America The Can-Do Nation

Quinn, Rayne, and Marcy have written about what our last election tells us about our future. Like them, I’ve been thinking about this. Here’s some of it.


Quinn thinks our Constitution has led us to a cul-de-sac from which we cannot emerge. For a similar view see this by Tom Englehart in The Nation. Quinn doesn’t exactly explain why the Constitution is the problem. I can identify some of the problems: counter-majoritarian provisions like the Electoral College and the unequal representation of population in the Senate; the emphasis on property rights; and the courts which anchor us to a dead past when controlled by ideologues, as they are now.

These are festering problems that stand in the way of using our government to solve problems. [1] If the only problems were Constitutional we could ameliorate them, or even solve them. For example, the National Popular Vote project will effectively eliminate the Electoral College. The Senate problem can be ameliorated by adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, and possibly in other ways.

But each of these Constitutional problems is exacerbated by the efforts of a number of freakishly rich people and their courtiers in academia, media and politics to exploit these counter-majoritarian provisions. For example, a few rich right-wing people have funded a decades-long project to put business-friendly judges on the bench under the guise of incoherent theories of jurisprudence. This problem doesn’t lend itself to a Constitutional solution.

The problems are further exacerbated by the people we elect to office. Trump has demonstrated the power given to the Executive Branch by the Legislative Branch. Spineless politicians flatly refused to control his abuse of office. That doesn’t lend itself to Constitutional solutions. The problem of weaklings can’t be solved by a Constitution.


Rayne thinks that whatever the problems with the Constitution might be, the efforts of our fellow citizens to insure a more perfect union are inexorably working. She describes the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people to insist on participating in our society as equals, and concludes that these people prove that our union is strong, and will survive.

At the same time these changes are underway, a small number of us are becoming wealthy beyond all imagination. The share of the national income and wealth accruing to the average American is slowly dwindling. This too is the work of the rich. Their control over our economic discourse assures that their control of wealth and thus of power is not contested, no matter which political party dominates in government or if there is gridlock. And, of course, it can’t be fixed by Constitutional changes.


Writing a few days later, Marcy sees the value in both perspectives:

… I think both Quinn and Rayne had important and not inconsistent things to say. Importantly, both focus on the idea of America, pointing to its culture and diversity as something that needs salvaging. Both point to things that need to happen — committed activism and legal changes — for this country to survive.

Marcy thinks that the problem lies in the collapse of the myth of American Exceptionalism. She thinks our nation has been held together by a belief in the story of our exceptionalism.

… Out of [the Constitution] and a whole bunch of myth-making, we created a story that has worked to get Americans to believe in common cause for two and a half centuries.

The idea of American Exceptionalism is that America is a good and decent country, the best country ever. Our sins against others, slaves, indigenous populations, the nations of South and Central America, even our murderous attacks on Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Iraq, all are mere venial sins, immaterial blots on our character that have only made us stronger and better.

Marcy thinks that myth was exposed as rotten early in this century, if it ever meant anything real. Trump just clarified that rot, partly by his attacks on immigrants. Our ideal of a melting pot was one thing that made this nation exceptional, she writes. She thinks we need a new and better story of ourselves, one that all of us, all of us, can share.


The salient thing about the 2020 election is that more than 74 million people voted for Trump, fully aware of his attacks on the Constitution and on democracy itself. Here’s a partial list of his disgusting behavior from Eric Levitz at New York Magazine:

Singularly unconstrained by our polity’s unwritten rules, Trump has exposed many presumed limits on presidential power as polite fictions. The president can, in fact, openly monetize his public power, gas peaceful protesters without provocation, make personal loyalty to the president an official requirement for leading the Justice Department, promise his lackeys presidential pardons if they refuse to cooperate with investigations that threaten his interests, withhold congressionally approved funds in order to coerce foreign governments into smearing his domestic rivals, commandeer U.S. troops and federal property as campaign props, funnel billions in relief payments to favored constituencies without congressional authorization, declare the press an “enemy of the people,” accuse the opposition party of orchestrating an invasion of the United States, and dispossess hundreds of thousands of longtime, legal U.S. residents, among other things. Links omitted.

It’s with this ugly fact about our fellow citizens that we see the connection among all our views. I suppose that among the Trump voters there are a number who just pull the Republican lever, and even some who at least pretend to think his accomplishments are more important than his corruption. Here’s one of the latter, Maureen Dowd’s brother Kevin, excusing the Levitz list as “flaws”. But far too many of them are racists, white supremacists, truculent gun-toters, conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics, misogynists, xenophobes, and Ayn Randians; all of them infused with a sense of victimhood because their disgusting “opinions” aren’t respected by decent people.

The response to Trump’s loss by his voters is even more astonishing. Politicians continue to kowtow to Trump, because they hope to profit from whatever grift Trump is running. Or maybe it’s a justified fear of the monster they’ve created. A solid minority apparently believe Trump’s lies about the election and every other lie he tells. It’s scary and crazy and upsetting and ….

Marcy suggests that we need a new story to replace the absurd idea of American exceptionalism. Here’s my suggestion.

The Can-Do Nation

I suggest we recognize something that actually characterizes us as a nation: we are a can-do people. As Quinn pointed out, many of the best things we have accomplished are things done by us as private citizens. Think of all the inventions we learned about in grade school: the cotton gin, peanut butter, rayon, and countless more, all organized and accomplished by individuals. But theses individuals were not all working in solitude. Many worked in companies or universities, The government organized many of the things necessary to the creation, and put its efforts behind many of them. That includes the railroads, the airplane business, the Manhattan Project, the organization of war materiel production in WWII, the Apollo Project, the internet, and now the vaccines for Covid-19.

