Will 2014 be a good year or a challenging year? That is up to us.
Challenges abound. We live in the Divided States of America, and the gap widens each year. For generations now, we have been in the unenviable position atop the global economic pecking order — unenviable because we suffer from the winner’s curse of complacency. Meanwhile, other nations covet our position and have been racing to push us from our perch.
2014 could be pivotal.
A defining quality of the American people is our love and affection for the underdog, the downtrodden, and the Hail-Mary pass.
I’ve not seen an era when inequality has been so wide, unemployment consistently so high, and a cohesive national plan so elusive. Nor has there been a time when our nation has been so divided.
Some harken back to the late ‘60s as a similarly divided nation. Those who took patriotic pride in our nation fought a cultural war against those who were on the verge of being drafted to fight a war of tragic consequences. Yet, most people then still harbored optimism for our nation.
Those who fought that 1960s cultural war so captured by Meathead and Archie on “All in the Family” still believed that America was the land of opportunity. Everyone who worked hard could secure their piece of American pie. Business was good, unions represented values that protected the entire working class, and government constituted a smaller share of the economic pie. The nation yearned for leaders who could cement together such institutions.
That concrete foundation of shared values has eroded, just as has the foundation of our nation, rich and poor alike. The share of wealth that goes to the working middle class erodes each year too, while the zealots from either party have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us.
These are all good things, though. They have bred a frustration with politics and power, and have produced a more entrepreneurial spirit that requires us all to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Such broad-based sentiment is precisely what we need to remake our national economy. With a bit of good leadership and a bit more luck, this might be the year to do it.
What would I like to see in 2014?
I would like to see the moderate middle define our political policies. Already we have here a renewed interest in local politics, with more progressive and visionary attitudes articulated for the first time in recent memory. Our congressman is part of a moderate coalition that is willing to work across party lines to reach compromise. Even the majority leader of the Republican house has responded to overly ideological and uncompromising policy with, “Are you kidding me?!” We are well on our way to a middle ground that invests more in the working and middle class, provides a hand up to those less fortunate, and sows the seeds of future prosperity and competitiveness.
We now acknowledge education is the pathway to global competitiveness and economic relevance. We have fond memories of a teacher who made a difference in our lives. We believe in teachers, but we expect more from our institutions. Somewhere along the way we decided every student ought to go to college. That’s the easy way out. It left us with less responsibility to determine precisely where each child could best contribute as a productive member of our economy based on their interests, not ours for them.
At the same time, we ask our colleges to teach, but have given them little guidance on what to teach or how they can best fuel the next innovation wave. We did so under the guise of empowerment, which has become the nouveau lazy way out, despite its noble tone.
Let’s seize the opportunity to shore the foundation of our divided nation. My hope for 2014 is to see schools, unions and businesses re-energize vocational training in advanced manufacturing to bring high-paying jobs to our region before they go elsewhere. We have a unique opportunity to raise wages and offer our children the opportunity they don’t sense they have now. Are we up to it?
Colin Read chairs the finance and economics faculty at SUNY Plattsburgh and has published a dozen books on global finance and economics.