Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Systems breakdown

Today I am angry.

America's public schools used to be among the best in the world. Families from all over the planet with the means and access would send their children to the US for their education, especially for high school, college, and graduate studies. No more. Today, in study after study, US students rank below average by the 4th grade in math and science. By middle school, the problems magnify and their performance worsens. By high school, US students are so far back they're no longer even in the race. Some reports show US high schoolers ranking 35th out of 41 developed and industrialized nations. American kids have one of the shortest school years on the planet, by days or instruction hours. US teachers-- good and bad alike-- get tenure and can't be fired, no matter their performance. Uninspired and disinterested, US high schoolers are dropping out at rates over 30%. The entire system needs to be reinvented.

Whatever your thoughts regarding the Obama administration's health care reform package, our entire system is (still) broken. According to the Commonwealth Fund report realsed last week, Americans spend nearly twice what residents of six other countries-- Britain, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand-- spend. As a percentage of GDP, Americans also spend more than any other nation: 50% more than Germany and double that of Japan. Yet our life expectancy is lower and our infant mortality rate higher than any of these countries. Health insurance rates in the US are still rising faster than inflation, but coverage is falling. Many self-employed and small business owners cannot afford coverage at all, even with comfortable incomes-- and that's for themselves and their families. Never mind that they offer insurance for their employees.

The US economy is in the tank and won't improve soon. Banking reform is a crock and TARP was a failure. The monstrous global banking titans, which were too big to fail, are still exactly that: not one was broken up. No executive has gone to jail for his or her role in creating or worsening the crisis. Worse, many of these companies gave their top execs huge raises and bonuses for 2010. In fact, whereas a hundred years ago the salary ratio for a CEO relative to his average employee was 6:1; in 2010 it was over 300:1. The funds doled out by the government following the debt and financial crisis of 2007-2008 were used to shore up banks' cash deposits, lowering their risk but doing nothing to jumpstart a sagging economic and business environment but set stricter qualifications and offer few new loans. It's a cash & credit gridlock. Something like 30% of American homeowners now owe more on their homes than the properties are worth. And several new studies show these people are now trapped in jobs they hate as a result. Home sales are stuck, foreclosures at all-time highs and showing no signs of abatement. Companies can't hire because consumers aren't buying and consumers aren't buying because companies can't hire.

American political campaigns have long been dictated and driven by big-spending corporations, but always behind cover and through complicated backchannels. Now, with 2010's Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, those companies are free to spend however they like, unfettered and legally. So election winners will increasingly be those who are heavily indebted to businesses for their wins, not to the citizens they purport to represent.

Our interstate highway system is equally dysfunctional. Since the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, over 2700 other interstate bridges have been deemed structurally deficient. Nearly every city through which these once super-highways wind is now totally clogged twice a day at rush hour, as the network struggles with up to 7 times the daily traffic load it was designed to handle. The revenue structure intended to maintain the 48,000 miles of interstate-- a federal gas tax-- is slipping further behind each year as it's based on a backward-moving multiple. The roads continue to crumble, traffic steadily increases, and Congress fights over who's going to get the next $200 million "bridge to nowhere."

America is running out of oil to fuel our cars, our furnaces, our ships. We rip open vast swaths of our unspoiled, undeveloped land looking for coal to fire our factories and our power plants. We fill the sky with carbon dioxide and methane gas. We pillage the fish, pollute the waters with "fracking" chemicals, melt the ice caps and the glaciers, flood the lowlands and kill or displace thousands of people. We are turning our pristine planet into a wasteland of gray-skied empty seas and barren farms and gutted forests and concrete.

What the hell is happening? When I was a kid, it was drilled into head how lucky I was to be born in the US. As an American, I was entitled to the best education system, best health care, best opportunities available anywhere. I was a member of the richest, strongest, most developed, most progressive, most democratic, most aspired-to private club on earth. America was my birthright.

Boy have we fallen. And I feel helpless.

Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week:
For each of us there is something we've been thinking of doing for years. Stop putting it off. Chances are, if you wanted it this long, you'll love it and wish you had started before now. 

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