Common Wealth

A Washington Post story nailed it for me recently: "In the Shadow of its Exceptionalism, America Fails to Provide for the Basics."

The article brought out what seems like a deepening morass of deficiencies, from crumbling roads and bridges to a failure to guarantee clean water and affordable housing to a wide swath of the population, along with the right to health care that's prevalent in other countries. Daily headlines make it clear: we can't even guard public safety from senseless gun violence.

"Compared with its developed-world peers, America has always been a study in contrasts, a paradox of exceptional achievement and jaw-dropping deprivation," read the article. "Rarely have the disparities been rendered as vividly as in recent weeks and months. Historic breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology coexist intimately — and uneasily — alongside monumental failures of infrastructure, public health and equitable access to basic human needs."

What hit the nail on the proverbial head for me was the summary: "The disparities reflect a multitude of factors, experts say, but primarily stem from a few big ones: Compared with other well-to-do nations, the United States has tended to prioritize private wealth over public resources, individualism over equity and the shiny new thing over the dull but necessary task of maintaining its infrastructure, much of which is fast becoming a 20th century relic."

If it's mystified my friends that this country seems to stand apart from other developed nations in its inability to declare that health care must be a guaranteed right, I've thought for a while that that's because the dominant attitude has been that basic health care isn't a service that the well-to-do in this country should have to accept, so why would they feel a willingness to pay for it?

The middle class in the United States has assumed health insurance is provided through the workplace -- a right that workers decades ago had to fight for through collective bargaining. Now many of those labor unions have been weakened and some dismantled entirely, and workers have in many cases seen their jobs themselves evaporate.

Think of other public services provided in this country: free public education, free pubic libraries and public higher education.The very function of government should be to protect and provide for its people, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Where we live, in the relative boonies of the nation's third most densely populated state, which happens to be thought of as a high-tech hub, small towns have been struggling for years to link to high-speed Internet. After leaving it to telecom providers to let the market drive the buildout, it became clear that the state and federal governments had to provide incentives for for business to expand the network.

Still, as the current pandemic has demonstrated, the "digital divide" between families with access to the technology and those without ensures that poorer kids continue to be left beyond. The same divide is also playing out in the uneven rollout of vaccines, and in the likelihood of contracting COVID.

Nowhere have the divisions between haves and have-nots played out as in our overall health care system. It's here that the ethic of taking care of one another is laid bare. The Affordable Care Act adopted during the Obama administration came after years of attempts to assure that more Americans are insured. But after repeatedly trying to defeat what they labeled Obamacare, Republicans continued trying to scuttle it during the Trump years.

The "culture wars" narrative of the fringe media has been so pervasive, the "Marlboro Man" mentality so entrenched, that there are still those who cling to resistance to wearing a mask, to getting vaccinated, to believing the pandemic is anything beyond a hoax.

The notion that "we're all in this together" seems almost beyond the contemporary American imagination. Here, the Horatio Alger legend has persisted, even though (in case you haven't noticed) the American Dream has been evaporating as the wealth gap grows.

Never has there been a time when there are more billionaires, and now even centibillionaires. And yet since the Reagan era, we've been witnessing a burgeoning of the homeless population. It was Reagan who began tearing away at our national consensus that government has a function, to provide for the common good. Instead, he began hammering away at his own mantra: that government is the problem.

The term "commonwealth," which is used by my Massachusetts home (thanks to John Adams) as well as three others states, for me is significant because it emphasizes that government should be an entity concerned with the common well-being of its citizens -- a distinction that as a democratic republic, this nation's power rests in its people .... in sharp contrast with a monarchy.

We've become so divorced from one another and so intent on getting what we think is our share of some fictitious pie that's been served up by whatever separate reality channel we've tuned to, that it seems we hardly remember we're all in the same boat, tipping it over clamoring for our right to hold the paddle.

My fear is that we're about to see a return of those clamoring for a draining of the swamp, completely blind to the reality that they're instead destroying what remains of our precious Common.

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Posted: to Poor Richie's Almanac on Mon, Mar 15, 2021
Updated: Wed, Mar 24, 2021