Sad Truth About America First

Thanksgiving Day, 2018

Thanksgiving seems to be an appropriate time for Americans to be grateful for all we have. By many measures, we are the richest nation in the world. And, considering our aggregate wealth and all our other advantages, we could be a global leader, seeking to chart the path to better lives for the citizens of many poorer nations of the world.

But, alas, the United States is on a different path.

I frequently post my objection to Trump’s “America First” on Facebook. Today I want to emphasize my distaste for that philosophy. This is a selfish policy. We should be equally concerned for the well being of the rest of the world.

The response I normally get goes something like this: We need to first take care of ourselves, so that we’re eventually in a better position to help others. My response is to ask how much we more we need before we can help citizens of other nations? In 2015, there were still 736 million people living on less than $1.90 per day, the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty. And fully half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion, live on less than $2.50 per day. How much do we need to set aside for ourselves before we can try to help them?

Turns out this is an opening to a deep and complex debate, especially for Americans.

One of the issues in this debate is the identity of those supporting America First. I’m sure a number of the supporters are among the disenfranchised of the US–we have many. In official poverty are 39.7 million Americans, and tens of millions more living hand to mouth. Bankrate estimates that 65% of Americans save little and may end up in trouble in retirement.

Yet, the last 40 years have resulted in steadily increasing inequality, now approximately .48 on the Gini index, about the level of the “Robber Baron” era around 1920. The top 10%, 1% and .1% have seen great gains, but the rest of us have seen only stagnant wages, with very little real gain. While wealth inequality is harder to measure, no one argues that wealth inequality is higher (worse) than income inequality.

Obviously, the advance in income and wealth inequality across the last 40 years leaves many justifiably feeling “we” DO need more wealth before we can help others, even here in the US, and are much less able to help elsewhere. For this large segment of our population, support for the America First policy is indeed justified. Maybe our poverty is someone else’s middle class, but that doesn’t matter when I am unsure of food for next month, don’t have health care, and no savings for any emergency.

Sadly, the Trump administration’s response to these conditions is to prey on the the needs with false antagonists (immigrants) and false solutions (the 2017 tax cut which went 80% to the wealthy–more of the failed “trickle down” philosophy).

One of the puzzles I studied last year at Harvard is the question of why don’t such disenfranchised Americans turn out and vote for policies which will enable greater distribution of wages and wealth. They don’t. One of the possible answers goes to the extreme ideology of independence that differentiates the US from other OECD wealthy nations. We are highly oriented toward the view that everyone can make it on their own, if only they try. To vote for higher taxes on the wealthy seems unfair to the successful and also means I might be excessively taxed when I “make it,” which I still hope to do.

I continue to see evidence of the problems caused by inequality. Problems in our governmental focus (too much on other issues, too little on inequality), government allocation of resources, and the influence of inequality on such seemingly distant issues as foreign policy–e.g., “America First.” I believe that sufficient focus on inequality would result in less selfish focus on America first and more on how can we help others. It would enable people to “make it” in their own countries and reduce our need for border walls and the like.

The sad truth about America First is that it is driven, at least in part, by the very high level of inequality we have allowed to arrive here. So far, the Trump administration’s America First is more likely to hurt than to help.

PS: For any Conservative readers, I always need to add that none of us who want an inequality fix are asking for total equality, socialism, etc. We just want more balance, such as we had in the 70s. And, we don’t want to do it through permanent handouts. We want focus on building opportunity for all to be able to obtain skills and find jobs paying a living wage. Yes, difficult, but who knows what could happen if we set our sights on this, instead of America First. We made it to the moon, decades ago.