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* * America got old

A couple of weeks ago, many of us watched documentaries about the first landing on the moon 50 years ago; they sure brought back memories! That summer day in 1969, which incidentally was on my 15th birthday, was indeed a great leap for mankind; it was the first time humans had ever left our planet, set foot on another world and returned safely.

What a tremendous technological achievement that was! Space program research brought innovations that quickly entered the consumer market, many of which are still benefiting us today. Some like memory foam, space blankets, digital cameras, and scratch resistant lenses were direct results of space program research, while others like Teflon, Velcro, and solar panels were greatly refined for space use. Between 1960 and 1973, NASA spent $28 billion on its space program, an estimated $288 billion in today’s dollars.

My formative years fell during that era, and the anniversary got me thinking about how our country and the world has changed, in so many ways, for better and worse.

It was a mere 16 years after our nation helped defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan when a young, handsome President John F. Kennedy committed this nation to send an astronaut to the moon and back, before the end of the decade. The audacity of the commitment was bolstered by increasing competition the nation felt from the technologically advancing Soviet Union. We were embroiled in a Cold War, a race for technical and ideological superiority, and sending a man to the moon would be a powerful psychological weapon.

We were a growing, developing, emerging powerhouse nation, and seemingly there was nothing we couldn’t do. In addition to the space program, we were fighting a foreign war, building an interstate highway, and embarking on a vast war on poverty, designed to give every American access to the basics of food, water, and shelter. How did we afford all that? Largely, it was in insisting our wealthiest citizens pay a significant share of their upper-income in taxes. Marginal tax rates on annual income reached over 90% during this period, and corporations pay twice what they pay now.

Then, it seems to me, the country got old.

Conservatives and libertarians screamed that government was too big, and started shouting, “kill the beast.” In one of the most potent political expressions of all time, Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

People heard this expression as if applied to any issue of government, but Reagan didn’t say it that way and his tenure shows that he didn’t behave that way. Nevertheless, the impacts were widespread and lasting. The federal government didn’t actually shrink much if at all, but the burden placed on our wealthiest citizens shrank dramatically, and while that money was supposed to “trickle down” to the rest of us, it generally never did, and the income gap between the über-wealthy and the rest of us has been growing markedly for more than 30 years.  

Meanwhile, back at home, big box stores like Hills and Cheds sprang up on the edges of our towns, sapping the vitality of our locally-owned downtown retail stores. Then the malls came along and they killed them both. Then Walmart came along and it wounded the malls, as has Amazon. All this has worked to siphon local dollars into the pockets of the Walton family and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Much of the sense of community people felt back then, of seeing friends at the stores that were owned by neighbors, was lost.

Those Interstate highways radically changed not only how we travel but how we inhabit our communities. Passenger railroading atrophied and pedestrian travel for purposes other than recreation largely ceased. We now need a car for virtually every trip we take anywhere, and traffic is an intractable, increasing nightmare. Our passenger rail system, now run by Amtrak, is for most of us a novelty rather than a serious travel option, due to infrequent service and snail-slow trains. Meanwhile, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, and much of the industrialized world continues to build train networks that whisk large numbers of passengers around at upwards of 200-mph. And in spite of our current President’s boast for an infrastructure bill, even when he had a compliant Congress, he got nothing passed.

The national debt is skyrocketing and seemingly we can’t collectively afford any far-reaching goal, even if we could envision one.

I don’t mean to sugar-coat the 1960s, because we had many systemic problems (e.g. political assassinations, civil rights struggles and riots, widespread poverty, and a futile and misguided war). But as a child, the space program gave me and so many others the framework to be proud of our nation and dream big. And to think of what we could do collectively, together, beyond what was best for each of us individually.

Nowadays, of what do our kids dream?

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