That vaccine project reminds us that when we put our energies into a project we can accomplish great things.

In last 50 years, somehow we became the can’t-do nation. We lack the political cohesion to solve big problems. We just let them fester and get worse. Look at our infrastructure, climate disasters, our education system, our health care system, our massive private debt, our disgusting inequality, our social ills, and our crumbling national purpose.

I’m sick of hearing from the Republicans that we can’t do anything about our problems.

We are the can-do nation. We are a nation of people who love a good problem, love solving hard problems, and have the brains and ambitions to do big things.

We are the Can-Do Nation!

[1] This is the point of my series on The Public And Its Problems by John Dewey.

99 replies
      • Rayne says:

        On their way to riveting — welding, actually. Not only can we do, ALL of us can do as we clearly proved during WWII.

        Couldn’t find my favorite pic of a beautiful Black woman working on wing which is buffed to a high gloss. Great photo.

        • rosalind says:

          if in S.F., go visit the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty Ship, at Pier 45. Among the displays down below is a section on all the “Rosies” who built the ships across the Bay.

          i found a great article fm 2019 featuring three women workers still alive. this from a welder, who was first turned away in 1942 by a sign reading “No Women or Blacks Wanted”, but got hired on a year later:

          “The next year would be spent getting up in the darkness, taking the trolly to the waterfront and then a ferry to the shipyards in Richmond. ‘It was scary. The cities were blacked out and we were worried that the Japanese would attack,’ Morrison said. Her husband was more concerned about fellow workers who habitually drank before going to work and would throw bottles off the boat. He was afraid that one of those bottles may hit his wife.”

          • Molly Pitcher says:


            There is actually a Rosie The Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Betty Reid Soskin, an African American woman and a former Rosie, is a Ranger with the National Park Service there. At age 99, she is the oldest National Park Ranger serving the United States.

            In February, 2018, she released a memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. Soskin has dated Jackie Robinson, co-founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley with her first husband, served as a “bag lady” (delivering cash) for the Black Panthers. Soskin’s great-grandmother was born a slave.

            In 2016, President Barack Obama gave 94-year-old Betty Reid Soskin a special coin to honor her as the nation’s oldest park ranger.

            She is a remarkable woman. It is worth watching the documentary about her, “No Time to Waste”

  1. skua says:

    “… million people voted for Trump, fully aware of his attacks …”

    There is another (larger?) group of Americans eligble to vote who found Trump not worth voting against.
    Getting gung-ho can-do onto working to re-connect them with a sense of agency and a progressive vision of a better life for their children is very important.

    Be assured that Trump and others will be competing, trying to get those people into their MAGA sausage machine.

  2. emptywheel says:

    I think you might use “can-do” as an effort to mobilize COVID response in the early days of the Biden Admin.
    Except the dead 1% of the population might dispute that.

  3. PeterS says:

    All of the possible explanations for Trump’s 74 million votes are alarming, but I want to believe one that is based more on ignorance than ideology. History suggests that literally any Republican candidate would have got 60+ million votes; then there are a few million Always Trumpers; and then there are, perhaps, several million who were seduced by the fantasy on offer that covid 19 was no big thing. In other words, they found a  message of hope more attractive than one of “we’re kinda f*ck*d”.

    As for Trump supporters believing his lies about the election, the corollary to Trump eroding the notion of truth is that the notion of belief is also eroded. I don’t think the supporters believe Trump won the election any more than they believe he didn’t pay off a porn star. Their belief has no depth.

    • Ken Muldrew says:

      “I want to believe one that is based more on ignorance than ideology.”
      “seduced by the fantasy”

      Isn’t that the whole point of ideology? To get people to believe that particular actions will lead them toward a better life?

      The people who vote for Republicans truly believe that their lives will be improved more by preventing women from having access to abortions than by increasing wages for workers. That is to say, their ideology tells them that morality (such as it is) is more important than economy for finding personal fulfillment and happiness.

    • Nehoa says:

      I have a bit of a different take. People believe what they want in the context of the stories they believe in. I think that too many of the 74 million believe they’ve been screwed and are pissed about it. It used to be that most people in the U.S. believed a story that things would get better overall, and that their children and grandchildren would have a better life than the one they knew.
      I think that actually that is, in reality, still the case, but many people have been sold a story that they have been shortchanged. Minorities get special privileges, the Chinese stole our jobs, [fill in the blank] are taking advantage of us…
      Over 50 years ago we put men on the Moon and brought them back alive. Since then we brought immense computing power to individuals, created the internet, created global supply chains, raised billions of people out of poverty, made tremendous advances in medicine (mRNA vaccines as the latest example), and countless other examples of creating things that have advanced civilization.
      But we have also had Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Rupert Murdoch/Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, etc. who have created this whole alternative universe of grievance. They bear a huge portion of the burden of what we have today.

  4. Pete T says:

    Ed astutely and correctly wrote: “The government organized many of the things necessary to the creation, and put its efforts behind many of them. That includes the railroads, the airplane business, the Manhattan Project, the organization of war materiel production in WWII, the Apollo Project, the internet, and now the vaccines for Covid-19.”

    I imagine we could go even further back into our history and list “can do” accomplishments – with important notations that some of those included the evils of slavery among other important “evil” notations.

    The question I would have, with no obvious answer from me sadly, is what changed?

