Has America – and the American Dream itself – gone into retreat? Once the largest, most prosperous in the world, the American middle class is faltering, crumbling like our nation’s schools and bridges. Some are eager to help it along.
July 15, 2013

Aerial photo of the California Aqueduct at the Interstate 205 crossing. Credit: Ian Kluft, Wikimedia Commons

Has America – and the American Dream itself – gone into retreat? Once the largest, most prosperous in the world, the American middle class is faltering, crumbling like our nation’s schools and bridges.

Flag-pin-wearing American exceptionalists tell crowds this is the greatest nation on Earth, and then repeat “we’re broke.” They hope to dismantle safety net programs, telling Americans working harder than ever – at jobs and looking for jobs – that they don’t have enough “skin in the game.” Wake up and smell the austerity. America can no longer afford Americans.

Some of us remember a time when America’s dreams were boundless.

One summer when I was a child, I traveled with my grandparents to visit my aunt and uncle in Lawton, Oklahoma. My uncle was serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Sill. They lived off-base with their toddler son. The apartment backed up to a drive-in theater. "Old Yeller" was playing.

We left from Chicago driving Route 66. (The Nelson Riddle theme to the TV show is still the hippest ever.) The trip took a couple of days. The highway was still two lanes as you went further west. That was already changing.

Beside Route 66 and elsewhere, Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System – the vast system of roads most of us take for granted – was taking shape from border to border and from coast to coast. It was a national project worthy of a great nation. The country was on the move.

Astronaut Alan Shepard was a national hero. Our parents wanted us to go to college. Our president wanted us to go. Our country wanted us to go. Getting an education was not just a key to a future better than our parents'. It was a patriotic duty. Not just something you could do for you, but what you could do for your country.

America was going to the moon by the end of the decade. We needed scientists and engineers and new technologies. Between the G.I. Bill and government-backed student loans, America was making it more affordable than ever to get an education. It was good for you. It was good for your community. It was good for all of U.S.

On another trip last month through California’s dry Central Valley, I rode past miles and miles of crops and orchards. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Vegetables. Strawberries. Walnuts. Cherries. Pistachios.

San Joaquin Valley agriculture accounts for more than 12 percent of the nation’s output by dollar value, according to Business Week. It produces 25 percent of America’s food on about one percent of U.S. farmland.

What goes onto your dinner plate and into your mouth is made possible in large part, not by daring, bootstrap entrepreneurs, but by the huge public works project we saw on our journey. Sierra snowmelt harnessed to grow food on dry lands. Dams. Reservoirs. Pumps. Pipes. Aqueducts.

And beside those canals, farms providing food and jobs along 700 miles of the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley Project. Begun during the Great Depression. Built with public money. By Americans. For Americans.

But today, that America is in retreat. Its dreams are shriveled. Instead of investing in public infrastructure like aqueducts, highways and bridges, we watch ours collapse as China’s rise. In Washington, pundits and politicians wring their hands over nickels and dimes for Americans while spending hundreds of billions of deficit dollars to maintain a global empire. Almost 900 overseas military bases? Was that our Founders’ vision of greatness?

Meanwhile, tax cuts starve cities and states of revenue until grasping investors – foreign and domestic – can gobble up public infrastructure built with your sweat equity. The privateers hope to extract the last drop of value out of what we, our parents, and our grandparents built to benefit all Americans. These patriots will hide their gains offshore and whine about tax rates they don’t pay while pocketing billions in public subsidies.

Tom Sawyer conned friends into paying him for the privilege of painting his aunt's fence. Tom Sawyer, Inc. is not far behind. These guys won't be satisfied until we are paying them to work for them.

When they have stripped America bare, the vulture capitalists will move on. Hands over their hearts, still waving their flags and humming the national anthem, they’ll move on, leaving America to crumble to dust. And they will shake the dust from their feet.

How much longer will We the People tolerate that?

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