Can we Make America Great - and Was It Great Back Then?
Lars Poulsen - 2020-12-07
Like most men my age, I think back to my adolescent years, and remember
fondly some things about America, that we seem to have lost.
Donald Trump rode that feeling all the way to the White House.
But the more thoughtful ones among us, always knew his promises to
restore the Golden Age were a hollow fraud.
When We Were Booming
World War II (1939 to 1945) was a hard time for most people in the US
(and even harder for people in Europe). Most men were away from home and
sorely missed. But when they came home, there was a widespread sense
that something great had been accomplished even if at a great cost, and
now it was time to rebuild. The brilliantly designed Marshall Plan was
not only aid to Western Europe, it was also indirectly a domestic jobs
program: When Europe got money for their reconstruction, much of it was
spent importing heavy goods from the USA.
When the men returned from the war, they got married and had babies, and
the new families needed homes. Homes were in short supply, because few
had been built while the men were away at war. A massive program was put
in place to accelerate housing construction. I live in a house in a
subdivision built in 1951 for those families of WW-II veterans. It is
1100 square feet (about 110 square meters for my Danish family), and
when it was built, it sold for about USD 18,000, with a mortgage payment
of USD 200 per month. (That works out to $180,250 and $2,003 in 2020's
The new families also needed furniture and appliances for their new
houses, and a car as soon as they could afford it.
Building the houses, furniture and appliances created jobs.
It was a period of prolonged economic growth, set off by an explosion in
birth rates: From 1930-1942, about 2.5 million babies were born per
year. In 1946, it was 3.47 million, peaking at 4.3 million in 1957 and
1961. By 1973, it was back down to 3.14 million.
Prosperity and Progress (The Reader's Digest version)
I was born in 1950, far away in Denmark, so I did not experience the
America of the 1950s and 1960s, but from age 5, I was an avid reader,
and my family's home was a house with books. It has been said that the
greatest predictor of a child's success in life is revealed by a simple
question: Did s/he grow up in a home with at least 25 books?
Among the reading materials in my home was a monthly magazine named "Det
Bedste" ("The Best"). Actually, the full title was "The Best of Reader's
Digest"; it was a locally translated edition of that American monthly
magazine, covering life in America in a mostly optimistic tone, often
describing new ideas in urban planning and healthcare and new
technology making a positive impact on people's lives.
Reader's Digest was instrumental in projecting this image of how the USA
was a successful country worthy of imitation to 70 million people around
the world. But I think it fairly described the life and worldview of
most middle-class Americans.
And while there was a large working class for whom that successful life
was mostly just an aspiration, the general feeling was that it was
President Dwight Eisenhower ("Ike") was leading his country with a steady hand.
He was a WW-II army general with a deep desire to serve his country and
a deep understanding of what exactly made America great. When his term
was up in 1960, I remember my 10-year old self rooting for Richard
Nixon, because he seemed the safe bet. He seemed a safe and known
quality who had learned by Ike's right hand how to steer the ship.
By contrast, we had never heard of John Kennedy.
I think this is the golden age that "conservatives" are trying to get
1964-1968: The Ruptures of the Vietnam War
In retrospect it seems to me, that even though I greatly admire John
Kennedy - who looms even larger by comparison with his successors - it
now seems likely that most of the success he enjoyed in his brief presidency
grew from seeds planted by Eisenhower. And many of the problems that
surfaced in the Johnson years had begun under Kennedy's watch.
And huge problems did surface:
- A stupid war in Vietnam
- France was losing the colonial war in Indo-China trying to hold
on to the last of its empire, and instead of helping the the
Vietnamese to build a democratic nation tied to the West,
as Ho Chi Minh fervently asked us to do, the US somehow decided
that Ho Chi Minh was a communist, who had to be defeated at all
costs. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Ho Chi Minh was
driven into the arms of Mao Tse Tung's China, and what had been
seen as a small put-down of a local insurrection became a proxy
war between the US and China.
The most horrible thing about this was that the war was started
in order to PREVENT a democratic election, which Ho Chi Minh was
fairly certain to win.
The government never could explain to the young men that were sent
to fight the war, why this was a fight worth sacrificing
- Racial Disparities
- The booming economy had not benefited everyone equally.
It became clear that upward social mobility was much less available
to people of color than to whites, and black people as well
as white people of conscience started work aimed at dismantling
the "Jim Crow" racial segregation laws in the South.
The backlash against this turned into street fighting and
assassinations. Martin Luther King was murdered. It seemed
that America was headed towards a revolution, which scared the hitherto
comfortable middle class. Many liberal people felt that Robert
Kennedy had the best potential for leading the country through
what they saw as a necessary restructuring, but just as he was
winning the Presidential primary election, he too was murdered.
In 1968, Nixon won election on a promise of "Law and Order".
The Seeds of Today's Problems
The Vietnam War was very costly; the deficit spending to pay for it led
to inflation. During Gerald Ford's presidency, the average inflation
rate was 8% per year. Under Jimmy Carter, it grew to 13.5% per year.
Carter felt obliged to stop this, and accepted the unanimous advice of
economic scholars, that interest rates must be raised. This did curb the
inflation - by causing a deep recession.
I remember that at one point in
1981, I opened a savings account that paid 18% interest (for a while).
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected on a promise of "Morning in America".
He did end the recession - by resuming the deficit spending.
He also mostly destroyed the labor unions, and gave great tax cuts to
the richest people. This ended the long term rise of the working class
and set the stage for today's large income and wealth inequalities,
which is putting us back on a potential path to revolution.
A Way Forward
Rather than elaborating on the current state of the great rifts, I want
to end with a look at what I think it would take to get our country back
to that glowing feeling of progress that we remember from our childhood.
