Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Next Greatest Generation

                                                        The Next Greatest Generation      

The obituary was neither remarkable in its description of the recently deceased nor in its presentation in the local newspaper.  Yet it could be said that it was the most important obituary written in its time as it marked the final passing of the last person born of the greatest generation in American history. 

 As is always the case, the early lives of this wondrous generation of Americans was marked by ridicule from those members of the previous generations.  Lazy, selfish, too focused on fun, undependable, irresponsible, etc.  The same criticisms that have been leveled at every generation by its predecessors were directed at them as well.  But again, as is frequently the case, when faced with the very destruction of the life they had come to love, when liberty, self-determination and freedom were at risk, they rose as one to the challenge, and with unwavering resolve, self-sacrifice and a fixation on the end goals, they brought the country (and correspondingly, the world) back from the edge of ruin. 

Unlike the last previously anointed greatest generation, the threat was more internal than external.  Whereas a great world war was fought by that initial greatest generation, a great world peace was required for this generation’s outcome.  Whereas the wrong side, the side of inhumanity and intolerance was easy to identify by that previous greatest generation, the right side for this challenge was much more difficult to discern.   

After the defeat of the forces of evil, the first greatest generation rebuilt the world, infusing it with the benefits of democracy, and creating a booming postwar economy fueled by industrial growth and driven by a growing labor force and burgeoning middle class.  Yet, in the following few generations, the darker sides of those same positive developments infected the economic and social systems, reducing all to a strong-over-the-weak, more-resources-for-less-citizens facsimile of its former self.   Opportunity became limited, and those with the advantages turned the political system upside down to ensure their status, while also eliciting support from the spiritually bankrupt forces of religion which described those with less as victims of their own laziness and ignorant of God’s will.

Education was determined to be the first critical area to address.  Public school education was OK, but not advancing to keep pace with the changing technological and social trends of the day.  Private school education was better focused, but the expense limited its students to those who already had the advantages of birth.  And too often it strayed into the realm of religious indoctrination that denied the facts of science and was blind to the discriminations embedded in its dogma.  College tuition continued to skyrocket while funding was cut in the name of fiscal responsibility.  When a return to an interest in the blue collar trades became apparent, for-profit schools turned historic apprenticeship programs into overpriced, under performing certificate mills that created more debt than job opportunities.

 The second biggest challenge was health care, or to be more precise, paying for health care.  While the baby boomer generation had died off a generation before, the debt associated with their unprecedented longevity, the medical professions cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry to prescribe a pill for every ailment, health insurance industry greed that placed profit over patient wellness, and the overall selfishness of a generation told it was the best and brightest but could never figure out that such a title needed to be earned, all had combined to create a perfect storm of private and government debt.  To make matters worse, the political will to tell the truth and address the issue was continually masked by media created news bytes which focused the passionate but uninformed electorate into a series of congressional and executive votes that created an atmosphere ripe for political maneuvering but did nothing to solve the problem. 

As this new generation began to reach voting age, it turned its attention to politics.  The great American experiment of government by the people, for the people, had been hijacked by single issue voters, well-funded special interest groups, and elected officials who, if they ever grasped the importance of public service, had long ago traded it for the desire to govern for life while padding the bank accounts of themselves and their loved ones. 

As they began to marry and have children, this generation was faced with a growing sense that the very roots of the democracy that had been built upon for over 250 years, were now withering from within, being poisoned rather than nurtured by the very forces of capitalism and individualism that had helped make the United States so strong.    

And so they began to change these trends. 

It was slow and difficult at first.  Many martyrs to the cause were created, visionary individuals who saw the inevitable destruction as it approached but were ignored and ridiculed for suggesting that the great concepts themselves were the problem. 

Fortunately, there had been some groundwork laid by the previous generation, so the message was not completely foreign to everyone.  As it gained a foothold, more and more people who had sensed the problems were finally willing to state the causes out loud, and begin the work to correct and move forward anew.  In some cases, surprisingly, change came swiftly as the apathy of the previous generations, especially in the voting booth, made it easy for the new generation to elect those who shared this new vision.   

