Putting “United” Back in the United States of America

No matter what “side” any of us take in the Washington D.C. soap opera, the fact is we will someday have to figure out how to get back to trusting each other as citizens, if for no other reason than the will to survive as a country.

Acknowledge the challenges we face

The reality that there are other countries with nuclear weapons – some who are not our allies – should be reason enough to have a united country. Furthermore, the world occasionally experiences pandemics that do not respect borders or political decrees; such diseases will require biomedical research to develop vaccines or cures. And whether or not we agree on why we are experiencing more dramatic storms, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and so on, our survival almost assuredly involves making changes in how we live and developing new technologies that help us thrive in an environment we helped pollute.

In particular, we will need to resume growing crops where the land and climate has become hostile, treat water that has become contaminated, and mitigate the rise of bugs and pests that destroy crops or spread diseases, among other actions. The solutions will be determined through the data scientists are able to collect and analyze.

Understand how we became so divided

I remember the 1950s and ‘60s when we had hard working blue collar families who rarely took vacations, preferring to put all their hard-earned money toward their kids’ education. Whether it was paying tuition for Catholic schools, music lessons, or all manner of study aids (flash cards, encyclopedias, educational toys, etc.), these expenditures were seen as an investment in their kids’ futures. This was also the age of elderly relatives gifting the ever-popular $25 U.S. Savings Bonds in place of Christmas and birthday toys. Those bonds were intended to help when it was time to go to college or trade school.

When it was time to go to college in the ‘70s and ‘80s, one could actually cobble together a fairly good source of funds from part-time summer jobs and scholarships. Even the small awards from local organizations or a parent’s employer could add up to real money. The only thing that mattered to parents and extended family was that the youngsters got the absolute best education possible, preferably in a profession so that “you could write your own ticket,” as my Dad used to say.

To a truck mechanic, knowing that your kids would not have to take guff, could work where they wanted with a good salary, and not have to bust their “britches” was a big deal. Even if it meant his kids might wish – or need – to move away from their childhood home in the Midwest to fulfill their dreams, it was still considered worth it to pursue the most rewarding careers.

That was the American Dream as I grew up. Our parents and grandparents didn’t call us “coastal elites” for moving to grab those hard-won job opportunities either.

One thing that was not a part of the dream was working for a business person who would treat their kids like dirt. Whether that would be making unreasonable demands on their time, which would keep them away from family, or for daughters, suffering the advances of a lecherous boss, or being told that they “don’t promote women.” Perhaps it was a bit naive on the part of blue-collar Americans that their kids would get a fair shake in the business world, but their hopes were high.

In my young adulthood and the first part of my middle-aged years, my parent’s dream for their kids was achievable. And while I’m opining on the topic of division among Americans, I have to admit that in my younger days, I didn’t appreciate the growing divide between rural and urban/suburban folks. Neither did I understand why anyone would live in a place where jobs with a long time horizon and good pay wouldn’t come. I am not much on sentimentality, so I suppose I can chalk up my lack of understanding to that. However, whether a tech worker or farmer, a blue collar or white collar worker, a lack of empathy can no longer be tolerated if we are to come together as a country.

What nation doesn’t need food to feed its people, an abundance of clean water, or natural resources that can sustain future generations? We need more workers educated in the sciences, math, and engineering to fuel technologies that are the bedrock of our modern economy, not the economy of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Many of these same technologies are the foundation of our weapons systems that keep us safe and prevent major wars. We cannot make it as a country if city dwellers and rural residents are warring among themselves about who’s the “real American” while the major challenges of our time are not addressed.

The three major issues that need practical solutions are the growing gap in wage equity, the imperfect and often unaffordable access to healthcare, and the astronomical costs of a college education in a well-paid profession or solid training in a trade.

The ability to address the above three challenges is inextricably related to our divisions. These divisions, I believe, are related to a kind of distrust among us that is not new. I remember hearing elderly relatives who had been through the Great Depression talking about seeing grown men who had been good providers becoming disoriented with the new reality that somehow, they were now in bed with those they used to think were lazy or unproductive. And who among us has not heard the recurring lament about “moral hazard” anytime a policy that might give a break to the poor or middle class is brought forth for consideration. Meanwhile, little concern is shown for moral hazard when applied to the captains of industry and finance who appear to seek a never-ending array of tax breaks, deductions, and other “deals” that expand their wealth and influence at the expense of the rest of us.

The moral hazard trope arises because there is a secret distrust harbored by many against those who haven’t “made it” or are unwilling to pull their own weight. The nature of well-paid work, however, has been changing for decades. So much of the scientific knowledge that was developed since the ‘50s, especially semiconductor technology, is now enriching a relative handful of people at the very top echelons of society. These folks own and run the crowd- and cloud-based businesses (social media companies, big data, artificial intelligence (AI) corporations, etc.), yet they were not responsible for the underlying advanced semiconductor technology that made their companies possible and successful.

However, when a scientist or engineer “ages out” of the latest/greatest technical knowledge, they are given the unceremonious “heave-ho,” as though it is not worthwhile to allow them time to retrain and regroup. And woe to those who are not a part of the tech economy — they probably feel as though they are fighting over table scraps, with no realistic pathway to get the education they need to join the “party.”

The unfairness doesn’t stop there. Increasingly, the ability of modern bioscience to develop new drugs and treatments depends on utilizing powerful computers to accelerate new drug discovery. Such analyses shave time and cost from the time-consuming process. So we live in a country that is able to develop modern, life-saving medicines along with new technologies to further explore solutions, yet it is unable to ensure that the benefits are available to all its citizens.

Channel the anger about politics into solutions

It is clear to me that much of the anger being expressed by our divisive politics is because of the conditions discussed above. Anger is not going to provide solutions. Whether someone is young or old, rich or poor, a city dweller or living the rustic life, there have to be ways for each of us to contribute to society and provide for our good health and the well-being of our families while receiving just compensation.

To address the changing nature of what is considered gainful employment, we will have to redefine what it means to have a capitalist form of economy.

And no, that does not mean socialism!

In fairness, the solutions will require citizens and political leaders alike to finally face the fact that we are entering a very different time in human history – a time in which human endeavor is rapidly being commoditized. And we haven’t even gotten to the AI revolution that will only accelerate this commoditization. For the sake of our country, all of us must come together to take on the rapidly changing nature of what it means to be a contributing member of society who is compensated accordingly.

The policies enacted must put the “united” back into the United States. And moral hazard be damned!