In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to "pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty." He also said, "Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country." Many people believed in Kennedy's aims of shared sacrifice and public service.
Kennedy set the seemingly impossible goal of having an American walk on the moon by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, it happened.
Americans aren't into shared sacrifice these days, maybe because no one has really asked.
We have seen Americans step up to the plate before.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans pitched in to win World War II. Although most able-bodied men volunteered for service, there was a draft for those less willing. Taxes were dramatically increased to fund the war effort. Supplies such as gasoline and food were rationed. People were challenged to put 10 percent of their savings in war bonds. Profiteers were prosecuted and put in jail.
That total sense of commitment resulted in Germany's and Japan's unconditional surrender. It spawned a group of people called the "greatest generation." Those Americans contributed to the greatest economic run in history when the war ended.
Americans had a golden opportunity to have that same sense of shared sacrifice in the week after September 11, 2001. After nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in a terrorist attack, the country was completely united. Partisan bickering seemed to go away, and we were ready and eager to pitch in to help.
If our leadership had called on the same sacrifices to fight terrorism that Americans made in World War II, such as imposing a draft, rationing, and increasing taxes to fund the anti-terrorist efforts, Americans would have gone for it.
It wouldn't have hurt to ask, but nobody did. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed to rally Americans to participate for the common good.
Until Washington gets the courage to trust the American people to handle hard and sobering decisions -- and develops a plan of action that does not favor one interest group over another -- real economic solutions are not going to come from Washington.
I don't see economic solutions coming from Wall Street, either. The purpose of Wall Street is to make money for the brokers and the shareholders. Period. The corporate raiders of the 1980s made a compelling point that anyone who was not interested in maximizing shareholder value needed to be replaced with someone who was.
It is not Wall Street's charge to solve larger economic problems, and at no point in history has it done that. As long as Wall Street holds on to the clout it developed in Washington, it will use its clout to maximize profits. That is what shareholders want.
The possibility of economic change is most likely to come from people on Main Street. People need to push for their own financial independence. They need to be less dependent on Wall Street products, Wall Street banks and jobs where Wall Street is calling all the shots.
Moving money from Wall Street banks to Main Street banks, cutting up credit cards, "getting rich slowly" by investing in non Wall Street assets on a long term basis and seeking ways to be self employed all are part of being financially independent.
Financially independent people can handle the stress of economic chaos better than those who live near the edge. Some live near the edge because of poverty, lack of education, and lack of resources. Others live near the edge because of lifestyle. They spend more than they make, don't save, and don't have long-term plans.
I am not encouraging people to march in the streets, call into talk shows, or write their Congressmen.
Economic action is more effective. If Americans set up their lives so that we depend less on Wall Street and Washington, both entities will notice. We will be hitting them in the place where it hurts the most: their wallet.
With economic action as a primary tool, historic figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King were able to implement positive change on society. This September 11 may inspire that spirit of positive change for the United States in the year 2011 and beyond.