Cleaning my basement recently, I came upon an issue of The New York Times dated Friday, April 13, 1990. The headlines tell about the East Germans issuing an apology for Nazi crimes, Americans finding excuses for not being part of the census, early glaucoma being found in President Bush’s eye, and the Pulitzer Prizes that were announced the day before. Inside, there are reports about the Soviet military unhappy with President Gorbachev after the Communist Party relinquished sole power in the government; the move of twenty Orthodox Jewish families in Jerusalem into some housing in the Christian quarter of the Old City, which provoked a protest by hundreds of Christian clerics who were sprayed with tear gas by the soldiers guarding the settlers; Britain seizing a big forged-steel tube made by a British manufacturer going to Iraq, because custom officials determined it could be used to build a missile launcher capable of hurling warheads for hundreds of miles—despite the chief executive of the company saying it would blow itself into pieces if they tried to use it as a weapon. How familiar all this sounds.
Turning next to Anthony Lewis’s column called “Time for Change”” on the op-ed page, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t written last week:
American society has problems as serious today as at any time since the Depression. Savings and investment have declined; we rely on foreign capital and then, illogically, sputter when that capital acquires U.S. assets. Our infrastructure of roads and bridges and other public facilities is crumbling.
It is an ill-educated society in a world where education is increasingly essential. The United States, alone among developed countries, has no national system of health insurance; 31 million Americans have no medical insurance.
A vast underclass mocks America’s reputation as a just society. Homeless men and women huddle on the fanciest streets of our cities. An expensive restaurant has a notice on the wall headed “We all need food and shelter”; it lists places where people in need can get “a free meal or a place to sleep.”
On these and similar problems President Bush offers no leadership worth mentioning. His economic remedy is a cut in the capital gains tax, irrelevant at best. He has nothing of substance to suggest on the country’s corrupting social ills.
Change the name of the president, the number of uninsured people (for whom there is now a faint glimmer of hope—if a new Congress does not roll back the health reform), and a few other minor details, and everything Mr. Lewis had to say is still true, except our country is in far worse shape twenty years later.
We’ve all read recently about communities so broke, they’ve been closing libraries, running schools only four days per week, digging up paved roads they’ve no money to repair and covering them with gravel while letting city neighborhoods go dark because they can’t afford to light the streets. But to actually see these places—with their downtowns full of abandoned buildings, with their empty store fronts which until recently were selling hardware, stationery, clothes, and even books—is frightening. Only pawnshops seem to be thriving.
Last spring, in an old industrial city in New York State, I saw hookers walking the streets at lunchtime waving to the passing cars. If one asks the locals what happened to their town, they explain that the last of the plants that employed thousands has closed and the jobs went abroad. As for shopping, they proudly inform you about a couple of malls they have, although the stores in them are not locally owned and the jobs they provide are few in number and miserably paid.
As for the future, one has to be completely ignorant of how big money works in this country to believe that there will ever be decent jobs in these communities again. President Obama’s Labor Day proposal to invest $50 billion to create jobs improving roads, rail lines, and airports sounds good, but I’d be surprised if it actually comes to pass. A political class whose ambition currently is to find ways to screw American workers out of their pensions, unemployment insurance, and Social Security, while persuading them that the pointless wars on which they have wasted $3 trillion so far have nothing to do with our national economic problems, is not about to come to their aid.
The broad masses, too, share the blame. With no historical memory, lacking any understanding of what is being done to them, accepting without protest the rising income differences and their own growing impoverishment, they are easily manipulated by special interests and principle-free opportunists who run for office in their districts. Told that the government on all levels is their enemy by levying taxes on them and curtailing their constitutional freedoms, they can be depended on to reelect the same crooks and to vote in most elections against their own economic self-interest. I hope I’m wrong, but rereading Mr. Lewis’s words and knowing that our political system is even more broken and corrupt today than it was in the days when he wrote his column, I cannot help but feel despair.