Dividends of a Progressive Vision for America

10/27/2011 02:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

As the country debates the issues that the Occupy Wall Street protesters have raised, it is important to connect the dots between their grievances with the greed and corruption on Wall Street and the philosophy of conservative elected officials who in recent years have gone out of their way to pander to the wealthiest at the expense of working class Americans. While the wealthiest corporations are benefiting from cuts in regulations and the wealthiest people are benefiting from massive tax cuts, conservatives are claiming that recession-induced budget deficits give them no other choice than to cut holes in the social safety net and slash funding for education and other vital public services. Sadly, many people in this country feel it is reasonable to resolve our economic problems at the expense of working Americans.

A short recap of American history from the beginning of the industrial age tells the tale of working-class Americans, many of them immigrants, who added richness to this nation not only culturally but through hard manual labor. They built canals, railroads, and bridges - major pieces of infrastructure that created opportunities for expanded commerce and wealth.

Through two world wars they fought as one nation. They survived the dust bowl, the Great Depression and the Cold War, and yet, after all the financial hardships they overcame as a nation, they continued to invest in the future of this country by building and supporting great public universities, modernizing public utilities, constructing public libraries and building many other important public resources. Even in times of economic strife, they understood how important investing in the future was; they understood America's potential was limitless.

This potential was realized by some of our greatest inventors and artists who were raised in poverty, were educated in public schools and went on to accomplish great things in the sciences and arts despite their humble roots.

In 1914, a son was born to two Russian immigrants -- neither had much formal education, but both valued the opportunities that America gave them. They lived in communities with other Russian immigrants in East Harlem, the Bronx and Queens. This young man was able to attend an extraordinary public high school with a rigorous three-year curriculum. This public high school produced great leaders, boasting alumnae like songwriter Ira Gershwin, U.S. senator Robert Wagner and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Excelling at this public high school and completing his coursework at the age of 15 helped the young man get into the City College of New York, a highly competitive but tuition-free college. In the 1930's and 40's, CCNY produced eight Nobel Prize winners and the second highest number of PHDs in the country. This tuition-free public college was a place where many of these first-generation Americans were able to fulfill their great potential.

This particular young man pursued medicine. After graduation from CCNY, he applied and was accepted into NYU medical school. He continued to excel as a student and researcher.

It was a solid public education, along with investments in research for the common good that propelled the man who would end the scourge of polio. This man's name was Dr. Jonas Salk.

Dr. Salk refused the NYC tickertape parade just as he had refused to patent his vaccine. He also refused to patent the vaccine, which would have been a lucrative decision. Clearly he was not concerned about the accumulation of personal wealth; all he wanted to do was make the nation and the world a better place. He knew that he had benefited from a society that valued investing in those less fortunate, and he wanted to pay it forward. The public investment in Jonas Salk was paid back tenfold to future generations of children who would never know life in leg braces, a wheelchair or an iron lung.

So when we talk about budget cuts as a solution to our economic woes, let's remember who will get left behind -- the next Jonas Salk, the next child who might someday cure cancer, the next great mind to solve our energy needs or feed the world. History has shown us that greatness is not exclusive to Fifth Avenue or Beverly Hills -- it is not exclusive to expensive private prep schools or the well-connected. There is potential greatness in rural farms in the Midwest, in inter-city Los Angeles and Detroit, in small, run-down Southern towns, and in the poor neighborhoods in East Harlem, the Bronx and Queens that Jonas Salk once called home.

If we follow the directives of the right wing and we do not push back, we will become a nation that ignores and wastes our human potential -- potential that blossoms with opportunities for learning and development. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are not just unhappy about corporate greed, they are unhappy that these same wealthy Americans are now benefiting from tax cuts at the expense of important programs at the state and federal levels. Cuts to education at all levels, including cuts that spike the cost of our community colleges and public universities are a recipe for a bleak future for this nation.

We need to think of the sacrifices of those who have come before us who gave so much when they had so little. They believed that the legacy of strong communities and opportunity was more compelling than the accumulation of personal wealth. And if you were lucky enough to be prosperous, they believed that personal wealth carried with it a responsibility to others.

Think of your parents or your grandparents. Think of what they sacrificed not just for their families but what they collectively took from their individual wealth and used for the common good -- for strangers and for generations to come

In the words of FDR: "In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else we all go down as one people."

It is time we reevaluate our priorities as a nation.