When I hear the phrase “structural problems” coming out of the mouths of elected officials, candidates or political pundits, I immediately assume that I’m about to get another lecture on America’s crumbling infrastructure. (And make no mistake, there are more than a few bridges and roadways that need some work. Pennsylvanians don’t say that their state bird is the traffic cone for nothing.) But this weekend, our colleague John Hawkins has knocked together one of his big five lists on a similar sounding topic with, The 5 Structural Problems That Are Destroying America.
We’re not talking about interstates in need of new guard rails here. Following is a thumbnail view of the big five so you can see where he’s going with this. (Obviously, the full dose is available at the link.)
1) Insufficient Turnover In Congress: Because of gerrymandering, political polarization, and a lack of term limits, Congress has turned into a stagnant pond.
2) A Broken Education System: The primary goal of our education is not to educate our students; it’s to sustain the teachers’ unions and fatten the bank accounts of the college professors and administrators at our universities.
3) Unsustainable Spending: It is quite literally impossible to pay off the debt our nation owes along with the commitment we’ve made to our own citizens via Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security unless inflation dramatically reduces the value of our currency which would erode savings, drive cost-of-living expenses into the stratosphere and generally decimate the economy.
4) Our Immigration Policies: An ideal immigration policy would be based on merit, would focus on adding highly skilled immigrants, would be easily adjustable, wouldn’t change the demographics of our country and would be simple and inexpensive for law-abiding immigrants. Our current system meets none of these requirements.
5) An Overly-Progressive Tax System: America doesn’t have the highest taxes in the Western world, but it does have the most progressive tax system in the Western world. As a practical matter, what this means is that we have large numbers of Americans voting on whether others should pay more taxes in order to give them things.
It’s not that I really disagree with any of those five items. (Honestly, what rational person would deny any of them?) But when I think of the word structural what comes to mind is something deeper… something at the foundation of the building. I try to summon up what those things are which form the foundation on which all of our marvelous achievements rest, and it’s something deeper than tax policy, crumbling schools or term limits. What all of America is built upon is the family and the social fabric which is supposed to hold the people together and generally urge the vast majority in the boat to keep rowing in the same direction.
Family and community are, in my never very humble opinion, where the real structural deficiencies in the country are found. There is no number of stunning buildings, hopeful businesses or opulent mansions which can last for long without people who honestly care and are invested in their joint need to grow and prosper. When families fail, communities weaken and everything around them begins to unravel. The divorce rate is surging back up, and far too many children are growing up in single parent homes.
General cultural decline is not hard to find either, with examples too numerous to list here. In a strong community, neighbors can rely on each other. They watch out for each others homes when they are away, and when the bad guys come, they should be banding together to notify the authorities and fight to keep the barbarians away from the gates. But when the family and the neighborhoods break down, everything built on top of this foundation rots away on top of it. And that’s the real structural problem that’s messing us up.