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Are we in permanent decline?

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By Rick Howell

    I saw a bumper sticker the other day that truly surprised me: The word “America” was emblazoned across the top in all caps with a little message underneath.

    Before I could read the rest, I expected it to be the usual patriotic bombast that you generally see. Instead, it said: “America: Sure was Great While it Lasted.”
    We all read bumper stickers, I guess, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen one like that. If people are willing to start driving around with such a message, it must reflect something going on out there.
    Indeed, recent polling shows that an increasing number of people believe our country is not just in a temporary slump, but headed down a road of decline that is likely to be permanent.
    A CBS/New York Times Poll finds that 39 percent of respondents believe “the current economic downturn is part of a long-term permanent decline and the economy will never fully recover.”
    Prior to that one, a CNN Poll showed that 48 percent expected our economic doldrums to turn into another “Great Depression,” or something very much like it.
    Based on what I’ve seen and on what I hear from friends, relatives and associates of one kind or another, people are working longer and harder for less money. “Everything has gone up,” they’ll say, “except wages.”
    The Baby Boom Generation may be the first one that is far more educated than its parents, but will ultimately make less money over time.
    The old manufacturing base – the one that hired my father and his generation – has been largely replaced by the “service industry.” More and more people – many of them “under-employed” judging by their impressive college degrees – are working for restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, clothing stores, electronics dealers; anything and everything that can be called retail.
    In this line of work, “The Customer” is like God Almighty. You are to serve him in every respect; you are to be thankful you have a job; and it is unseemly to notice how little money you make. Is this the American Dream?
    Unions? Oh, forget that. The ones not being killed by Republican lawmakers are dying on their own because of low membership. Some people don’t have sense enough to realize the value of being in one; others honestly can’t afford union dues.
    But our decline is not just economic. We see it in other respects when we look at the overwhelming national debt and deficits, much of those due to the financing of dubious wars that go on forever and the costs of a global military reach that is truly sucking us dry.
    Just last week, we apparently saw the end of the space program. The nation that went to the moon is not even sending up space shuttles anymore.
    If we’re not interested in great social achievements, such as eliminating poverty, then what else is there to do? What is left for us to achieve? If there’s to be another “American Century,” what, exactly, does that mean?
    Conservatives are achieving the Rule of the Corporation and of the Almighty Dollar, the system they’ve always wanted. Liberals are fighting valiantly to retain what little social safety net we have. The result is a middle class shrinking more each day, paying more for nearly everything. The rich are truly getting richer, thanks to GOP tax breaks; most of the rest of us face a life of continual struggle.
    All empires fall. History shows that. To ignore the facts would be ignorant. “American Exceptionalism” is a nice phrase for the History Channel. But no one could be blamed today if they asked, “Well, where is it?”
Indeed, what happened to it?
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.