A Fine Mess: A Dissection of America
By Jared Crum '11
Judy Garland once sang: “I was born in Michigan, and I wish and wish again, that I was back in the town where I was born.”

How quaint.

Consider Detroit public schools budget chief Robert Bobb. He explained to a recent panel on American education that an egregious funding shortfall forced him to shutter 59 schools and lay off numerous teachers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the situation facing Detroit kids a “disgrace.”

The Detroit Free Press even reported that the district recently offered classes on how to land a job at Wal-Mart. Who in their right mind wants to go back to Michigan?

Comparing Detroit with developments half a world away, “disgrace” might be putting it mildly. On Oct. 1, China marks 61 years of Communist leadership. Two of the things they have to show for it are education and infrastructure. In China, kids are studying at all hours and tripping over each other to go to school — and they’re funded to do so.

Infrastructure strikes a similar note. High-speed rail is connecting people to goods and workplaces. Hydroelectric projects are powering economic growth. Airports are bringing investors from across the globe. These educational and economic developments are not without big problems of their own (60-mile traffic jams, maladjusted study-robot youngsters), but the progress on schooling and infrastructure means China’s big questions are how to grow, how fast, in what direction and at what cost.

What a fine mess they’re in.

There was a time when America could afford such questions. In 2000, with giant federal budget surpluses, economists were worried we might pay down our national debt too fast. Now our questions are entirely different. Thanks to Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, we’re pondering whether masturbation is adultery.

Rather than tackle our most pressing national questions strategically in a new century, the rise of anti-government crusaders has diverted our attention dangerously. While our roads crumble and schools disintegrate, we are arguing over basically whether to have government at all. Nevada Senate nominee Sharron Angle is salivating over the thought of ditching Social Security.

With our attention divided, no wonder the Chinese are “getting away with murder,” as Donald Trump phrased it recently. The Donald, speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, said the Chinese are eating our lunch, and that their businessmen cannot believe we are allowing them to do it.

“We’re building China,” Trump said. “We are really building China because everything” we consume “is made in China or other countries. It’s not made here. We don’t make things anymore… We’re building China by ordering all of their products.”

The news gets worse, since the situation is about to do the same. The gridlock and bitter partisanship that made Congress “the broken branch” of government may compound when the new Congress convenes in January. The Republicans, possibly with majorities, will have an unruly bunch of House and Senate Tea Partiers to manage. Already Rand Paul of Kentucky has promised to bring the Senate to a halt to consider a “balanced budget amendment” to the Constitution.

In just over a month, the American people are poised to return to power the same party that made the country low. After turning the Republicans out in ’06 and ’08, and understandably perceiving a continual slide into national disrepair nonetheless, the voters are putting John Boehner and Company in the perfect position to further aggravate matters.

Infrastructure spending will be slashed. Education will stay underfunded. Forget clean energy grants. In area after area, the Republicans will discard with relish opportunities to prepare the country for a long-term economic boom.

Meanwhile, other countries including China will keep doing the opposite (Britain being a prominent exception). Our global economic competitiveness will continue to erode.

Ironically, this could worsen the discontent that’s currently boiling over. While the U.S. will never be a third world nation, we could sink further and further behind other countries, particularly rapidly developing ones. This will sow more widespread financial insecurity among Americans, as we uneasily navigate our course in a new economic sea. Politics will reflect this insecurity, with volatility and discontent being the norm, for a time.

We don’t have to go down this road. We don’t have to seek solace by running into the easy-solutions arms of the Tea Party, or the Republican Party whose head they’re holding a gun to. And even if we do go down this road, we’ve been down it before when we transitioned from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. That worked out pretty well in the end.

History, though, is not made of inevitabilities. We don’t necessarily repeat mistakes or brilliant strokes. We have a real danger in coming years and decades of converting past Americas that were idealized into past Americas that actually were better.

Do you “wish again” you were “in Michigan?” Think again. Judy Garland may soon be quainter than ever.

Issue 04, Submitted 2010-09-28 23:45:51