First, we must redress the exaggerated inequalities in our country.
Fundamentally economical, but also the racial and ethnic grudges that
have a basis in very real mistreatment of minorities - historically, but
continuing to this day.
- A Living Wage Guarantee
- The minimum wage should be a wage you can live on.
Much has been said of $15/hour. We should enact that
immediately, not as a 5-year goal.
- Universal Health Care
- We need to give everyone access to decent healthcare.
I believe that the goal should be "Medicare for All",
but that will take more than 4 years to get to, so as an
immediate step, we should have "Medicare for all who want it",
i.e. creating a "public option" for health insurance by making
Medicare coverage with income-adjusted premiums (which already
exists for wealthier retirees) available as policy option in
every county on
the ACA exchanges, and eligible for the same subsidies as
the commercial options on the exchanges. We could even split
this into smaller steps by first making it available only to
people aged 55 and older, then lowering the threshold age gradually.
- Steeper Progressive Tax Rates
- I believe that personal incomes over $50 million per year are
obscene and should be taxed severely with the goal of reducing
inequalities in the country. The revenue from this will help pay
for needed improvements in healthcare, education and
infrastructure, but I feel that taking the money away from those
who have earned it by taking away opportunity from the less
fortunate is in itself a value to society.
- Racial Equality - Affirmative Action
- We need to acknowledge that our history of slavery, genocide
and white supremacy is casting a long shadow, and to level the
playing field, we are going to have to give a hand up to those
who have inherited disadvantages. Fairness is complex.
I would like a pure meritocracy, but we must
endeavor to make up for past inequity.
- Primary Education
- Half of our children attend schools that do not prepare them
adequately for our modern society. They need to not only learn
to read and write, add and subtract; they also need to learn
critical thinking, reading comprehension and rudimentary
programming skills, so they actually understand in principle how
computers work. And they need to learn how our democratic system
of government works. And before leaving 12th grade, they should
know how to manage money: How to reconcile a bank account and
how simple transactions such as buying a car or hiring a helper
work. And high school graduation should follow comprehensive
standardized tests similar to the "International Baccalaureate"
The uniquely American idea that schools schould be funded by
property taxes ensures that poor people's kids will go to poor
schools. While the USA has some fantastic schools, it also has
many embarrassingly bad ones.
- Vocational Education
- America has failed to produce a skilled working class.
If your business needs someone who can read a drawing to build
something, it often has to choose between hiring an unskilled
laborer or a mechanical engineer. We need to train people
for the jobs that exist today. This might be the new mission for
- Higher Education
- We need to stop pretending that everyone needs a university
degree. The attempt is costing fortunes, and many of the
people coming out struggle to find jobs, which is especially a
problem if they have been put into lifelong debt by student loans.
I suggest that public universities should be free for their
students (including housing and meals), but have
limited enrollment, designed to ensure that those who graduate
can find jobs. Admission should be competitive, based on high
school graduation tests.
- We should strive to guarantee all Americans a basic standard
of living, including basic housing and food. It is unacceptable
to have hundreds of thousands of people living on the streets,
begging for food and sleeping under bushes in parks. Most of
those people have severe long-term mental health problems that
should be treated.
Each of these angles of attack on our problems is complicated by so much
of our history, and most of them will be very complex to make progress
For example, fixing higher education will need to resolve the dilemma of
small Midwestern (and New England) private 4-year colleges, like the one where
my daughter teaches. It has been a great place of learning for
moderate-income kids who are not Ivy-league academically competitive,
and benefit from a smaller school with smaller class sizes, and who
benefit from a school focused on teaching rather than research.
In a world where tuition is free at public colleges, and private schools
are for the kids of rich parents who can afford to pay the costs out of
packet, these schools are out of business.
If we want them to survive, we will have to absorb them into the state
university systems as "special heritage campuses".
Another example: There is a dissonance between wanting affirmative
action to compensate for historical racial and class inequities, and
wanting an objective merit-based competition for a limited number of
college entrance slots. But this is completely dwarfed the problem of
actually measuring the academic performace of high school graduates on
an objective scale that allows comparisons between students
from different high schools in different states. Most European countries
can do this, but in the USA, school districts have pursued lawsuits to
prevent parents to find out how their school-wide average scores on
standardized tests place them compared to other schools,
because they felt sure that if middle class parent know how
poorly their local public schools performed, they would pull their kids
out, causing these school systems to collapse. There are so many
problems right there.
And another: The housing costs today are far above the housing costs in
that "Golden Age". The 1951 house that cost $20,00 in 1951 ($200,000 in
2020 dollars) costs $900,000 today. We could probably build it for
$200,000 if the land was free, but in coastal California, land is scarce
and expensive. We could probably build reasonably similar 2-bedroom
"garden apartments" in 2-story blocks for $250,000 if we were willing to
commit to keep building them until the demand was filled, but at least
here in coastal California, the neighbors will not allow that. They will
talk endlessly about how they want to protect the environment, but the
actual problem is, that once there is a ready supply of affordable
apartments, the market price of "starter homes" will plummet, which
means that the equity they have built in their houses over the last
decade will evaporate.
Every one of the suggestions above will have equally complex problems
that need to be resolved to move forward. But I think the rewards will
be well worth the effort.
It will be a massive effort to do these things, but just getting started
will lift the spirits of most of us. Let's get to work!
US Birthrates by Year (Infoplease.com)
Baby Boomers (Wikipedia)
Inflation Calculator (www.in2013dollars.com)
Baby Boom (ThoughtCo.com)
Reader's Digest (Wikipedia) - also
Reader's Digest Home Page (rd.com)
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