Send in the Clowns
The U.S. is going through a transitional period at least as important as the early post-World War II years. New worlds in energy, technology, the economy and global interdependence are either upon us or coming fast.
Yet much of the nation’s top leadership is either wasting its time on complete nonsense or trying with great determination to push us back to the era of top hat and tails.
Among other things, Republicans are trying to figure out what to do about Larry Craig, the loony senator from Idaho who got caught in a public toilet behaving as if he thought the promised land was just one stall away.
Democrats, unable to do anything about George W. Bush’s policy of eternal war in Iraq, found themselves reduced to fulminating in official Congressional proceedings about the latest wackiness from Rush Limbaugh.
Meanwhile, the president and his priceless band of can’t-get-it-right-wingers, are busy vetoing health insurance for children, dreaming up secret torture protocols, funneling lucrative federal contracts to friends and cronies and fulfilling their paramount mission — making the very rich richer.
So much for leadership.
The nation’s failure to deal constructively with the new realities of employment, education, health care, retirement and so on has taken a toll.
The Times’s David Leonhardt, in a column that ran in September, noted that when Americans think about their lives in relation to the past, they are very upbeat. Life for most Americans is better than it was for their parents and grandparents.
“But,” wrote Mr. Leonhardt, “when the discussion is about the future, the national mood darkens. In one typical poll from last year, only 34 percent of people said they expected today’s children to be better off than people are now, down from 55 percent when a similar question was asked in 1999.”
Americans have every reason to be concerned. A study released last spring showed that men who are now in their 30s earn less than their fathers’ generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their 30s in 1974, in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, was $40,210. According to the study, which used Census figures compiled for 2004, those annual earnings had dropped to $35,010.
President Bush’s unconscionable veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program comes at a time when the number of uninsured children is rising and employer-based health insurance is going the way of rotary phones and carbon paper. That’s not neglect. That’s willfully doing harm to children.
In the first two or three decades after World War II, there was a broad sense of optimism, a strongly held belief, despite many crises, that Americans could achieve great things. Men and women of talent and vision gave us the Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, the interstate highway program, the Peace Corps, the space program, the civil rights movement and much more.
Where is the comparable vision for the early-21st century? Who is rallying America with the clarion call that we can do great things?
From the Republicans, we get the message that the most important thing to hold on to is fear itself. The terrorists are out to get us. From the Democrats, heavily armed with thermometers, barometers and windmills, comes the usual timidity. They behave as if their hearts would stop if they actually took a tough stand.
Meanwhile, there are many millions of Americans who are not doing well, and the nation is not addressing their plight. Thirty-seven million Americans, many of them children, are officially classified as poor. What is not widely known is that another 57 million are struggling just one notch above the poverty line. This is spelled out in a new book, “The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America,” by Katherine Newman and Victor Tan Chen.
Near-poor Americans live in households with annual incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 for a family of four. They work at jobs that are highly unstable and offer few if any benefits. Many of their children would qualify for insurance coverage under the S-chip program that the president so coldly vetoed on Wednesday.
No wonder so many Americans are turned off to politics.
One of the paramount challenges of the new era is the task of getting a legitimate four-year college degree into the hands of as many American young people as possible. A four-year degree has become a virtual prerequisite for a middle-class quality of life. The overall benefits to the country of such an explosive improvement in educational achievement are incalculable.
But at the moment, the geniuses running the country can’t even figure out how to cover the cost of keeping American children healthy. So we’ve got a way to go.