Beginning in the 1970s, University of Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart proposed a theory about a “post-materialistic” America (and indeed, world) in which national focus would switch from economic and militaristic build-up, and concentrate on the proliferation of social change fueled by a desire for “self-expression.” The events–and rapid social change–of the past four decades seem to have provided evidence to support this theory. Turn on the television, open up a web browser, or even watch proceedings in Congress, and you will find coverage on a whole host of issues that have little to do with the economy. Of course, the recent “Great Recession” propelled economic issues to the forefront for a time, but media today hardly spare our economic problems a passing glance.
A part of me is happy that our nation has created a society in which economic growth does not need one hundred percent of its attention. It is a decidedly good thing to have a prosperous nation in which the vast majority of us are fed, sheltered, and not living desperately.
However, we must also remember that the American economy will not remain unchanged forever. A basic comparison of today’s economy, with its technological boom, large service sector, and urbanized markets with the 1800s economy of rural, agrarian workers and limited trade reach shows just how dramatic that change can be. Regardless of the form that it takes, the economy is vital to the nation’s health. Preserving individual rights and educating young people are vital to any nation-state, but food and other physical necessities are vital to people.
If a nation is a ship, then an economy is surely its engine. Engines sometimes need tune-ups, or even overhauls, but in the end the ship cannot sail without the power of the engine. If we fail to treat the engine properly and forego the necessary maintenance, it begins to sputter. And that is the situation we face today.
It is not that other issues are unimportant, it is that this issue is vital and needs attention. Now.
Today, 41% of Americans report moderate or high economic insecurity, and 72% of Americans think the nation is still in recession–even though the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. While Americans continue to prioritize economic well-being, politicians and other leaders either fail to take heed or are unable to solve our economic woes. For a nation seemingly pulled in every direction and embroiled in rapid social change, it is glaringly obvious that our economic engine has sputtered in the wake of the Great Recession. The United States has yet to return to pre-recession employment levels, and GDP growth is far from ideal.
Perhaps the most jarring reports concern Americans’ outlook for the future. These are disturbing: according to the American Values Survey, just 42% of Americans believe in the American Dream, and 49% of Americans say that their own generation will be better off financially than the next generation. These figures should shock us: the American Dream is one of the foundations of our culture, for industriousness is as much a founding virtue as individual liberty.
The fact that so many Americans are struggling with their finances and have lost confidence in our very way of life should be enough to force government action to address our economic issues. There is no individual law that will fix the American Dream. No one company can accelerate the economy, and no magic spell exists that will feed all the needy and provide steady jobs for everyone. However, if Americans turn their attention to the current and long-term states of the economy, our national engine can roar again.
If we allow sound economic minds to identify the strengths and weaknesses of today’s economy, we can have realistic solutions for tomorrow. If we strengthen our educational system, empower our innovators, and attract the world’s finest minds, we can provide the nation with improved economic and personal well-being and ensure a better quality of life for all Americans. But most importantly, if we work hard to excel in our our jobs, families, and communities, we can make real changes and improvements to not only our economy, but our way of life. A free nation, and more specifically a free economy, allows this to happen. We have done this in our past, are doing it in the present, and will do so in the future.
We, as citizens and communities, can improve our nation as our predecessors did. The restoration of faith in the American Dream and individual liberty is essential to the future success of our nation. We can continue to fix social ills and fulfill our role as a global superpower, but we must secure our foundation by shoring up our economy. Only when we commit to restoring and maintaining an economic environment that nurtures the American Dream will we begin to address the many other needs of the nation.