We hear the litany of woe from our politicians almost every day. The crumbling middle class, deteriorating inner cities, dying small towns, budget deficits and national debt, crumbling infrastructure and the threat posed by climate change. Our health care system’s a disaster, and we have an entire generation that is now dying sooner from drug addiction and depression. President Trump, in his dark inauguration speech, said he looked across the land and saw “American carnage.”
And he blamed the Mexicans and the Chinese.
But sometimes the real story leaks out. During his presentation in Tower last month, longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Hanson, talked about the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which he attended, as usual. Like most years, it didn’t take long before the U.S. representatives renewed their complaints about trade imbalances and lost American jobs— but this time it fell mostly on deaf and defiant ears. If there’s one silver lining to a President Trump, who is even more unpopular overseas than he is here at home, it’s that the rest of world is no longer willing to show the kind of deference to the U.S. that it once did.
And that means that some of the world’s business leaders, like Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese online retailing giant Alibaba, are now willing to speak some hard truths about the real reason that America is crumbling. During an interview at Davos, Ma countered the America-centric view so often heard in Washington, and parroted by the mainstream media and politicians. “It’s not that other countries steal jobs from you guys,” he said. “It’s your strategy. Distribute the money and things in a proper way.”
What Ma was driving at is a legitimate critique that, for years, was consigned to the radical fringe of American politics— particularly since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the neoliberals, which today includes the establishments of both major parties.
Ma didn’t mince words in his somewhat broken English. “In the past 30 years, America has had thirty wars, spending a total of $14.2 trillion. What if they spent part of that money building up the infrastructure and helping the white collars and the blue collars?”
What he meant, of course, was the working people of America, who have watched in many cases as their communities have been hollowed out from top to bottom. “Make America Great Again,” was a simplistic slogan, but it resonated with the millions of Americans who remember a time when the country had the finest roads, the most modern airports and hospitals, and schools that were second to none— and who rightfully wonder what went wrong.
While globalization is a favorite target of some here in the U.S, Ma noted that globalization wasn’t really the problem for America. As he said, American companies have made billions in profits from globalization— far more, in fact, than Chinese companies have made. “But where did the money go?” he asked. “You’re supposed to spend your money on your own people.”
That’s part of the social contract in many countries today, and it used to be the same here in the U.S. As the late Sen. Paul Wellstone liked to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” It spoke to the notion that a shared prosperity could lift everyone higher.
But the neoliberal establishment that arose under Reagan, prospered under Clinton, and reached full and rancid bloom under George W. Bush, had no interest in either a shared prosperity or in allegiance to America or its people. As the jaw-dropping profits from globalization filled the pockets of the One Percent to overflowing, they translated their windfall not into jobs or higher wages for average Americans, but into growing political power to further tilt the playing field in their favor.
“Tax cuts for the job creators” became the new political mantra, even as we all knew the money was headed mostly to the Wall Street casino or offshore banks. Meanwhile, the lost tax revenue meant that the potholes in our streets never got filled, new teachers never got hired, and millions of Americans would have to get by without access to health care, save for an emergency room.
Our political class and business elite have been all too happy to find scapegoats to keep the rabble confused and divided. Blame the Mexicans, the Chinese, or immigrants for taking away the jobs of hard-working Americans. Keep them afraid and isolated, with warnings of terrorists, drug addicts, and crime.
But as Jack Ma reminded America’s economic masters at Davos, we have met the enemy and he is us— or at least those we elect to represent us.
Americans, for the most part, recognize the betrayal, which is why the best way to win election these days is on the promise of fundamental change. Americans are ready for it, even as our political class continues to resist.
It’s time we start imagining a different America. Not one that lies in the past, but the truly great and inclusive one that lies in the future, down the road we’ve not taken in far too long. An America where the benefits of global trade don’t all rise to the top. An America where we don’t spend trillions fighting foreign wars, but rather help workers take control of their own futures here at home. Rather than handing out tax breaks to companies, like Carrier, to keep them from shipping jobs to Mexico, how about investing in worker cooperatives to let them keep their jobs, compete with companies that outsource employment, and reinvest the profits in their communities. There are successful models, like the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, where people have done exactly this for decades.
What if we had the money to send young people to public universities or trade schools for free, and we all reaped the rewards from investing in the next generation? What if getting sick didn’t mean the threat of bankruptcy for individuals or their families because we all had affordable access to the health care system? What if we had the money to invest in the transition to clean and renewable sources of energy? We’d create millions of jobs, clear our skies, and fight climate change all at the same time.
Our political class tells us these are pipe dreams. They say we can’t afford such “luxuries,” even though they are standard issue for residents of many other western nations with far less wealth than the U.S.
In the end, it just comes down to priorities. For the past half century, America has spent its money on empire. And as every empire throughout history eventually learned, it’s the road to ruin. It’s time we begin the journey down a different road.