Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Crisis in oufr Values

The Crisis in our Values

 If the current presidential campaign teaches us anything, it is that America is suffering from a serious lack of positive goals, of projects that arouse the enthusiasm of citizens and make them feel that their life has a purpose.

The need for a positive goal is so tremendous that, however appalled they may be by his foulmouth bragging, people follow Donald Trump enthusiastically just because he promises to make America great again. Many citizens feel that our nation  is drifting without clear direction and values. They will follow anyone who promises to provide new inspiration to their lives.

More surprising even is the widespread support for Bernie Sanders. Not too long ago anything called "socialist" was completely unacceptable in the United States. Any proposed project that its enemies could label "socialist" was dead. No politician would have ever supported a socialist project. But today many ordinary Americans support Bernie Sanders with money, with great enthusiasm at his rallies, and with their votes because Bernie has a set of clear ideals. Justice and equality, he believes, are very important--important enough to fight hard for. His followers are looking for positive goals and values. They want them so badly, they are willing to support his crusade even though Sanders calls it socialist.

Whence this pervasive sense that our lives do not have much value? Why is there this desperate need for new ideals, for goals that are worth working and sacrificing for? Wherever we look in our nation we find corruption, selfishness, unwillingness to take on the obligations of citizenship. Our leaders talk about freedom and equality but seem to care only for their rather petty self-interests. In the end, making money seems to be their only goal. For thoughtful Americans it has become difficult to be proud of their country.

Our public life has become embarrassing--a series of sexual scandals like that of President Clinton or later Gen. David Petreus. Many political careers have been ruined in recent years by extramarital affairs. Defenders of family values have been put to shame by their abandonment of most ordinary marital loyalties. It is difficult to admire our public officials because they embarrass us.

The Panama papers reveal once again widespread corruption in the political classes of different countries. We learn that three states in America--Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada--allow the creation of secret corporations in which the wealthy can shelter money from the tax man. These states allow citizens to evade their civic obligations by paying the taxes they rightly owe to support the government that has allowed them, in the first place, to gain the wealth they have. Some of this money, whose owners remain unknown, ends up financing political campaigns. Our democracy is being manipulated by people whose names remain secret.

Very large sums of money, given by a relatively small number of individuals, play a significant role in our elections. For ordinary citizens who cannot do more than give $25 here and there to Bernie Sanders, it is clear that their participation in our democracy counts for very little. Citizens’ votes are not equal because some spend millions of dollars trying to determine who will get elected; the voice of ordinary citizens is silenced by these large contributors. It is difficult to feel any enthusiasm for our political system of which we have been proud for so long. But that pride has been seriously undermined by the role of 187 families who essentially control political giving in our country today. Large corporations and their owners have debased our democracy. Political offices are for sale.

Global corporations, like Exxon or General Electric, pay no income taxes in the United States. The major drug producer, Pfizer, almost succeeded in moving its mailing address to Ireland in order to evade its obligation to the US government and pay much lower corporate taxes in Ireland instead. Major businesses model the prevailing attitude toward our democracy: take what you can get but be sure to avoid supporting it.

Lacking the tax support owed but not paid by large corporations, the government must increase the tax burden on working people whose economic situation is  precarious. Governments are short of money and, under pressure to cut their budgets, they save on services for ordinary people, often working people of color. The result is an epidemic of high levels of lead in the drinking water and many children affected by lead poisoning, such as in Flint, MI. We are not wiling to guarantee good health to our children in spite of our great wealth.

The nation’s main goal seems to be ever larger profits for global corporations. The well being of ordinary citizens who produce those profits is not considered important. The nation’s motto has become “Get Rich!” and only the already rich succeed in meeting that goal. We may be the richest nation in the world but we distribute this wealth without any regard for fairness..

On a series of scales of international comparisons such as educational achievement of our youngsters, such as infant mortality, such as cost effectiveness of medical care, our country does very badly as compared to many other countries, even ones that have considerably fewer resources than we do. Yes we are rich but we do not know how to use our money wisely.

Not everyone knows all of those facts. Not everyone is willing to admit that our military adventures have ended in embarrassing failures. For different groups of Americans, their sense of futility, that America has lost its greatness derives from different experiences. For young Black men and women, the continuing violence perpetrated  against them by the police, by prosecutors, juries and judges leaves them profoundly disenchanted with their country and their outlook for their own future. For white working class men whose pay has stagnated for almost 50 years and whose jobs continue to be insecure, the promise of America has been broken that if they worked hard their condition would improve. Their condition has slowly deteriorated; their future looks grim.

Profound disillusionment of different groups of Americans flows from their different experiences, from the different ways in which they have been betrayed by powerful businesses and powerful political groups.

No wonder that we have an epidemic of drug overdoses not only among the young, both white and brown and black, but among middle-aged white men who have worked hard and see no reason why they should continue to do so. No wonder that we have gangs of young men who are willing to kill each other in the pursuit of illegal gains because for them, too, life is not worth a great deal. Their gangs offer a source of pride that their country  does not provide.

Yes, we need a living wage for many hard-working Americans, we need free education for all of our young people, we need to tame the high cost of medical care due in considerable part to drug companies, to physicians, to the manufacturers of medical machinery trying to get rich.

But none of these reforms will do us a whole lot of good, as long as we drift through our lives without a sense that our lives are worth living, that we stand for important ideals, and pursue noble goals. Whatever political or economic improvements our political leaders might devise, will not make a significant difference unless we are willing to recognize this crisis in our values and to overcome it. As long as the nation is dedicated to getting rich and allows success in gaining wealth only to those who are already too rich, many citizens will find their lives empty, their work unrewarding, and their country an embarrassment.