Tuesday, July 5, 2011

If American Exceptionalism Were a Reality, Here's What Life in America Would Be Like


by Michael Payne

I occasionally hear someone in the news speak of "American Exceptionalism", the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations; that we are unique among nations and generally superior to them in almost any measureable category. That's a nice thought but it's just not reality. That's not to say that it cannot be attained at some future time. So, let's discuss what America would be like if this nation could truly be called exceptional.

That America would resemble the one that existed after the Second World War when people felt really good about themselves. Tom Brokaw even wrote a book about Americans of that time and coined the term, the "Greatest Generation." During those times, the future was bright, and the sky was the limit; everything was looking up as the nation entered an era of what was anticipated to be an indefinite period of peace and prosperity.

That generation had the opportunity, and the potential, to lead the nation in exactly that direction and it did, for a time, but then a succession of wars and military actions interrupted those hopes and dreams. But what if America had not taken that turn in the wrong direction? Let's attempt to describe a future America as it might have been initially envisioned by those in the 1950's as they contemplated how America could evolve into an exceptional nation and society.

The America that they envisioned would be a prosperous country with a robust economy. The American dream would be in effect with lots of upward mobility for all citizens. There would be plenty of wealthy people, a vibrant, hard-working middle class and, yes, we'd have a lower income class -- but it would not be nearly as large and disadvantaged as that of today.

The distribution of wealth between the classes would be balanced, it wouldn't be a situation such as we find today in which most analyses show that the top 1% own about 35% of total wealth, the next 19% own 50% and the bottom 80% own only 15%. No, it would be much more fair and balanced than that because of a system of taxation that our government had created to make certain that every person in America, regardless of their income, paid their fair share; tax breaks, unnecessary incentives and loopholes, together with offshore tax evasion accounts, by corporations and the wealthy would have been eliminated.

There would be a thriving manufacturing sector because the Congress would have set up a system of tax incentives and penalties, plus appropriate tariffs that created millions of new jobs in America, and minimized overseas outsourcing. Corporations and workers would have reasonably good relationships, not perfect, but civil. Workers would earn good wages and CEO's would be very well paid but nothing like their salaries today which often are 700 times greater those of their workers.

Our government and the business community would have recognized that petroleum would certainly become much more scarce and expensive in the future and they would have worked together to create and develop new sources of alternate energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels. The new industries and their energy saving products would fuel the consumer-driven economy, increase the nation's exports dramatically and, once again, make American manufacturing a force in the world.

In that America we would have a superior, well funded education system as we did in the past. Our students would be proficient in math and science, and would place very high in world academic rankings, far better than that of today where we rank 21st in math, 25th in mathematics and 15% in reading literacy among the industrialized nations. Teachers would no longer be prime targets for layoffs by Republican governors and they would restore our educational foundations.

The nation would have a universal health care system that covered every citizen from birth to death. It would be a single payer system as effective as those of all of the other industrialized nations of the world. The massive health care industry, with its monumental profits derived from constant increases in premiums, would be phased out. Americans would no longer be going bankrupt as a result of astronomical health care bills. The Congress and the president would have initiated this great change as they fully realized that health care for all Americans were a basic right.

The nation's infrastructure would rank with the best in the world, not 23rd as it does today. Our interstates, roads, highways, bridges and waterways would be well maintained. There would be far fewer over-the-road trucks on our highways and fewer automobiles. There would be efficient, affordable public transportation, greatly increased railroad traffic, high speed trains between cities and even bullet trains, say from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. We would see a significant movement to electric and hybrid cars; huge SUV's and V-8's would become totally obsolete.

Wall Street and our financial systems would be stable and growing, based upon reasonable and appropriate rules and regulations instituted by Congress to prevent abusive and manipulative practices. Many of the financial crooks and manipulators would be in prison after our Justice Department, at the president's urging, would have been investigated and prosecuted them. As a result home foreclosures and related personal bankruptcies due to illegal and manipulative mortgage practices would no longer be a problem.

Congress would be a place where the interests of the people were paramount, where Corporate America had no more influence, where one party could not block legislation or presidential appointments; there would be no such thing as a filibuster as the Congress would have overhauled the legislative rules. Presidential and congressional election campaigns would be six months long, they would be financed by public funds; corporate contributions would be illegal and all voting would be done by paper ballots with audit trails to prevent abuse.

There would still be a threat of terror in the world but America would address it by a combination of intelligence agencies, Special Forces and highly sophisticated electronic surveillance systems. Gone would be the vast military empire and its hundreds of bases. The annual defense budget would be about one third of what it had been at its peak of $1.3 trillion. America would have a real Defense Department not one that specialized in offensive military actions around the world.

There would be three political parties in America and a new breed of politicians that would have no need for monetary ties to corporations because of newly instituted campaign finance reforms; our elected representatives in Washington would be free to enact legislation in the best interests of the people. Corporate America would no longer own the Congress and call the shots. Corporations would assume their proper place as a driving force in the new economy.

And last and best of all there would be an American president with courage and strong moral beliefs that could not be cowed by the military or beholden to Corporate America and lobbyist organizations; a new breed of president who understood that war was a last resort, not to be launched by pre-emptive strikes and invasions of sovereign nations. This would be a president who put the interests of the American people above all, listened to their views and responded to their needs and problems.

We need to contrast the America that I'm portraying here with the America of today. Quite a bit different, aren't they? Many might say that the exceptional America I'm describing is a totally unrealistic supposition at best, that it sounds like some kind of Utopian society in which everything would be perfection. No, what I'm describing is not perfection; it is simply how a stable, responsible society would be expected to function if its government had put its priorities in the proper order, with the needs and interests of the American people at the top of the list.

I'm describing the America that might have been.

~Michael Payne

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