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America’s fall? It’s all a matter of priorities

REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
As Jack Ma reminded America’s economic masters at Davos, we have met the enemy and he is us — or at least those we elect to represent us.

We hear the litany of woe from our politicians almost every day. The crumbling middle class, deteriorating inner cities, dying small towns, budget deficits and national debt, crumbling infrastructure and the threat posed by climate change. Our health care system’s a disaster, and we have an entire generation that is now dying sooner from drug addiction and depression. President Trump, in his dark inauguration speech, said he looked across the land and saw “American carnage.”

Marshall Helmberger

And he blamed the Mexicans and the Chinese.

But sometimes the real story leaks out. During his presentation in Tower last month, longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Hanson talked about the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which he attended, as usual. Like most years, it didn’t take long before the U.S. representatives renewed their complaints about trade imbalances and lost American jobs — but this time it fell mostly on deaf and defiant ears. If there’s one silver lining to a President Trump, who is even more unpopular overseas than he is here at home, it’s that the rest of world is no longer willing to show the kind of deference to the U.S. that it once did.

And that means that some of the world’s business leaders, like Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese online retailing giant Alibaba, are now willing to speak some hard truths about the real reason that America is crumbling. During an interview at Davos, Ma countered the America-centric view so often heard in Washington, and parroted by the mainstream media and politicians. “It’s not that other countries steal jobs from you guys,” he said. “It’s your strategy. Distribute the money and things in a proper way.”

What Ma was driving at is a legitimate critique that, for years, was consigned to the radical fringe of American politics — particularly since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the neoliberals, which today includes the establishments of both major parties.

Ma didn’t mince words in his somewhat broken English. “In the past 30 years, America has had thirty wars, spending a total of $14.2 trillion. What if they spent part of that money building up the infrastructure and helping the white collars and the blue collars?”

What he meant, of course, was the working people of America, who have watched in many cases as their communities have been hollowed out from top to bottom. “Make America Great Again,” was a simplistic slogan, but it resonated with the millions of Americans who remember a time when the country had the finest roads, the most modern airports and hospitals, and schools that were second to none — and who rightfully wonder what went wrong.

While globalization is a favorite target of some here in the U.S, Ma noted that globalization wasn’t really the problem for America. As he said, American companies have made billions in profits from globalization — far more, in fact, than Chinese companies have made. “But where did the money go?” he asked. “You’re supposed to spend your money on your own people.”

That’s part of the social contract in many countries today, and it used to be the same here in the U.S. As the late Sen. Paul Wellstone liked to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” It spoke to the notion that a shared prosperity could lift everyone higher.

But the neoliberal establishment that arose under Reagan, prospered under Clinton, and reached full and rancid bloom under George W. Bush, had no interest in either a shared prosperity or in allegiance to America or its people. As the jaw-dropping profits from globalization filled the pockets of the One Percent to overflowing, they translated their windfall not into jobs or higher wages for average Americans, but into growing political power to further tilt the playing field in their favor.

“Tax cuts for the job creators” became the new political mantra, even as we all knew the money was headed mostly to the Wall Street casino or offshore banks. Meanwhile, the lost tax revenue meant that the potholes in our streets never got filled, new teachers never got hired, and millions of Americans would have to get by without access to health care, save for an emergency room.

Our political class and business elite have been all too happy to find scapegoats to keep the rabble confused and divided. Blame the Mexicans, the Chinese, or immigrants for taking away the jobs of hard-working Americans. Keep them afraid and isolated, with warnings of terrorists, drug addicts, and crime.

But as Jack Ma reminded America’s economic masters at Davos, we have met the enemy and he is us — or at least those we elect to represent us.

Americans, for the most part, recognize the betrayal, which is why the best way to win election these days is on the promise of fundamental change. Americans are ready for it, even as our political class continues to resist.

It’s time we start imagining a different America. Not one that lies in the past, but the truly great and inclusive one that lies in the future, down the road we’ve not taken in far too long. An America where the benefits of global trade don’t all rise to the top. An America where we don’t spend trillions fighting foreign wars, but rather help workers take control of their own futures here at home. Rather than handing out tax breaks to companies, like Carrier, to keep them from shipping jobs to Mexico, how about investing in worker cooperatives to let them keep their jobs, compete with companies that outsource employment, and reinvest the profits in their communities. There are successful models, like the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, where people have done exactly this for decades.

What if we had the money to send young people to public universities or trade schools for free, and we all reaped the rewards from investing in the next generation? What if getting sick didn’t mean the threat of bankruptcy for individuals or their families because we all had affordable access to the health care system? What if we had the money to invest in the transition to clean and renewable sources of energy? We’d create millions of jobs, clear our skies, and fight climate change all at the same time.

