America the Possible: A Manifesto, Part I

LIKE YOU AND OTHER AMERICANS, I love my country, its wonderful people, its boundless energy, its creativity in so many fields, its natural beauty, its many gifts to the world, and the freedom it has given us to express ourselves. So we should all be angry, profoundly angry, when we consider what has happened to our country and what that neglect could mean for our children and grandchildren.
How can we gauge what has happened to America in the past few decades and where we stand today? One way is to look at how America now compares with other countries in key areas. The group of twenty advanced democracies—the major countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, Canada, and others—can be thought of as our peer nations. Here’s what we see when we look at these countries. To our great shame, America now has
  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
  • the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
  • the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet all this money accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
  • the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • the largest prison population in absolute terms and per capita;
  • the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
  • the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
  • the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
  • the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
  • the largest international arms sales.
Our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism. True, the data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom.
These deplorable consequences are not just the result of economic and technological forces over which we have no control. They are the results of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society and our environment. Many countries, obviously, took a different path—one that was open to us as well.
I wish that were all the bad news. Unfortunately, international comparisons only give us a glimpse of what we now face. They miss many of the most important challenges, including in the critical areas of social conditions, national security, and politics. I will spare you the litany of environmental bad news; most of you have already heard it.
When it comes to social conditions, it’s important to recognize that nearly 50 million Americans now live in poverty—one in six. If you’re in poverty in America, you’re living on less than $400 per week for a family of four. Poverty is the bleeding edge of a more pervasive American shortcoming—massive economic insecurity. About half of American families now live paycheck to paycheck, are financially fragile, and earn less than needed to cover basic living expenses, let alone save for the future.
Back in 1928, right before the Great Depression, the richest 1 percent of Americans received 24 percent of the country’s total income. Starting with the New Deal, public policy favored greater equality and a strong middle class, so that by 1976, the share of the richest 1 percent of households had dropped to 9 percent. But then the great re-redistribution began in the 1980s, so that by 2007, right before the Great Recession, the richest 1 percent had regained its 1928 position—with 24 percent of income.
As for national security, the U.S. now spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. If one totals military and other U.S. security spending, the total easily climbs to over $1 trillion annually, about two-thirds of all discretionary federal spending. In what has been called a key feature of the American Empire, America now garrisons the world. Although the Pentagon officially reports that we maintain a mere 660 military bases in 38 countries, if one adds the unreported bases in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, there are likely as many as 1,000 U.S. military sites around the world. By 2010, we had covert operations deployed in an estimated 40 percent of the world’s 192 nations. On the home front, in 2010, the Washington Post reported that the top-secret world the government created in response to 9/11 now contains some 1,300 government entities and 1,900 private companies all working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in some 10,000 locations across the United States.
When you’ve got an armful of hammers, every problem looks like a nail, and the U.S. has tended to seek military solutions to problems that might be addressed otherwise. The costs have been phenomenally high. When all told, our wars since 9/11 will cost us over $4 trillion and more than 8,000 American lives, with another 99,000 U.S. troops already wounded in action or evacuated for serious illness.
Another sorrow is the huge, draining psychological burden that U.S. actions have on its citizens. We see our own military, the CIA, and U.S. contractors engaged in torture and prisoner abuse, large killings of innocent civilians, murders and the taking of body parts as souvenirs, renditions, drone assassinations, military detention without trial, collaboration with unsavory regimes, and more.
Meanwhile, outside our borders, a world of wounds has festered without much help, and often with harm, from the United States. We are neglecting so many problems—from world poverty, underdevelopment, and climate change to emerging shortages of food and water and energy, biological impoverishment, and transnational organized crime.
The following are among the many treaties ratified by all nations, except for a few rogue states—and the United States: the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Land Mine Convention, the International Criminal Court convention, the Biodiversity Convention, the Law of the Sea, the Kyoto Protocol of the Climate Convention, and the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The U.S. is the main reason we do not now have a World Environment Organization.
In these respects and in many others, the U.S. posture in the world reflects a radical imbalance: a hugely disproportionate focus on the military and on economic issues and a tragic neglect of some of the most serious challenges we and the world now confront.
These many challenges require farsighted, strong, and effective government leadership and action. Inevitably, then, the path to responding to these challenges leads to the political arena, where a vital, muscular democracy steered by an informed and engaged citizenry is needed. That’s the democracy we need, but, unfortunately, it is not the democracy we have. Right now, Washington isn’t even trying to seriously address most of these challenges. Neglect, stalemate, and denial rule the day. It is estimated that American politics is more polarized today than at any time since Reconstruction. Polarization, of course, is father to gridlock. Gridlock and stalemate are the last thing our country needs now.