First and foremost, the nature of the election process was altered.  No more eighteen month campaigns.  No more multi-million dollar election war chests.  Oddly, to some, the salaries of many elected public servants were increased.  While winning a House of Representatives or Senatorial office was still coveted, being a US Representative or Senator became an exclusive club fit for only the best and brightest of men and women interested in the public good.  Political ethics was no longer a contradiction in terms.  The influence of money was certainly not eliminated, but its hold on those in office was substantially reduced because the days of midterm elections which drew 20-25% of the electorate were replaced by hotly contested elections between members of a generation not interested in making a million, just in making a difference.     

Income inequality was addressed but not through legislation which had proven to be a fruitless endeavor in the past.  Being rich and successful was still an admired goal of much of the population.  But accumulating wealth became a byproduct of hard work, ambition, innovation, and perseverance not the goal in itself.  And how one became rich was gauged to be just as important as achieving material success.  Taking advantage of others, whether through questionable business ethics or outright deceitful advertising was no longer acceptable.  Investment groups which bought struggling companies for a song, moved the labor force overseas or to a state where employment laws were more “friendly” to business slowly faded out of existence, replaced by investors who were interested in saving jobs and communities, and less concerned about the percentage they would get once the company was profitable again.  At one point, when one of the most successful innovators in the manufacturing world announced that she would offer her services for free beginning with the most troubled companies in the country, the precedent was set.  When other well-respected men and women who had achieved great success joined her, she was able to form a school to begin training a new generation of public servants who placed the public good above massive material enrichment.   Being rich was slowly being re-defined in non-material terms.

Once the concept of public service was returned to politics, those elected were able to turn their attention to the originally identified main problems; education and paying for health care. 

As the problems with the education system were analyzed, it soon became clear that public education in the United States perfectly illustrated how severely penalized were those born with less.  Income disparity was the first indicator among the undereducated of the country.  Not necessarily because less money was being spent on their education.  In some cases, under achieving school districts were as well funded as those whose students excelled.  It was the level of poverty in the surrounding community that interfered with the education process.  Parents who struggled to stay fiscally above water, spent that much less time participating in the education of their children.    And children with parents who did not teach the importance of education and engage with their children in the learning process, continually under performed.  Communities stuck in an endless cycle of poverty, less education producing poor job skills and job opportunities could not prosper regardless of outside funding.   While not exclusive to inner city and extremely rural areas, there was a disproportionate number of children attending those kind of schools who were imprisoned within that cycle.   

It was a national problem in that no state was immune to the problem, but it was a local solution that was applied.  Where the confluence of big government and big business had corrupted the ideals of America, the application of a non-specific but global government provided solution funded by private monies, and applied to address the specific needs of each local school district, employed the best of both worlds to begin the transformation. 

Within 20 years, and with the cooperation of community leaders and parents, local and national teachers, government guidelines, regional businessmen and women, and directed funding to address specific problems in each affected area, the American education system, elementary and high school, became as respected world-wide as its higher education system had always been.   And, with cooperation among the education players, education costs stabilized eliminating the young to have to choose between higher education and high personal debt. 

Those that had said, “there will always be poverty among us”, were proven incorrect as poor became an adjective rather than a noun.  Of course, income disparity still existed.  But the extremes were eliminated.  People were poor only in the sense that they had not yet achieved an income level which would suffice for their needs.  “Not yet achieved” as opposed to “will never achieve” as had existed before. 

Individual greed which was rewarded, even adored, under the guise of a free market and a love of capitalism was recognized for the damage that it unleashed upon all levels of society, especially those born with less than average intelligence, ambition, and physical strength.  Reaching one’s potential was intertwined with the understanding that in doing so, helping other’s to achieve the same was part of the process not a hindrance.  The phrase dog eat dog reminded everyone how not to act towards their fellow man as opposed to being used as an excuse for those who achieved success on the backs of others.   

The problem of health care was a trickier issue.  Everyone agreed that America could not pretend its claim as the greatest country on earth, as long as its most vulnerable citizens were not included in a solution that provided health care for all.  Yet, it was also obvious that those most in need of advanced health care services, the elderly and the very sick, were most likely to be the least capable of paying for those services.  A purely market solution would never solve an issue where those in need of the most advanced services were the least likely to afford them.  The mid-twentieth century concepts of Social Security and Medicare, had addressed the issue but failed to provide a long term financial answer.  As America’s population aged, combined with the incredible medical breakthroughs which prolonged life, the cost of providing the safety nets seemed unsustainable. 

