Now a motivated nation must show it can change

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

The sullen and divisive politics of privilege are over. The citizens of our nation’s capital are friendly, proud and hopeful. Obama-mania is still going strong, with t-shirts, baseball caps, buttons, and bumper stickers proclaiming the 44th President of the United States. I bought my 89-year-old dad a President Obama t-shirt, baseball cap and pin. As soon as I arrived at his home in Vermont, he put them all on, and is sitting by me as I write this, two days later, with the same attire. I just wonder when the t-shirt will get washed!

But hovering over the exhilaration is the question: Will we actually take a step forward for economic opportunity and security and a step away from the coddling of privilege? It is easy to say “Yes, we can.” But it is a lot more difficult to actually succeed. We are all weighed down by the economic mess we are in, and crossing our fingers that President Obama and Congress get things right.

While Obama inherited this mess from George Bush, Democrats also participated in the law-making that allowed Wall Street to gamble our economy into the ground. So now it is not a matter of incremental clawbacks from Bush-era politics. It is not a matter of taking over the “bad assets” of the biggest banks with taxpayer money, while we let the perpetrators keep their billions. It is not a time for corporate welfare writ large. No, we need a whole new way of doing things, a new pathway for middle class security, hope and opportunity.

Finland is experiencing the global downturn as well. In response, the Finns are encouraging people to spend their money, to consume. They are running ads explaining that if you pack your lunch, the local sandwich shop will be losing business and may close down. Here in the United States, the economy has put us in such a great fear that, for once, we are actually saving, even as our incomes fall. The Ad Council and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants are running public service commercials encouraging us to save our money, to not buy our lunches.

So why the contrast between Finland and our country? It has something to do with the strength and weaknesses of our economies. The Finns already have a gross national savings rate double that of the United States. In 2007 the Finns had an $11 billion trade surplus. That is about $2,200 for every Finn. Compare that to a $750 billion trade deficit accumulated by our country. That means that every single American owes the rest of the world almost $2,500, just for 2007.

Finnish workers know that when they retire they will get a pension worth about 60 percent of the average of their best years of work. All Finns have health coverage. They know that their children’s university and technical school education is paid for by the government. Young children in Finland have the right to high quality early childhood education. Parents are guaranteed paid family leave for up to three years to care for their children. And on top of that, the Finnish economy is ranked as one of the top three for doing business — ahead of the United States — by the World Economic Forum.

Now, if you knew that your retirement and health care, your children’s education and your grandchildren’s child care were all secure, you would probably buy your lunch instead of using your Tupperware for a sandwich from home. But Americans don’t have this economic security, so we don’t have that “luxury” right now. Sure, Finns pay higher taxes than we do. But think of what they get, the security they take as normal, the dynamism of their capitalist economy, and how they are proposing to weather the storm.

In our country, the high and haughty politics and financial pirouettes of the last 20 years have bankrupted our country. Middle class families are losing their jobs, their homes, their opportunities and their hope. It is time to chart a new road, a road that holds certain truths to be self-evident, that all of us are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now that is fundamental!

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