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U.S. needs more ‘us’ to regain America’s strength, optimism

By John Burbank

It isn’t any surprise that people are pessimistic and negative right now.

If we have jobs, we are worried about keeping them. If we don’t, we are worried about making ends meet, especially as unemployment insurance has run out for tens of thousands of jobless workers in our state. We see the stock market lose billions, then gain billions, then lose billions in the space of several hours. Tuition has broken $10,000 at the University of Washington, and $3,500 at Everett Community College.  More and more people are working without health insurance, while the state has steadily defunded basic health coverage. Class sizes are increasing, actual courses are decreasing, and physical education and arts and music are left shriveling on the vine of wilted revenues.

But we are not all in this boat together. We are all not sharing in the doubt, fear, and suffering.

The corporate elites of Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks are doing just fine. The largest businesses in the United States are enjoying record profits. Paul Allen has his islands and submarines. Jeff Bezos can fund his Bezos Family Foundation, which focuses on education and young people, while defunding public education across the country by threatening to leave any state that tries to collect sales taxes on Amazon sales.

After September 11, 2001, we as a people had a moment of solidarity with each other and with our country. We were ready to answer the call to protect our country, to build our democratic society and to realize the greater good. We collectively blew up that moment of patriotism by answering George Bush’s call to go shopping.

We allowed that president to lead us down a road of lies and into wars which the current president still hasn’t gotten us out of. Instead of funding our schools, our roads, our health coverage, and yes, our wars, we gave George Bush a pass to cut taxes again and again, especially on the wealthy.

The current president, for all he says, is continuing that tradition. Instead of workers’ wages keeping up with productivity increases, or at least inflation, we have allowed them to fall behind, while increasing workers’ payments for health care, retirement accounts, and their kids’ higher education. Instead of acknowledging Social Security as the backbone of retirement income, especially with the cratering of 401(k) accounts and extinction of defined-benefit pensions, we allow ourselves to be deluded into undermining Social Security as well. Instead of realizing what the current president promised as universal health care, more and more Americans have no health care and our elected leaders appear willing to make us wait until we are 67 years old to get Medicare.

We are not a stronger or better country now than 10 years ago. The multinational corporations that are based in America, like Boeing, Microsoft, and GE,  are stronger and wealthier. But we aren’t. We  are a divided and fearful nation.

So maybe we should look up North across the border for inspiration. The second largest political party in Canada is the New Democratic Party (NDP). It is largely supported by workers and unions. This party made universal health coverage a reality in Canada. It has insured affordable higher education. Thanks to the NDP, all workers can balance working and family with family leave insurance. For the NDP, family values are not just rhetoric — they are part of the fabric of life and law in Canada.

Three weeks ago, Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP, lost his fight with cancer. Jack wrote a letter to his fellow Canadians just two days before he died. He signed off with this salute: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

That is something for all of us, whether we live north of the border, or in these United States. We can reclaim the spirit and solidarity of September 12, 2001. But we won’t do it by undermining our own government and the public services it provides. That was the agenda of greed and you-are-on-your-own enabled by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

If we want a future of opportunity and security for our children, we must put what is best for all of us first.  It is not me, it is us.

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at

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