“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” – Buckminster Fuller

By William S. Becker

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that our politics is a mess right now. Thanks to Donald Trump, Republicans have become the Party of Fear and Division, with allies like Alex Jones and David Duke. Democrats do not seem to have a coherent vision for the country, except that it should not include Donald Trump.

Some are afraid that our divisions are so deep and emotional that they could lead to armed conflict. Last year, Foreign Policy magazine asked several national security experts to evaluate the risks of a second civil war. Their responses ranged from a 5% chance to a 95% chance.  The consensus was 35%. The reasons ranged from weak institutions, tribalism, echo chambers, acrimonious public dialogue and the acceptance of violence as a form of protest, to social media trolling, entrenched polarization and the number of hate groups in America (917 last year including 623 antigovernment groups and 165 armed militias).

Yet there is much on which we can agree, and there is a great deal of work we can do together if we want the United States to be all it can be again. It is not only our physical infrastructure that’s in bad need of repair. Our social infrastructure needs repairs, too. We are experiencing great dissonance between what most Americans want and what they get, and between our image of the United States and what it really is right now. We need to rebuild America.

What we want vs. what we get

Most of us want a country where the rules are not rigged by the rich against the poor. But they are. We want to know that our right to vote is not suppressed or subverted. But in many places, it is.  We want to trust that our elected leaders are not corrupted by money. But because of our campaign finance system, many are.

Most of us want to be confident that the people we elect listen to us rather than to special interests. However, a study four years ago found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”.  That has not changed. Research shows clearly that the federal government is not delivering what the people want. That is plainly true in regard to environmental protection, government action to stabilize global climate change and an energy policy that emphasizes renewable energy over fossil fuels.

Public opinion polls are far from perfect, but they are the best way we have right now to keep a finger on the pulse and blood pressure of the nation. Our blood pressure is high. For example:

Race relations: Most Americans think that a growing number of people of different races, ethnic groups and nationalities make the United States a better place to live. But 65% of us think race relations in the U.S. are generally bad and 51% say they have gotten worse since Trump was elected president. Two-thirds of Americans say they have recently witnessed activities in their communities that targeted groups based on race, religion or sexual orientation.

Pay equity: Overall, 94% of employers think men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. Yet women are still being paid 80 cents compared to $1 for men with similar professional backgrounds. Black women made 66 cents for every dollar paid to white men last year, meaning they had to work an extra eight months for the same amount of pay.

Environmental protection: More than 60% of us say the government is doing too little to protect the environment, the highest number in 12 years. Nearly 60% of Republicans and 76% of Democrats would give environmental protection a higher priority than economic growth if the tradeoff were necessary. Seventy-four percent including healthy majorities of Republicans and Democrats want higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry. But the Trump Administration is rapidly eliminating environmental protections, claiming they are a burden on business. What he doesn’t say is that without environmental regulations, the burden shifts to families and their medical bills.

Action on climate change: Nearly 60% of Americans want the United States to remain in the Paris climate agreement. Sixty-seven percent, including majorities in both parties, support mandatory controls on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Most of us (53%) support a carbon tax to encourage reductions in CO2 emissions. But the House of Representatives passed a resolution in July denouncing a carbon tax as “detrimental” to the nation, while President Trump simply ignores climate change. He says he has a “natural instinct for science” and real climate scientists can’t be trusted because they have a political agenda.

Immigration: More than 80% of Americans, a record high that includes large majorities of Republicans and Democrats, say legal immigration is good for the country. But the Administration is cracking down on legal as well as illegal immigration.

Fairness of the economy:  More than six in 10 U.S. adults (63%) agree that the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests today.  Although the tax bill signed into law last December was characterized as a “middle class” tax cut, a majority of Americans say large corporations and the wealthy benefited a lot (54% and 52% respectively), while only 8% said they benefited a lot personally.

Democracy: In extensive polling during 2018, the Pew Research Center asked respondents about 23 ideals for a democratic system in the United States. The majority agreed with all 23. But when they were asked which of these ideals described the country well, majorities agreed on only 8. A 61% majority said “significant changes” are needed in the fundamental “design and structure” of American government to make it work today.

Measuring genuine progress

 There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There is bipartisan agreement that America’s physical infrastructure must be rebuilt and modernized. There is another type of infrastructure that is equally important: the social systems that contribute to the quality of our lives and that cannot be measured by GDP.  The United States is lagging far behind many other countries in what are called “genuine progress indicators” that measure many of the priceless things we cannot quantify in the usual ways. In one of his more famous speech passages, Bobby Kennedy explained it this way:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.    

Nearly 20 years ago, a group of prominent economists considered the fact that our usual economic indicators did not count environmental and natural resources, our “natural capital”. Under the aegis of the National Academies of Science, they concluded that natural capital should be considered in the National Income and Products Accounts (NIPA), a collection of indices that measure the total income and output of our market economy. Natural capital, they decided, is “essential to the decision-making of policy makers, business leaders, and every American household.”

The same can be said for human capital. A variety of methods have been developed in recent decades to measure happiness and quality of life. They include the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Better Life Index, the Happy Planet Index, Gross National Happiness, National Well Being Accounts and Green GDP.

Gallup and Sharecare (a health and wellness assessment company) conduct a well-being analysis of the United States each year. It measures whether people like what they do each day and feel motivated to achieve their goals; whether they have supportive and loving relationships; whether they are managing their finances to increase security and reduce stress; whether they like the community where they live; and whether they have good health and energy.

Gallup-Sharecare found that the U.S. experienced the greatest decline in the 10-year history of the rankings. Compared to 2016, well-being scores dropped in 21 states and no state’s score improved.

A branch of the United Nations reported last spring that the United States slipped four places to 18th in a ranking of the world’s happiest nations. (Finland was first.) Income in the U.S. has doubled since 1972, while happiness has remained unchanged or has declined, due in large part to obesity, substance abuse and depression.

Other indices show that the United States is far down the list of nations when it comes to human capital. For example, the Social Progress Index (SPI) assesses the performance of 146 countries each year based on 51 social and environmental indicators.  The Index intentionally does not include economic indicators and it measures outcomes rather than inputs – in other words, results.

The SPI found this year that social progress is advancing worldwide, but not in the U.S. Only six of the 146 countries have seen their social progress decline since 2014. One of them is the United States. We rank 25th behind countries such as Slovenia. Our access to basic knowledge is worse than Uzbekistan. Our health and wellness scores are comparable to those for Ecuador, and our personal safety ranks below Ghana and Indonesia.

We ranked 50th in personal safety, 74th in access to quality health care, 73rd  in greenhouse gas emissions, 46th in the equality of political power by social groups, 67th in discrimination and violence against minorities, 35th in equality of political power by gender, 47th in political rights, 35th with a life expectancy (only 60 years), 62nd  in maternal mortality, 40th in child mortality, 39th in access to drinking water, 88th in the homicide rate, 33rd in political killings, 54th in traffic deaths, 95th in protecting major habitats, and 21st  in deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution.

One would think that a nation with our resources could do better. We clearly have a lot of work to do rebuild our social as well as our physical infrastructure. We will have different views and we can argue constructively about how best to do that work. But it would be a good start if we Americans, in every community and in Congress, could agree that we agree on these goals and we must work together to achieve them.