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Which Way for the Soul of America? – November 2018

November 3, 2018…….and 72 hours before a midterm election that is likely to be remembered months, years, and perhaps decades ahead. Most pundits are saying that the Democrats are likely to regain control of the House. I don’t know about this. I only know that more than any time in my adult life I’ve paid attention daily to the utterances and actions of our President. Trump would dismiss me as a consumer of “fake news” too “elite” to appreciate the great things he has accomplished in just two years in office: the US economy is booming reflected in a 3.7% unemployment rate, real wages have started to rise for the first time in years, Mexico and Canada as trading partners are treating the US more fairly and he will see that China does too. In truth, Trump lies so much that I truly don’t know if he is serious when he says he’ll go down in history as one of if not the greatest US Presidents ever. I do know that I am terribly saddened by the intense polarization in our country; tremendously upset by Trump’s fascist instincts and modeling. I worry that our country will not attack its core structural issues.

Despite this, as an optimist and an inherent believer in the basic goodness of most people I believe a silver lining can be found in the chaos and divisions and fears the 45th President of the United States has encouraged. Here’s why: If Trump’s behavior, words, and deeds stimulate the nation to seriously question where it is headed now, where it wants to go for the generations that follow, and how to “get there” his contribution to progress for all Americans should make us grateful. But be forewarned that my prior expressions of hope in the political realm have been either naive or stupid or some of both. Right after Trump was elected and many of my liberal friends despaired I was the guy who wrote them urging all to give Trump a chance – after all, the ardent anti-Communist Richard Nixon opened up China. You may recall that Nixon in 1972 was the first U.S. President to visit China ending 25 years of no communication or diplomatic ties between the two countries.

I write below about three seemingly disparate books that I encourage you to read. In my mind they are connected reminders about the importance of reading, learning, and thinking about why things are the way they are; which things are truly critical to change to make the U.S. a better place in the future; and the ways folk can find agreement and make that happen.

Jon Meacham in his book “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels” reminds us, says the Washington Times, that “the show- over- substance, the racial divide and the violence and the political divide and all else- has a single root: Fear. We may be afraid says Meacham, but we should not be. We are not doomed. We have been here before. And that is what makes us Americans. “The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest in the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.”

“There is in fact no struggle more important and none nobler than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle…..

“For all of our darker impulses, for all of the dreams claimed and deferred, the experiment began so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight”

But the foundation of this fight (Roger’s words) must be waged with a knowledge of facts; an appreciation of past history and present context; and a vision of a better future for all.

I love how Meacham writes and the frequent quotes he uses to provide perspective and hope. To whit: Strom Thurmond when he was the Dixiecrat candidate for President in 1948 said this about Truman’s civil rights program, one that included anti-lynching and protections against racial discrimination in hiring: “Such measures would undermine the American way of life and outrage the Bill of Rights.”

Truman’s own words spoken 70 years ago eerily echo today’s: “For political background the Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year.” He told reporters “They tried Welfare State. They tried Socalism… and there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to drag up that old malodorous dead horse called isolationism and in order to do this are perfectly willing to sabotage the bi-partisan foreign policy of the U.S.”

In many many ways the U.S. has changed for the better. Storm Thurmond, for example, later in his life expressed sincere regret about his views on civil rights and, in fact, as a Senator along with Joe Biden became a major supporter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Meacham is optimistic that given our history Americans will in the end do the right thing by their fellow citizens. I am less sanguine after reading Anu Partanen’s book “The Nordic Theory of Everything, In Search of a Better Life. Anu, born and raised in Finland, as a young adult fell in love with an American writer and teacher. She left Finland-hence losing her health care coverage- and moved to Brooklyn. Her book is about the contrast in life for women in the two countries. She makes a fascinating point- when Americans think about the Nordic countries they see Nanny socialism; a homogenous population, and high taxes. What they don’t see is the tremendous amount of freedom and equity opportunity all of Finland’s citizen’s have because the country is very clear about the responsibilities of their government to provide directly or indirectly affordable health care, education, elder care, and employment opportunities for women. I do not do her justice so you should read this extraordinary book. Beforehand, however, think about how many young Americans you know who are worried about being able to pay off student debt, households living pay check to pay check with sick children, middle aged Americans figuring out how to care for aging parents and the implications for their own lives, the ever increasing income disparity, and what it is like for good spirited people of all races and regions to feel that they are indeed pushing a rock up hill because our political system has failed them. Partanen writes, “Seen from a Nordic perspective, the U.S. is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future.”

