Unscrewing America

America is screwed.

And it’s our job to unscrew it.

If you don’t see it as your job, my job, our job, ask yourself these questions: Do you have a high level of confidence that Congress will unscrew the country? Will the White House? Will state legislatures?

Nope, this is up to we the people.

Unscrewing America starts with coming to terms with the reality that the U.S. has become a debtor nation. Our elected representatives will never seriously confront the American habit of buying now and paying later until we all do. Yes, the federal deficit and national debt are skyrocketing. But it’s not just the federal government that doesn’t come close to living within its means. Consumer debt is at an all-time high. The borrowing binge slowed briefly after the last crash in 2008. But the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression didn’t sober up Americans for long. Families went right back to spending far more than they earn and household debt is now at record levels, topping $13 trillion.

An even bigger reason America is screwed is economic inequality. The gap between rich and poor is wider in America than in any other major developed country. And the gap continues to widen. Barely half of Americans now qualify as middle class. That compares to 61% in 1971. And there are worrying signs that do not bode well for the future of the American middle class. Making matters even more challenging was the very uneven recovery from the Great Recession geographically, with the coasts rebounding faster and more completely than the heartland. All of this gravely threatens the country’s cohesiveness. It’s hard to remain the United States of America with such stark divisions.

Hate and fear of outsiders are on the rise and lead nowhere good. Walling ourselves off is the exact wrong impulse, especially when there’s an increasingly acute labor shortage that threatens to throttle the U.S. economy. For all those who have lost good-paying, family-supporting factory jobs, it has to be recognized that the primary culprits are automation and economic globalization, not immigration. Now more than ever, it is important to remember that openness to foreigners has been a defining characteristic of America and is essential to who we are as a nation. Immigration has always made our country stronger, it has never made us weaker.

Small towns are dying and it’s not too much of an overstatement to say that rural life faces extinction. This breeds political resentment and is a threat to all of America, and conditions cry out for a Marshall Plan for small towns across America. Unscrewing America depends on urban renewal every bit as much as rural revitalization. Wisconsin’s two largest cities are the state’s two biggest economic engines. Same goes in other states. America as a whole cannot thrive if our biggest cities struggle and crumble. Decaying cities need a Marshall Plan, too. We can’t just seek refuge in the suburbs.

Finally, we have to face facts with climate change. Our survival as a species depends on it. It should be America’s goal to be the first nation in the world fully powered by renewable energy. Building the green economy to that scale not only is the right thing to do environmentally, but also a way to resuscitate American manufacturing and replace all those lost factory jobs. American ingenuity once made us a world leader in making things. Now much of that ingenuity is devoted to cooking up hedge funds, derivatives, subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and other such financial flim-flam. Putting our minds to building a new clean energy infrastructure can get us focused on making useful goods while also saving the planet.

It’s not too late, America can be unscrewed . . . once we reverse the thinking that screwed us over in the first place.