America (Part Two)
(Second of two parts)
America needs to face this uncomfortable fact: Technology has left a large percentage of the country in the dust. Millions of people in the United State are unable to keep up with the global economy American geniuses helped create. Our health care systems are bent, if not broken.
We may talk of a “global village,” but in fact we now live in two cultures; the culture of the world, and the culture of the place where we sleep. At the turn of the 20th century, those working on farms where wages were poor could move to the cities, and many did. They made cars, steel or concrete, and built buildings. They manned ships, toted grain, hauled iron ore. Some taught children; others nursed the sick, and eventually taught others how to do those things. Many women stayed home and raised families. When grandma got old, their children looked after her.
But technology changed all that. “Wash day” melded into every other day, because washers and driers did most of the work while mom (or dad) did something else. Time with parents lessened as day care professionals took care of the little ones until they were ready to go to school.
Mothers as well as fathers worked; some wanted careers; some only because they had to. Sundays, once supposedly a day of rest and church became days for organized sports. Five-year-olds took up ballet and soccer. Attendance at traditional mainline churches dwindled; “megachurches” swelled.
By and large, the workplace was stressful, but demanded a lot less physical labor. So many professionals had to find new ways to burn off energy. They ran marathons and swam long distances to get the cardiovascular system pumping. They jogged, lifted weights and lived frenetic lives to get to the mythical nirvana promised by brokers and TV ads -- a relaxed retirement with an RV, and an apartment near the kids.
Much of this stems from the vast changes spawned by the technical and communications revolution. The computer (why do we still call it that?) took over our lives. There are far more cell phones in China than people in this country. Picture phones record; computers talk to other computers. Calls can go up to outer space.
Murders are recorded by video camera; thieves are caught; bankers are watched; our infrastructure is managed (or not) -- the list goes on and on and on. The World Wide Web is our immense party line.
But are downsides to this story. Our America, didn’t nurture the next generation of geniuses to keep what the first generation started. So the things that made computers work -- the semi-conductor chips – ended up being made elsewhere, in countries where science, particularly physics and engineering, was emphasized more than here.
An entire industry, the one that made the communications revolution actually happen, moved off-shore. Politicians and managers grumbled, but why this had happened was clear: Other countries had nurtured what America had not -- a technical generation of scientists and engineers who could keep on advancing the communications revolution. True, there was a still a large research infrastructure in the United States --in universities, government labs, research institutes and hospitals, much of it health- care driven.
Soon, it became clear that we had to import scientific skills and
talent to operate it. So we prioritized the immigration of scientists, and university labs ran on the energies of foreign nationals, many of whom would become citizens. But then this well too started to run dry.
Everyday Americans may not have realized exactly what was happening, but they knew they had been left behind. Everyone needed the best health care could offer, but we hadn’t paid for it through our children’s educations and learning. Everyone wanted cell phones, computers, smart TVs instead.
And then, when the major pandemic hit in 2020, the American health care system was unprepared. The left-behinds had installed a president who appealed to their grievances – but sadly, had no answers, and actually made things worse. America still had one thing going for it – the brilliant and elastic Constitution its founding fathers wrote. These men saw dangers from despots.
Today, some who feel lost are supporting those who ignore the wisdom of the Constitution. When they lost control of government at the ballot box in 2020 they tried to take it by armed force in 2021, lying about the clear fact that they were losers. For a moment, even the rule of law seemed in danger.
The nation dodged a bullet on January 6th. But there are still elected leaders who have chosen lying, rather than truth, as a fundamental policy. How long can America as we know it last in a world turned upside down?
Time will tell. Let’s hope that not only democracy prevails, but we will get serious about health care. For this virus could be followed by another, and we are no more prepared for it than we were for COVID-19.
Douglas C. Neckers is the retired Director of the Center for Photochemical Sciences and former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center. His 3dscienceblog.com contains much of his writing since the beginning of the pandemic.