I think she is right about this but unless the political discourse changes dramatically with people of widely differing opinions willing to listen to another’s point of view, willing to think and act for the long term good of the country and world and require (to the extent possible) facts before voting we will remain past rather than future oriented.

The slogan “Make America Great Again” may work well on hats but ignores these facts that should stimulate substantive non-special interest planning on what we as Americans working together need to do to change these statistics for the U.S. so we can make America Even Greater:

  • In 2017 the average American had less than $4000 in savings.
  • 78% of full time U.S. workers in 2017 reported living pay check to pay check.
  • In a 2013 UNICEF study the U.S. had the second highest relative child poverty rate among developed countries.
  • The U.S. ranked 28th in a 2015 World Economic Forum study measuring the gap between men and women in different countries around the world in terms of (1) economic participation and opportunity; (2) educational attainment; (3) health and survival; and (4) political empowerment.
  • In 2014 there was @$1.3 trillion student loan debt in the U.S. that affected 44 million borrowers with an average outstanding balance of $37,172.
  • In 2012, comparing 15 year olds in all developed countries in math, reading, and science the U.S. ranked 21st among 34 OECD countries in combined performance/ 27th in math.
  • The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that the U.S. leads the developed world in civilian gun violence. In 2015 36,252 died as a result of gun violence exceeding the number of motor vehicle deaths by 100.
  • State prisons have a five year rearrest rate of 77% and Federal prisons 45%.
  • The U.S. spends $10,300 annually per person for health care (18% of its GDP) and according to the World Health Organization ranks 37th. Contrast this with #1 ranked France which spends $4600; Italy ranked #2 and spends $3390 per person; the United Kingdom ranks 18th and spends $4192 or 6% of its GDP; or Canada that ranks 30th and spends $4753 per person on health care.**

**To be sure, one could debate how to prioritize these nine illustrative factoids and the implications of each standing alone or as an element in a logical grouping. Numerous books and articles no doubt have already been written about each and a cottage industry of academic experts, researchers, and conference organizers have earned millions and millions of dollars making recommendations to policy makers. But a legitimate question remains: why is it that brilliant U.S. researchers, pragmatic academics, socially oriented successful entrepreneurs, capable policy makers, and visionary politicians have to date been unable to create a cost effective and affordable health care plan and educational options for every American. Think about the inherent incongruity that is at the core of the American health care system: Most Americans are insured via a publicly held company whose ultimate measure of success is their profit and that amount tied to how they can limit approved expenditures for your care. A visiting Martian looking at this situation for the first time would say we are crazy. And if they were a big picture type Martian they’d say absent honest, empathetic, open, and loving leadership by our President and elected officials of both parties everywhere working together to develop and implement knowledge based long term plans, all our grandchildren whether black, white, or brown, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslin, whether heterosexual, gay, or transgender will be asking: “How could we as a nation with all of our blessings and resources not do better?”

Going forward we must figure out how to address the valid concerns of Trump’s base; expose and marginalize the haters; balance sensibly our historical commitments to free speech and use of this new internet power to cause murder and destruction; and find and elect our modern Lincoln’s- a tall order to be sure. But there is hope and it can be found in every corner of America in various forms. My third book recommendation, “Astroball, The New Way To Win It All” by Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter is a timely micro example.


Reiter in 2014 predicted that the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, would win the World Series in 2017. Any student of our national pastime, any entrepreneur, and anyone wanting to lead social and political change will find this book interesting and relevant. It’s all there- the importance of analyzing a problem correctly; being willing to challenge long held beliefs and do things differently to achieve a common goal; employing effectively all of the modern technical tools available to gain knowledge; and how to successfully obtain and select the “right data” and successfully combine it with the judgements of folk with high emotional intelligence and deep experience to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. Good spirited Democrats and Republicans take heart!

Also take the time to get together- I know this from personal experience- and ask each other to write down the answer to this question before any discussion: “If money we’re not an issue and you were President of the U.S. for a single six year term what changes would you make for the good of the country? I guarantee you will be surprised at the degree of commonality.

As I close this personal note, I want to thank my good friend and voracious reader, Ben Emdin, who called me and said “Roger, you have to read The Nordic Theory of Everything.” He was right.



It is now just 27 hours to midnight November 6, 2018 and I am watching the morning news. The first ad I see is a Republican one showing a “caravan” of migrants from Honduras seeking asylum in the U.S. Our President describes them as a bunch of criminals and bad men and their “invading” caravan a threat to U.S. security. In the next clip Trump states the African American candidates for governor in Florida and Georgia, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, are not equipped to be President, Will we wake up November 7, 2018 and learn our Better Angels have won this particular battle?

Roger Ralph