A supply shortage politicians can quickly solve

Americans need a restoration of hope. It's within grasp on Capitol Hill.

Supply chain problems aren’t to blame for our most damaging current shortage. (Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash)

If you’re a tennis player in my neck of the woods, and you’re hoping to get in another month of matches before chill settles upon the Great Northeast, I hope you bought a few extra cans of balls this summer — because there aren’t a lot of tennis balls to be found on store shelves just now.

It’s not because people suddenly took up tennis after that inspiring U.S. Open run by those two terrific teenaged women. It’s because tennis balls are among the many items retailers can’t keep in stock because of supply chain problems caused by the pandemic. Everything from popular toys to new cars are affected. The Economist’s current cover story labels it “the shortage economy,” and warns it may be another year before such global shortages disappear.

But it’s not just consumer products that are in short supply these days, and we’re not dealing only with production capacity. We’ve lost human capacity, too. People are short of tolerance and patience, which you’ve noticed if you’ve driven lately in an urban area. We’re running low on civility, as a check of social media reveals, and resilience, which is one reason why so many people have left their jobs. And we’ve flat out exhausted the inventory of compromise, as the political mess in Washington makes clear.

But after giving a lot of thought to what ails us in 2021, I’ve concluded that our most lethal shortage is this: We’re out of hope. We can get it back, but to have any chance to regain the hope that has long energized our society — what has arguably been a defining characteristic of Americans — we will need to win some victories over the callous cynics and blithe apathetics. Maybe it’s already too late, though I hope not, if you’ll pardon the expression.

To be clear, though, let’s agree that hope isn’t the same thing as wishful thinking. It’s not about a specific objective as much as it is a state of mind and a readiness to act. You might wish for a new job or a nicer car, but if you don’t have a reservoir of hope to fuel your action, you won’t take the steps necessary to reach those goals.

People with hope behave differently from, say, those who think that the way things are is as good as it’s ever going to get. Hope makes people bolder, enables them to endure hardship and encourages them to live with intention rather than simply sitting back and letting life wash over them. Hope propelled generations of immigrants to the shores of this continent, empowered a revolution against European monarchy, led millions of people to settle in untamed areas of the country and convinced political leaders to build social supports and infrastructure that by the middle of the 20th century made America the envy of the world. Hope took Americans to the moon and built the greatest economy in world history.

That’s not who we are today, though, because our shelves are practically bare of hope. A shortage of hope fuels the current epidemic of substance abuse disorder, and keeps most poor people from reaching for opportunities outside their decaying communities. Hopelessness about their capacity to make a real difference drives citizens to abandon political activity, or to invest power in cynical opportunists. A lack of hope leaves people angry, which can lead to flailing at others, and sick, without the will to recover.

It’s understandable, really, because Americans have had a lot of hopes crushed since the middle of the 20th century. Assassinations, official lies underlying a Southeast Asian war, the shocking criminality of Watergate, the awful miscalculation that led to invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergence of the partisan notion that government ought to be torn down from within — a list that’s incomplete, at best — all led a growing share of citizens to doubt that our democracy was trustworthy. As mainstream media increasingly shouldered the role of whistleblower, revealing the ineptitude and corruption that yielded such disappointments, politicians fought back by insisting that it was journalism that was to blame for what had gone wrong in society, not the politicians whom journalists were snagging for their deceits.

At the same time, the potential for social progress that has always characterized America’s economy — the chance for someone to rise into the middle class and beyond through determination and hard work — diminished. In this century, the wealth gap between upper-income families and those in the middle and lower tiers has dramatically widened; the share of wealth held by middle-income families has been cut nearly in half since the early 1980s.

And we cannot ignore the role of those politicians who rob people of hope by deception and destruction. Donald Trump campaigned as a champion of forgotten Americans but delivered massive tax cuts mainly benefiting top-income Americans, and adding more than $7 trillion to the national debt that will burden future generations. His disastrous trade war with China forced millions of American farmers to become agricultural welfare recipients, and diminished the hope that we might stop the hollowing out of rural America. The fact that most Republican officeholders cynically embrace the Big Lie that he was robbed of re-election erodes hope that our two-party system can accomplish anything meaningful, or perhaps even that we can avoid civil war.

The hope shortage is tragic because it leads to apathy and hostility. Just now, it’s undermining our democracy, because a growing share of people are concluding that American government simply doesn’t work.

Here’s one thing that would help rebuild hope, then: if our government could, in fact, accomplish something good for people. Take, for example, the bipartisan infrastructure package now stalled on Capitol Hill. It would put hundreds of billions of dollars into aging public works projects and commit an unprecedented amount to protecting against climate change and modernizing the power grid. Beyond that legislation, imagine what the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package pushed by President Joe Biden might do, by providing universal preschool, expanding childcare, making higher education accessible for all and expanding healthcare options. It could dramatically enhance the prospects of working families across the country.

Enactment of that legislation would show every American that they shouldn’t give up hope that our government can work. But the hope those steps would kindle is broader than rebuilding faith in government, because the actions would genuinely improve the lives of millions of Americans, including many who have had good reason to think they’ve been left behind.

The solution to the hope shortage, then, is not at all like what’s needed to get cars and tennis balls back to consumers. It’s not a complex mix of supply chain interruptions and labor shortages that is keeping hope at bay in our shortage economy; the supply of hope can be stimulated by action that is easily within reach. Imagine the gift to their constituents that would result if America’s political leaders committed to rebuilding the reservoir of hope that they and their predecessors in recent decades have so carelessly drained.

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Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Racine, Wisc. (The Journal Times, journaltimes.com)

  • Cedar Park, Texas (Hill Country News, hillcountrynews.com)

  • Fort Smith, Ark. (Fort Smith Times Record, swtimes.com)

NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!


Lead threat is found where people don’t imagine it

Local officials in Racine, Wisc., are pleased that state aid will enable the removal of some lead water pipes that threaten children’s health, but reporting by Dee Holzel in The Journal Times notes that at the current rate of funding, it will be 25 years before all of the homes in Racine are made safe. Meanwhile, the lead concentration in Racine water, the newspaper notes, is greater than in Flynt, Mich., which has achieved global notoriety for its lead poisoning. (Consider that in the context of your hometown. Is your water truly safe?) Lead in drinking water is a serious health threat nationwide, and the human infrastructure bill pushed by President Biden would replace every lead pipe service line in the United States, putting the United States on a path to end the lead poisoning threat.


COVID is killing rural Americans at twice the rate of urbanites

According to data analyzed by Lauren Weber of the nonprofit Kaiser Health News, and reported in the fine weekly Hill Country News, the death toll of COVID-19 in rural America is double that in cities, and that gap is likely to widen — since rural residents tend to be older, poorer and less likely to be vaccinated. The report was published in many newspapers around the country, including in Texas, where rural areas have been devastated by the COVID, and where politicians are hostile to vaccination mandates.


Judge rules against removal of flags — including of Confederate States of America

Amid protests about the glorification of the Confederate States of America after the murder of George Floyd, the city administration of Fort Smith, Ark., removed a display of the seven flags that had flown over Fort Smith — including the confederacy. But a local trial lawyer brought suit to turn around the decision, and according to reporting by Alex Gladden in swtimes.com, a federal judge has ordered the city to secure a waiver from the state to allow the historic marker to be removed. The lawyer who brought the suit, Joey McCutchen, said that a “leftist” city administrator “doesn’t like our history, and they want to cancel my history.” 

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Thank you for reading The Upstate American (special thanks to our paying subscribers!) and thank you for standing with me on *this common ground, our America.

-Rex Smith