Everyone’s focused on taking back America — but what about taking us ahead?


Last week the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder brought Hedrick Smith to campus as part of University of Colorado’s Athaneum lecture series. Wearing a tailored grey tweed jacket, Smith cut a suave and dapper figure despite his 80 years. He has enjoyed a frequently honored journalistic career — a pair of Pulitzers during his quarter century with the New York Times (1962-88) and several Emmys for his 50 documentaries produced at PBS. In his spare time he also penned a handful of books, including his bestseller, “The Russians”, based on his years as a correspondent in Moscow as the Soviet Union began to unravel.

Demand for tickets to his appearance outstripped the capacity of the University chapel and prompted a move to the dreary confines of the Chemistry building’s largest lecture hall. Smith was invited to discuss the themes in his recent book, “Who Stole the American Dream?” (Hint: it wasn’t liberals.) Hunter S. Thompson posited we stole it from ourselves by witnessing the theft and failing to report it. Smith commenced the evening with the cheery observation that Americans are a “…battered people despairing of the health of (their) democracy.”

Recent bi-partisan polling by CNN found 63 percent of voters expressing the belief that our nation is in decline. Only 18 percent view the country as on the right track. Most Americans reportedly see both their government and their economy as a rigged system. This perception is only reinforced by data showing that corporate profits have grown at a compounded 21 percent annual rate since the economic collapse of 2008 while wages have only increased by a paltry 1.4 percent since the turn of the century. 95 percent of earnings have been funneled to the top 1 percent. These are all trends with which we are familiar, although the actual dimensions of the current imbalance are always a tad jarring.

Smith pointed out that while Washington (dysfunction junction) doesn’t appear to be working “…out here in Colorado” — it is actually working just fine for most of the politicians and lobbyists in D.C. Special interest legislation, chock-a-block with tax breaks and regulatory favors, still finds its way through an otherwise gridlocked Congress; and campaign contributions from the appreciative find their way back to the campaign coffers of incumbents. It’s a tidy little back scratching system that looks OK there, if not here. He finds plenty of blame to go around — starting with the Democratic Congress of 1979-80, which began rolling over for corporate lobbyists in order to defuse the conservative tidal wave it could sense was coming.

Before long Washington stripped most American workers of their defined benefit pensions in favor of 401Ks and the excessive management fees they spin off to Wall Street. In what Smith terms “the revolt of the bosses” executive salaries skyrocketed while worker pay stagnated with the silent assent of our elected representatives. He believes passionately that we have to restore the middle — both in our politics and in our economy. We need to restore the virtuous cycle of growth that widely rewarded Americans during the decades after WWII. By abandoning the stakeholder capitalism, which delivered 95 percent of the 97 percent improvement in worker productivity between 1945 and 1970 in wage increases, we altered the unwritten social compact between capital and labor.

A disconnect has developed between American companies and the American economy. Manufacturing jobs have shrunk from 21 percent of the workforce as recently as 1999 to 9 percent while manufacturers have closed 69,000 plants and moved their production overseas since 2000. We are told this is the way of the world — the inevitable consequence of globalization and the competition for low-wage labor. Of course other economies have made other choices with substantial success. German wages have grown five times faster than American pay since 1990. Our trade deficit is six trillion dollars annually, while the German surplus is two trillion in a country a fraction of our size. How is this possible?

For one thing they don’t have 13,000 corporate lobbyists in Berlin. They also didn’t spend $4 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan that they borrowed from the Chinese. Nor are they supporting an imperial network of more than a thousand overseas military bases. In fact, they have been so successful with their high-wage, high-quality manufacturing economy that they have almost single-handedly propped up the Euro for an entire continent of far less prudent neighbors. Our economic barkers claim this should be impossible. Smith points out that the people we have in D.C. won’t make the changes that are needed to restore the middle class.

He argues that a sense of powerlessness has proven just as corrupting as power itself — that it is long past time for a grassroots rebellion to take back America. It isn’t clear who would lead such a restoration. Activism requires practice. And the revanchist right is determined to take back America as well. Only they are looking at a far different destination — a bucolic 19th century America with vaccines, I would guess. The only generation with protest experience is the Boomers, and they are rapidly reaching retirement. Since they dropped the ball, it would be appropriate if they took this challenge up as their last great crusade, but that seems unlikely. The future is likely to lie with those who love America the way it is, and not the way it was — Americans who think our greatness lies in moving forward. That will require a genuinely radical middle. Are you ready?

Columnist Miller Hudson can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.

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