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America and its Contradictions

Basil Enwegbara

Two things Americans are good at are self-reflection and self-criticism. The greatness of America therefore rests on its dynamism and its constant search for better and more creative solutions to its contemporary problems. Today, leading newspapers and television stations have risen, debating Senator Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) recent divisive comments on why America would have been better off had it maintained its segregationist policies. This finally awakened Americans to deep-rooted problems, which for decades have been swept under the rug. These problems have been dealt with repeatedly over the last centuries, and here we are today still discussing how to deal with the same old problems.

A recent ride on a Greyhound bus -- from the East to the West Coast -- has finally opened my eyes to the gravity of the problems this country faces. The pain of disenfranchisement and social exclusion is visible in most Americans, be it those recently adjusting to the shock of being laid-off from their jobs, or those who work two to three jobs to make ends meet, or those without health insurance, or those lacking the luxury of a college education, or those without adequate housing and transportation, or those who cannot afford adequate childcare.

How can America lead the world in the twenty-first century when it cannot guarantee its citizens the very education that a sophisticated economy requires? Today, while a college education has gone beyond the reach of the average American -- particularly minorities -- college tuition subsidies have not kept up with these high costs. Can America afford to abandon education, once recognized by Horace Mann as “the equalizer of the conditions of men and the balance wheel of social machinery?” How can America proudly parade itself as the most powerful nation when over 43 million Americans are without health insurance coverage? How can America survive in today’s global economy, given that it is an economy dependent on a large army of healthy workers?

Traffic congestion has risen dramatically in America in recent times. The average commute to work now takes three times as it did in the 1970s. This is the result of decades of under-investment in infrastructure. Without serious upgrades, the nation’s airports will continue to suffer from worsening congestion. How can America see itself as a leading technologically advanced nation when it continues to lag in infrastructure investments? Should it be seen as unpatriotic for citizens to question paying taxes if the money would not be used towards social goods and their required redistribution?

Statistics have shown that a higher proportion of children are poor in America than anywhere else in the industrialized world. This is not because these American parents are poorer than their counterparts elsewhere. It is simply because the government has not done enough to help these parents take adequate care of their children, given the rising costs of childcare in America. As history has proven repeatedly, social programs are always the first casualties in periods of slow growth. Little wonder that Social Security has recently become the scapegoat of America’s economic recession. It has become an unnecessary burden that the nation should eliminate if it can not be privatized. The credit card that once helped the poor fill the gap created by low income and the rising costs of living in the late 1990s is now gone, leaving poor households with a debt of nearly 100 percent of their disposable income.

Today, the conflicts between profit and wages, between capital and the promotion of demand, and between markets and government have become complex. A productive resolution would require a new social contract, one that America seems unprepared to undertake in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, everyone agrees that investing in public goods -- decent education, healthcare, childcare, and infrastructure, for example -- always spreads its benefits well beyond the individual to the entire nation. This unique American power at the turn of twentieth century has been eroded for decades now. This is the tragedy of today’s America.

When a broader cross-section of the public is disenfranchised, they become less optimistic, less motivated, and less confident -- and confidence is necessary for them to contribute the growth of society. It is obvious that a society that continuously undermines the creative forces of a section of its populace is not only doing great damage to these people, but is also depriving itself of key benefits critical to future growth. Nelson Mandela put it best when he said, “In every gnarly, knotted distorted situation where people are kept from becoming the best they can be, there is an apartheid of the heart.”

One day America will wake up to realize the magnitude of this inherent loss it has incurred over all these decades of denying all citizens the power to exercise and benefit from their own personal creativities. It will realize that there should be no strong market without equally strong investment in human capital and broadened competition to include all races and genders in America. As America does nothing to reverse the situation, there is no doubt that the beneficiaries are increasingly becoming countries like China and India. These countries have the market potentials and human and natural capital required to challenge the unique advantage America has enjoyed over a century now. But a vague awareness of this situation is what makes it a truly dangerous threat.