Our political class tells us these are pipe dreams. They say we can’t afford such “luxuries,” even though they are standard issue for residents of many other western nations with far less wealth than the U.S.

In the end, it just comes down to priorities. For the past half century, America has spent its money on empire. And as every empire throughout history eventually learned, it’s the road to ruin. It’s time we begin the journey down a different road.

Marshall Helmberger is the publisher of The Timberjay newspapers (including the Ely Timberjay, Tower-Soudan Timberjay and Cook-Orr Timberjay), where this commentary originally appeared. It is republished with permission.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Nick Foreman on 08/16/2017 - 09:06 am.

    The real truth

    About this country, finally.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/16/2017 - 11:05 am.

    I’ve been saying this for years.

    Our priorities are all wrong.

    Our federal elected officials devote a great deal of energy to getting us worked up about the “need” to intervene in international situations that are none of our business and can be handled, if they need to be handled at all, by countries in that region.

    We have no moral standing to tell anyone else what to do, given our own severe internal problems.

    While the U.S. has spent literal trillions on meddling in other countries, while trying to silence critics of foreign intervention with snide references to Neville Chamberlain, Western Europe, with the exception of Britain, and East Asia in particular have spent their national budgets on improving their own countries.

    Both Britain and Norway have access to North Sea oil. Norway has been using the proceeds to upgrade its infrastructure. Despite its harsh climate, its roads are as smooth as if they had just been squeezed out of a tube and gently patted down with a spatula. The whole country looks clean and shiny and prosperous.

    Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all have high-speed rail and superb urban transport systems. To fly from Narita or Incheon to Los Angeles feels like going from state-of-the-art to shabby. One might argue that the East Asian countries can do this because the U.S. is defending them from China, but why would China endanger the companies that are providing it with so many jobs? Besides, China is also working hard to modernize its infrastructure. (The one mysterious gap is drinking water. I could safely drink tap water all over Japan in the 1970s, but there is still no safe tap water in either Taiwan or South Korea, and especially not in China)

    In contrast, Britain is the other country that has a military establishment out of proportion to its share of the world population. It acts as if it is still head of an empire, and instead of spending its oil money on internal improvements, it is trying to privatize everything that isn’t nailed down and starve everything that is still government-owned. Outside of a few pockets of prosperity, the cities in general look rundown and worn out, and its educational class system, which makes part of the population wonderfully erudite and leaves the rest semi-literate, is a further handicap.

    The U.S. also has some cultural problems, among them, widespread anti-intellectualism, probably a holdover from pioneer times, when it was more important to know how to build a log cabin and field-dress a deer than how to read, but such an attitude is dysfunctional in the 21st century. The modern version of anti-intellectualism is the idea that any coursework that doesn’t prepare you to be a worker bee is “wasted” and “useless.”

    I have also wondered if the media-promoted obsession with sports is part of the problem. We idolize the athlete and disparage the “bookworm,” to the extent that it is not wise for a candidate for political office to appear to be too smart.

    But the obsession with team sports has had two other little-noted side effects.

    One is the way in which sports metaphors permeate business jargon, specifically the notion that anyone who questions the decisions of higher-ups is “not a team player.” An athlete is not supposed to question the coach, just as a member of a choir or orchestra is not supposed to question the director, but a business environment in which subordinates cannot safely question a stupid or immoral decision of a higher-up is toxic.

    The other is the essentially adversarial nature of team sports. One side’s win is inevitably the other side’s loss. Perhaps that is why white supremacists cannot see legal and economic equality for dark-skinned people as anything but a loss for themselves. Perhaps that is why social conservatives see same-sex marriage as a tragic loss for themselves, even though they cannot give a logical reason how it “harms traditional marriage.” Perhaps that is why Republicans and Democrats toss inaccurate labels such as “Marxist” and “Nazi” back and forth. Perhaps that is why it is not enough for rural Minnesotans to say, “Hey, we need some attention here” without trying to stick it to the cities.

    It would be a mistake to disregard sound advice simply because it comes from a foreign source.

  3. Submitted by Chris Friedlieb on 08/16/2017 - 11:11 am.

    Thanks for writing this, Marshall. I hope it goes viral.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/16/2017 - 11:30 am.

    Well said

    …by both Mr. Helmberger and Ms. Sandness. The economy—any economy—need not automatically be a zero-sum enterprise in which my gain is your loss, and vice-versa. It can also be—if political leaders and their supporters want it to be—something much closer to a cooperative exercise, much as Senator Wellstone suggested: We all do better when we all do better.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/16/2017 - 01:44 pm.

    Here are a couple more insightful gems from Jack Ma

    Charlie Rose interviewed Jack Ma a few years ago, and I’ll have to work from memory, but the following do represent accurately the questions and the gist of his answers:

    1. Charlie asked Mr. Ma who he regarded as his most important clientele in business – his shareholders, his customers, his suppliers and business partners ?