    With the exception of the COVID-19 vaccine am I cynically forgetting any can-do accomplishments since the Apollo Project, the DARPA-net nee internet? Systemic racism still exists – now that would be a major can do accomplishment to truly get rid of – everything seems to have become monetized even the means (education) to try to get ahead and become a can do-er.

    Concierge health care aside (another monetization?) even rich people need health care providers – and boy do they want them too when they need them – but health care providers, first responders, teachers, heck even the “down in the trench” workers who helped develop the COVID-19 vaccines (and the list goes on) are not as valued as your average “Wall Street” puke.

    A Can Do Nation could not be just about what is created physically, but include social changes for the greater good.

    • bmaz says:

      Keep in mind that, while what has been done on the Covid-19 vaccines is remarkable, much of that work was not, in fact, done in the US. Even more important to keep in mind is that that work has been ongoing for a long time as to corona viruses in general. The Covid-19 work piggybacked on a LOT of research and work already done, it did not magically appear all this year.

    • PeterS says:

      Completely agree with the final paragraph. The answer is getting poor people to stop voting for a party that keeps them poor. Doesn’t sound so hard, we just need to get the big money out of politics, which is …. impossible. Ah shit, my optimism didn’t last long. 

      • madwand says:

        Actually it is very hard, but it does happen and sometimes negatively. Prior to 1970 most of the SE was Democrat and had been for quite a while. The Civil Rights acts changed all that and over ten or so years the SE changed to Republican. That shift was seminal for the future of the country. Politics is simply elites mobilizing lower class energies for upper class priorities, and when you buy completely into a political narrative you’ve lost your capacity for critical thinking. Abortion is a wrong that takes innocent life, but a pandemic that kills also taking innocent life is caught up in the political survival of a failed presidential candidate and president, and somehow that is fine with the true believers. So what if its’s cognitive dissonance?

        People need to remember that a few generations later southern children have grown up in a milieu of grievance and buy completely into it and those children are the adults you see today. There are, of course, exceptions, but everyone you see at a Trump rally has bought into this concept of grievance and is willing to act on it. In the news this morning is the harassment of a Michigan Secretary of State by armed thugs refusing to believe in the results of the election. Ask them and they’ll tell you they are acting in defense of the nation, pretty hard to counter that especially when the president is telling them if he loses then the election is certainly rigged.

        So to your point, a lot of words, but it will take generations to change these minds.

  5. Spencer Dawkins says:

    I REALLY like the suggestion of a can-do nation. Thanks for making it.

    But I do have one quibble, which I think we need to keep in mind. In this statement:

    “The salient thing about the 2020 election is that more than 74 million people voted for Trump, fully aware of his attacks on the Constitution and on democracy itself.”

    I think there really are racists, fascists, and sociopaths in America, but if there are 74 million of them, that’s an ENORMOUS problem. I think we have a different problem – the extent to which right wing extremists have blanketed talk radio for decades. When this was Newt Gingrich sending out cassette tapes in the 1980s, that was one thing, but Rush was the Republican kingmaker in 2008, not any politician, and other talk radio personalities have parleyed that background into political office – even Pence has that on his resume.

    I think that 74 million people live in a land of alternative facts, can’t even define socialism, and are entirely inexperienced when it comes to questioning ideas instead of attacking the advocates of those ideas.

    Figuring out what to do, to establish a baseline for discussion about any proposal, will be key.

  6. John B. says:

    Ed, you correctly identified the wealthy and the take over of politics by the wealthy as the real issue behind the three earlier ideas and why they are not completely telling the full story and I humbly submit the reason we are not still a can do nation is the same issue. The wealthy and now the courts control our politics. The rich do not want to pay the taxes necessary to do big projects anymore or solve problems bro build infrastructure that is necessary. And consequently we do not.

    • skua says:

      From the perspective of the elite and aspirants there-to, the fear is that “an electorate consisting of accurately informed, rationally based voters will vote themselves into the treasury”.

      Whereas clearly, in their eyes, only the elite are fit to control the treasury.

      Hence Murdoch, Kochs, Mercers etc.

      c.f. GFC, Great Depression, Murdoch’s line of unfit Presidents.

    • bmaz says:

      Stop. You have to be kidding me. He still has not had to shave. What the world needs most is for Ezra Klein to splain the Constitution. I was going to write some Trash. Now my head just hurts.

  7. Ed Walker says:

    Another brilliant example of our Can-Do spirit:

    The Flowbee was a defining product of the 1980s infomercial boom in the US. It was designed in 1988 by Rick Hunts, a San Diego carpenter who was moved to invent the product after using his industrial vacuum cleaner to suck sawdust out of his hair. Hunts initially created and sold the gadget from his garage. But it was live demonstrations at a local county fair that edged him towards success, before global fame soon beckoned him, in the form of late-night TV demonstrations.

    • vvv says:

      Reminds me of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, The Clapper, and this:

  8. John Langston says:

    Quinn’s point was that constitution won’t save us from bad actors. In fact, there’s so many undemocratic provisions in the constitution that bad actors can run right through it. But there aren’t enough laws that could ever be written to stop bad faith political leaders when political (and economic) class won’t follow norms and decency. Our only hope is as Obama said, the long course of history leans towards justice.

    Some people have faith, some of us have hope. And there are others that just want to get away with it.

    • bmaz says:

      Quinn’s “point” was detached from the history of the Constitution and the political reality that governance happens through elected leaders, and living breathing courts populated by citizen peers as jurors, judges and lawyers, not pie in the sky rose colored baloney.

