What Basis for a Better Future?
AFTER two hundred years of history, is the present state of development of the United States a good foundation for a better future? Certainly there is great economic strength in the nation, along with many other potential factors for good.
Many authorities who study trends in economics, education, social problems and politics, however, come to a sober conclusion. They feel that, while the country has much power and good, unless the negative trends are reversed, there could be deep trouble ahead soon.
They note that one casualty among many families is the “American Dream.” This was the belief that improvement would continue indefinitely, with better jobs, more money, a higher standard of living, security, peace of mind, and a good future for the young.
But that has not proved to be the case for many. The New York Times reports: “A fear appears to be growing among many Americans that the party may be over. The Great American Dream . . . seems somehow less attainable to many people.”
A Growing Problem
One major problem has to do with the way Americans have financed much of their prosperity in the past few decades. It has been done with borrowed money—debt, excessive debt. They have mortgaged the future to live well today. But too much debt leads to bankruptcy.
Because of enormous and mounting debt, the ability of a large number of people, many businesses, some city and state governments, and even the federal government, to pay their expenses is in serious danger. U.S. News and World Report says: “Debt is growing faster than the U.S. economy that must support it. The total of public and private liabilities now amounts to somewhat more than double the nation’s annual output of goods and services.” That total debt is now over three trillion (three million million) dollars!
The magazine observes that “corporate debt today is about 17 times the companies’ combined profits after taxes,” and climbing. The federal government’s debt is well over 600 billion dollars, and is also climbing. In the past seventeen years, only once has the government had a small surplus in its yearly budget. The deficit for fiscal 1975 was over 43 billion dollars. The expected deficit for fiscal 1976 is an estimated 75 billion dollars, an all-time record.
In 1939 the interest on the public debt was one billion dollars a year. But in fiscal 1977 it is expected to be about 45 billion dollars! That interest alone, for the one year, is greater than the total public debt accumulated in the entire history of the country up to World War II.
Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., says: “If this kind of deficit spending continues, I believe it is inevitable that the country is headed for disaster.”
But have not business prospects brightened in recent months? Yes, most economists feel that the bad recession of the recent past is over. Yet, much of the improvement is being financed by borrowed money. Pumping seventy-five billion borrowed dollars into an economy does improve conditions, temporarily. But the debt load becomes heavier and heavier. Some have expressed concern that it may be like the heroin addict who must have more and more of the drug until his system can no longer take it and then collapses.
Lower Living Standards
New York city already has found out what it means to keep spending more money than it makes. The city’s debt load has become so burdensome that it has great difficulty borrowing more money to pay current expenses, much less to pay back the loan.
So the city has cut back services, which means laying off workers too. But even with such drastic measures, the deficits persist. And it is getting more and more difficult for the city to keep raising the already heavy taxes.
Just as a city’s living standard can decline when too much money is spent and not enough made, so, too, many experts feel that this is what can happen to the country. Some feel that it has already begun. Professor George Sternlieb of Rutgers University stated: “What we are presiding over is none other than a decline in the American standard of living.”
Also hurting the people’s standard of living are taxes. They are the fastest rising major item in inflation. Already more than a third of a worker’s pay is taken by various taxes. With good reason did Treasury Secretary William E. Simon say: “The system of federal taxation which has evolved since the early days of the republic is in trouble today.” There is fear of a ‘tax revolt.’ Indeed, one of the reasons for the Revolutionary War was what the colonists considered unjust taxation.
Poverty amid Wealth
In spite of the prosperity that many enjoy, poverty persists. The New York Post stated: “Estimates of the number of Americans living below the poverty line range from 10 to 30 millions.” Many others live at or just above the poverty line.
Columnist Jack Anderson tells of a fellow reporter who disguised himself as a field hand and worked as a migratory farm worker. The living quarters provided him were “hardly fit for human habitation.” The overall conditions were, he said, “more reminiscent of the 19th-century slave quarters than any 20th-century habitation.”
Anderson concluded: “There is grim irony in the fact that those who work in the world’s most bounteous fields often live in stark poverty, earning barely enough to subsist. Some live in virtual bondage to the field boss, who collects more out of their wages than he pays them. For most, there seems to be no escape from the perpetual poverty of the fields.”
The number of elderly who live in poverty is an admitted national disgrace. And living conditions in many major cities are deteriorating. Renewal projects are not keeping up with decaying and abandoned buildings.
So after two hundred years, living conditions for many are very good, but for millions of others they are poor. All the years of prosperity, all the well-meaning efforts, have not changed that. It is not, the solid foundation that a better future requires.
Also, after two hundred years of one of the more advanced educational systems, millions are ‘functionally illiterate.’ The U.S. Office of Education calls “shocking” the inability of about one fifth of the adult population (23 million Americans) to cope with reading skills necessary for everyday chores like shopping, getting a driver’s license or reading an insurance policy. It reported that an additional 39 million Americans are “just getting by” with their educational skills.
The condition of many American schools does not give much confidence for any great improvement in overall educational levels. The nation’s press reports that violence is rampant in the nation’s schools, with assault, mugging, vandalism and gang warfare on the increase. One publication described it as “a virtual reign of schoolhouse terror.” In one large city, there were 474 assaults on teachers and staff members in five months.
That trend corresponds with the crime increase. There are now more than eleven million major crimes committed each year. And millions more go unreported.
Family life is deteriorating. Boston sociologists have found that ‘violence appears to be at least as common as love in the typical American family.’ Half the married couples interviewed admitted that there was physical violence in the family in the past year. And at least an estimated one million cases of child abuse are believed to occur each year.
The New York Times said: “Within the past few years, we as a people seem to have lost our way, to be floundering in uncertainty, to be unsure of ourselves in our relations to each other and to the world at large. The optimism and moral drive characteristic of America throughout the decades has been largely replaced by a deep-seated cynicism and disillusionment.”
Senator Frank Church also found that “a lack of faith, widespread cynicism, and profound pessimism are the most central and fundamental problems facing America today.” Church, who headed an investigation of abuses in federal agencies, said that “there has been a growing lawlessness at all levels of American society up to and including the federal government.” He noted that “the existence of a free government is imperiled if it fails to follow the law.”
Will the United States in its present form survive to celebrate its third hundred years, its “Tricentennial”?
Many feel that democracy is not the ‘wave of the future.’ They point out that there are fewer and fewer democratic governments in the world. Instead, totalitarian rule is increasing.
West Germany’s largest illustrated magazine, Stern, concluded that ‘the present American era of dominance has passed,’ but hoped that another kind of American era would take its place. The pro-American Economist of London speaks of a “recessional” for the American “empire.” It concluded that ‘world leadership is liable to pass into new hands quite early in the century 1976-2076.’
However, there is a more fundamental reason why we can expect to see a very major change take place long before the arrival of a “Tricentennial.” And it is not because the United States will be conquered by some other world power.