Our twisted nation

One of the property owners along the county road I drive into town flies an American flag high on a bluff. I love seeing that flag waving in the breeze because I grew up when it was easy to be a proud American. I almost feel guilty that I lived most of my life in those mid-century decades when the economy worked for almost everyone and income inequality was at an all time low.

My dad was a factory worker and a shop steward during the 1950’s when the CIO and AFL joined forces. He was really proud of his union work, and I am today a strong supporter of unions because of him. Union members were honored back then, not vilified as “thugs.” My dad’s paycheck supported our family of five with a little help from the part-time work my mom did. My sisters and I were also expected to chip in with babysitting and then retail jobs, office work, or whatever we could find. One summer between college semesters it took me nine days to find a summer job, and I was starting to get worried. That’s how easy it was to find work in a booming economy.

Taxes were high and went for all the good things that families needed to help their kids succeed in life. The country was growing “from the middle out, not from the top down” which is what President Obama’s policies are trying to achieve again. Ironically, it was a Republican president back in my day who pushed the same policies. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System provided millions of good jobs. I remember sitting on a hill with friends watching construction of the New York State Thruway and imagining what it would be like to drive on the same road all the way from Albany to Buffalo.

Thanks to the Defense Education Act following the “Sputnik scare” of 1957, I was able to borrow tuition money for my senior year of college at zero percent interest.  And, for every year that I stayed in teaching, 10% was deducted from the principle.  Imagine if students today could borrow money for college and go right into their chosen professions without a mountain of debt weighing them down.  My husband’s graduate school tuition was based on his parents’ income.  Since they were working class immigrants, the tuition was affordable enough that we could get married and live on my income as a teacher.  The entire hospital bill when our first child was born was $243, and that was back when moms and babies stayed two or three days after the birth.

We were poor but knew our lives would improve when my husband finished his education.  We hadn’t heard the term “upward mobility,” but we were part of that generation that moved up quickly, paid taxes, cared about our neighbors and felt a responsibility to help others.

The other day I noticed that my neighbor’s flag is caught up in the rope and all twisted into a knot at the top of the flagpole.  I couldn’t help but think what a sad metaphor that is for our country today.

Not content with the largest inequality gap since the late 1920’s, today’s robber barons have dredged the bottom of our already polluted river of selfishness and put in power some of the most heartless, mindless decision makers in American history.  Peacocks at least serve a purpose when they flaunt their colors; politicians do nothing but harm themselves and others.

The radical wing of the Republican Party won’t be satisfied until all public programs that benefit individuals and families are destroyed.  The handful of families that control the world economy may have more on their hands than they bargained for.  Now some of the mightiest of the mighty are claiming they never meant for things to go this far, but only because their business empires are threatened.  If they had a soul, they would sell it to the devil to protect their mountains of treasure.

So that’s why I feel a little guilty growing up when I did. I feel sad when I read about the social benefits families receive in Canada, Europe, Japan, and other countries. A friend of mine said her niece lives in Austria and was expected to stay home with her new baby for one year and received 80% of her pay during that time.  They know how important the first year of life is for a healthy child.  France does not have an ADHD problem.  Students in many countries pay nothing for college or occupational training.  And no one ever has to declare bankruptcy because of medical bills.

President Eisenhower was right when he warned us about spending our treasure on weapons and war.  He knew how sick we would become as a society if we chose guns over butter.  I used to teach the “cycles” of American history because the 20th century fell into those 30 year periods of progressive change and retrenchment so rhythmically.  Post World War II was called the American Century. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, wrote a book called “Present at the Creation.”

It’s been a great run.  I wish you could have been there.