Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.

Life and politics

The last train car

The last car of the train is a headache for railroad engineers. As it is connected to the train only on the one end it rattles a lot, wearing itself out quickly and damaging rails. Many years ago, at an important symposium on the subject, prominent scientists and practicians tried to figure out how to eliminate losses caused by the last train car, preferably while spending very little money. When a very long discussion seemed to be leading nowhere, an old professor, an unquestioned authority on the subject, asked to speak. “The simplest way to solve the problem is to… uncouple the last car” the old man said.

He joked not only to remind that it was time for a lunch break. His point was that solving real problems takes real money. He also elaborated that the costs of lowering the losses caused by the last car could very likely be higher then the losses itself. Continuing this way of thinking one may add that every human activity (or lack of activity as well) causes some side effects. Therefore, on the margins of the mainstream of social and economic life there will always be the potential of trouble which can never be completely fixed.

The inner city is the last car of a train called America. Unfortunately, many of us do literally what, as a joke, the old professor advised. We uncouple the last car of our society, we move to the suburbs. Out of sight, out of mind – we hope the problem will disappear by itself. Recently, the Chicago media announced that gang activities, characteristic of the inner city were observed in wealthy remote suburbs. They called it the “urbanization of suburbs”. Continuing the comparison to the railroad, one may say that wherever the train called America will move it will always have its last car.

The Unites States of America is the country of great opportunities and it would be heavenly beautiful if everyone were exercising these opportunities to their full extent. In the real world there is always “the last car”, a number of people who do not want to, do not know how to or are not capable of taking advantage of these opportunities.

The unattainable peak of the mountain of civilization
We have to realize how sophisticated our world has become. Only a few generations ago a 16 year old adolescent, just by observing what his father had been doing, was well prepared to start a life on his own as a farmer, craftsman or factory worker; almost anywhere. Today, he is frustrated realizing how little he knows, how far he is behind the level of skills and knowledge of his father.

For a young man or woman today it takes strong will and years of hard work to join the modern world. A few generations ago, before the technological revolution and before the era of social services, self discipline and the readiness to work hard were essential to ordinary physical survival. Today, most hard work can be done by pushing a button, and a net of social programs guarantees everyone a minimum comfort of existence. In other words, today’s young person is less stimulated to become a self motivated responsible adult. But in order to join the world of modern civilization, teenagers need strong character and relentless hard work for many long years. The distance between those two poles defines a magnitude of frustration.

Many young people in the beginning of their mature life can be pictured as standing at the bottom of the huge mountain of civilization and not even trying to climb up. This frustration, in most instances, will end up in the turmoil of the inner city.

Made in America with false pride
The lack of well paid low level jobs, mostly in manufacturing, is often mentioned as a major factor contributing to the inner city mess. But those jobs have emigrated and there is no indication that they are coming back.

For a long times the United States were technologically far ahead of most of the world. American products were in demand everywhere. Unions were requiring higher wages and American workers were paid more and more. Not only because manufactures, having little competition, could afford it but also because Lenin’s success in Russia was a real threat that unsatisfied workers’ demands can turn bad.

In the meantime the world has become very small. Information is circulating around, having no borders and no tariffs. In various places people have learned how to manufacture as well as in the USA. And many of them want to work for a lot less than their American counterparts. Americans have to realize that they pay themselves too much. If union workers continue to press to keep their unrealistically high wages, than less and less of them will have a job. And those who will hold their jobs, will subsidize the inner city. They will pay higher taxes to feed and house the poor, to hire more police and build new prisons. They will pay for the huge government bureaucracy needed to run social programs. They will also have extra costs like moving to a better neighborhood, paying for private schools or being a victim of crime. In the end, their real income will be much lower then the nominal one.

There is no way to maintain the United States an isolated oasis. It is costly to move manufacturing jobs out of America. It will be much easier to move white collar jobs. If America will not be competitive on a global scale, then a new generation of computers may be designed in Malaysia, a new era in software concepts may begin in Eastern Europe and Wall Street may move to Shanghai. Then the inner city will no longer be a problem, since all of America will be an inner city. The train called America will have only one car. The last one.