      You are right. It is up to us, as a nation collective. Stupidly seeking a Constitutional Convention, which would would go disastrously sideways in every way from Sunday, as Quinn improperly suggested, is ridiculous.

      The people of this country are responsible for it. Trying to blame it on the founding document is a cheap way out. All controlling “constitutions” will be subject to good faith execution by our elected leaders. A proposition Quinn does not seem to recognize.

      • DrFunguy says:

        “The people of this country are responsible for it…”
        Yet 1/3 of eligible voters apparently see little incentive to participate. Yes, we had better than usual participation this year but only because ‘usual’ is abysmal. And with the current occupant so flagrantly lawless and abusive of power, I count such apathy as akin to supporting 45.
        Its discouraging. Nonetheless, in my own can-do fashion, I continue to hope for America.

      • Smeelbo says:

        “Stupidly seeking a Constitutional Convention, which would would go disastrously sideways in every way from Sunday, as Quinn improperly suggested, is ridiculous.”

        A Constitutional Convention would be among the worst possible outcomes. It would seek to affirm and enshrine every awful political desire. Just imagine “revised” First or Second Amendments.

        • Rayne says:

          ~sigh~ You weren’t supposed to do someone else’s homework; your example is one this country addressed without a full blown constitutional convention to rewrite the entire document though it did come after a civil war.

          The ability of bad faith actors to get around both the Constitution and existing laws is ultimately on us — what are those leaks and are we can-do about fixing them?

          How many of those leaks aren’t as clear cut as 3/5ths compromise with a solution as simple as the Citizenship and Due Process Clause? Hard to be can-do about problems not articulated.

        • Rayne says:

          Again, doing someone else’s homework. If someone’s going to use a broad brush and say, LO, THERE ARE PROBLEMS then point out the ones we need to address, don’t assume we’re mind readers who will suss out exactly to which defect(s) someone refers.

          Go back and look at the commenter. Do you know them? Because regular community members already knows and have yelled ad nauseum about the Electoral College. We already know that the former Dean of House, John Dingle (RIP) advocated elimination of the Senate and again, regulars here have beaten their heads against the GOP Senate obstruction on a daily basis.

  9. Raven Eye says:

    Can-Do is not dead in America. In fact, the tools for Can-Do exist in E.O.s, regulation, legislation, and in the core competencies that exist across the private sector. However, executing Can-Do can be difficult if those in charge engage in aggressive ignorance (current administration), view the emergency only in the context or transactions for political or personal gain (current administration), or exhibit the signs and symptom of tunnel vision (an unfortunate condition that can crop up in both the public and private sectors).

    I have seen Can-Do and competence in my professional life:

    — Following Hurricane Iniki, with a phone call request, we were assisted by a VP for a Class 1 railroad. This wasn’t just a “railroad guy” – this was a “transportation guy”. Over a number of days he arranged seamless end-to-end transportation involving rail, truck, maritime, and air transportation of freight from the mainland to Hawaii. We told him where the stuff was, and he set it up – and that involved pulling levers and calling in favors from people who were glad to assist. It was one of those cases where (to adapt a phrase) competency, sufficiently advanced, was indistinguishable from magic. Meanwhile, in the islands, an executive from an air cargo company secured an unused hangar at HNL. We tried to get him to submit an invoice, but he shrugged us off. Can-Do.

    — Working on oil spills and chemical incidents across the country, I couldn’t begin to count the times that federal, state, local, and commercial reps would hunker down and just figure out what needed to get done — and then do it safely. Can-Do.

    — After the Northridge earthquake in 1994 U.S. Navy Seabees and LA County public works crews constructed two commuter rail stations (Palmdale and Lancaster) in three days. Additional stations were added over the next five weeks. This was a line Metrolink had been planning for the future, but an overpass collapse onto I-5 accelerated the project dramatically. Can-Do.

    So what the heck has happened to Can-Do – especially in the current situation?

    It’s a muddled situation, made all the more frustrating by the fact that the tools are there to be used. If you go back to E.O. 12656, you see what happened (at least according to emergency management folklore) when the White House grew frustrated when federal departments and agencies pushed back on requests for assistance during disasters, pointing to their appropriations, authorizations, and regulations. The E.O. aligned agency core competencies with likely needs during an emergency and instructed those agencies to get with the program through Emergency Support Functions (ESFs). They still had to execute their statutory responsibilities but were also directed to support the FEMA response, eligible for reimbursement for those additional activities.

    Most frustrating for me is the administration’s incompetent (if at all) use of the Defense Production Act during this pandemic. The DPA provides carrots, sticks, and (more importantly) a vehicle for the private sector to come together and coordinate complex raw material, manufacturing, and distribution capability chains to provide urgently needed items – while providing them relief from anti-trust regulations for the duration of the emergency. But this needs to be driven by competent private sector people (like the railroad VP mentioned above), not some ad-hoc committee dreamed up by the President’s dead-eyed son-in-law.

    Another bit of DPA sabotage was the message (originating from Navarro, if I recall correctly) that using the DPA would involve the nationalization of U.S. businesses. Rubbish.

    The Can-Do “enabling” tools are there. The Can-Do knowledge, skills, and abilities are there. There are people willing to do that Can-Do thing.

    In this county, early days during the pandemic, hundreds of people, working at home or in their businesses, produced face shields, masks, wearable PPE, modifications of ventilator parts, PPE sanitization facilities, etc. for local health care providers and responders, under the supervision of emergency and acute care professionals.

