One thing makes this current depression, as economist Paul Krugman calls it, different from the Great Depression is that the moral dimension has been left out. All the talk is about numbers. In the current debate over which priority is best for the economy, the right and left both promise job growth and reduced deficits. But almost no one is addressing the moral dimension, which focuses on doing good.
The Great Depression was different. The plight of the little guy was starkly presented by bread lines and soup kitchens. Photographers and writers gave us heartrending portrayals of social suffering. Solidarity mattered. It wasn’t just a numbers game. The nation’s conscience was seared. Right now, there are moral issues that cry out to be solved on the same scale – everyone’s conscience should be seared.
When was the last time Congress or the states looked at prisons with a moral eye? America leads the world in the number of people incarcerated, more by percentage of population than in Stalin’s gulag. A vast disproportion are black. A huge number are non-violent drug offenders, often condemned to outrageous time behind bars thanks to draconian state and federal laws with mandatory sentencing. A recent New Yorker article that outlined the grim statistics of overcrowding and skyrocketing expense called our prison system America’s moral shame.
Then there is the plight of black America. Dry statistics speak of soaring unemployment, crime, and family breakdown. In the Afro-American community, actual community is hard pressed to survive. Poverty is endemic. Seventy-five percent of black babies are born to single mothers. More young black males are in jail than in college. A hugely disproportionate number of black drug users and dealers are arrested and sent to jail compared to their white counterparts, even though actual drug usage is no higher in the black community.
For forty years, ever since Nixon’s law-and-order agenda gave the impetus, the trend in social policy has been skewed to eliminate compassion and focus entirely on rule breaking. Harsher sentencing, the end of most welfare programs, a rigid division between the black and white sections of town, the abandonment of the inner city by white flight, boosts in police forces, super max prisons, three strike laws, and on and on. Violent crime has dropped by 40% over the past two decades while sentences keep getting longer, prison populations keep rising, and states keep spending more per inmate than they do per student for education.
The overall picture is of a harsh, punitive society where divisions have become black and white. I’m not speaking entirely of race, although Afro-Americans bear the brunt of almost every misery. But so do poor people in general. Life expectancy has risen steadily in America, but only for the upper half of the income split. Among the lower half you find the bulk of obesity, smoking, and diseases that shorten people’s lives, exacerbated by lack of affordable health care.
To the reactionary mindset, none of this really matters. As long as property and privilege are protected up above, the lower half of society exists to be exploited – hence the blind eye that well-off people turn to the current setup. Hence the decimation of pensions and benefits without regard to its unfairness. Enron used to be a scandal for abandoning its workers; it turned into the wave of the future. Corporations met the recession by cutting jobs, squeezing maximum production from a minimal workforce, amassing huge profits for shareholders and executives only, and sending jobs abroad. Soon the have/have not split will extend to seniors as caring for them skyrockets. It will infect long-term unemployment as laid-off workers from the manufacturing sector as well as those with only high school degrees coalesce into something America has never experienced: a permanently unemployable class.
I rarely write blistering posts, but the moral shame we have all passively (or actively) participated in isn’t minor. An uncaring society is degraded and degrading.
If the founding principle of this country was the pursuit of happiness, that principle has been undermined severely, leaving behind a vast swath of society to stagnate as a few percentiles prosper mightily. And those few percentiles are encouraged by reactionary forces to shrug off immorality. With over 50% of profits coming from the financial sector, the very people who brought down the economy, the great malefactors have been rewarded while the small are consigned to misery.
The reality needs to be laid out in black and white. Is this the America you want to live in and leave behind? Until you and I ask the question, we can’t expect anyone else to bring change.