What do our politicians mean? Are we talking about our greatness following the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, or Martin Luther King? Or, are we referring to our economy during the last third of the 20th Century? I suspect all of the above, but especially the latter.

That was before many of our middle class jobs moved to other countries where labor was cheaper. During that period, India and China had little technology. Their citizens worked on rural farms. Only the ruling class had automobiles. The Internet was just getting under way. The West and especially the U.S. was wealthy and full of modernity.

U.S. blue collar workers, in the first half of the 20th Century, found manual jobs available that paid a living wage. Unions evolved to protect the working class and gave it a voice. Salaries increased. There was no competition elsewhere. Incomes enabled the development of a middle class that was based on income from manufacturing. This began to change when Japan started to design and produce automobiles of serious quality. Europe had always produced fine vehicles, but Far Eastern sources were now competing. The worldwide markets began to open up.

When I was in China in the early 1980s the only vehicles one saw were in the big cities. They were all black and belonged to the Communist leaders. The main mode of transportation in cities was by bicycle. You would see thousands of black bicycles in racks outside of factories where citizens worked.

On returning to China In the late 1990s, one still saw bicycles; but, there were many motor bikes. There were also quite a few civilian automobiles. Rickshaws were tourist attractions. China was on a roll, labor was cheap, and there were many available laborers. I heard jokingly that if all the Chinese citizens stood up on chairs and jumped off at the same time, the earth would be knocked out of orbit. Now we are seeing manufacturing jobs developing in other countries, such as India.

So what is the American Middle Class to do? That is a major challenge for our politicians, manufacturing sector, citizenry, and most importantly, our educational system.

Some of our states have right-to-work laws in place. An employee is not required to belong to a union in order to work on a specific job. Labor costs are cheaper in those states resulting in the movement of manufacturing jobs from overseas companies. In addition, U.S. companies have developed new manufacturing sites in right-to-work states. Boeing is developing a manufacturing site for its “Dreamliner” in South Carolina. Manufacturing costs are reduced.

New jobs are created by human beings. These jobs are either new ways of doing something or for the manufacture of a new product. Look at the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th Century and look at the U.S. today. Human beings will always be thinking, experimenting, and trying. If today’s current generation went to sleep for a century and then awakened, they would find a world vastly different from the world they knew. How did the world change so radically? The answer is human curiosity and ingenuity, which leads to new jobs.

The problem, of course, is those jobs are not available immediately. It takes time. Where will those jobs be produced? Will they be in the U.S. or elsewhere? It depends upon multiple factors: Availability of location, materials, knowledgeable and affordable labor, and availability of market.

How can we restore America’s greatness? That will take commitment and curiosity with open vision by all U.S. citizens and their offspring, by our teaching institutions (elementary through colleges and universities), and by concerned, effective, and stimulating government.

There has to be a determination to affect the creativity of our citizenry going forward. As our world shrinks, job opportunities will develop in many parts of the world. This has already occurred in many so-called white collar jobs with U.S. citizens working in other countries. This will occur for blue collar workers, too. Many will not choose to follow that path and there should be many opportunities awaiting them in their own country.

How do we restore America’s greatness? Government should provide freedom and fairness for individuals to create new jobs. Individuals should use their innate and educationally stimulated abilities to pursue their dreams. Most importantly, we must instill in our children the belief that the world is their oyster. They can pursue that exciting chase for a better life, for themselves, their children, and for all of mankind. Those opportunities and desires will restore America’s greatness. (Get outta the way.)

Tom Putnam is a retired pediatric surgeon who lives with his wife, Barbara, in Rockland. He serves on a variety of nonprofit boards, as well as municipal committees, and is a communicant of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.