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2014-08-16

The Future of America

I have seen the future of America—in the developing world. The difference is that they are building a middle class, and we are deconstructing the middle class. But there’s more involved. Read on. 

If you have ever traveled in Sub-Saharan Africa or India, you have probably encountered potholes of legendary size, roads that are more a suggestion than reality, bridges that are alarming because they move when not designed to do so, and airports that resemble the worst of American bus stations with a couple of LED screens sprinkled in. You’ve seen whole villages of people living under bridges—infants, children, parents, and grandparents all together. You’ve seen guns—everywhere—especially large-calibre automatic weapons with lots of ammunition. Every “nice” hotel sports an armed guard, or even a armed squad, at the entrance. Every “nice” house is surrounded by walls topped by very sharp wire or steel spikes. 
Paradox: Hotel keys in Namibia
21st Century meets the 18th

But the situation on the ground is changing in the developing world. New airports spring up that are gleaming and hyperbolically clean. African governments are bootstrapping investments in universal health care and educational opportunities. New roads appear where trails of mud existed before. They are aided by a variety of international institutions ranging from the UN and World Bank to the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, even national governments like our own and the UK. They are building new infrastructure partly because not much was there before these efforts. 

In the United States, we are transferring resources from the many to the few at an alarming rate. Our rates of income inequality are only overmatched by disparities in wealth. The disparities have reached levels that pertained just before the Great Depression and rival those of the Gilded Age. Thomas Piketty has offered a fact-filled and compelling portrait of wealth and income aggregation at the top of the pyramid as evidence that these are historical trends that will be prevalent without active intervention. At the time this fascinating work came out, the US continues to keep chipping away at progressive income taxes through an over-complex tax code and a very low estate tax that confer disproportionate advantage upon the advantaged. 

Compounding these efforts is the persistent defunding of public education from kindergarten through graduate school. The rise of private academies not only takes funding away from public schools, but offers subsidies to families directly through tuition vouchers and indirectly through charter schools. College tuition continues to rise faster than both general inflation but more worrying general income growth. This is because investment per student has not kept pace with inflation which was compounded by the recent recession that reduced funding significantly. Public universities responded in part by compensating for lost public revenue by raising tuition—like American automobile companies confronting declining sales in the early 1970s by raising prices. It did not help those companies then and rising college tuition will have even more damaging impacts as more qualified students are denied access to higher education every year. 

The tent in the middle is a restaurant in Dakar, Sénégal 

As big as these disparities are in America, there’s still a lot of potential for their growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa and India I have seen greater disparities between rich and poor. Moreover, the rich overtly protect their material conditions and security with walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. We have protections for the rich in America, but usually they are more polite. True, there are gated communities and the American mobile protective envelope--the standard issue SUV--but armed force is not often used. (There have been historical exceptions, however.) The US armies of the rich wear very nice designer clothes and offer campaign donations to those they seek to protect their masters through loopholes and favorable legislation. 

So, if you want to see what the future of America looks like you don’t have to travel far. Stop, carefully, and look closely at a bridge or overpass to see the cracks and rusted metal needing repair. Visit a school board meeting and ask how many students are there per teacher over the past ten years. Even better, how may students per teacher’s aide. Count the number of un-repaired potholes on your way to work, then increase that number to see what things will look like in a few years. 

Finally, conduct a financial thought experiment. Take the current national minimum wage, $7.25, and multiply it by 160. That yields $1,160 for a month of work. Consider what you spend on your mortgage or rent with that number in mind. Consider what you spend in a month on food, both groceries and dining out. Consider your other bills—utilities, car payments, fuel, maintenance, clothing—the other necessities. What’s left? Chances are not much, if anything.  

Welcome to the future. 

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