II. Like a person in middle-age, the country had developed an identity and sense of purpose. It was finding its way and place in the larger world and it had established means and materials to grow and build security for the future. Although many wonderful advancements have been made since the end of the second world war, the extremely difficult work that laid the foundation for those advances had already been done. From the view of many Americans in the post war era, the road ahead would be much easier.
The abundance Americans experienced during the post war era filled many Americans with a sense of duty to help the less fortunate both at home and abroad and to champion fruition of equality which was woven into the fabric of our Constitution. These visions would be heralded by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the early sixties in conjunction with the furthering of the Women's Rights Movement which began earlier. From these lofty ideals came the birth of many of the policies and programs that would grow far beyond the comprehension of those who originated them.
During the post war baby boom these programs made perfect sense, as there was a reasonably small percentage of the Country's population in need, and an ever growing young work force to foot the bill. Like a well established middle aged couple, the country had plenty of disposable income; compared to its earlier days. Basing the future on the existing trend established between the past and the present, it was logically determined that things would continue to get better. Unfortunately the normal cycle of financial growth for a typical person peaks during middle age and often begins to decrease towards retirement for all but the most savvy investors. As the Country transitioned through middle age it also remained blind to the realities of a probable reduction in future income. Though the impact of this effect would not be of great concern for middle aged people in the sixties; who would look forward to a retirements with pensions and social security benefits; middle age America would have no similar security net.
America began to enter it's Golden Years in the early eighties. Although tech booms and soaring stocks became the norm, the stock market crash of 1987 opened the eyes of many people that not all was well in Camelot. Economists were already reporting that the Social Security system would eventually falter under the weight of the baby boomers reaching retirement age. Companies like Enron and Polaroid were also imploding. Pensions which were always considered to be rock solid suddenly evaporated.
401Ks would now become the new vehicle for retirement, but these too were just another ruse to borrow more money from the future. Billions of dollars would be pushed into the stock market, and propel stock market growth well into the nineties. People would put pre-tax money into 401Ks and their companies would generously supply matching funds, but why did their need to be substantial financial penalties for removing money prior to retirement? Because people might realize it would be safer to invest in property or precious metals than paper, as the former would always have some value, and the latter could become totally worthless. The financial penalties for early withdrawal would guarantee money placed in the stock market, would have to remain there.
Smart investors buy stocks low and sell them high. 401Ks forced average working Americans; many who would normally not trade stocks; to regularly buy stocks regardless of whether they were high or low, with the hope of selling them at a higher price when they retired; but may be forced to sell them at a lower price if the economy is crashing during their retirement.
When the first wave of the 401K generation begins to retire and large amounts of wealth are removed from the stock market, stock values will almost certainly begin to plummet, unless the next generation is putting in more money than the present. Today; if we look where our nation was financially, and compare it to where we are now, and project where it will be in the future, it's a pretty good bet that 401K inflow to the stock market will most likely decline. Additionally, if pension programs and social security falter, and the cost of living and taxes rise, retirees will have to drain their 401K,s at a much faster rate.
Today America is approaching old age. Many Americans don't have pensions or 401K's. Some are just barely getting buy, many are losing ground, and a greater number than ever before have just given up. The world they face presents them with so many problems that they become overwhelmed by stress and can only cope by using drugs; which physicians are all too eager to provide.
Not only are older Americans financially unprepared to enter retirement, and expected to live longer than in the past, but younger Americans are also retiring on permanent disabilities in ever increasing numbers. In the past, permanent disability was more often related to people who were no longer physically able to work, and occasionally to those with significant mental disorders. Today, mental and psychological disabilities are beginning to equal or exceed physical disability claims. Without walking in another's shoes, who can say who is and who is not capable to work. Unfortunately the systems created to help those who are truly unable to work, are equally enjoyed by those who simply chose not to. Simple excuses like "Getting up in the morning makes me depressed" or "Riding on the bus makes me nervous" or "I'm uncomfortable around people" are now valid reasons to receive free housing, food, and medical expenses etc...
It's easy to understand why the poorest of Americans would be drawn to living off public programs rather than working for a living. Many of them are children of second or third (or more) generation welfare recipients. This is the only life they know, and they are surrounded by others who live similar lifestyles. With little opportunity to jump up several financial tiers into a comfortable middle class life. Working for a minimal wage provides no apparent gain, and is more likely to cause them to lose free benefits. I can't say I would act any differently in their position.
Today the need for public assistance is skyrocketing. It would be easy to say this is due to problems in our economy and the high rate of unemployment, but there is much more to this than meets the eye. In many lower middle class neighborhoods, unemployment remains high, yet Help Wanted signs are everywhere in the windows of small businesses.
During the depression, just the rumor that the Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam) might be constructed sent work hungry Americans into the nearby desert to live in wooden crate shacks with their families, just on the slim hope of finding work. Without public assistance, people had a choice; work or starve. Life should certainly not require such drastic measures, but people should also not have their desire to seek work so completely eliminated that walking down the street to take a job washing dishes just isn't worth the effort.
Beside; and hand in hand with America's growing financial woes, we are also experiencing a health care crisis. Strangely, while many Americans can't afford basic health care and shortages of healthcare workers continue to grow; the number of giant gleaming drug manufacturing facilities, new hospitals, and astronomically expensive new medical treatments are on the rise. With all of this growth, an influx of foreign workers arrive daily to fill low level positions, while many unemployed Americans prefer to receive payments to sit on the side lines. Many average working Americans are struggling to pay their health care expenses, even with insurance. So who is expected to pay for the new drugs, the new hospitals and the new miracle cures? The unrealistic expectation is that an already financially out of control overspending government will. Add to this mess the alternating TV commercials trying to hawk this year's latest wonder drugs, and Legal firms promising financial settlements for last year's drugs that didn't turn out as wonderful as expected.
