September 2011 Archives

Why Are Americans So Docile?

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Cover of "What's the Matter with Kansas? ...

    Forbes magazine reported that, as of this month, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined  worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from 1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined  wealth was thus approximately equivalent to the GDP of Canada. Almost simultaneously, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the real median household income in the United States had declined to $49,995, or 2.3% from 2009 , while the nation's poverty rate had increased to 43.569 million people, or 15.1 of the total population, and the number of people without health care insurance had grown to 49.9 million.
        To add salt to the wound, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that, as of last month, 14.0 million Americans were unemployed; 8.8 million Americans were characterized as underemployed, and about 2.6 million persons were described as "marginally attached to the labor force," which figure included 977,000 "discouraged workers." Earlier, in March of this year, the same bureau announced  that, as of that month, there were 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. as opposed 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. Thus, no jobs were added to the American economy during the first decade of the twenty-first century despite some 17.2 million Americans who were added to the potential workforce during that same decade.

     These extraordinary statistics have elicited hardly any detectable public reaction. Some economists have piously warned about a possible looming "lost decade", notwithstanding the above data that shows that the first decade of this century has already been lost. GOP candidates, Tea Party supporters and their corporate allies continue to insist that reduced taxes and severe austerity measures across the board are required, despite the experience of the United Kingdom's austerity program, which has increased unemployment by 85,000 since July of this year.

         To the extent to which the public at large has weighed in on any of this country's economic problems, it did so by collectively punching itself in the face in November of 2010. To punish President Obama and the Democrats for not having magically and immediately resolved the economic malaise caused by the predecessor administration, citizens - to the extent that any even bothered to vote - elected economic troglodytes and australopithecines to the Congress whose economic illiteracy and antipathy to further government fiscal stimulus have exacerbated  the country's economic problems. The few who troubled themselves to vote - and the many who continue to express antagonism toward President Obama - fail to understand that divided government only enhances the role of the wealthy special interests, who already exercise disproportionate influence over the policies of our government, and results in gridlock, paralysis, and a lack of accountability.

         So how does one explain the deafening silence from the legion of unemployed, underemployed and impoverished Americans who, by virtue of their status and their enforced leisure, surely now have the time to take to the streets, to organize politically and to make their  voices heard ?  Why, given the emergence of what former Nixon political strategist  Kevin Phillips has described as the "new indentured servitude," has the growth of plutocracy in been largely met with silence or grudging acquiescence in contemporary American culture?

          The author Jeremy Rifkin described a Newsweek poll of 750 American adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1999. Fifty-five percent of all of the respondents under age thirty who were asked whether they believed that they would become rich, answered yes. When asked, as a follow-up question, however, how they would get rich, 71 percent of the same respondents, all of whom were employed, did not believe that there was a chance that they would become rich from their current employment. Seventy-six percent of them believed that Americans today were unwilling to work as hard at their jobs to get ahead as they were in the past. Although they disavowed the fantasies spun by Horatio Alger, Jr., in which the stock boy could become, by dint of hard work, the owner of the company, the respondents  still bought into the myth of the self-made man.   
         Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber have chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption. In the United States, an entire cottage industry of books from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale and his successors have extolled the power of "positive-thinking" as the key to personal advancement and success.

         The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy no longer explains economic reality. Unfettered competition based upon free market decisions in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers no longer creates individual opportunity for most Americans or an abundance of business opportunities. Rather, the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.

         Karl Marx described the phenomenon in which the downtrodden adopt and incorporate the ideas of elite into their own world views as "false consciousness." Thomas Frank, in his insightful book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, chronicles the plight of seemingly sentient adults in his home state who have consistently voted against their own economic and family interests and unwittingly furthered the interests of Wall Street.

