Like the gap between the fastest racers and the average runners, the gap between rich and poor in America continues to expand, risking a fundamental change to the nature of the American experiment in self-rule.  Figures just released reveal the widest margin yet between wealthy and poor in the 25 years since such statistics were first compiled.

For society at large it is a disquieting trend, as is the entrenched posturing of the two major political parties caught up in the on-going debt-ceiling debate.  Being a government of, by and for the People, we are fated to how well we prepare ourselves to be stewards of our mutual destinies.  Today, with constituencies so markedly separate and unequal, without a moderating middle-class to bridge the divide, neither side seems capable of providing the leadership required by enlightened democratic rule. After 235 years, we may well have found the limits of the Founding Father’s grand design.

A similar dividing trend continues in education, as well.  Perhaps the two are related.  Peaking at 77% in 1969, high school graduation rates have continued to slide ever since.

Graduation Rates
2007 Data
Ethnic Group Graduation Rate
White & Asian 75.0%
Latinos 56.0%
African-Amercians 54.0%
Native Americans 51.0%
Graduation Rates
Year Graduation Rate
1969 77.0%*
2005 70.7%
2006 69.2%
2007 68.8%
*Highest ever recorded

The data indicate that for nearly two full generations, fewer and fewer Americans have been coming into their full maturity with the wherewithal to make educated decisions. Like passing a student to the next grade based on “social advancement” rather than academic achievement, thereby robbing the student of the necessary tools to be a productive citizen, the “everyone is a winner” mentality so well known to the road running world has downgraded the very concept of excellence. As the acerbic writer Gore Vidal once noted: (Americans) are the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts. They have emotional responses, which good advertisers (as well as lobbyists and politicians) know how to provoke.”

In our current state, the definition of equality has morphed from opportunity to result. It is no longer enough that everyone begin with an equal opportunity (not that that’s even close to being a reality in the first place), but everyone must come out ahead, with each individual’s assessment as the primary filter in defining the outcome. And with globalization continuing to siphon once robust high school level jobs overseas, while increasing the need for a college education to compete in current economic market at home, we are continuing to divide our people along economic lines to the detriment of us all.

Combine the saturation of an instant-gratification culture with this failing education model, and we end up with a citizenry with either no sense of history at all, or a self-righteously skewed one. It’s no wonder we have lost sense of the continuity through which we have reached our current economic condition.

Presidential Pandering

We are playing a game begun in 1980. Everyone credits President Ronald Reagan with resurrecting America’s belief in itself after the “malaise” and stag-flation of the Jimmy Carter presidency. Reagan’s evident love of country and avuncular charm, combined with tax cuts, an emphasis on federal monetary policy, deregulation, and expansion of free trade created a sustained economic expansion creating America’s greatest sustained wave of prosperity ever. But what’s not addressed, or been simply forgotten, is that Reagan’s economic boom also coincided with a historic drop in America’s ant-like 10% savings rate as we chose to embrace our inner grasshopper and live for the pleasure of the moment. This is the “Me Generation” coming into its full maturity. The irony, of course, is that a ballooning federal deficit under Reagan contributed mightily to the economic recovery, exactly the scourge the new Right is railing against today.

President Bill Clinton may have been fiscally responsible on one hand, handing off a budget surplus to President G.W. Bush. But on the other hand, an agreement between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans set the stage for passage of the most sweeping banking deregulation bill in American history. The bill untied virtually every restraint on the operation of the giant monopolies which dominated the financial system, giving rise to the worst predatory instincts of the free market, which eventually led to the housing bust.

At the same time, Clinton’s two terms coincided with the generational expanse of the technology revolution, which grew the tax coffers immeasurably. But Mr. Clinton failed to adequately address the growing threat from Al-Qaeda.  Subsquently, President G.W. Bush’s decision to play Texas Hold `Em and go all in – re-doubling the Reagan tax cuts while reflexively launching two wars in the aftermath of 9/11, without asking for a shared economic sacrifice to fund them – then adding an unfunded prescription drug entitlement to the elderly even as we traded the dot-com bubble for the housing bubble as all the adults in the economy decided that immutable laws of finance somehow didn’t apply to 21st century dealings, catapulted us into the current crisis we find ourselves unable to confront.

Thus, America has no one to blame but herself over the last several generations. This financial crisis didn’t arise because of what Barack Obama has done in office in 2 ½ years, as he is no more than the latest “leader” along the arc of history unable to alter America’s Charlie Sheen-like self-destruction.

Bifurcated as we are, we would rather affix the blame than fix the problem. Petty, possessive, and pious, that’s our mantra. We no longer share in the successes and failures of one another. We’ve been wearing the blinders of self-interest for so long that we have evolved into a tunnel -visioned people, holding narrow but ideologically certain points of view. Nothing is ever a consequence of long-term trends and previous decisions. I’m the victim. You are at fault. And with representatives who can only parrot what their constituencies want, rather than explain and lead as was designed, we find ourselves with irreconcilable differences that threaten to plunge the world into economic chaos.

In these troubled economic times the vast middle-class which brought America to the forefront of nations is quickly eroding. And while gated communities continue to provide shelter for many, the vast distance separating segments of society does not bode well for the future health of the nation. The ongoing debt-ceiling crisis, positioned by both President Obama and Speaker Boehner last night in dueling national television debates, was nothing more than the political representation of the growing dislocation among Americans of opposing political and economic outlooks. Makes you wonder where the glue holding America together will come from.


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