NEWPORT, Rhode Island — While visiting this fabulous town — with the oldest synagogue in America; arguably the first golf course; the Tennis Hall of Fame; the Naval War College; and venerable Bellevue Avenue lined with marvelously grand palatial estates charmingly referred to as “cottages” — an epiphany struck home. Donald Trump wants to make “America great again.”
How about a profoundly different notion?
Let’s make America America again. What does that mean? A few anecdotal insights are instructive. Just before the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964 that started this country’s entrapment in the Vietnam quagmire, about three-fourths of Americans believed in government to do the right thing and to be trusted. Today that figure is in the mid-teens at best.
Today, as in 1964, three-fourths of Americans are in agreement again. But this time that agreement is supremely pessimistic. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that future generations will not enjoy the same opportunities as their predecessors did nor the same high standards of living.
Clearly, this remarkable decline in trust and ability of government to act in the nation’s best interest did not occur on Jan. 20, with the inauguration of Donald Trump. The malaise started after 1964 and America’s entry into the Vietnam War. That war deeply divided the nation.
Subsequent events, particularly Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation; the weakness of the Carter administration; Iran-Contra during Ronald Reagan’s second term; the revoking of Glass-Steagall and legalization of credit default swaps — outlawed after the 1907 financial crisis — and the impeachment of Bill Clinton; George W. Bush’s reckless declaration of a war on terror and catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed by the financial collapse of 2008; and Barack Obama’s feckless handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with government’s ongoing failure to repair healthcare, create balanced economic growth and fair distribution of entitlements — led to the conditions that have put the nation at risk and threatened the well-being and economic future of its citizens.
While I have been as critical of Donald Trump as of prior presidents, if reincarnated, it is doubtful that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt could have solved the nation’s ills in a 1,000 let alone 100 days. Thus, what is to be done?
Clearly, returning to a condition where trust is restored in government to do “the right thing” is essential. Creating equal opportunities and equal treatment under the law for all citizens is vital. And promoting economic growth along with “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” should be atop the political agenda.
But this will not happen. Republicans and Democrats are too divided ideologically, politically and emotionally for any consensus to be reached on achieving these critically important aspirations. The current debate on healthcare is Exhibit A in the shameful performance of government. The smoking gun is the stunning fact that not a single member of the House of Representatives has read in its entirely or fully understood the consequences of the health bill it passed on a partisan basis.
Barring a spectacular crisis that too easily could make irreparable the already vast political divisions roiling the country or the emergence of a great leader — likewise very unlikely — these conditions are not self-healing. Only one action can begin making America America again. This is a national infrastructure bank largely financed by repatriating with minimum tax consequences the $1 trillion-$2 trillion U.S. companies are sheltering abroad, provided these funds are put into 30-year infrastructure bonds with interest paid at 2 percent above prime. So, too, individual and private sector financing would be arranged on the same basis.
Repayment would come from tolls, user fees and other taxes. The bank would have federal oversight but execution by the private sector. And the fairest means for distributing these funds on a state-by-state basis is using the critical report on national infrastructure written by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that gives an overall D to D- to this sector.
Obviously, more detail is needed. But repair and modernization of the infrastructure from air- and sea ports to bridges, highways, air-traffic control, water, power and high-speed Internet along with education and other sectors will have powerful positive consequences. The first is to stimulate jobs and economic growth. The second is to provide the nation the means to increase it competitiveness across the economic, business and financial sectors for the rest of the 21st century. And the third is the most important.
By demonstrating competence and tangible results, Americans will certainly begin revising their levels of trust and confidence in government. As it took decades for this trust and confidence to disintegrate, it could take just as long to restore both. Yet, what choice do we have if America is to be America again!