Tuesday, October 5, 2010

America's Deepening Moral Crisis

America's deepening moral crisis


The language of collective compassion has been abandoned in

the US, and no politician dare even mention helping the poor


By Jeffrey Sachs



October 4, 2010




President Barack Obama is likely to face difficulty passing

progressive legislation after the November elections.


America's political and economic crisis is set to worsen

following the upcoming November elections. President Barack

Obama will lose any hope for passing progressive legislation

aimed at helping the poor or the environment. Indeed, all

major legislation and reforms are likely to be stalemated

until 2013, following a new presidential election. An already

bad situation marked by deadlock and vitriol is likely to

worsen, and the world should not expect much leadership from

a bitterly divided United States.


Much of America is in a nasty mood and the language of

compassion has more or less been abandoned. Both political

parties serve their rich campaign contributors, while

proclaiming they defend the middle class. Neither party even

mentions the poor - who now officially make up 15% of the

population, but in fact are even more numerous when we count

all those households struggling with healthcare, housing,

jobs and other needs.


The Republican party recently issued a "Pledge to America" to

explain its beliefs and campaign promises. The document is

filled with nonsense, such as the fatuous claim high taxes

and over-regulation explain America's high unemployment. It

is also filled with propaganda. A quote from President John F

Kennedy states that high tax rates can strangle the economy,

but Kennedy was speaking half a century ago, when the top

marginal tax rates were twice what they are today. Most of

all, the Republican platform is devoid of compassion.


America today presents the paradox of a rich country falling

apart because of the collapse of its core values. American

productivity is among the highest in the world. Average

national income per person is about $46,000 - enough not only

to live on, but to prosper. Yet the country is in the throes

of an ugly moral crisis.


Income inequality is at historic highs, but the rich claim

they have no responsibility to the rest of society. They

refuse to come to the aid of the destitute, and defend tax

cuts at every opportunity. Almost everybody complains, almost

everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term

interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of

looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.


What passes for American political debate is a contest

between the parties to give bigger promises to the middle

class, mainly in the form of budget-busting tax cuts at a

time when the fiscal deficit is already more than 10% of GDP.

Americans seem to believe that they have a natural right to

government services without paying taxes. In the American

political lexicon, taxes are defined as a denial of liberty.


There was a time, not long ago, when Americans talked of

ending poverty at home and abroad. Lyndon Johnson's "war on

poverty" in the mid 1960s reflected an era of national

optimism and the belief that society should make collective

efforts to solve common problems, such as poverty, pollution

and healthcare. America in the 1960s enacted programs to

rebuild poor communities, to fight air and water pollution,

and to ensure healthcare for the elderly. Then the deep

divisions over Vietnam and civil rights, combined with a

surge of consumerism and advertising, seemed to end an era of

shared sacrifice for the common good.


For 40 years, compassion in politics receded. Ronald Reagan

gained popularity by cutting social benefits for the poor

(claiming the poor cheated to receive extra payments). Bill

Clinton continued those cuts in the 1990's. Today, no

politician even dares to mention help for poor people.


The big campaign contributors to both parties pay to ensure

their vested interests dominate political debates. That means

both parties increasingly defend the interests of the rich,

though Republicans do so slightly more than Democrats. Even a

modest tax increase on the rich is unlikely to find support

in American politics.


The result of all this is likely to be a long-term decline of

US power and prosperity, because Americans no longer invest

collectively in their common future. America will remain a

rich society for a long time to come, but one that is

increasingly divided and unstable. Fear and propaganda may

lead to more US-led international wars, as in the past decade.


And what is happening in America is likely to be repeated

elsewhere. America is vulnerable to social breakdown because

it is a highly diverse society. Racism and anti-immigrant

sentiments are an important part of the attack on the poor â€"

or at least the reason why so many are willing to heed the

propaganda against helping the poor. As other societies

grapple with their own increasing diversity, they may follow

the US into crisis.


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