By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Last November millions of people voted to make America great again, which begs several questions. Did America used to be great? If so, when? Are we not great now? If not, why not? Can we be great again? How do we get there?
It certainly seems that, on one level, we’re as great as we’ve ever been. Individuals, businesses and organizations continue to make amazing advancements in science, medicine, technology and engineering. Auto manufacturers are building self-driving cars. Amazon is working toward delivery by drone. Medical engineers have developed prosthetics that operate on brain impulses. Medical researchers have discovered how to trigger the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Advancements in many areas of human endeavor are coming so fast, you wonder how different our lives will be just 10 years from now. America leads the way in most of these areas.
Where we seem to have lost our greatness, however, is in the area of communal action. We appear to have lost the ability or perhaps the desire to join together to solve common problems and promote the general welfare. In that realm, Donald Trump is right, we don’t do great things anymore.
As I travel around America, I’m always struck by our accomplishments of the past. In the 1930s we not only pulled together as a nation to put millions of people back to work during the Great Depression, we built thousands of projects large and small all across the country: the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam, for example. We created the Tennessee Valley Authority and brought electric power to the Southeast. Right here in Southern Illinois, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Pere Marquette Lodge in Grafton and the Giant City Lodge in Makanda.
During the 1940s we waged total war in both Europe and the Pacific, defeated fascism, developed nuclear energy, rebuilt a devastated Europe through the Marshall Plan, sent war veterans to college and helped them buy homes through the GI Bill.
In the 1950s we prevented the communists from overrunning the Korean peninsula, created NASA and started the interstate highway system.
The ’60s saw us build much of the 48,000-mile interstate highway system and put a man on the moon all while fighting a war in Viet Nam with a million boots on the ground. We also kept the cost of higher education affordable. In 1967, it cost less than $1,000 a year to attend the University of Illinois — including room and board.
This is only a tiny fraction of what we did together over those decades. And, believe it or not, while we were building roads and bridges, fighting wars, sending men to the moon and providing affordable higher education for our kids and veterans, the national debt never topped $1 trillion. That’s because we paid our way.
That all changed in the 1980s. Now, our roads and bridges are crumbling; a year at the U of I will set you back $35,000; and, if our astronauts want to get into space, they have to hitch a ride with the Russians. Meanwhile, our national debt is just a few bucks short of $20 trillion.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues an Infrastructure Report Card, grading 16 categories of America’s infrastructure from aviation to waste water treatment. The last time we were a C student was 1988. We’ve drawn straight Ds since then. The ASCE estimates that we need to invest more than $4.5 trillion between now and 2025 in order to bring our grade up to a B — that’s the amount of the entire national budget.
The report goes on to warn that not making these investments, “risks rising costs, falling business productivity, plummeting GDP, lost jobs, and ultimately, reduced disposable income for every American family.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is promising both the largest tax cut in American history and a $1 trillion infrastructure program. As they say in the South, “That dog don’t hunt.”
We all know the expression: There’s no free lunch. Well, greatness isn’t free either. If you want great airports, roads, bridges, dams, drinking water, power, waterways, levees and ports, parks and schools and transit systems, you have to be willing to pay for them.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1977.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS