Rebuild America

Remarks to the Glide Foundation by Roger McNamee

June 27, 2008

It’s an honor to be here today.  For me, Glide embodies what is good about America.  It is a community that comes together to make life better for thousands of people who need help.  It’s the kind of thing people like to talk about, but few act on.   

I am here today because I think it’s time to Rebuild America.  I use the term “rebuilding” in the broadest possible sense. 

Polls indicate that the American public believes the country is going in the wrong direction.  Let me see a show of hands . . . how many of you think the country is off track?

I would like to suggest that America is in need of an extreme makeover.  Having an economy based on oil is no longer viable. 

Being the world’s policeman is not working, either.  And standards of living in this country are falling.  At current course and speed, our country will become a has-been within a generation. 

We don’t need to go there.  We can rebuild. 

We are faced with a singular opportunity to re-invent America as we rebuild it.  But we don’t have any time to waste.

And here’s the good news.  Glide is a model for how to get communities engaged in addressing real problems.  The scale of our country’s issues is beyond the scope of government.  We need to get everyone involved.  The techniques that Glide uses need to be applied everywhere. 

At Glide, you work in your community.  You have a high leverage strategy.  And you have been demonstrably successful. 

Our country is at a crossroads.  Cable news pundits characterize this moment as a battle of political philosophy between red and blue.  I agree that the choice between presidential candidates is as stark is it can get.  But I think it would be a terrible mistake to view the current situation as just another presidential election.  If you just watch the candidates, you might reasonably conclude just that: this seems to be a normal election.  But it’s not.  This election is an opportunity to rebuild the American Dream.  If we fail to take advantage of the opportunity, we may not see its like again. 

This illustrates how easy it is to see facts, but misinterpret their meaning.  

I fear we are risk of making that mistake now, as we prepare for the election.  The press is covering the presidential campaign from a zillion angles, but I don’t see many people asking the question that I believe is most important: 

“What exactly is the problem we need to solve in this election?” 

It’s not just that Bush has been an unpopular president.  Or that the war in Iraq may cost trillions.  Or that the war has now lasted longer than World War II.  Or that our economy is tottering on the brink of recession.  Or that our housing market is in free fall.  Or that unemployment is rising.  

It is all of these things and more: 

·      Our health care insurance system is broken. 

·      Our nation’s bridges, roads, and levees are breaking down. 

·      Our public education system produces too many high school graduates who can’t find China on a map. 

·      1% of our citizens are in prison. 

·      City streets are filled with people who have been left behind by society.

·      And the rest of the world holds us in low regard because of our foreign policy mistakes.

No matter what the candidates think this campaign is about, the winner will have to deal with that list of problems and more.  This is a situation that begs for courage, leadership, and a national commitment to Rebuild America.  Rebuilding seems like such an obvious thing to do.  Unfortunately, a disappointingly large portion of the population looks at all of this, shrugs their shoulders, and says, “it’s not my problem.”  That’s why Ground Zero is still a hole in the ground nearly seven years later.  People believe it’s not their problem because our leaders have not been open and honest about the challenges that our country faces.  

Unfortunately, politicians have spent recent years battling over ideology while the foundation of our country crumbled.  They have used fear for political advantage.  Fear of terrorists.  Fear of immigrants.  Fear of liberals.  Fear of neocons.  Too many politicians have used power for personal and economic gain, rather than the greater good.  

Sadly, so have leaders in many domains of American society.  Just think of all the big shots who have been busted in recent years for things that were hypocritical, as well as illegal.  Congressmen taking kickbacks or bribes.  Senators soliciting sex in airport bathrooms.  Mega-church pastors and Catholic <!–[if supportFields]> CONTACT _Con-3C333A9125B4 <![endif]–>priests doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.   Corporate CEOs doing different things they shouldn’t have been doing.  Sports stars and referees caught cheating.  It’s no surprise that so many people have become cynical<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.  

Let’s get past that, right here, right now.  First, we have to admit that America is not as good as it could be.  Then we have to commit ourselves to fixing the situation.   Let’s not let dogma or politics or anything else affect our ability to see the bigger picture.  Let’s not let our anger at those who have contributed to the mess prevent us from building the largest possible consensus to Rebuild America.  

Let’s also not allow ourselves get overwhelmed by the scope of our problems.  The situation today is not as bad as the Depression.  It’s not as bad as World War II.  But at current course and speed it will get that bad sooner than I would like.  