A few decades earlier, a bold approach to address the escalating costs of health care was initiated.  A mandate that required everyone to purchase health care insurance was enacted.  Among others. laws that eliminated previous health insurance industry rules that capped benefits for the truly sick, and outlawed pre-existing exclusions for those seeking health care insurance were also passed.  But the idea languished in a political morass of party before country.  Also, some American businesses took advantage of the "out" which allowed them to jettison the responsibility to their employees to provide health care insurance or altered working hours to deflect the requirement to provide coverage for full time employees.  The generation that became known for its selfishness and me before country attitude, ignored the premise of the concept, to allow more Americans access to health care insurance, working against the concept itself rather than addressing the shortcomings of this initial attempt.  

Now, building on the positive aspects of that legislation, this new generation combined the basic tenet of individual responsibility with the understanding that that responsibility extended beyond one’s own self, beyond one’s own family.   Gradually, amendments to the law were passed that focused energy on access to health care insurance for all while reducing costs for services most needed.  Insurance plans were crafted that addressed individual needs yet priced across broad actuarial models.     

More importantly however, an attitude shift began to develop.  Americans began to understand that each of them needed to participate in the solution, both on a personal as well as country-wide level.  A partnership between the American public and the health care providers took root.  Cost for services, which had become insulated from the public, became an ingredient just as when purchasing any product or service.   A level of competition was introduced to care givers that had been missing since the emergence of HMO’s and employer subsidized health insurance.  Additionally, the providers, individuals as well as hospitals, being already more cognizant of the dangers of income disparity, and having been freed of the escalating costs of higher education debt, slowly began to reduce their costs.  Reasonable profits and salaries slowly became the norm, and as more people became engaged in the process, even more insurance plans were developed to address even more specific health care needs.  Involvement at the federal level was slowly replaced by oversight by the individual states, each with their different demographics, hence different health insurance requirements.    

Bankruptcy via medical bills was eliminated.  Costs were contained via the normal market forces that control any product or service through the supply and demand process, but also due to those service providers internalizing a newly evolved belief that providing excellent health care service is a reward in itself, and that the accumulation of material wealth by providing those services is icing on the cake, not the cake itself. 

Once this perspective began gaining hold across other big money industries, energy, entertainment, communication, and technology, the problem of income inequality began to disappear.  Many people were still rich, but a much larger percentage of Americans were economically comfortable.  As a result, even more products and services were required, more jobs were created, more businesses prospered, and the economic turnaround was complete.  Needless to say, the rest of the world turned its collective eye once again to America, and its shining example of prosperity for all spread quickly throughout the globe. 

Strangely, and only in the clarity that is available in retrospect, this new generation also became known as the most spiritual generation in history.  While organized religion remained a positive force in many lives, the various dogmas that had produced “religious” wars and hatred between believers of differing faiths faded into oblivion.  One man’s religion did not justify the discrimination against those whose biblical interpretations focused on finding a scapegoat for the troubles of society.  Xenophobia, a force used without restraint by both governmental and religious organizations, was turned on its head with the wide spread belief that our creator made us different precisely to challenge us to live the message of love rather than retreating into the fear and violence of tribalism.  

Belief in God remained widespread but the practice of that belief was manifested in the mantra that those with the most have a social obligation to help those with the least.   Those who had prospered the most financially happily shared their wealth with the less fortunate.  Those born with above average intelligence spent a part of their lives improving the minds of others.  Those blessed with physical strength served their communities with free labor.   The overriding tenet of this generation was that personal success was equal parts luck, hard work and birth lottery.  Each individual endeavored to uphold that tenet by honoring the creator that provided the luck, supporting rewards for those who worked hard, and respecting the parents, friends and family that added up to the circumstances of their birth.   

Which returns us to that last obituary.  As is true for each individual from every generation that preceded this next greatest generation, no one escaped the inevitability of death.  Regardless of achievement or status, wealth or renown, fame or fortune, each person had lived and died.  But in so doing, the combined efforts of each and every one of them created a legacy that produced a country greater than any that had come before it.   And a world far better with their passing than when they were born.  

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