    Unfortunately, too much local effort had to be activated to fill the national leadership gap. Again, that gap was build on the sand of aggressive ignorance, a foundation of partisan political transactional focus, a culture of self-dealing, and a Congress obstructed by more urgent priorities – such as judicial appointments.

    Maybe Can-Do can be a focus area for the incoming administration.

  10. Eureka says:

    Can-Do also means giving everyone something they can do.

    My comments are focused on the near-term pandemic because I’d been thinking about it anyway — we urgently need to do different things NOW, right now, we cannot wait — and it encapsulates most of our social ills in any case.

    I like WWII imagery, models, and metaphors for our times for lots of reasons, but here especially because everyone had social roles and specific ways they could participate (drive less — spare rubber; spare aluminum; Victory gardens; etc.). Of course with the pandemic we all have specific things to do wrt NPIs, but people are bored to the deaths of themselves and others of those tasks. While we may have had some social cohesion around the greater good on those things early in the pandemic, GOP-affiliated elements seized on the boredom of the restless and gave them protests, gun-stuff, and SM and other antics to do (while, importantly, making them into appeals to the greater good in that empty sociopathic way, where it’s “about” the “principles” of our country — Constitutional rights decontexted from people, the society which they serve). Nihilism can do! [I feel like a cloud of “??!!?!?!???!!” should follow here.]

    So, while it might sound counter-intuitive to give people more things to do when we _really_ need them to be focused on NPIs, and while such interest is waning*, we need to come up with more specific stuff that people can do. I suppose in the past that churches would have done a lot of this work (and where the WWII-lookback fails today, too, is in gov leadership actively working against any form of neighborly-ness, much less a common American goal). If folks could be recruited to do some other, more palpably social, things, it might reinvigorate faithfulness to basics like NPIs.

    Last week, AOC put out a signup for Homework Helpers (giving specific parameters — an hour a week for four weeks — with a link for training). [Adding: ]

    As I see how healthcare workers are just getting slammed beyond all imagination — it’s a punishing isolation, and many are leaving / will leave that work because they just cannot do it anymore — I’ve tried to think of things, anything, that could help. [There are more and more convos about the PTSD, the moral injury (all over twitter, for e.g.), the conditions of which are being caused to some extent by people just not caring, saying eff you to human life. And besides their ‘formal’ addition to the groups that are devalued by society … if you think healthcare is fucked up now, just wait — but that’s a bigger topic.] [Also, HCW are not just the medical or direct patient care folks, but environmental, food services, etc. All (were) esteemed community jobs.]

    All I could come up with were the basics — leave a meal on the doorstep; rake leaves, shovel their walks (nourish / remove a problem, inobtrusively, from the exhausted and weary) — and it’s really the basics in this ‘war’ that count. Superficially, it might seem that appeals for acts of kindness would work most with those who are already conscientious of doing their part. Chore-like things are less exciting than partying maskless with strangers into the night or toting guns to a city “protest”. But even people who espouse belief in the ‘rules’ act like they apply to everyone else, and they are they exception (witness all the officials saying, “Don’t travel” who themselves traveled, for e.g.). I’d bet there’s some folks who might get renewed purpose given a (manageable, discrete) Can Do list.

    As in all things, we need to redistribute the loads from all of those bearing excess burden to those who either can bear more, or are plain not pulling their weight.

    Whatever works — we need to come up with ideas NOW before more people die from selfishness, in unusual circumstances.

    *Also why it’s great that Biden announced that “100 Days” of masks. We’ll need more than 100, and most people are in on the secret, but limits make things do-able.

    • Ken Muldrew says:

      Very well said. Before “can do“, there has to be “want to do“, and people have to be in general agreement about what they “want to do” (and more importantly, what needs to be done to not only thrive, but to survive). Finding ways to engage people with their communities in this hour of need may be the first step toward getting Americans back to finding a unified purpose for the nation.

      But is there any task so small, so obviously good and morally righteous, that it can withstand the weaponization of right-wing disinformation?

      • timbo says:

        Yes and no. You want a definitive positive answer to something that can never be. If any action by the moderates in society can be labelled as a socialist Chinese plot then it can never be. So, instead of worrying about something like something “absolutely everyone will get behind and chip in on” it’s better to think more in line with shifting the playing field parameters rather than thinking you can train all the players to play the way you want them to.

  11. BobCon says:

    I think this article helps dig in further into the issue to identify what, specifically is hurting big public works programs:

    I agree the biggest single problem is inadequate and unreliable funding. Especially since the Reagan years the US has moved toward shifting costs to state and local taxpayers, which lowers federal spending without actually helping taxpayers, and increases uncertainty as the number of funding sources increase and opportunities for incomplete contributions grow.

    Uncertainty hurts planning and increases project length, which both drive up costs enormously.

    The article also mentions deferred maintenance, which drives up the need for new consteuction. US projects are also increasingly overengineered as planners attempt to anticipate the ways in which critical maintenance will be shortchanged.

    I would also add that public planning and oversight need a lot more investment. It is often far too easy for private contractors to take over projects and inflate costs due to limited expertise in the public sector.

    The right likes to blame union rules and environmental regulations, but the counterargument is that European countries have similar or stronger rules but thanks to more investment at the national level they tend to construct big projects faster and at a lower cost.

    It’s a sign of Trump’s incompetence and paranoia that he didn’t cut a deal on infrastructure. He could have had a half trillion dollars in projects with his name on them already in the works if he had started in 2017. But the opportunity is there for the Democrats if they can make the case for it.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Shifting costs from the feds to the states is a structural way to make sure infrastructure investments are Not made, and neither is the associated demand for tax income to pay for them. Alternatively, those investments are made only with the “help” of private money.

