The change we need starts with our values.
In 2008, the CEO of Ford Motors profited 21.7 million, and yet his company saw a 7.5 billion loss. The CEO of General Motors took home 15.7 million; his company recorded a 15.9 billion loss. Toyota made $5 billion whereas their CEO earned a salary of $1 million.
It would take a lifetime for a minimum wage worker to earn what these American executives make in a month. The problem with our economy is not the productivity of the workers; it is the lack of innovation, sloth and greed displayed by our business leaders. When greed is allowed to govern despite poor performance, the results are catastrophic.
Economic collapse, repossessed housing, growing personal debt, unemployment, and two wars make it imperative that we rethink the government's role. When Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem, he in essence declared war on ourselves. Reagan's personal spite against taxes and regulation legitimized greed, by implying that we do not have to work together for the common good.
In the 20th century, there have been three times when our nation bootstrapped itself out of great economic and social woes. Vital to these transformations (but remarkably absent from today's political discourse) was an investment in education and training. Our true capital is in people rather than stocks. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the G.I. Bill and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society all show what people, working for a common purpose, can achieve.
FDR's New Deal provided opportunities for human growth. Inaction would only drive us deeper into the depression, and so he implemented initiatives that relied on practitioners to do the work. He acted swiftly, partly from altruism, but also because the times demanded extraordinary action. The G.I. Bill of 1944 offered yet another shift in the federal government's role. Creating jobs and providing relief to veterans transferred an individual's earning potential from a raw skill base to a knowledge base. The G.I. Bill kept unemployment rates low and brought a tremendous return. The knowledge of 14 Nobel Prize winners, 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers continues to strengthen our nation's fiber, all of whom got their start with this investment in their education. Postwar America was transformed not by hands-off deregulation of the free market but by the greatness of the minds who contributed to it.
Even more so today, the strength of our economy depends on innovative ideas, ethical management and conscientious citizens. In part, Lyndon Johnson proposed the Great Society for the sake of rebuilding our nation's internal strength. He also did it because it was a moral imperative. While the Constitution empowers the government to "promote the general welfare," never had this authority been used to empower the people in such a dramatic way.
The government also took on a new role in shaping educational policy. In the 1965 education act, the role was to assist states, school districts, and children in poverty. As evidenced by the biographies of our next president and first lady, the Great Society created a system that ensures educational opportunities regardless of race, gender and class. We have yet to fulfill that promise. Yet, we have reason to celebrate the gains that were achieved in these reformations of our society. Today, our nation's greatness is threatened because we failed to consistently value and invest in human capital, education and training.
During President-elect Obama's campaign we heard "Yes We Can." Our 20th century history reminds us that, indeed, we already have.
Today, there are two camps of thought. One is that Vermont needs to cut spending and taxes. The other is that our current economic woes can only be resolved by a massive investment in human capital. In the short run, we must attend to the needs of the poor, the unemployed and the needy. In the long run, we need knowledgeable citizens, prepared to build new businesses and we need astute leaders.
Our history reminds us that we must not shrink away. We must invest in the knowledge of our people.
Kendra Rickerby is an English teacher at South Burlington High School. She coordinates the Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring (DREAM) project and is secretary for the Vermont-Honduras chapter of Partners for the Americas. Her students help senior citizens navigate the Medicaid D website to obtain more affordable prescriptions.
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