    Mr. Ma answered ” Our employees.”

    2. Charlie expressed his praise and admiration for Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who had promised to give 50% of their wealth to charitable causes. What did Jack Ma think of that, Charlie asked, seeming sure Mr. Ma would be greatly impressed with such magnanimity.

    Mr. Ma answered: “50% ? Why not 90% ? I can only sleep in one bed. I can only drive one car.”

  6. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 08/16/2017 - 06:34 pm.

    And add to the US off kilter priorities

    The obsession with social issues such as who can marry, who can vote, and what bathroom to use.

  7. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 08/16/2017 - 08:53 pm.

    Better quality needed

    I think that, increasingly, the problem with our elected leaders is not merely their unwillingness to change direction, but their inability to effectively address the problems they face. For the president and many members of Congress, public policy is too complicated (“Who knew health care was so complicated?” as someone said) to figure out, so posturing, making neutral statements about the problem, and following party leaders has become the norm for most of them. I wonder if many of them are even smart enough to understand the problems they face, much less address them in any useful way. Our President certainly isn’t. Even more disturbing, he doesn’t seem to care.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/18/2017 - 06:16 pm.

      Part of the problem is an electorate that has lost the ability to perceive substance over style.

      I was not a huge fan of Al Gore (he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, mostly Southern Democrats who supported most of Reagan’s agenda, especially his military buildup) but it was disturbing to hear people criticize him for being “too smart.”

      He was running for one of the most complex jobs in the world, and his being “too smart” was considered a liability.

      One acquaintance commented at the time, “Gore is so smart that he won’t listen to anyone else. Bush knows that he’s not very bright, so he’ll pick good advisors.”

      I think many of us saw the post-debate focus group in which a man said, “I’d hire Gore to run my business, but I prefer Bush, because I’d rather sit down and have a beer with him.”

      It may be too late for the current generation of voters, but perhaps our high schools need to make debate a required activity in civics classes. Now an important part of debate is that all teams have to research two sides of an issue and be prepared to argue either one. There can be no accusations of “liberal indoctrination” if students are required to research and argue for either of two sides.

      If that is too much to expect, perhaps students could be required to summarize the positions of all candidates in a national, state, or local election, make a choice, and defend that choice logically.It wouldn’t be up to the teacher to grade their choice, just how they arrived at it.

      Answers such as “Because my parents prefer Candidate X” or “Because Candidate Y is ugly” would be graded “F.” An example of a statement that would earn an “A” might be, “I like Candidate X because of his/her position on Issues A, B, C, and D. Candidate X is not so good on Issues E and F, but they are not important to me. I actually like Candidate Y’s position on Issue G, but that does not outweigh his/her positions on these other issues. Candidate Z has some really good and original ideas, namely H, I, and J, but being from a minor party has no chance to win. Therefore, if I were 18, I would vote for Candidate A.”

      I also wish that more people understood the importance of state and local elections. They aren’t as glamorous or well publicized as presidential elections, but state and local officials have a more direct influence on one’s quality of life than any president.

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 08/22/2017 - 04:38 pm.

    I Agree

    I do agree that “we have met the enemy and he is us”.

    The folks who choose to buy the best value product / service for themselves, no matter who’s job it eliminates.

    The folks who have more children than they can responsibly raise, thus squandering our country’s huge investment in free public education and dooming their children to continued poverty / low academic capabilities / low skills.

    Those folks having more children than they can afford to raise and care for, thus being dependent on others and drawing down the disposable incomes from their friends and neighbors.

    Those who choose to not pursue a life of continuous learning and self improvement, thus remaining trapped in poverty and limiting the benefits they could have provided to our country’s success.

    Now I do agree that some improvements can be made on the other end of the wealth spectrum, however to deny the challenges I have noted above is irresponsible. The reality is that Defense spending is pretty low as a percent of GDP. It is the Entitlement spending that has massively increased with questionable consequences.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/23/2017 - 04:19 pm.

    This is the conversation and these are the priorities

    This is the conversation and the priorities that the Democratic Party needs to be organizing around. At some point they need to stop dismissing Bernie Sanders as crank of some kind and look at his message and agenda because THIS was his message and agenda. They want to connect voters? THIS is how you connect with voters.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/23/2017 - 05:57 pm.

      Go Bernie

      I keep wondering exactly how many Americans are truly willing to vote for Democratic Socialists?

      I mean we Americans are incredibly individualistic and capitalistic. Besides the fact that most of us seem to distrust our government in one way or another. Either we think it is controlled by the powerful citizens or we think it is generally incompetent and wasteful.

      Personally I think the Democratic Party will suffer if they follow Paul’s advice. Thoughts?

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