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Many Americans worry that the U.S. is losing ground to China, Russia, or other rising global powers. We think drilling for more oil or banning immigrants or enacting harsher prison sentences will get us back on top or, at the very least, keep us from slipping further off the winner’s podium.

However, those aren’t the most effective strategies for making America #1.

We can’t succeed without making the success of everyday Americans not only “possible” but routine. Here are seven difficult ways for the U.S. to actually win, and one easy way to lose:

We need to stop deifying oppression. There’s only one way to be competitive on the world stage, and that’s by making our citizens successful.

First, we must reduce income inequality. A living wage is not a giveaway. By definition, folks are working for it. We must raise the minimum wage so that no one working 40 hours a week lives below the poverty level. We also need a comparable minimum Social Security payment. And there’s a great deal of evidence that Universal Basic Income is effective.

Affordable housing must actually be affordable if we are to decrease our growing homeless population.

Many of our most successful corporations are already headquartered elsewhere or have sent a majority of their jobs overseas. When we can only ensure success for the top 1% of our population, we have no leverage to keep corporations or their jobs—and the funds to pay them—here.

We need universal healthcare. Every other industrialized nation in the world, and even a few developing countries, guarantees healthcare to all their citizens. If we want to attract and keep the best minds and talents, and cultivate successful citizens, healthcare must be part of the incentive package. Dental, vision, and mental healthcare must be included as well. We can’t keep a competitive economy when over half a million Americans are forced to declare bankruptcy every year over medical debt.

When the number of Americans affected by crushing medical debt is added to the number of full-time workers living below the poverty level on subsistence wages, we already have a population so heavily burdened we can only continue to slip further away from a leading position in the global economy.

The U.S. must ensure tuition-free college and vocational training. Like universal healthcare, free or nearly free postsecondary education is guaranteed by many other countries. Some of the best international students will go elsewhere for their education and then work in those other countries as well. We’re creating our own competitors. And we can’t even concentrate on developing our homegrown students because millions here simply can’t afford our skyrocketing tuition.

Even those who take out student loans are then burdened for twenty or thirty years with debt that prevents them from buying a home, making other consumer purchases, having more children, or making financial investments in their own future. And their future is America’s future.

Just as a sports team can’t be successful unless its players are given the training and other resources they need, a country that refuses to ensure that its citizens are skilled and educated cannot hope to remain a world leader.

Universal pre-k and subsidized childcare are non-negotiable if we want successful citizens. Workers don’t mysteriously materialize out of nowhere at the age of eighteen, prepared to make America’s economy competitive. We must begin by valuing childcare and childhood education. And in a digital economy, for kids to succeed in school, they need free access to high-speed internet.

Is such access a “right”? It doesn’t really matter. Full access to high-speed internet is necessary if we hope to have a skilled population that can compete on the world stage.

Strong, capable adults come from nurtured, educated children.

Fare-free public transportation allows even the poorest folks to get to work and back. It’s also essential if we want to address the climate crisis. Those with no transportation or access to childcare may be good stay-at-home parents, but they’re certainly not contributing citizen to a successful global economy.

They often, however, are forced to depend on public assistance. It doesn’t matter if poverty and dependence are technically our goals if they’re still the consistent outcome. If we want workers to get to work, we must make achieving that something less than a daily Herculean effort.

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We must decriminalize addiction, provide subsidized rehab, and eliminate private prisons. The war on drugs has led the U.S. to inflict enormous casualties on its own citizens. Legalizing some recreational drugs and decriminalizing others will save our country hundreds of millions of dollars a year, plus create taxable income.

It also allows us to stop deliberately destroying the lives of millions of our citizens, a plus even if it didn’t save money, which it does. Our current system of creating millions of unemployable workers each year with felony convictions ensures increasing poverty—or criminal enterprise as the only viable way to earn money. Destroying our own populace isn’t an effective way to compete globally.

The last and arguably most important way to maintain or raise our position is to tackle the climate crisis head-on. We must become a global leader in products and services for greener forms of energy. We need to find the most effective, least destructive ways to incorporate wind, solar, thermal, or other methods of extracting and storing energy.

Burying our head in the tar sands won’t change reality. Whichever country develops the best technology and infrastructure to move us away from fossil fuels, to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and to deal with the no longer preventable changes that it’s now too late to avoid, will be the leader of the world. If that’s not us, it will be China or Russia or India or someone else. It won’t be—can’t be—the U.S.

We’ll have to do it eventually, of course, whether we want to or not, whether we come in last or not, so we may as well make a goal to be the best at it.

There are all sorts of other things we could implement—require all high school graduates to master two foreign languages, require a semester abroad for every college degree, or a year of teaching ESL to immigrants. We could require community service instead of military service and retrofit buildings with energy-efficient windows or solar panels or whatever, teaching marketable skills in the process. There are many other things we could do to improve our country, but we only NEED these seven.

And we’ll pay for these things one way or another. Prisons aren’t cheap. Neither are riots in response to racism and other forms of oppression. Cleaning up oil spills or water polluted by fracking isn’t free. Neither is the destruction caused by longer wildfire and stronger hurricane seasons. Droughts and floods aren’t cheap. Neither is relocating coastal communities.

We can divert hundreds of billions from our military budget and still fund at a level four times that of either China or Russia. We can tax corporations and the wealthy at the same levels we did in the 1950s and have more than enough funds to implement these changes.

So what’s the one easy, sure way for America to fail? Choosing austerity programs. This, of course, can be broken down into smaller pieces—pitting workers against each other, taxing everyone except the rich, cutting back on every form of assistance, trickle-down economics—but it’s all basically the same thing. When we structure every benefit to favor the top 1% of citizens and weigh down the other 99%, we ensure with absolute certainty that 99% of our population will not be able to compete effectively with any other country.

Just as it’s easier to deface property than to construct it, just as it’s easier to burn a book than to write one, it’s easier to choose austerity over the difficult programs we’ll need to lift our country.

It boils down to this: do we want healthy, educated, well-balanced adults? Then we’d better not start two decades after their most formative years. Do we want a skilled, educated, debt-free population capable of competing globally in every major industry? Then we’d better stop throwing up as many barriers as possible. We must accept responsibility for the workforce we do—or don’t—create.

None of these winning strategies is easy. But then, no one wins a gold medal by putting off strenuous workouts. No one is named valedictorian for shrugging off chemistry and literature classes. No one wins a Nobel Peace Prize for justifying mass incarceration and extrajudicial killings.

There’s only one way to be competitive on the world stage, and that’s by making our citizens successful. We don’t have to do it, of course. We can let the inertia of our current poor policies keep dragging us down.

That’s certainly the easier path.

But if we want to succeed, we’ll need to stop deifying oppression in all its forms. We must change our downward course by telling officials already in office exactly what we demand, and only support those candidates in future elections who are willing to take immediate action.

Johnny Townsend

Sound hard?

Well, you didn’t think it would be easy, did you?

So let’s get to work.

Johnny Townsend