Our moral bankruptcy
The news from home is not good.
Drug deaths, especially in older white men, have increased significantly in recent years. Drug overdoses are more frequent every year.
"Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest level in nearly 30 years." [https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html] The suicide rate is particularly high among veterans and not, as one would think, among combat veterans but among soldiers who spent their tour of duty on military reservations back home. [http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-veteran-suicide-20150115-story.html]
The number of women who give birth and then succumb to postpartum depression has increased in recent years. [https://www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2013/10 /131002131400.htm]
And on a slightly different note, there is a steady increase of students who miss classes in middle and in high school for more than 10% of school days.
The news is better with respect to the divorce rate, the frequency of domestic violence, and the rate of physical and sexual abuse of children. The incidence of all three has gone down but all of them, of course, remain serious problems.
All of these statistics are controversial. There are always real and so-called experts who have different numbers. But these statistics are regarded as reliable by people who understand statistics and who know where these particular ones come from.
I came across these data at the same time that newspapers reported an apparently good piece of news, namely that household income has been rising. On closer consideration, however, this good news is very qualified. It turns out that individual income of people who work for wages has remained stagnant. Household income has risen because people work more, work longer hours, work full time where they worked part-time before.
Individual income of wage earners remains unchanged at a time when corporations report rising income. Corporations earn more money because they manage to keep costs down and one significant kind of cost are labor costs. Workers earning the same as what they took home a long time ago is one of the reasons for the rosy earnings reports of corporations. Workers are being exploited to benefit corporate bottom lines.
The failure of workers' wages to rise in a time when the well-to-do, the recipients of dividends, the CEOs of enterprises, lawyers and doctors, see their income go up and their standard of living improving steadily is often blamed for the the reports about depression and suicide and other negative statistics.
But that explanation leaves out an important component of the malaise that has our country in its grip. There are a large number of people who feel insulted, whose sense of their own worth is under attack.
The rise of neo-Nazis, of white supremacists is a clear symptom of this offended sense of self. Significant numbers of Americans rest what little self-esteem they have on their skin color – a characteristic for which they cannot take credit. We are born with different skin colors. They are not earned. They are not an accomplishment. If the best I can say about myself is that I'm white, I admit that I have not done anything that I can take pride in.
The white supremacist will reply: 'I am proud of being white because whites are superior to persons of color.' But consider this analogy. Jimmy is a member of an illustrious family: among his relatives are a US President, a Supreme Court Justice and several super-rich entrepreneurs. For himself, Jimmy has not done so well. Married several times but now divorced, Jimmy has had many jobs but is always living pay-check to pay-check. His life has been a series of failures. But he is proud of his distinguished family. This is pride by association, a poor source of self-esteem for those whose own life is beset with failures.
If your self-affirmation rests on sharing the skin color of persons who are famous for their accomplishments--ignoring for the moment whether those accomplishments are mythical or real--you are acknowledging that your own life is lacking in accomplishments and legitimate sources of pride.
Why are so many Americans unable to achieve a solid self-esteem? Why is the color of their skin the most remarkable about them?
Success, in America rests on being upwardly mobile. As the years pass, one needs to increase one's earnings and in order to accomplish that one needs, most of the time, to increase one's power to extract wealth from other people. The working people whose salaries remain the same year in, year out are the victims of this extraction of value. Because their income is flat, their employer's prosper. The employer has the power to keep them working for low wages. Their income does not substantially rise; their power remains minimal.
By prevailing standards of success in America these working people are not successful. They have not accomplished anything.
This version of success is reprehensible. This idea of what makes a life worth living is utterly immoral. The good life according to this American doctrine rests on the ability to harm others, to extract value from them and their work. The successful people are those who can injure others. Life is not worth living for those who are unable to harm others.
Perhaps this ethic is behind the American love affair with guns and the high murder rate in some of our cities. If you cannot enrich yourself at the expense of others, at least you can threaten them with your guns or shoot them.
The much discussed "opioid crisis," the rate of suicide and of depression and other negative statistics such as the rate of poverty in this, one of the richest countries in the world, is a symptom of our moral failure. The big people, the people in the news, are all rich and they have become rich at the expense of others. In the prevailing morality that is acceptable. Devastated lives, misery, is the result.
Only a moral reformation would make America great again.