But here’s the good news.  Every problem we face is the result of conscious policies that went wrong.  That means every one can be reversed if we commit ourselves to that course.  We have the power to determine whether America’s future will be better or worse than its past.  The question is whether we are brave enough to take a broken America and make it better than ever.  I think we can be.  

For most of our lives, we could take for granted that America was the economic engine of the world economy.  That the dollar was the world’s reserve currency.  That our moral authority gave us a political advantage globally.  That the checks and balances of our political system would limit the damage that could be done by individual presidents and judges.  Last and most important, we could count on a future that was brighter than the past.  

These assumptions were true for two generations.  

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that our country no longer has a realistic view of power and its role in the world.  It’s no surprise that we would rather consume than create.  And it’s no surprise that Americans have become complacent.  After all, our leaders took us to war without asking the population to sacrifice or contribute.  They just told us to go about our lives as though nothing unusual was going on. 

Our country has behaved like a one-trick pony for too long and now the trick has stopped working.  The party is over.  As some of us know all too well, when the party ends . . . the hangover begins.  And this hangover is going to be ugly.  The government has borrowed too much money.  Families have borrowed too much money.  We’re fighting two very expensive wars with elusive objectives.  We have harmed our national brand with callous foreign policy.  We have harmed our national currency with government deficits.  We have allowed the nation’s infrastructure to wear out all at once.   We have underinvested in education.  And we have become far too insensitive to the distress of those who lack political and economic power.  

These are big issues and not easily solved.  It’s not crazy to think about addressing some of the issues with a Roosevelt-style program.  But I think it would be a big mistake to assume that there is a government solution for all the problems our country.  The government has to play a role, but it’s also part of the problem.  As a result, my vision of Rebuild America program would not depend on a government that works better than the one we have today.  Individuals, NGOs, and philanthropic groups are going to have to do most of the work, particularly at the beginning.  

Glide – and organizations like it – are the key to making progress while we build a national consensus.  You will be the key to implementing much of what needs to be done at the local level.  And you can teach others what you have learned.  

Our problems today cover such a broad range that we have to figure out a way break them into manageable chunks.  Let me start with three Uber Categories: 

·      The role of the United States in the world

·      Rebuilding the country’s infrastructure

·      Repositioning the U.S. economy for the 21st century 

Let me start with the role of the United States in the world.  This country is stuck in a paradox.  On the one hand, many Americans behave as though we live on an island that is protected from the forces governing the rest of the world.  On the other, we feel entitled to impose our views on other countries.  

There are many problems with this view of America.  For one thing, it reflects a flawed view of power.  We behave as though military power is what really matters.  We pour as much money into our military as the rest of the world put together.  It’s a huge drag on our economy and creates animosity in every locale where we project power.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world focuses on economic growth, putting our economy at a big disadvantage.  

The US is still the biggest economic power in the world, but the gap is narrowing rapidly, in part because we are not reinvesting in productive industries.  We spend too much of our economic output on military activities.  You can already see the impact on our country’s standard of living.  It’s time to do something about it. 

Recognizing the limits of military power should enable us to reclaim at least half the dollars we are spending in Iraq.  We can’t get it all back because we need to rebuild our military and the Iraqi education system.  Even so, a peace dividend of $100-150 billion per year would come in handy.  

The good news is that we have at least one candidate in the race for President who understands the limits of military power.  That means the country can fix this really serious problem just by voting on November 4.   I’m an optimist, so I’m going to mark this one off on my checklist.  See?  We’re already making progress!

The second issue is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.  The next president needs to make infrastructure the country’s economic priority.  From 1933 to the mid-60s, we built the America we have today.  We built great public works projects to help the country recover from the Great Depression.  We built the interstate highway system, the air transport system, the power grid, communications infrastructure, and the technology industry as part of the recovery from World War II.  In 1957, Sputnik scared us into investing in science education and in going to the moon.  Then in the mid-60s, priorities changed and we stopped investing. 

For the past 30 years, we have been harvesting our economy.  We did it on purpose for reasons that made perfect sense at the time.  The first oil shock in 1973-74 caught the US economy off guard.  Global domination by American multinational companies in the postwar world came unglued because our economy could no longer depend on cheap fuel.  

Sound familiar?

Back then, we had to restructure an economy that had become obsolete practically overnight.  In the late 70s and 80s, investors bought up underutilized or uneconomic business assets and converted them to cash, which could then be redeployed in new industries.  It was the economic equivalent of recycling.  It worked brilliantly and we enjoyed 20 years of prosperity.  Unfortunately, we didn’t invest in infrastructure.  

