Recently, I camped at Lake Thomas Edison in Fresno County with my two sons. But there was no water supply, even though the campsite was right on a lake fed from Sierra Nevada snowmelt. Why?

Water pipes cost money to keep in working order. That might cost a millionth of a cent in everyone’s taxes. Americans won’t pay it. They’d rather have a Lexus on the driveway, and drive it over potholed roads than have a Ford and drive it over smooth roads. It’s been drilled into their heads that taxes are evil and vanish into some black hole.

I’ve stayed at European campsites. All had running water. Roads in Germany are like billiard tables. Trains in France run at 200 mph over laser-straight tracks. Why are things better there?

Simply put, their super-rich haven’t bought politicians, seized the corridors of power with armies of lobbyists, and rewritten the social contract to benefit themselves alone at the expense of everybody else.

America had it all going for it for 30 years after WWII. It then threw it all away in a fit of pique because an old movie actor told jokes about the government. Reaganism has been a failure, yet it still remains the Vision of the Holy Grail 30 years later. Democrats haven’t been able to sell a better vision. Even worse, Americans fell for the Tea Party line, even though taxes are the lowest in 50 years.

President Dwight Eisenhower built interstate freeways, which employed thousands. Why can’t we do the same now? Infrastructure investment makes America’s private enterprise system more efficient. It’s a wealth-creating engine of tremendous horsepower when supervised by adults. But now it needs another jump-start, more cylinders and more fuel. Republicans oppose that as they can’t or won’t see past their noses.

Before Eisenhower, FDR put America back to work building roads, trails, campsites and even access to a stalactite cave in Sequoia National Park. This restarted the economy, doubled its size in fact, got unemployment down from 25 percent in 1933 to 10 percent in 1941, and made the private sector more productive. Even a water tap in a campsite makes the private sector more productive. Workers are more productive with a bit of R & R.  

Yes, taxes on the wealthy went up. Yes, some money was borrowed. But it was paid back over time, like a car loan or mortgage, from the sale of electricity from the dams. Mass starvation was avoided. And the economy became more efficient with more electricity, so it grew, and so the relative level of the debt actually shrank. That sort of thinking is taboo these days.  

Republicans want Americans to be low-paid servants in a depressed economy of neoconservative purity. German politicians didn’t. Germany has a highly paid technically educated workforce with all that horrid socialism, such as free university education (!) and free healthcare (!) and paid maternity leave (!) and six weeks’ paid vacation (!) and paid sick leave (!) and job security (!) and unions on company boards (!) and actual pensions (!).  It promotes precision manufacturing to get high wages and high profits. It taxes the high wages and high profits to create a great education system and infrastructure. Nobody screams at paying taxes because everyone has a fair shot at success.  

Germans understand the theory of the state: we can all club together to do collectively at low cost what one person cannot do by himself or herself. They understand Soichiro Honda’s dictum: “The power of the individual is limited. But an organized team has great strength and can do remarkable things.” Yes, that Honda, the world’s largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines.

Germany didn’t go down the American path of union-busting, depressing minimum wage, charging a fortune for college education and trying to kill social benefits, because it realized it could reach rock-bottom and still not be able to compete with China. Instead, it listened to Henry Ford: “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”  America’s tragedy is that it’s forgotten this.

Germany’s now the world’s second-largest exporter, after China, yet it has only a quarter of America’s population. Germany’s exceptional. America’s exceptional but it’s losing its edge very, very fast. Obviously, this is debated during America’s endless elections. Sarcasm alert:  American elections are mostly notable for their triviality. Economic issues are mentioned only in sound bites. I’ve just watched #Game Change# about Sarah Palin. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So with President Obama’s re-election, America’s shaping up, right?  Not really; the same Republican policies of letting American industry ship jobs abroad won’t change. We even subsidize it via the tax code.

The Germans roar laughing. And Thomas Edison turns in his grave at the thought of that sad campsite bearing his name.