We got civilized
A few years ago the media discussed the case of an American teenager living in Singapore who, for common vandalism, was sentenced to flogging. The American public visualized how inhuman and uncivilized the law in Singapore is. On this same occasion Americans learned that the streets in Singapore are much safer than in New York or Chicago. And those who know Singapore, credited the peace and order in that country to this system of cruel punishment.

Respect for the rights of an individual is the essence of the American ideological system. In opposition to the more totalitarian Old World, America was the first political experiment in our historical era where democracy and human rights were put first. This concept drove America to its power, became the standard for a modern society, and was followed by others.

The political philosophy on which America was built was never administered universally. For a long time Blacks had a different set of rules. The Constitution gave everyone equal liberties but the rich exercised them better than the poor. Society honored the rights of every person, but for convicted criminals there was little compassion or understanding. Having a great political doctrine, for a long time Americans allowed themselves many deviations, which were not to be proud of, but which were worthwhile in maintaining the growth of the country.

Growth has also meant perfecting the political system. Mainstream Americans became more sensitive to the problems of those less prosperous, who have been locked in a vicious circle of low education, poverty, and crime. The wealthiest country in the world could effort to spend a lot of money to help its poorest inhabitants; and it did. Objectively it helped. No one has been dying from starvation on the street, there is food and a roof for everyone in need. (Most poor people shown on TV are even overweight.) Subjectively the progress is not satisfactory because our standards and expectations have changed.

The more civilized approach to the least fortunate in the United States, in general, did not help them in joining the middle class. Government help is commonly considered by takers as something they deserve. It is very generous to see a criminal as a person who needs more reeducation than punishment, but – unfortunately – many criminals take a less sophisticated approach; they see it as a weakness of law enforcement. The more civilized we become, the more money we need to spend to keep up with our ideas. America has plenty of compassion but not enough money to foot the bill.

Breaking the vicious circle
The progress of civilization has changed the world around us. Millions of people were squeezed into the cities. Life became easier for those who are in the American mainstream but for those who are left behind, it became harder to join the sophisticated world of modern technologies. This disproportion creates frustration, and America has to realize that something must to be done; the sooner the better.

Political writers sometimes like to say that the USA is a certain number of years ahead of some other country. I prefer the thesis that the USA is 200 years alongside the rest of the world. Americans worked out the new concept of the state, fulfilled it and… found themselves enslaved to ideas and ways of doing things which brought them to the top of the world. The USA is alongside the world no more, it is a part of the global village. Doing things the American way may work or it may not. It is time to learn how to take care of American affairs by thinking and acting on a global scale.

Americans have to understand that generous attitudes toward the less prosperous will be counted as good deeds in heaven but will solve very little on Earth. It is the sad truth that, to society, a few million people in the inner cities are irretrievably lost. The vicious circle can be interrupted only by educating the new generation. Sixteen year-olds using drugs, shooting themselves, having children, are already hopeless cases. It will take a lot of resources to bring very few of them back to society. When a five year old enters the school system, within the first year there is plenty of time to recognize that there are high odds that this child does not have strong family support.

From that moment on, society should be prepared to guide and supervise the youngster for the next ten years. If a sixteen year-old keeps up with the school program and stays away from trouble, he or she will most likely join the American mainstream. Children age 6 to 16 should have their time well organized, should be taught positive goals and should be always under responsible adult supervision. Even during their leisure time someone should know where they are and what they are doing. Most parents do this by instinct. In cases where parents are not capable of monitoring their child, society should take over. How to do this without sacrificing an American myth? Ask the ACLU. Let the experts decide how society should raise a child when the parents are not capable of it.

It will take time and money to mend the inner city. Money is always in short supply, and the public has lost patience already. But this is not the worst of it. Americans do not realize that the inner city is a by-product of the concept of America itself. The majority has decided what it means to do things the American way. The train called America has its design, its mass, its velocity, and its direction. It also has its last car. And without redefining what it means to be an American, without revising the American way, not much will change. Former successes have made Americans arrogant, they want change but do not see any need to change themselves.

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