The American Dream at risk

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JP Bio PhotoDr. John Psarouthakis, Executive Editor of

I came to the United States carrying almost no baggage except a surname most Americans have trouble pronouncing.  I had $15 in my pocket, a few words of English, and a naïve determination to study at a great engineering school.  My “Boston aunt” had recommended the school, known worldwide by initials I assumed were pronounced “Mitt.”  I soon learned to say “Em Eye Tee.” (MIT).  I did not anglicize “Psarouthakis.” For most of the six decades since I stepped off the boat almost everyone—friends, colleagues, new acquaintances—has avoided the surname problem by calling me “Dr. John.”  Very informal. Very democratic. Very American.

How could I possibly not love this country?  I was an orphan raised by penniless aunts in a poor Mediterranean but charming town.  In America I received a world-class education, did research in a most exotic niche of the U.S. space program, entered the private sector as a technology manager, moved to the business side, learned how to evaluate underachieving companies and how to acquire them.  Riding the American Dream as far as I possibly could, I assembled my own manufacturing firm—following a plan devised on my dining-room table—and made that firm into a Fortune 500 company with units in several countries.  In busy semi-retirement I have written books, promoted cultural exchange programs, done some adjunct university teaching near my home, and am now commuting to Europe three times a year as a guest lecturer at one of the world’s oldest and finest universities.  It has been a long, wonderful journey from the adobe bungalow, without running water, where I grew up.

I tell you these things up front not to brag.  My point reaches in the opposite direction.  I am one among scores of millions of immigrants who stepped off that boat and flourished in a country that is unlike any other.  No nation on earth has presented such fertile opportunity for hyphenated citizens, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, Italian-Americans,  Irish-Americans, Chinese-American . . . a list that spans the globe.  In time, even hyphenated Americans who were brought here under the most heinous human condition, slavery, discovered that opportunity can extend to the #1 job in the land.  As a nation we remain imperfect.  But despite our considerable flaws we remain the best hope for humanity, a true nation of immigrants, the world’s destination of choice.

Sadly—and here is why I am writing these pages—the free-market economy that has made America a unique beacon of prosperity now finds itself in grave imminent danger.  We, and the entire globe, have arrived at a great historical intersection, a time of momentous change with indelible consequences.  Policy choices must be made that will let our economic freedoms continue to flourish in a technological world far more radically different than the “New World” Columbus visited.  Our politicians meanwhile seem amazingly incapable of looking into the future.  Instead our “leaders” look selectively, futilely to the past, vowing to restore old economic glories along pathways that no longer exist, squandering finite resources, seeing no further than the next election cycle (which will begin the day after the current campaign ends).  These politicians and policies will, I fear, choke our great economic engine so badly that a depressed and anxious citizenry will go along with its destruction.  If that happens, if America is allowed to slip off to some cobbled version of European socialism and dependency, we will no longer be unique or even exceptional.  We will have lost not just the energy and creativity that generations newcomers bring to this shore.  We will have lost the reason they want to come.

One is supposed to avoid trying to communicate while angry.  But honesty aids communication, and I need to express my thoughts by admitting I am angry about what has happened to this country since I arrived and began my journey of opportunity.  The American people have been lied to and misled by political elites and by dumbed-down news media, a pair of institutions that now feed off each other 24/7 while barely putting anything more substantial than a sound bite on the table.  True, the American people themselves bear some responsibility for not demanding better fare.  But when people are being led by the nose toward a cliff, it’s the leaders who must be held accountable.  My anger aims mostly in their direction because they should know better.  Most of them do know better.  But shallow populism wins votes, and even shallower journalism wins ratings.  So here we are, teetering on the edge of a state-dominated economy and society that would mean the end of America as I have known it.  And, yes, I am angry about that.  I am not here to shout, though.  Instead I am offering ten essays to be posted, one at a time, and I hope you will find them to be thoughtful “good reads.”  I hope, of course, that these essays will contribute to discussions-debate and decisions that will help save our free-market economy.

The great four-way intersection of our time is both complex and easy to understand.  Does anyone not realize that technology, globalization, a need for pragmatic changes in education, and a new role for manufacturing in our society define the parameters of whether the United States surges to new heights (or sinks into mediocrity) in a brand-new world?  An infinite number of policies and possibilities await smart decisions and agile execution.  That’s complex, for sure.  But defining those four elements as the playing field is easy.  Our leadership, though, has muddled through decades of failing to understand, finally, that new technology cannot be put back in the bottle, that globalization is a full-bore fact of life, that education’s nightmare is the promising freshman who is obsolete by graduation day, and that manufacturing—well, let me say for now that we have to let the old go, and we have to nurture the new.

I believe America’s unique economic engine for opportunity can, to borrow from William Faulkner, not merely endure but prevail.  But for that to happen we need to grasp the impact of those four elements in a world that is changing at incredible speed (perhaps I should say “incredible to someone old enough to remember when change came much slower”).  The longer we refuse to learn to compete within the new realities, the noisier the populist shout will demand killing the goose that laid the golden egg for all of us.  We have a serious unemployment problem.  That cannot be denied.  We have a disappearing middle class.  That cannot be denied.  We have a debt problem so severe it becomes difficult to make honest choices for the future.  That cannot be denied.  But if these serious issues are allowed to push America away from a (relatively) free-market-economy, and away from a    (relatively) limited-government model, then our goose is cooked

This set of essays does not deny that capitalism has cycled into a period where it has become less efficient at providing a livelihood for the citizenry.  That much is painfully evident.  What will be argued is that there is need for a modified, 21st Century capitalism, one that will provide the best possible lives and livelihoods for all Americans, and for anyone else who cares to adapt the once and future standard for the world.

The alternative is simply not acceptable.


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