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Reclaiming American greatness

Sep 16,2020 - Last updated at Sep 16,2020

NEW YORK — Julia Jackson, the mother of Jacob Blake, a young black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot seven times in the back by police, got it right when she said, “America is great when we behave greatly.” Sadly, for the past four years, President Donald Trump has been leading America in the exact opposite direction.

The country’s entire history seems to be on the line when Trump faces the voters again on November 3. It has been 160 years since the United States tried to deal with its “original sin” of African slavery. On that occasion, President Abraham Lincoln famously warned that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet, under Trump, all of America’s divisions have been widened.

It comes as no surprise that the rich have gotten richer under Trump, given that he tends to judge overall economic performance on the basis of the stock market, where the richest 10 per cent of Americans own 92 per cent of shares. While equity prices have continued to reach new heights, so, too, has US underemployment and joblessness. Some 30 million US residents currently live in households without enough food, and most of those in the bottom half of the income distribution are living paycheck to paycheck. In a country already riven with deepening inequalities, Trump’s Republicans have not only cut taxes for billionaires and corporations but also implemented policies that will lead to higher tax rates for the vast majority of those in the middle.

As Martin Luther King Jr pointed out over a half-century ago, racial and economic injustice are inseparable issues in America. I was there for the March on Washington 57 years ago, when King delivered his heart-rending “I Have a Dream” speech, and we sang, “We shall overcome someday.” As a naive 20-year-old, I could not conceive that someday would lie so far off, that, after a short period of progress, the pursuit of racial and economic justice would stall.

Yet it has now been more than 50 years since the Kerner Commission’s report on the 1967 race riots, and racial disparities remain little reduced. The report’s ultimate main conclusion is still relevant: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” Perhaps under a Joe Biden presidency, the country could finally embark on a new path.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to expose and exacerbate existing inequities. Far from being an “equal opportunity” pathogen, the coronavirus poses the greatest threat to those who are already in poor health, of which there are many in a country that still does not recognise access to health care as a basic right. In fact, the number of uninsured Americans has increased by millions under Trump’s watch, after falling dramatically under former president Barack Obama; and even before the pandemic, average life expectancy under Trump had fallen below its level in the mid-2010s.

One cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy workforce, and it should go without saying that a country whose people’s health is waning has far to go before it can be “great”. As I wrote in January, Trump’s economic record was unimpressive even before the pandemic, and predictably so. Rather than reducing the US trade deficit, Trump’s ill-advised trade war has actually increased it by more than 12 per cent in just three years. During the same period, fewer jobs were created than in the last three years of the Obama administration. Moreover, growth was anemic and already showing signs of fading after the sugar high induced by the 2017 tax cut stimulus, which did not lead to more investment, but did drive the federal budget deficit above the $1 trillion threshold.

Trump’s reckless governance, abetted by congressional Republicans, left the country unprepared to respond to the next crisis, which turned out to be just around the corner. When Republicans’ billionaire donors and corporate allies looked for handouts in 2017, there was plenty of money available. But now that households, small businesses, and essential public services desperately need assistance, Republicans are claiming that the cupboard is bare.

Insofar as the fight against the pandemic is akin to a wartime mobilisation, the US has been stuck with a commander who looks out only for himself, while endangering everyone else by rejecting science and expertise. It is no wonder that the US ranks among the worst performing countries in terms of controlling the disease and managing the economic fallout. Americans are now dying at three times the monthly rate as in World War II.

Early on in the Trump presidency, the author Michael Lewis warned that Trump and his cronies’ war on the “administrative state” would leave the US wholly unprepared for future shocks. The country is now reeling from a (foreseeable) pandemic, and remains wholly at the mercy of a looming climate crisis, socioeconomic crises, and crises of democracy and racial justice, not to mention emerging divides between urban and rural, coastal and interior, young and old.

Trump has targeted two of the key ingredients of national greatness: Social solidarity and public trust. Countries with these features have controlled the pandemic and its economic fallout far better. How can a country that trails the rest of the world in these respects lay any claim to national greatness?

America’s best hope now lies with Biden, whose greatest strength is his potential to reunify a divided populace. Although the country’s rifts have grown too large to be healed overnight, there is some truth in the cliché that “time heals all wounds”.

But healing will not happen on its own. It will be up to Americans to embrace a project of national renewal. Fortunately, a large population of young people is eager to rise to the challenge. America can become great again only if it harnesses their enthusiasm, stands together and applies itself anew to its longstanding principles and aspirations.


Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and university professor at Columbia University, is chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute and a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank. His most recent book is “People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent” (Penguin, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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