By Brian Brinker:
Donald Trump campaigned with a promise to “make America great again,” and soon he’ll have the opportunity to make good on his promises. Trump will be inheriting a tough situation. Many Americans are struggling with the globalized economy, the United States’ military-might appears to be losing its edge, and a once uni-polar world is now turning multi-polar. All the while, the United States, a country once known for its largess and ability to fund projects around the world is now being buried under massive deficits.
Given these challenges, it should come as no surprise that many Americans supported Trump’s plan to “restore” America to its former glory. Promising to make America great again was certainly a great campaign slogan, but what would it actually mean to do so? So far, Trump’s campaign and incoming administration has been policy light, but the Commander-in-Chief has made it clear that he’s going to angle for some big changes. The point here isn’t to doubt whether Trump will strive to make America great again, but instead to look into our more industrious past to figure out what making America great again would actually entail.
America Needs a World-Class Infrastructure
Trump has already promised to revamp America’s aging and crumbling infrastructure, and he should be lauded for his ambitions, even if you disagree with his methods. America’s infrastructure isn’t flashy, but it’s essentially the 8th wonder of the Modern World. When America built its modern highway system in the aftermath of World War II, it was the largest and most ambitious construction project ever undertaken, completely without peer. Across the country, bridges spanned rivers, ports facilitated trade, and urbanization accelerated.
Now, the Logistic Performance Index ranks the United States’ infrastructure at only 10th in the world. Who’s in first place? Germany, which is also home to one of the most successful modern economies. Worse yet, while the United States still has a solid infrastructure, it’s quickly aging and without investments could start collapsing. A study released by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that nearly 60,000 bridges in the United States were “structurally deficient”. Another study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the nation’s poor infrastructure is costing the average American family $3,400 dollars per year due to factors such as wear and tear and poor gas mileage.
In regards to making America great again, Trump appears to be off to a good start by focusing on infrastructure. Yet there are legitimate concerns over his proposed methods. Some claim that Trump’s efforts to offer tax breaks to private companies who engage in infrastructure development will only enrich well-positioned companies, and that money won’t be directed to where need is most critical. Often, the most critical construction projects are also the ones that offer the least potential for profits. These are legitimate concerns, and hopefully the Trump administration will address them.
Scientific Might is a Must for Military Might
During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the United States suffered a communist scare. While the response at times devolved into an outlandish witch hunt, America had plenty of reasons to worry as the Soviet Union was evolving into a major global threat. Before the Soviet Union was ravaged by World War II, it was a poor, backwards country. After World War II, it was a poor, backwards country that had been bombed back into the Stone Age. Yet, within a matter of years the Soviet Union grew into a major world power. While the command economy is a failed, atrocious form of government, it proved effective at a few things, including driving industrial and basic scientific development.
The Soviet Union developed the atom bomb in August of 1949, just four years after the US ushered the world into the nuclear age by bombing Hiroshima. It was the Soviets who reached the first milestone in the space race, and for a time many policy leaders were worried that the Soviet Union’s economy and scientific prowess would actually surpass America’s. At the time, the Soviets appeared to be sacrificing freedom for economic and scientific might, and the results, especially from the outside, looked astounding. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’d learn that quite a bit of it was Soviet bluster.)
America responded. During the 1940’s and 50’s vast amounts of resources were poured into scientific development. The military was one of the largest beneficiaries with the renowned Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) established in 1958. Universities were also greatly expanded, and many of America’s now most prominent state universities emerged because the government poured resources into expanding the higher education community. The government’s generous G.I. Bill also encouraged America’s hero-soldiers to advance their lives by advancing their knowledge.
By the late 1960’s and 70’s, the United States was pulling far ahead of the Soviet Union. Why and how? The United States invested heavily in science, technology, and research. Much of the funds went to military research labs, but there were also a lot of tie-ins with private companies, universities, and other organizations. Now, to stay ahead of modern economic and military rivals, the United States should once again become a nation of scientists and researchers.
The Internet, GPS, satellites, and numerous other technologies were the result of government investments in scientific research. Yet as budget deficits have forced the United States to closely reconsider its spending, scientific research has become one of the top targets for cuts. While the government has every right to ensure that its money is spent prudently, reducing our scientific might would be a huge mistake.
Affordable Education & Affordable Health Care
The United States currently has some of the most expensive health care and college tuition costs in the world. Tuition at many in-state universities now tops $10,000 dollars a year. While it’s tempting to slam young students for wanting more affordable education, it’s important to remember that high tuition prices are actually a historical anomaly. In 1976, tuition at in-state four year universities averaged only $2,600 dollars per year (2016 dollars). Up until the turn of the millennium, in-state tuition prices stayed under $5,000 dollars (2016 dollars), but over the past several years prices have been skyrocketing.
Why have tuition prices been rising? The issue is complicated, but academic staff (i.e. professors) and their salaries have largely remained constant. In other words, while it’s tempting to blame professors, they likely aren’t the cause. Instead, college bureaucracies have expanded immensely. Part of the reason college administrations have grown so fat may boil down to government guaranteed student loans, a policy that may have been well-intended but which ultimately may have allowed universities to expand administrative staff while putting the burden on the backs of families and students. Government support, especially at the state level, has also dried up over the past several years.
It’s difficult to determine how Trump could lower college tuition prices, but affordable education was long a pillar of American society. As America continues to push into a post-industrial age, education will be all the more vital. Education shouldn’t be thought of just in terms of universities, we also have to increase emphasis on practical education, such as skilled trades. Regardless, allowing Americans to advance their skills through education is essential.
Finally, health care costs in the United States continue to spiral out of control. Whether the answer is increased market forces and privatization, or a form of universal health care, or something else, is debatable. Yet, actually debating health care and addressing the issues is rare, and when our glorious politicians do start pushing for reform, far too often their proposed policies are loaded with special interests.
In 2015 approximately 17.5% of America’s GDP was spent on health care. This includes private insurance, out of pocket spending, and government spending. In France, with its socialist health care system, spending was only 11.5% of GDP, and in Japan, with its health insurance based system, spending totaled only 10.2%. There is no perfect health care system in the world, and in many areas America’s system excels (i.e. cancer treatment). Still, the costs are now so great that it’s becoming a drain on private industry, small businesses, and families. Something has to change.
This wasn’t always the case. In 1960, arguably the height of the golden age in America, health care spending was only 5% of the GDP. Much of the growth in health care expenditures is the result of advanced medical treatments that keep people alive longer, but with American health care costs far exceeding global averages, it may be possible to bring costs under control.
Can Trump lower health care costs and college tuition? Who knows, but doing so would go a long way towards making America great again. Money spent on health care can’t be spent or invested elsewhere, and sick people are less productive. Meanwhile, discouraging people from attending college or skills training will only reduce the competency of the American people, increasing the risks of falling behind global rivals.
The same can be said of shifting resources away from research and development, or not investing in our infrastructure. We must now compete in a global economy, and if we ignore or fail to cultivate our competitive advantages, the United States will only fall further behind. Far too often our politicians are more interested in pursuing their own special interests, rather than leading America into the brave new world. If we truly want to make America great again, we need to embrace the ideas of our past, when college and health care was affordable, and when our scientific community and infrastructure led the world.
Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.