Our Size, Timeline in History, and Geography Shaped America -for Good and for Ill
A LONG time ago, I sat in a political history class in college. I was contemplating American history and current events. The professor had pointed out that there were some unique factors in America’s formation. These made the country we know possible, in the way it has developed. Today, I can see some problems resulting from those early factors.
Size: The first of these factors was that we had a continent on which to grow. Much of it was wilderness. The portions occupied by native residents were conquered in comparatively short order. Colonies of other powers were overtaken or bought out. We became a continental presence without all the issues that plagued crowded Europe.
Time: The second was timing. We had the good fortune of being led by founders who were among the very best of their time. We were a remote little group hugging the coast of North America. But we had exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful leaders. The vision was to establish a democracy unlike anything the world had known.
They drew heavily on the lessons of Greece and Rome. They adapted those lessons to the environment in which they were building. We had the right people at the right time. This is not to overlook their shortcomings, which were many. But by any standard we were fortunate that they were here when we needed them.
Place: The third factor was geography. As noted already, we were a very long way from other powerful countries and civilizations. We had. by default, the time to develop as we chose. This was in a way that would have been impossible in Europe or in many other areas of the globe. The means of technology and communication were crude. We were left to incubate.
Fast forward to today. For all my life, I have watched this country struggle with issues that other countries have largely resolved. But not us. What issues are in this category of “Unresolved” only by us? Why is that?
The Three Horsemen of the American Apocalypse
There are at least three national level issues that plague us today as much as ever. Every other advanced nation, and quite a few developing nations, have them well in hand. Our failure with these issues limit and hurt us on a massive scale. They are:
Guns– What more needs to be said? We are awash in them. We are adding more all the time. We kill each other at rates unimaginable anywhere else. Actually, at rates that are unimaginable everywhere else. We find it hard to even have rational discussions about it. No doubt the corrupting influence of the NRA is a big part of the problem, but only a part. When it comes to this one, we are in a world of our own. No rational look at the facts would conclude the solution is more weapons and fewer controls. But many of us so conclude.
Medical Care– This has gotten marginally better because of the Affordable Care Act. But we still pay much more than any other country for much lesser returns. Someone wrote a book a few years ago about health care. He went around the world, studying and sampling health care in many countries. His conclusion? If you combined only the worst of all the other countries’ systems, that would still be better than what we have. People are dying and quality of life is diminished widely. Yet we still argue over “creeping socialism.”
Education– We have managed to get about all the touchstones wrong on this one. The economy is truly global now, and so is the competition. People rarely grow up and stay in one place. We are a hyper-mobile society. And yet, many of us insist on the sanctity of local controls of schools and education. This yields a lack of standards and opens the doors to our worst impulses. Our children grow up noncompetitive on the world stage. School boards decide they don’t like parts of science or history. They mandate lesson plans and books be changed. Facts be damned!
How about higher education? Vocational training is great in some communities, well-coordinated with industry and unions. But that is the exception, not the model. An entire generation has crushing college debt that will shape their lives. And yet this is the country that created an entire middle class with the GI Bill. Most data I have seen says that as a country we got back $7-$8 for every dollar we invested in the GI Bill. What makes a similar idea now so hard to grasp?
Our Chickens Come Home to Roost
It occurs to me that there is a common thread in all three of these areas. That is those unique factors in Americas coming of age. We are so large and, in some ways, so distant. This makes us tend to look only to ourselves for solutions. lt does not occur to many of us to ask, “Who else has dealt with this and how did they do?”
Sometimes this is oversight. Sometimes it is the poisonous side of the belief we are so unique, that only home-grown solutions work. That is, of course, nonsense. Every country is different, sure. But there are commonalities of experience waiting to be tapped. Reinventing the wheel is an expensive, time consuming process.
Not a fellow I quote very often, but I remember when Ross Perot was running for President. He said something profound. He noted that we spent obscene amounts keeping people in prison. Our reward is a high recidivism rate and still more costs ahead. We do so even more today. Economically and socially, this clearly does not work. (This was the impetus behind recently passed legislation to do better; we will see how that goes)
Might we not try something else? Perot suggested putting half as much up front in programs to reduce the risk of a prison track. As he said, “What we are doing is not working for anyone. Let’s try something else and see what happens.” [paraphrase] He was on to something.
If It Works for Others…
My suggestion to my fellow Americans is to open our eyes. Let us not be so proud that we cannot learn from others. We can refuse continuing to underwrite stale bumper sticker philosophies. If something is working elsewhere, let’s at least give it a try here.
We have little to lose, everything to gain. Our first question should be to ask who else is having some success with this problem. What are they doing that we are not? Why aren’t we trying that?
We might also want to take a shot at talking about inequality of opportunity sometime soon. That too is eroding our national fabric. But that one may take more than a couple of pages.
Now, as soon as you find a country that has figured out how to defeat racism or tribalism, share that with the rest of us, will you?
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(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here.
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