      So-called public-private partnerships are a wedge that forces revenue – and control – into private hands. That limits the range of projects that receive money and how much is spent on the ones that do. It’s part of what makes the American version of Neoliberal capitalism so rapacious.

      A variation on that theme is when legislatures defund public higher education, forcing students into the arms of rapacious private lenders and creating a society of wage slaves.

      Fixing those two things would be part of what Anand Giridharadas calls structural progressivism – as opposed to kind words and whimsical money from billionaires, intent on improving their social standing.

  12. dannyboy says:

    It is NOT a choice between Can Do and Can’t Do.

    It is a choice between Will Do and Won’t Do.

    And “Won’t” is in charge.

      • dannyboy says:

        Sorry that the distinction was not clear.

        Won’t is active.

        Some examples:

        Won’t is defiant.

        Won’t is resentful.

        Won’t is challenging.

        Won’t provokes.

        Won’t actively opposes “can do”

        Won’t leads to conflict.

        Won’t loves a fight.

        P.S. Sorry you’re stuck in your intellectual machinations.

    • Artemesia says:

      Yes — ‘can’t do’ is a choice we made. A vivid example is the decision to not repair New Orleans after Katrina. It was once unthinkable to allow disaster to destroy our infrastructure — but now — it is too hard to repair the water, sewer, bridge, power systems slowly crumbling. It is all too hard and we are not willing to spend the money. Look at the 50s and 60s (and 30s and 40s) when public projects transformed the nation. Now we are coasting and not even maintaining the antique infrastructure built then. A ‘can’t do’ nation.

      Our response to COVID — ‘too hard’

  13. gnokgnoh says:

    The myth or story of American exceptionalism was, in my view, never the glue that held us together. It was a story told by our politicians, the media, and corporations to justify bad acts. Think of exceptionalism as a palliative that made the medicine go down. It’s the same exact exceptionalism we inherited from Europe – colonialism, manifest destiny, and race superiority (white man’s burden).

    The need to come up with a new story seems to assume that everything has fallen apart, that we are broken, that the myth of exceptionalism no longer applies. I beg to differ, mostly again because that myth was and still is nothing but a palliative.

    We are a nation of incredible diversity, of misfits and immigrants. We have forgotten history. We act like none of what we are experiencing ever happened before. Every single achievement, every shift in the balance of power between the majority and the minority, between the powerful and the weak, has been fought on the ground in communities across this country. I am not painting a story of linear progress. I am painting a story of struggle, where our Constitution and the evolution of our laws, have provided an imperfect guide to our country, just as our leaders are imperfect. Examples of that struggle and the emergence of new paradigms abound.

    Besides, I’m not terribly good with slogans.

  14. Epicurus says:

    I agree with bmaz. “The people of this country are responsible for it. Trying to blame it on the founding document is a cheap way out. All controlling “constitutions” will be subject to good faith execution by our elected leaders.” The underlying issue is that party politics rule the roost. Party politics and those of major standing in parties intend control over the general population in a specific way and in line with that control what things are determined to be “can-do” projects. President Reagan (at least candidate Reagan) gave a presage of the non can-do world to come: (sarcastically and cynically) “I am from the government and I am here to help”, meaning he wasn’t inclined toward anything like that and fully represented/was empowered by those who believed and believe similarly. Here comes the Tea Party. The three ever present powerful influences of money (see the ever rising GINI coefficient), religion (you can’t do that or you must do that and we are going to legislate “you can’t do that or you must do that” through the Supreme Court), and mass available communication (the rise of the ease of finding anyone that agrees with you, no matter how stupid the belief – QAnon!) give great support and ever increasing power to the political parties and those that can mold the party to their personal beliefs and doctrines.

    Is there a way away from that to something that would facilitate a can-do favorable country? I would argue that train is still in the station and isn’t moving out very quickly. One would have to find away around or a way for party politics and the monetary, religious, and classic Declaration of Independence ideals (now internalized by both sides as I can do what I want and too bad for society and institutionalized as easily accessible throughout the cable shows, radio programs, internet appeal) to come back into balance. I don’t see it. I see what this country has always been: a raucous caucus with myriad powerful elements trying to impose their will.

    • bmaz says:

      Right. And “they” are “us”. Short of breaking up the country into factions, it is the messy raucous caucus it is. It can sure be administered better. But that is on us.

  15. Godfree Roberts says:

    “These are festering problems that stand in the way of using our government to solve problems.”

    Yes, and those problems have been festering for 3,000-odd years, since Athenian ‘democracy’ became a thing.

    Athenian democracy was no democracy at all. It was republican rule by the white landowning ten percent concerned to bequeath their privileges to their descendants.

    Athenian democracy never worked well for the other 90% of Athenians, any more than it did for 90% of Romans, 90% of Britons, or the (soon to be) 90% of Americans whose fortunes rose and fell depending upon the (in)competence of the 10%.

    Though China is a republic its democracy works better because it’s a people’s democracy, dedicated to equitable distribution of resources. It still has a ways to go, as we see, but already there are more hungry children, drug addicts, suicides and executions, more homeless, poor, and imprisoned people in America than in China. And by 2035 that gap will be much wider: Chinese Gini will be 0.28 and life expectancy will exceed ours–and the world will notice.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      China has made enormous strides in the last thirty years. Its pace of change and improvement is considerably faster than in the US, which has been backsliding since the 1970s. But to call China a “people’s democracy” is not accurate.