To recap the last paragraph, a large percentage of Americans are taking no responsibility for their own personal health, expect the medical industry to fix them, want to be able to sue them if they can't, and expect the government will foot the bill.
We've just grown to believe the government should take care of everything. When America was attacked on 9/11 we all gave our whole hearted support to the government, believing they could right this terrible wrong. I can't even begin to guess what the right thing to do would have been, but looking at what the government has done, I now suspect a more financially responsible approach might have been considered. The cost of the physical damage and economic damage done to America was roughly 180 billion dollars. The military response and security improvements directed by the government will eventually exceed three trillion dollars; a cost twenty four times greater than the incident itself. You could say we've done more damage to ourselves than Al Qaeda, or that Al Qaeda wounded us on 9/11 and we've been bleeding ever since.
This is a very simplistic comment on a deeply complex issue, which I will leave to other more knowledgeable writers. My point is, that even though the government has spent trillions of dollars, and eliminated Osama Bin Laden and many of his top officers, we are still highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and Al Qaeda; though weakened; still continues to have America in its sights.
America has also been subject to many natural disasters on which the government has had to respond with substantial financial outlays. No one would deny that the Victims of storms like Katrina or Sandy need to be helped, but like everything else, the cost and need for this type of aid continues to grow. Besides the growing cost of construction materials and labor, Keep in mind that the government has no money in the first place. all of the money they spend is borrowed. When our government agreed to spend 142 million dollars for hurricane Katrina, what they were doing in reality was agreeing to borrow 142 million. The real cost of repaying that loan over time with interest might be two or three times that. We are so set on helping the people in need (we can see) at any cost, but what about the Americans who are still children or have yet to be born. Even though we can't presently see them on the nightly news; future generations will have needs too, and their sufferings will be no less real. Sadly, all we are leaving for them is a legacy of debt and financial ruin.
It would be easy for me to expand on the points I am trying to make, and I will in further chapters on specific subjects. My basic point is that the government only has one solution to every problem; spend money. Even when the problem is over spending they still think the solution is to spend more. The past decade is making it fairly evident that isn't going to work. It's plain and simple; you just can't spend more than you make; It doesn't matter if you're a country, a state, a city or an individual; it just doesn't work. Oddly, the current school of thought is that things will be ok if the rich just pay more taxes. The reason they are rich in the first place is that they make more than they spend. Big business and the wealthy are very impersonal and have less attachment to the United States than you think. If we start sinking they will not allow themselves to be dragged down with us. While we try to tax them more and eliminate their tax breaks, other countries will court them with lavish incentives to relocate.
So how did we get here? We were once the undisputed leader of the world. Our industries and workers were second to none. Our natural resources seemed to be unlimited and our technologies superior. How did all that change?
One current consensus points to the greed of Wall Street, but Wall Street like Washington DC is just a geographical location and a bunch of buildings. It's easy to point at the greed of stock market or big business executives, but they are just like the rest of us. They are just people. If you were in their shoes, you might think you would do things differently. If you were an executive for a profitable drug company and you received a hundred thousand dollar bonus, would you say no thank you? Please put my bonus back into the company to help keep down the cost of prescription drugs.
If you were in finance company that received a federal bail-out and that company offered you a bonus, would you pass? Keep in mind you are now extremely wealthy with lifestyle that requires an incredible amount of money to maintain. Before the financial downturn, you felt deserving of the rewards of your achievements. Now in a shaky economy you are nervous about the future. The bonus most people can't even comprehend isn't really that much money to you, and it might be the last big bonus you see. Very few people would pass on such a bonus. Those that would, would probably not have chosen a career in finance to begin with.
Whether you're a person taking government financial aid you could live without if you really tried, or a millionaire accepting bonuses from a government bail-out, either way, you are thinking of yourself first.
If you need to buy something in your hometown, and a similar item is manufactured locally and sold in a locally owned shop, or made overseas and sold at the corporate mega retail outlet; for a considerably cheaper price; where would you shop? Like most people I typically choose what is best for my wallet, not my community. This is why TV stores across America have disappeared along with the American Companies that once made TV's. You name it, cars, steel, appliances, clothing and the jobs that go with them have all gone over seas. You can blame it on corporate greed or unfair government regulations, but no one was ever forced to buy foreign goods; at least not till now.
The monster created by our desire to have the best goods at the cheapest prices has had a strange effect. Giant retailers now need giant suppliers. There's no room for small businesses in this equation.
The giant companies that do business with their contemporaries are not necessarily evil, but rather do their best to give us the goods we want at competitive prices.
I lived in a community with two drug stores; the local store that had always served the community, and there was a newer chain store. Even though drugs at the local store were a bit more expensive, people still shopped there out of loyalty, and the higher level of customer service they got from a pharmacist who knew them all personally. Unfortunately for the small druggist, it was the creation of large HMOs that eventually put him out of business. Again, in their efforts to give their clients the most affordable healthcare, they aligned themselves with chain stores that offered the lowest prices. Now instead of spending a bit more to support the local drugstore, customers had to chose between a minimal co-payment and paying full price for drugs, as there insurance would no longer offset any of the local stores costs.
This like almost every other example I am making shows that most of us make the decision that is best for us in a given moment and spend very little time considering the long term effects of those decisions as they relate to our society. Yet in the long term, all the little decisions we all make have the cumulative effect of creating the society we live in. The society we shape from those decisions is obviously the society we end up living in. We are really no different than a dog who is left with three days worth of food and eats everything on the first day, then doesn't understand why there is no food available on day two and day three. Of course we are considerably smarter than a K-9, and make much more complex decisions, but down the road we still end up oblivious to how the situation we have ended up in came about.
CHAPTER IN PROGRESS MORE TO COME