Mountain Snail

Stuff Ballard Wrote

Tag: exceptionalism

For whom opportunity knocks?

Daily Planet, 1/2014

My last column on this page was about American exceptionalism: how we aren’t necessarily. This column is about American exceptionalism: one way we still are, so far.

The one thread that runs through American history from Jamestown to now is Opportunity. America has always been the “Land of Opportunity,” a special place for people who have had the courage to start over.

My people came from Ireland and scratched out a living in southwest Georgia. Other Irish lived in big-city slums or went underground in coal and copper mines.   Life was an outrage for all of them – but better than Ireland. They persevered. They were free, after all; they weren’t being humiliated and starved by the English.   America gave them opportunity, and they took advantage of it. My great-great-grandfather learned to farm, and his sons started businesses. My father graduated from Georgia Tech.

So it is today. We offer economic opportunity to immigrants far beyond anything in their home countries. Doctors retrain as nurses to qualify for jobs here.

America – the Land of Opportunity for the immigrant.

For the immigrant. Hmmm. What about for our own people? Is America the Land of Opportunity for my grandchildren? Yes, it is, but….

But not as it once was. We all know people in WNC who grew up poor in remote hollows, who now are successful in trades and professions. Most of these people I know, if not all, say they’re where they are because of public schools – first grade through high school and even state universities and community colleges.

Education. That’s why I wrote “exceptional, so far” above. America as the Land of Opportunity – for our own people– is teetering.

It’s my habit to encourage young people I see working in places like Ingles. I ask what their future plans are. More and more of them now say they can’t afford to continue beyond high school.   Some are discouraged; some see the military as default. The ever-rising cost of higher education has priced them out.

And then we hear from Raleigh about budget cuts to education at all levels, pre-school to university. For whatever reasons – ideology (government must spend less) or ideology (public schools are “socialist”) or greed (for-profit schools spend big for lobbyists) – Republicans in the General Assembly are dismantling North Carolina’s great legacy of state-funded education. And in so doing, they’re limiting our children’s future opportunity.

As we look around the developed world, the tight-fisted North Carolina approach is the exception. In most advanced countries, education through university is free to all, some even including graduate study.

These countries do this through taxation.   North Carolina Republicans would rather have low taxes than a well-educated population.

We can’t have both low taxes and quality universal education. Children of the well-educated will be well-educated. In recent generations, the door has been open to everybody. Now we’re heading for a day when Opportunity knocks only at doors of the elite.

America still the greatest?

Daily Planet, 12/2013

For almost 100 years, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, escaped slaves from the U.S. South fled to Canada, perhaps as many as 30,000 of them. In Canada they were free. They could vote and own property. Canada never had institutionalized segregation of the races.

The United States had to endure a Civil War and 70 years of Jim Crow before we were that advanced.

An idea called “American exceptionalism” came out of our Revolution and western expansion. Americans and Europeans alike noted our uniqueness.

As Charles Murray, a conservative at the American Enterprise Institute, puts it in a recent book: “American exceptionalism is a fact of America’s past, not something that you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ any more than you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ the battle of Gettysburg.”

But Murray goes on to say: “American exceptionalism refers to qualities that were first observed in the opening century of our history. There’s no reason why they necessarily still apply today. The extent to which they still apply is an empirical question.”

I spent too many years in the Third World as a missionary to be a big believer in American exceptionalism today. I experienced very different cultures in those years, and when I returned home, I was able to see America more objectively.

We’re spectacular in supporting liberty in the world and in answering the call of disaster, as we did in the Philippine typhoon.   But we’re not the country we were at our founding. Seventy percent of us think our country is on the wrong track – and I agree. There’s an intuition that the shine is coming off the city on a hill.

Forbes reported October 29 that a nonpartisan think tank, Legatum Institute, had studied 142 countries for its “Prosperity Index.” Forbes headlined the article, “The World’s Happiest (and Saddest) Countries.”

Their criteria for ranking relative prosperity:   “countries that enjoy peace, freedom, good healthcare, quality education, a functioning political system and plenty of opportunity.”

I read the criteria and said, “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.”

And indeed the United States didn’t crack the Top Ten. Number one?   Norway. Number two: Switzerland.   Number three…Canada. That’s right, Canada, our neighbor to the north that Americans tend to discount as inferior. They apparently meet the criteria a lot better than we do.

The rest of the Top Ten, in order: Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg. We’re number 11.

To me, these countries have in common that their people are not worried. They are well-educated. They don’t fear sickness because of national healthcare. They don’t fear old age. They respect democracy; they aren’t intent on blocking their opponents’ success.

America is dysfunctional in our governing system.   Inequality between classes is growing.   We spend and spend on our military over the needs of our people. Americans worry.

These “happy” countries pay a lot more taxes than we do, and their taxes pay for their good life.

It’s my view that most American troubles have their roots in the extreme hatred American conservatives have toward taxation.   Our governments stumble along trying to get by with less and less money. Here in North Carolina our education at every level suffers because conservatives control our state budget.

Before we automatically say we’re “the greatest country on earth,” we should give some hard looks at ourselves. We’re certainly the most powerful superpower in the world.   But the greatest country?

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