    • Nehoa says:

      I have lived in China, and I greatly admire it and its people, but it has, like the U.S., its issues. I don’t want to go into why it has less visible issues than the U.S. because I may be going back there soon….

  16. Christopher Blanchard says:

    Well, I am an outsider here, from Britain, and I would like to make a suggestion. The contributors to this site, especially but not only EW herself, seem to me an excellent mix of passion and cool rationality – even BMAZ in Cerberus mode.

    So, my suggestions might be daft, but I won’t learn much if I don’t try, and if you bite me (even three times at once) then OK.

    When I was a University student of US politics, many years ago, one of the things which struck me, and has stayed, was that a crucial part of US survival is just how complicated it is. In particular, that you have a vast array of small, local political structures. I know those structures have shrunk a lot but back, way back, in 1960 or so you had around quarter of a million voting ‘state’ structures, ranging from PTAs and Sheriff elections, all the way to national, and you still have tens of thousands of the things, each with a piece of autonomy. That seems to me to build in a kind of conservatism (small c and not toryism). What I suspect that means is that change, of any sort – good or bad, is always going to be slow, contested and difficult. But, and this is the big but, your disparate, multi-ethnic and multicultural half melted pot hasn’t broken down into repeated civil wars or break-up, because the people in contention do have some autonomy, and can see potential ways to, eventually, get what they want.

    Another way of putting the same thing is that the US has (crude and limited, but profoundly real) democratic processes deeply embedded in its national body. And very roughly, no-one can possibly have a real political sense unless they spend time in those local committees, and the USA has had more of those training spaces than the rest of us. This isn’t a new thought; William Ewart Gladstone, who I think was the UK’s best prime minister ever, tried to create an equivalent, dense, local political structure, through the 1888 Councils Act, the Parish Councils Act (can’t remember the date) and so on, but it only ever half worked.The UK, Germany, France and lots of other places had workers associations, guilds and all kinds of other institutions doing a lot of the same educational work, but so have you, so you have a deep advantage, with more people learning how things really work, because of your local ‘state’ institutions.

    That brings me to ‘Can Do’. American (USA) ‘can do’ amazes and impresses me, not just because of successes, but because most of this success is in the teeth of astonishingly bureaucratic administrations, foolish government and normal, everyday contentiousness, all in this ferociously political environment. I will offer an example: back in the 1980s both the UK and the US had governments which were essentially hostile to the development of the advanced computer systems which became the internet, whilst the workers doing the stuff were technically roughly equivalent, but the USA had semi-autonomous pieces in its government (especially DARPA), powerful and truculent companies and a lot of contentious, bloody minded and difficult people in those businesses, so the UK government (Thatcher’s) could kill the business here, but yours survived and prospered. I think and I suspect your success might have a lot to do with having more people trained, by experience, to carry the argument and not give up (grass roots letting the trees grow?)

    That says ‘can do’ is powerful and is what works when you have democratic depth, so the story Ed offers isn’t a story about entrepreneurship or ‘clever bastards’ (look for the great Ian Drury), but is about your political culture.

    And by the way, when I was a politics student the other place I was interested in was Nigeria – don’t know why they got lumped with the USA except, maybe, as another populous multi-ethnic federation – but with a recent (60s) civil war.

    • posaune says:

      Christopher @7:23 pm,

      You’ve comment has made me look back at the 1980s.
      I remember moving to NYC for graduate school — as an impoverished grad student. Working two jobs while attending a 160-credit-hr joint -degree program. Sure, there were the legacy admits and the trust-funders, but I knew a number of people who did the same. After we graduated, a bunch even worked three jobs: architecture firm full time, teaching undergrads, moonlighting on building surveys. Constantly riding the subway, working downtown, teaching at City College. There were thousands of people in NY doing two things: working and going to school, moonlighting in a new career direction, etc. Mr posaune and I shared a 170-sf studio, sleeping on the floor under the ganged drafting tables, eating takeout cold sesame noodles for $1.95 on the UWS. Good times, actually. The life-vibe was full of possibility and potential, despite being tired and broke. Somehow, it felt like the whole city was doing that.

      • gnokgnoh says:

        Me, too. Architecture school, poor as hell. Difference was, Columbia had 6 grad students in my grad school year who worked. The other 54 we’re…well, one was Ismelda Marcos’ nephew, drove a Ferrari to class. Another was the daughter of the President of Columbia, the country, at the time. Many like that.

        • posaune says:

          Hello, fellow architect! Good to see you at empty wheel! I remember one grad student whose parents were very, very wealthy industrialists from Turin (I think a car company). They sent him to GSAPP in the wake of the Aldo Moro kidnapping. This student had absolutely NO interest in architecture. I recall that when he entered the classroom (4th floor jury room) for the Professional Practice & Ethics final, the professor, Paul Segal (AIA NYC President) asked him who he was and commented that he had never seen him before. Paul brought the student to Loes Schiller’s office to verify his matriculation and to recommend he drop the course. Worthless, of course, b/c the student was a celebrity-admit. Never kept track of the legacies really.

          Still, I learned a lot (esp in Planning: Peter Marcuse, Shirley Siegel and in the School of Public Health), and I met my spouse in those years. Been together 35 years now.

          • punaise says:

            My folks paid my B. Arch way at Cal Poly back in the day, so I can’t honestly share hardship stories. But I’m sure we could share some design studio memories.

      • dannyboy says:

        “eating takeout cold sesame noodles for $1.95 on the UWS. Good times, actually. The life-vibe was full of possibility and potential, despite being tired and broke. Somehow, it felt like the whole city was doing that.”

