By Joe Registrato, AliveTampaBay.com Contributing Editor
People running for office are always making promises. This year, one particularly annoying man promises to “make America great again,” but the only thing I’ve heard him talk about is a wall he wants to build to keep Mexican people in Mexico, which, to me, does not qualify as a great leap forward.
Many people, including some I’ve written about in this space, think America is already a pretty great place because the American people tend to do what’s “good.” But of course there’s always room for improvement. I have some ideas about this myself. Here is my short list of things I wish the president would work on, and some things I want him or her to leave alone.
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because we have huge supermarkets in every city and town from which the American people get food and other necessaries in such quantities and at such low prices that average Americans can have a feast in their home virtually every day. While some people may think we’re no better off in this regard than any other country, the Global Food Security Index, published by The Economist in June 2016, shows the U. S. is the number one country in the world for food availability, far ahead of places like Russia, China, South America and Eastern Europe. There are some other places in about the same shape as the U.S., such as Canada, Western Europe and Japan, but most of the world is not in the same league as us when it comes to having plenty of food available at stores everywhere.
On the other hand, AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because despite this plentiful food supply, in just about every city in the country hundreds of homeless people, many of whom are mentally ill, roam the streets like stray animals and must beg for handouts from strangers just to survive. Despite the efforts of volunteer and charitable organizations, many of these homeless people sleep under bridges, on highway rights-of-way, on park benches or on the ground, and do so in the snow or freezing rain of New York, Detroit and Seattle as well as the scorching heat of Tampa. According to an article by staff reporter Daniel Beekman published in the Seattle Times in January 2016, volunteers counted 4,500 people sleeping in freezing cold temperatures outdoors in Seattle and across King County, Washington, on one night in January 2016, a sharp increase over the same time in 2015. The count in January 2015 had been 3,772 homeless sleeping outdoors in freezing cold weather. That population was in addition to the 3,282 sleeping in shelters and 2,993 in transitional housing, for a total of 10,047. Large numbers of homeless and mentally ill people are arrested every day for such crimes as trespassing, petty theft and begging too close to a roadway. These people spend days or weeks in county jails for these mostly petty crimes where taxpayers pay a high price for their upkeep, and then they are released back into the same dark and hungry world from which they came. Jail officials have decried the fact for years, shouting loudly that jail guards are not trained or equipped to deal with the mentally ill. All authorities agree that it would be cheaper for taxpayers and easier on the homeless to provide some form of shelter and food for the homeless because the jail is a very expensive alternative, but America is apparently not ready to find a more inexpensive alternative to the jails and instead would rather pay a high price just to keep the homeless and mentally ill at least partly out of sight.
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because despite hundreds of years of racial tension and distrust among people of black and white races, and despite lingering doubts about the sincerity of white people when they claim to harbor no bias against blacks, American voters have twice elected a black man as president of the United States.
But, AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because unarmed black people continue to be shot and killed by mostly white police officers in police-citizen encounters, tragedies that add fuel to the idea that a virulent strain of racism persists in every corner of America. It is common in some quarters to hear the phrase, “driving while black,” as the reason a particular defendant was stopped for a traffic violation. It is difficult to deny the fact that the racial divide that began more than 200 years ago continues to dog the American way of life on into the 21st Century, and most presidents have not been able to do much about it. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson are notable exceptions. Can anybody? In a New York Times blog that appeared in October 2008 by Toni Monkovic under the headline, “No Cure for Racism; Treat the Symptoms,” a contributor identified as Morris W. O’Kelly put it this way: “The campaign of Senator Barack Obama is emblematic of the end of racism no more than the historic feats of the Little Rock Nine or Justice Thurgood Marshall were. In each instance, it signified progress and arguably a marked decline in our country’s bigot quotient. But like most diseases, we can only treat the symptoms of racism, a cure does not exist. Such is the ongoing contradiction of America . . .”
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because the so-called “standard of living” is far higher than most other countries. In a paper titled “Beyond GDP? Welfare Across Countries and Time,” written by Charles Jones and Peter Klenow of Stanford University and published in The Economist, the authors reported that if the standard of living in the United States is at a level of 100, that standard is surpassed by only Luxembourg at 159.2 and Norway at 108.9, and far ahead of Russia at 20.9, China at 11.3, and Britain at 69.8. The standard of living is defined as how much could you expect to consume, in goods and leisure, over the course of your life.
However, AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because, according to a 2013 report by the Brookings Institution, nearly half of families in the United States live below 250 per cent of the federal poverty level, and many lower-middle class families are not comfortably able to afford a sufficient diet. The report states, “Food insecurity in households with children is widespread, existing in every state.” A report published in the Los Angeles Times in March, 2015, stated that a majority of the 10.6 million low-income families are headed by minorities. The Times report stated, “Income inequality continues to increase, according to researchers, particularly among certain racial groups. In 2013, the median net worth of white households was 13 times higher than of black families, the largest gap since 1989.”
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because citizens such as football player Colin Kaepernick have the right to speak their minds about the country and the government and what they see as police brutality and state sanctioned murder of blacks by refusing to honor the flag at major sporting events. While many Americans find this protest disrespectful, many others, including this writer, believe the right to protest is the right many Americans have fought and died to protect. Despite this difference of opinion, the United States Supreme Court has ruled such protests are absolutely legal and neither the state nor federal government may act to stop or interfere with them in any way.
AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because certain wealthy persons have figured out a way to avoid paying their fair share of federal and state taxes by manipulating the laws and rules, thereby shifting an unfair portion of the tax burden to less fortunate people.
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because the system of justice provides that citizens accused of crimes must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, which in most cases ensures that only the guilty are punished.
AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because the U.S. Constitution is difficult to amend, which is beneficial when it works to maintain libertarian ideals such as the right to speak one’s mind and practice religion, but this same inflexibility makes it almost impossible to amend gun laws enacted when the most dangerous weapon available was a flintlock musket. The inability to update the Constitution to account for changes brought on by advances in science and technology has resulted in modern weapons, such as automatic and assault rifles, being available to mentally ill persons and criminals,who use them to kill and maim innocent people and children.
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because it has been proven that in America, even a bigoted opportunist who has repeatedly demonstrated that he is at best a sexist and a racist and who at times displays a ranting temper that borders on lunacy, and who regularly uses the tactic of the “big lie” (a term that has been attributed to Adolph Hitler), to gain favor among those who are easily manipulated, can rise to the very top level of a major political party, and against all odds become a legitimate candidate for president.
AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because big money interests, both individuals and business, play a large role in deciding who get elected to state legislatures and Congress. This often results in rewards for the rich at the expense of the less rich and poor and skews the legislative agenda away from matters of the public good and toward the special interests of those who fund political campaigns.
AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT because citizens have volunteered to fight and die to maintain the principles embodied in the U. S. Constitution, and have done so throughout history, from the War for Independence right up to the present time.
AMERICA IS NOT SO GREAT because veterans of military service are not paid or adequately supported after their release and often must cope with wounds sustained while in service without help from the government which they fought to sustain.
Joseph J. Registrato is a journalist and lawyer. He was a news reporter, assistant city editor, city editor and assistant managing editor of The Tampa Tribune from 1971 to 1987. After graduation from Stetson College of Law, he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1989, and was an assistant state attorney with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office from 1989 through 1991. He was in the private practice of law for more than twenty years in the areas of family law, criminal defense and appellate practice. He is now an assistant public defender at the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office of Julianne Holt. He is a U. S. Marine Corps veteran and served in the conflict in the Republic of Vietnam in 1968-1969. Registrato is a contributing editor of AliveTampaBay.com.