01/08/2011 11:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Restoring the Middle Class Will Restore American Exceptionalism

If you want to restore "American Exceptionalism," you need to restore the middle class. The mantra of politicians at all levels of government this election cycle will be jobs, jobs, jobs, and appropriately so. The economy is slowly recovering from the massive hangover of misguided, ill-conceived, and flawed economic policies and deregulation of the financial markets that have effectively widened the gap between the richest and the rest.

And while restoration of jobs is priority one, two and three on the political agenda, what I find especially troubling is the shameless rhetoric that suggests that we need to quickly restore the jobs and skill sets of the past rather than the jobs of either the present or God forbid the future. So while we focus on the immediacy of restoring a twentieth century, and more appropriately an early twentieth century, construct that relies on the economy of a bygone era, we have completely forfeited our competitiveness to those economies that are gearing up for the technologies and job opportunities that will sustain economic growth for the medium and longer-term future.

Our steady slide away from investing in alternative energy sources is vividly playing out in states like Pennsylvania, which sits above the abundant Marcellus Shale natural gas play. By pinning our hopes on the short-term prospects for profit by plumbing the debts of our planet and draining every last ounce and cubic foot of oil and gas we will continue to feed a fossil fuel driven economic paradigm whose days are most assuredly numbered. We will continue to focus on dirty fuels and the dirty jobs that are needed to exploit them. We will concentrate our technological development and capital investment in mining what Thomas Friedman has so eloquently called "fuels from hell", that is underground, exhaustible, carbon emitting energy sources and put a hold on developing and utilizing "fuels from heaven", such as solar and wind that are inexhaustible and do not emit greenhouse gasses.

In the shuffle for creation of jobs, any jobs at any cost, we are postponing the development of a new economic paradigm aimed at reducing dependence upon fossil fuels and making us energy independent. It is not that the development of alternative energy sources does not create new jobs, it does, but clearly the inordinate influence of big oil and gas money fuels the political short-sightedness that will delay creating clean jobs that are critical to our success in an increasingly competitive globalized economy.

And the cost, my goodness the costs incurred in terms of environmental, ecological, and, yes, the dreaded impact upon climate change that is occurring and will continue to occur at exponential rates despite the best public relations efforts of a growing community of deniers is heartbreaking. Our collective and long-term slide into anti-science and anti-intellectualism is by any measure breathtaking. We are pursuing a course that is ultimately self-destructive, but the cruel genius of this blind strategy is the fact that we will not pay the ultimate price, but our children and grandchildren will.

I am, sadly, a political realist and completely understand what is possible and what is probable. I can see the writing on the wall and while I realize that it does not have to be this way, it is. This is an indictment of the system not of a political brand or party or ideology. The best that we can wish for at this point is willingness on the part of some to continue to voice their objections and inject their scientifically validated positions into the political system and our governing structures until eventually rationality will prevail.

But in reality, the longer we delay making policy decisions and investments in the future the further we fall behind. We are losing the most important ingredient in the mix that has made this the greatest country in the world: namely, a collective vision and boldness to excel. I often hear the term "American exceptionalism", but it is in reference to returning to the past and not the future.

It is always astounding to me that those who scream the loudest about the need to take a trip down memory lane and return to a simpler time when our preeminence was undisputed conveniently forget the sacrifices that were entailed in reaching that point. So it is no surprise that they also conveniently omit the need for sacrifices that are required to reach the next level.

But those sacrifices are not solely the responsibility of the American workers, what is required is a collective sacrifice. The current attack on the American workforce is premised on the false notion that they are strangling creativity, innovation, and growth and therefore must make sacrifices in order for management to create economic growth. It is as if the shrinking middle class' collective overindulgence is holding us back. The only logical conclusion derived from such philosophy is to assume that optimally a cheaper workforce is good for business, and hence the ideal workforce would be one that costs as little as possible or nothing at all. Slave and child labor, under this scenario, would be the economically optimal choice. Is this the economic paradigm that is nostalgically yearned for?

Cheap labor, like cheap energy will exact tremendous costs on the society and ultimately will render a society that is neither sustainable nor desirable. Our politics is completely untracked at this juncture and the key to restoring the economy and jobs is to balance the costs and share the sacrifices. This means that the captains of industry and the lieutenants of small business must be at the table when it comes time to put Humpty Dumpty back together, not with their hands out, but their sleeves rolled up and willing to take America into the future, not the past. But when the only talk of sacrifice centers around spending that benefits the middle class and the most vulnerable in society it is hard to envision an environment of shared sacrifice. The current debate has effectively harnessed public dissatisfaction and anger against the wrong culprits. Just because workers are willing to work cheaper in other places does not automatically mean that our workers are to blame for the economic mess we find ourselves in. Follow the money. Look at where the tax breaks and corporate welfare and war contracts have been going over the past decade and you will get a good idea of the bankruptcy of our economic policies. No, it is not the American workers that are the problem, but it is they and the poor that always seem to pay the highest price.

What made this country exceptional in the twentieth century was the emergence of a vibrant and expansive middle class and what will make this country exceptional in the twenty-first century will be the reemergence of a vibrant and expansive middle class. To ignore such a reality is exceptionally short-sighted and unproductive.