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A future for We the People?

Will changing views allow America to start investing in the future again?


America has something to prove.
Nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, our founding fathers bet on the ability of “We the People” to best chart our own future. And while the results have at times been mixed, the United States has, throughout most of that period, demonstrated a remarkable optimism about the future. It is that optimism that allowed this country to continually invest for tomorrow. We invested in education, in public health, in rural electrification, in airports and an interstate highway system. We invested in our people, providing a safety net that ensured that people and families didn’t fall off a financial cliff when life threw them a curveball.
These were investments that we made, as a nation, which continued through most of the 20th Century, and they helped to position the U.S. as the most advanced country on the planet. This was the America that proved to the world that our founders, warts and all, had created a form of government that could long endure, while serving the people.
Yet as President Biden stated in his April 28 joint address to Congress, the world isn’t so sure about America anymore. They’ve watched since the 1980s as an increasingly divided and partisan Congress has been unable to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. They’ve scratched their heads as so many Americans turned on their own government, having failed to recognize the degree to which the government was instrumental in so much of the country’s development over two centuries.
At a time when American government seems almost paralyzed, the rest of the world isn’t standing by. “We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” said Biden during his recent joint address. He added that Chinese President Xi Jinping was “deadly earnest” about making China the most consequential nation on Earth. And China, and other nations, have been leaving America in the dust.
In fact, America isn’t going to win the future, or even have much of a future as a self-governing nation, unless we can begin to think like a nation again. “There is nothing we can’t do when we do it together,” is one of President Biden’s favorite lines. And it’s more than a rhetorical flourish. Throughout America’s history, we proved that when we think and act as a nation, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Throughout human history, it is only through collective action that we have been able to make real progress.
America has always had its issues and disagreements, but we still managed to recognize that we had the ability to shape the future for the better. That began to change during the 1980s, which proved to be a pivotal decade in American history. As time has gone by, the harmful effects of the so-called Reagan Revolution have become clearer. While Reagan was an optimist, who believed America’s best days were still to come, by casting government and public investment as the enemy of the people, Reagan, perhaps unwittingly, undermined the country’s ability to address major issues. Reagan, like many Americans, bought into the now largely discredited theories of Milton Friedman, who believed that free markets were the solution to all of humanity’s problems. In Milton Friedman’s world, there was little need or room for government involvement or public investment, since the market would provide.
While markets are great at motivating self-interested action, they’ve proven unable to address the public good. Markets can’t build a highway, create a national park, fight climate change, or establish an equitable distribution of vaccines in the midst of a pandemic.
For more than 40 years, America suffered from the delusion that some “invisible hand” could run the country. It, of course, was ridiculous. And America has been falling behind the rest of the world ever since.
If there’s one worthwhile fatality of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is, perhaps, the death of the Reagan Revolution and the idea that there’s no role for government to play in improving the lives of average Americans. When the chips were down, the vast majority of Americans turned to government for solutions. The “invisible hand” was nowhere to be seen.
Now, America is being asked to start planning for our own future again. While President Biden’s infrastructure plan comes with a hefty price tag, it’s a drop in the bucket when viewed against the past four decades of underinvestment in the country. Other countries are transforming themselves in extraordinary ways, while America has fallen into disrepair and disinterest.
There are those in this world who say America’s promise can never be delivered. That a government of “We the People,” cannot meet the demands of the 21st Century. Perhaps it’s time for America to prove those critics wrong.


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