My family immigrated to America from Hong Kong when I was 11, and I distinctly remember viewing America as a place where anything was possible. I was too young to know what that truly meant, but it didn’t matter. I just felt it. Sadly, many fellow Americans do not feel “it” anymore—that uniquely American faith in tomorrow’s unlimited possibility: the American Dream. One Michigan voter recently told a congressional candidate, “It’s scary when I am doing worse than my parents. It is really scary when my kids will do worse than I do.”
America is at its best when Americans feel and believe in the implicit bargain of America: if we work hard and play by the rules, our kids will have better lives. When that faith is gone, we open ourselves up to politicians who appeal to our darker impulses. We also pull back from the world the very moment when the ideals of America are most needed.
Today Americans are struggling with that missing faith and wondering how to win the future. Isolation won’t bring back the days when everything seemed slower and easier. In today’s world, where Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population but generate 25 percent of the world’s GDP, we have to continue doing business with the rest of the world to keep thriving. Some reassure us that technology and globalization will create more wealth that will filter down to every American, but for those who live on the meager end of life’s bell curve, this promise rings hollow.
There is plenty we could do to win the future together as Americans, and we can start by reflecting on the past. We built a great country once, and we surely could build on that foundation once more.
There is no silver bullet—no one trade deal we could rip up, no one group we could scapegoat, no one brilliant idea or technology to implement. But make no mistake: there is plenty we could do to win the future together as Americans, and we can start by reflecting on the past.
America has responded boldly to the challenges of every past era. In the face of the head-spinning changes of the Industrial Revolution, starting in the 1870s, the United States introduced universal education to millions of Americans leaving farms for cities to work in burgeoning industrial and white-collar sectors. Around the same period, the United States instituted a progressive tax code, which taxed higher incomes at higher rates than lower incomes and helped to reduce income inequality. The GI Bill educated millions of returning World War II veterans and paved the way for the post-war economic boom of the 1950s. The government, through Cold War military investment in science and research, put a man on the moon and invested in the internet. America continues to be the global leader in technology to this day because of the investments we made at critical moments in history.
We built a great country once, and we surely could build on that foundation once more. Here is a call to action for 2018, a way to respond to the challenges of our era: educate, innovate, and thrive—together:
Unleash the secret education weapon to upgrade workers’ skills
Hiding in plain sight, our community colleges are doing heroic work, in particular by educating the 70 percent of Americans without bachelor’s degrees who are particularly vulnerable to the changing winds of a global, skills-based economy. These schools are generally low-cost—only $46 per unit in California. They are already established in every corner of the country—in urban, suburban, and rural areas—with built-in relationships with local communities, businesses, and labor unions.
Unfortunately, community colleges generally are not well-resourced and lack the cachet to attract large donations. However, there is already bipartisan support to make community college access universal. Both Democratic Governor of California Jerry Brown and Republican Governor of Tennessee Bill Haslan recently signed bills to make part of their state’s community colleges free for adults. With funding and technical assistance from government and philanthropy, these sleeping giants could be unleashed for worker training and lifelong learning.
Allow NASA to save lives and create jobs through innovation
One of the challenges of detecting breast cancer is making sense of hazy, but suspicious, mammogram images. NASA had a similar problem when it needed to make sense of fuzzy images of the universe from the Hubble Telescope. NASA developed a technology to clarify telescopic imaging, which doctors eventually adopted to enhance mammograms for better breast cancer detection.
Research often yields beautiful, unintended benefits. The key is to keep investing. However, America is slipping in this space: by 2018, China is projected to spend twice as much as the United States on late-stage R&D that commercializes research into products and eventually jobs.
The solution lies in renewed commitment by the federal government to invest in research and to facilitate coordination among government, universities, and the private sector to commercialize the research. The United States has, by far, the best research universities and federal labs in the world. We should build on that legacy and invest in the future of jobs—and life-saving technology.
Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) so more people can thrive
The EITC empowers the working class and enjoyed the support of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, both Bush presidents, and Obama. EITC effectively “refunds” the payroll and federal income taxes that working families pay, providing a small and helpful boost to many. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, EITC in 2015 lifted about 6.5 million people out of poverty, including 3.3 million children.
One possibility for the government to consider is to expand EITC to cover low-income Americans without kids; currently 97 percent of the tax benefits go to families with children at home. Another option might be to increase the income threshold of EITC to supplement the wages of middle-class workers who have been battered by trade and automation. Last, but not least, a rebrand is in order to garner more political support: perhaps the “Rewarding Work Tax Credit,” as suggested by former National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling. Let’s tilt the tax code to empower the middle class and those who aspire to join it.
These ideas have worked in the past, and importantly, they have bipartisan support. If we can fight off the tweet-storm siren calls and turn our focus toward finding solutions together as a nation, we can reinvigorate that uniquely American sense of possibility that captured the imagination of a twelve-year-old gazing from a distant shore. With renewed faith in tomorrow, America will win the future.
Kenneth Wun is a Pacific Council member and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.