          Sadly, this myth of the self-made man - with its  emphasis on the importance of individual action and responsibility - has instilled within the American psyche a sense of social isolation and disconnectedness that makes it virtually impossible for many Americans to comprehend the importance and effectiveness of collective action when needed to pursue common goals. Unlike the French, who in addition to the idea of liberty, have embraced the values of equality and fraternity, the latter two concepts remain utterly alien to this country's political vocabulary.

          The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice." History reminds us that social justice can never be realized so long as citizens acquiesce to the existence of a culture built upon a foundation of indifference and injustice, but history also reveals that, when suffering remains pervasive and unaddressed, over time the bonds of civility begin to unravel, and even the most privileged can no longer find shelter from the resulting chaos.         

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Empathy or Antipathy?

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Perry Event 2/1/2010

Texas GOP Governor Rick Perry

        Three recent events, each of  which occurred during the Republican Presidential debates illustrate, in stark relief, the coarsening of American politics but these events also raise more profound, troubling questions. On September 7, 2011, at the Republican presidential debate held at the Reagan library, NBC news commentator Brian Williams reminded Texas Governor Rick Perry that his state "has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times," to which the conservative audience responded with cheers and applause.
         "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?"Williams asked.

          "No, sir, I've never struggled with that at all," Perry replied. "In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed." The audience cheered once again.

    "What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?" Williams asked.

    "I think Americans understand justice," Perry replied. "I think Americans are clearly in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens, and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don't want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."

    Five days later, at the Florida Expo Center during the second debate Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a physician by training, was asked by CNN news commentator Wolf Blitzer about society's responsibility if a healthy 30-year-old man who had decided not to buy health insurance suddenly fell into a coma and required intensive care for six months. Congressman Paul - a libertarian who named his son after Ayn Rand - said it shouldn't be the government's responsibility. "That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks," Paul said to enthusiastic applause and continued, as his voice trailed off, "this whole idea that you have to prepare to take care of everybody ..."

    "Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blitzer followed up at which point a number of the audience shouted "yeah!" to loud cheers which were followed by  by laughter.

    During the third Republican presidential debate  night, on September 22, 2011, a video was shown that featured a gay soldier asking the candidates a question about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The video showed Stephen Hill who stated he had to "lie about who I was in 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq because I'm a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job." Hill then asked "Do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?"

        After the video was shown, some members of the audience were heard booing loudly and not one of the GOP hopefuls thanked Hill for his military service. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has never served a day in the military, replied that he would reinstate the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy because, in the military, "sex is not an issue. It should not be an issue. Leave it alone. Keep it to yourself whether you are heterosexual or homosexual. I think it tries to inject social policy into the military," he said. "And the military's job is to do one thing: to defend our country," as the GOP audience applauded.

       The philosopher John Rawls wrote extensively about the concept of justice, and he emphasized the importance of "public reason" - discussion, debate and dialogue - in a democratic society. Rawls contended that public reason required deliberation within a framework of shared values that were based upon sincerely held convictions about basic rights, liberties, opportunities and claims of the general  good. In many respects, Rawls' views about the importance of public discourse as a civic exercise echoed those of John Dewey. In The Public And Its Problems, Dewey drew a sharp distinction between an informed public opinion, based upon "effective and organized inquiry, and "Opinion casually...under the direction of those who have something at stake in having a lie believed... The more who share it, the more injurious its influence."

        The three Republican presidential debates showed that the candidates and the audiences shared  a commitment to a serious of strongly held beliefs about the value and importance of the death penalty, about the singular responsibility of individuals as opposed to society to provide for  their own medical care irrespective of their economic situation, and about whether one's sexual orientation should be a disqualification for public service. Each of these "lies" debased the public discourse and subverted the role of public reason in the public square. 

        Equally disturbing, the candidates and the audiences in three presidential debates were unable to move beyond an anecdotal political narrative that focused solely upon personal concerns. That narrative denied the existence of legitimate needs that extended beyond the self and which required the assistance and intervention of government, as the agent of the community, to address those needs.

