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It’s A Dirty Job

December 9, 2011

Day in, day out, we hear talk from commentators, pundits, ordinary people and most certainly politicians, of how America needs to be revitalised, rejuvenated, renewed, recharged, reenergised and even born again, so that America can be number one again:

Watching this reminded me of one of the most elucidating exchanges from the West Wing:

VINICK
I wish headstart did work, but it doesn’t. By grades four and five, headstart graduates do no better academically than their equally poor classmates who didn’t attend headstart. So yes, I have voted against expansions of an 8-billion… 6-billion dollar program that’s not raising academic achievement.

SANTOS
Headstart does raise scores in the early years and then we let them slip. Our whole school system has been slipping for years and our rankings with other countries in math and science achievement… we’ve got to find a way to turn that around. If we provide the school systems and teachers with everything they need and the flexibility to experiment with fresh new approaches, I think that American students can be number one in the world in math and science in ten years.

VINICK
That’s a lie.

VINICK
It’s a lie that every President, Democrat and Republican, has been telling for 20 years: we’re going to be number 1 in ten years. Go ahead, Google it right now. I’m not saying that every President knew it was a lie when he said it or that Congressman Santos knows it’s not true, but I do. So let me tell you what our goals should be our realistic goals. First of all, let’s stop pretending that everyone can or should go to college. Every airline needs high-paid mechanics and none of them have to go to college. There are plumbers in some parts of the country that make a better living than dentists. Now, I’m not talking about lowering our ambitions. I’m talking about targeting our ambitions correctly. Now, it’s true: some other countries have raised their academic standards over and above what they were once. But we still have the best scientists in the world, the best doctors, and by far the most Nobel prizes. If a kid does well in one of those foreign high schools, guess where he or she wants to go to college. That’s right; Harvard, Stanford, Cal-Tech, the University of Texas, and a hundred other American universities that are better than anything they have in their countries. So, if we’re going to have a practical approach to education, we’re going to have to admit that not every one can go to MIT. But most of the kids who do go to MIT come from American public schools.

SANTOS
So, give up on headstart, just give up on early education, and then give up on those kids who don’t test well. They’ll find their way, don’t worry about them.

VINICK
I’m not going to give up on public schools.

SANTOS
Well, you haven’t proposed a single thing that will make them better not one new idea. I’m going to keep trying new ideas. Some might work, some might not, and I’ll level with you about that. We’ll keep the good ideas and get rid of the bad. And I won’t let a day go by in this White House where I don’t work hard to improve our public schools. In fact, I’m going to stake my Presidency on that, right here, right now. And if in four years from now, you don’t think I’ve improved public education in this country then do not vote for my reelection.

While Vinick may have been less than honest with the details, his overall point is substantially true. The endless repetition of the need to restore America to greatness, through some quick, easy means belies the unpopular truth that America has left the days of the 1950s, when its economy accounted for half of the world’s GDP and it had absolute advantage in every sector of production. The US seems incapable of adapting to the world that it created.

The ultimate irony of it all is that all the empty rhetoric of America restoring itself through a presidential election is actually not so far-fetched. America’s problems are well-known; academics have been writing about them for decades. Its schools are underfunded, the Supreme Court and Federal Reserve have long since gone rogue, its capital gains and income taxes are too low, its infrastructure is crumbling and needs reinvestment, federal spending is governed by corporate interests, chiefly defence and pharmaceutical lobbies, its state fees have been increasing due to budgetary constraints (and corruption), its trade policies have destroyed its very competitive manufacturing sector, workers’ rights have been exploited through casualisation of labour and the criminal justice system has prioritised non-violent crimes over violent or economic criminal acts.

Notice a trend here? None of these require some fundamentalist commitment towards any faith, whether it be Christianity or free markets. All of these issues could be solved or at least ameliorated through restricting the extreme anti-capitalist system of the United States:  chiefly through campaign finance reform, which would allow the subsequent financial regulation (reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), investment in public works, sustainable, equitable tax rates, etc.

These aren’t matters of left vs right. Simply put, if Americans believe, as most of them are won’t to, that their country is a force for good in the world, then surely these issues should be fixed. It never used to be a Republican trait to simply ignore the obvious issues that America faces. Commentators always bring up Dwight Eisenhower in this regard, but even Newt Gingrich openly supported resolving issues such as climate change (to the extent that he appeared in an ad with Nany Pelosi of all people), and Ronald Reagan was openly committed to denuclearisation. You know who established the EPA? Richard Nixon. Cue Bill Maher:

America already has the answers. It should stop searching for them. Particularly among the current lot of GOP candidates. America doesn’t need a saviour, it needs a mechanic.

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