Now most of our country’s infrastructure is forty, fifty, sixty years old.  It wasn’t designed to last this long.   We have extended its life with scotch tape and paper clips.  Decrepit infrastructure is a huge quality of life issue, and not just for the people who live near broken levees.  Our road system no longer supports our society.  Commute times are way too long and have a very negative effect on families. 

Imagine if we committed to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.  We could rebuild the power grid, emphasizing clean energy technology.  We could rebuild the communications systems so that the information economy was equally available to all.  We could rebuild the highways, the bridges, and the levees.  

Where would the money come from?  Some of it would come from the peace dividend, but the rest we will have to attract from investors.  We would need to create incentives for people to invest, rather than consume.   We can do this by making the dollar more attractive to foreign investors.  We can do it with tax breaks for US investors.  After all, past opportunities to invest in American infrastructure have provided excellent returns. 

Infrastructure spending employs huge numbers of people in high paying jobs that last a decade or more.  So think of this as being a Full Employment program designed to improve the country’s standard of living in as many dimensions as possible. 

The only way we’re going to get out from under the government deficits is through economic growth.  If you want a strong economy, the best place start is with full employment.  When everyone has a good job, they not only feel better about themselves, they have disposable income that can spur growth in other areas.  That kind of virtuous cycle in the economy would feel pretty good right about now.

My third priority is to position this country to compete in the 21st century.  To do this, I would emphasize three initiatives.  

First, I would raise educational standards so that our children are prepared to compete in a global economy where the US has fewer advantages.  The NEA needs to accept the fact that for our country to be competitive in the world, the school day needs to run from 8 am to 6pm and the school year from Labor Day to the 4th of July.  Anything less and we won’t be competitive, which will contribute to falling standards of living.  

Second, I would develop a program equivalent to Apollo around CleanTechnology.  The goal here is reduce our dependence on oil imports, to build a huge new area of economic advantage, and to lower greenhouse gas emissions.   We have been riding on the back of the computer industry for thirty years.  Let’s make CleanTech the next big thing. 

And third, I would begin the process of fixing the Federal government.  The balance among our three branches of government is out of whack.  Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but a lot of agencies that worked reasonably well 8 years ago are broken now.  The departments of Agriculture and Defense, the Food & Drug Administration, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and FEMA are examples, but the list goes on and on . . . 

I don’t have high hopes for our ability to fix government, but I think we have to try.  There are a zillion other things that need doing.  Examples include Universal Health Care and rebuilding our banking system.  There are so many others. 

So let me conclude by offering a blueprint for Rebuilding America and suggesting how Glide can maximize its impact.  

First, we need leaders in every aspect of society who understand reality and are willing to tell us the truth.  To get America back on track, the country is going to have invest in itself for a pretty long time.  Perhaps ten years.  Think of it as a turnaround.  We’re going to have to tighten our belts, but unlike now, we will be working towards a goal we can believe in.  Because Rebuilding America will pay dividends for decades to come. 

Once people start telling the truth we will be able to reset our national priorities.  That’s my second recommendation.  Let’s start by enforcing the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  I’m serious.  The rest of my priority list is in no particular order . . .

·      Let’s invest in education

·      Let’s commit ourselves to universal health care

·      Let’s commit to building a CleanTech economy.  If we put our mind to it, we can invent our way out of our dependence on oil.  It would transform our economy in the most positive way possible. 

·      Let’s invest in infrastructure that reduces our need for oil

·      Better communications systems

·      A new and better power grid

·      Public transit

·      Better highways and airports 

Third, let’s encourage everyone to get involved in Rebuilding America.  We need to mobilize the country behind the mission.  We need everyone to work a little harder, spend less and save more during the period when we’re Rebuilding.  We can use the tax law to create incentives for investing in needed infrastructure.  

But what we really need is for organizations like Glide to show the whole country how it’s done.  You are the vanguard of the Rebuild America movement.  

But here’s a question you have to decide: are you willing to change how you operate to meet this new challenge?  Glide already does its part.  No one can ask you to do more.  But if you want to volunteer, there could be a much bigger role for Glide.  You can be a model for others to follow.  You can spread the word.  You can teach.  To have an impact, you would have to grow the Glide team and work with lots of other groups.  You would probably lose some control, but your influence and impact would grow.  It’s an incredible opportunity.  

Thank you!



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