        The three debates provided viewers with a glimpse into a moral universe in which acts and ethical obligations are considered only in relation to the personal consequences that may result without any comprehension that every act in the public arena has consequences to others. Sadly, the GOP is now trapped in a the pre-conventional morality in which unthinking obedience and self-interest rein unchecked and unchallenged. In that moral universe, there is little room for empathy or compassion and Kant's categorical imperative must, inevitably, be rejected as so much socialist tripe.
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Me Or We?

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FDA poster warning against the use of the Hoxs...

Image via Wikipedia

        Many Americans who describe themselves as conservatives are firmly persuaded, as articles of faith, that government is a danger to their personal liberty, that government should control its spending and its budget as families do,  and that regulation of private enterprise is harmful per se. The "small government" proponents, albeit perhaps unintentionally, illustrate a basic philosophic controversy that dates back to the time of the ancients - the conflict between the universal and the particular .Which is more real?

        The "small-government" advocates fail to understand that their notion of the role of government is quintessentially liberal - not conservative. Their politics owes its inspiration to the ideas of John Locke. As such, their prescriptions are based upon philosophic nominalism: they can see the particular, the tree, but not the universal, the forest, the idea of a tree; the little picture, but not the big picture. The little picture, when applied to politics, asserts that 305 million solitary selves, each pursuing their own self-interests, based upon profit-motive and the accumulation of material goods, will somehow benefit everyone.
          If that proposition were true, the American economy today would be booming. Instead, the empirical evidence - in contrast to the theological beliefs of its proponents  - shows that solitary selves, particularly in the world of private enterprise, seek to maximize their profits and minimize their costs of production to the detriment of the public good and, in the long run, to the detriment of private enterprise itself.  As more and more Americans descend into poverty, as  the middle class is hollowed-out, and increasing  numbers of jobs are out-sourced to the third-world, the United States more and more begins to resemble a third -world country.   
       Evidence that the private sector and entrepreneurs will, if left to their own devices, create prosperity is belied by an opinion piece in today's New York Times ("Yes, We Need Jobs. But What Kind?"). In that article, MIT economist Paul Osterman observes that "Last year, one in five American adults worked in jobs that paid poverty-level wages." He further reported on a job study that he conducted in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which Governor Perry has touted as one of his great success stories. Osterman observes that, "the median wage for adults in the valley between 2005 and 2008 was a stunningly low $8.14 an hour (in 2008 dollars). One in for earned less that $6.19 an hour."

       By contrast, the big picture people intuitively understand that society is something more than the aggregation of selfish selves, and that the public interest in a democracy - essential public needs - can only be met through the agent chosen by the people in elections- the government. By contrast, no one elects a corporation or private enterprise to do anything; nor would either ever do anything that could not return a profit.

         What do the railroads, the highways, the land grant colleges, the GI Bill, community colleges, public education, airports, FEMA, the Veterans' Administration, polio vaccine, initial AIDs research, the Food and Drug Administration, Medicare and Social Security all have in common? They were all created by the government, not the private sector.

         The railroads are a perfect illustration: The Westward movement in the United States was subsidized and supported by the federal government. All of the railroad rights-of-way were ceded to private railroad corporations by the U.S. government; the land belonged to the public, the taxpayers. Initially, the symbiotic relationship between passengers and freight service worked well. Over generations, however, the greedy children of the railroad magnates and the shareholders decided that passenger service was too much of a burden and opted, from the 1950s onward, to reduce passenger service as a priority. This effort was aided and abetted by banks and real estate developers who saw a benefit from suburban sprawl, but it has greatly harmed our environment and to our ability to recognize our essential inter-connectedness as citizens in a democracy. 

         Our increasing inability to recognize our essential inter-connectedness as citizens - and to act in accordance with that recognition - has exacerbated the latent anti-social individualism that threatens to unravel our society. If this trend is not reversed, our children and grandchildren, given their meager prospects in life, will rue our collective myopia and selfishness.   
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