        You’re gonna make me cry. I’m still here. Except now the public schools are segregated and lawyered-up local groups get to kickout men in rehab, homeless, or anyone else that affects their property values.

        The “possibility and potential” lost.

        • posaune says:

          You’re right, danny boy. It does make me weep, especially for the UWS. So hard to believe from the NYC I knew.

          I lived in an old tenement near 107 & Bway, 66 units. Tiny, cut up apartments. Paper thin unit partitions except for the periodic bearing wall. There was a guy in our building, statutory tenant, rent controlled (all others rent stabilized). Sweet guy, Cuban refugee from 1960, bi-polar, practiced Santaria with candles and the chickens in Riverside Park, shaved head, nose ring, etc. He worked for NYCHA, when he could stay on his meds. One night the ground floor laundromat caught fire from an errant gas flame. Raging 4-alarm fire. Pedro smelled it first as he had been a copper worker in Cuba; he ran unit to unit, all 6 residential floors and got everybody out, including the blind gospel singer on SSI. He did it without hesitation and was the last to exit the building.

          After that fire, the landlord was quite keen to throw him out of the rent controlled apartment & rent it at market rate. We formed a tenants union and kept the leases for everyone. And then, every tenant in the whole building checked on him, all the time–asked about his meds, etc. When he got the inevitable eviction notice, we would each take turns going to housing court with him, asking for continuance, and collecting rent for him before the next appearance.

          When mr posaune and I got engaged, he pulled aside my fiancé for “a talk.” My father having died when I was much younger, he told the future mr posaune that “you are getting a good woman here, and I want to know that you are treating her right. I’m asking posaune to check in with me — so that I know you’re treating her right.”

          Those were good times I hope the spirit is still alive somewhere in NYC — maybe Bronx?

          • dannyboy says:

            That Bronx is harder and harder to find these days. I grew up in the South Bronx, which had neighborhoods in my early years, but troubles later.

            My son is making a go of it in The Bronx these days, so my hopes lie there.

  17. darms says:

    Is this supposed to be the optimistic thread? I’m concerned about the inability to communicate between people like myself and some of the 70+ million people who cast their ballots for the Donald. The few I have known in RL & even fewer OL seem to exist in an epistemic closure all their own, worse than the dread christian islands of the eighties, entire malls & neighborhoods filled with christian merchants& neighborhood evangelical churches…
    (S.Arlington TX circa 1980)
    Is putting children in cages an ‘accomplishment’ I am supposed to be proud of or ashamed of?

    • Nehoa says:

      In my community, the solution was to marry your kids into another group/ethnicity. For 30 years more than 50% of children born here were of mixed ethnicity. Tough to be a racist when your grandchild is what you thought long ago was inferior.

      • madwand says:

        But not hard to be a closet racist in those circumstances. I have a friend on the other coast whose daughter married an immigrant and both he and his wife use that to justify that they are not prejudiced. My friend recently told me that it was only the “Mexicans” dying of covid and I don’t think that’s a topic he would bring up in front of his son-in-law.

    • Molly Pitcher says:

      Not selling, just convincing ourselves it is still possible to have hope, when half the country thinks Trump is just hunky dory and we almost got him for another 4 years.

      Whistling past the cemetary.

  18. Vinnie Gambone says:

    Helped once produce three 10 minute films about Shipbuilding on the Delaware for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The intrigue behind New York Ship Yard winding up in Camden New Jersey had to be left out. The big story was that 45,000 people worked at New York ship yard at the peak of WW2. Imagine that. Cheese and crackers, imagine the poor bastards had to keep track of all those time cards. From the draftsmen, to the template makers, to the steel fabricators, to the assemblers on down the line. Work went on around the clock. They produced over 700 ships. Can Do? Yes.
    It is said we won the war because we were more able to make the shift from riveting to welding. It was really Rosie the welder should have gotten the credit.
    What an absolute treat for me to have looked at all those progress photos and films at the National Archives and Smithsonian. Thousands. Thrilling.
    We did about two dozen oral histories of each strata of the work force.
    That was 40 years ago, I was 20. I was so proud of all 45,000 people who worked there.

    Work is what America is about. Can’t eat freedom. People come here to work. The best that is in them is shown in their every day work .

    As far as “committed activism” , forget all the other bullshit. Social justice and economic justice are made most available to average Americans by those individuals who constantly push for collective bargaining agreements. Those activist constantly organizing working people to fight for wages and standards? Those are true believers to me. Union organizers are in the top tier of what an actual ” committed” activist looks like, and I can tell you, they ain’t doing it from behind a god darned computer, they’re doing it face to face. We can only hope more Americans come to recognize when they are falling prey to active measures to pit us one against the other. Amen

    • timbo says:

      The problem though is when there is efficiency to such a level that in peace time there really isn’t enough work for everyone to do (at least not in the traditional sense of what working once meant). This is why the talk about a basic minimum income whether one is working (in the traditional sense) or not is now getting more and more air play in the US. You can’t keep proclaiming how amazing your society is and how advanced it is and yet, for some reason more and more of society ends up poor because there really is no more (traditional) work to be done. In the US, Madison Avenue has spent generations now showing folks that they can just have the good life if they can buy the products that Madison Avenue is selling. As that becomes less and less obviously true the cognitive dissonance has to give in some way. Trump is one example—if you can’t have it all, at least you can fall in line with a leader, any leader. This is part of Madison Avenue training we’ve all been subjected to too–the leader is the product… and he only will cost you your vote…

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