America in decline
Among the common frames through which we view the quality of our lives are health, knowledge, ethics, wealth, beauty and spirit. A life well lived uses all these frames to assess and understand well-being. When one frame becomes dominant — or the only frame by which we judge — our decisions and our lives become distorted. We lose sight of who we are. Although this is true of us as individuals, it is also true of us as a nation. And if society is a reflection of its inhabitants, we’re losing our way in America.
Watching the battle between the gladiators of personal wealth and those fighting for a broader understanding of our nation’s well-being, we miss the slow unraveling of our national fabric.
Kevin Phillips, the conservative political columnist and philosopher, calls this myopic vision of a nation’s economic health “financialization,” by which he means a focus on speculation, debt, and a fixation on profit instead of appropriate wages paid to workers for suitable value creation. Trying to foresee America’s future, he has studied the rise and fall of European colonial empires and concludes that the erosion of broader values and the dominance of financialization are the primary element in their decline, and, by extension, will drive our own.
In America today, we see the steady leaching of the middle class into a new class of working poor and the assent of a very few to inordinate wealth. We see the deification of an unregulated free market in which business ethics are supplanted by retained earnings and shareholder value rather than value to workers, markets, and the broad economy. We see disempowered regulatory agencies once charged with balancing the interests of the regulated and the consumer. We see disdain for science and planetary stewardship. We see titanic commodity production favored over community-based artisan production. We see a system that feeds on the incestuous coupling of the very rich businessman and the very powerful legislator to promote laws and regulation that further their accretion of wealth and power.
Human beings are more than money. Each of us is an expression of our education, health, environment, art and culture, family and spiritual life. To yawn as we watch the erosion of that which makes us human rather than just rich can only lead to our downfall.
We need to rebalance. Just as the complexities of our problems are reflected in the nuances of their solutions, so is our future as a nation tied to our understanding that the absolute rule of money and business is inadequate to sustain us.
The wealthy and powerful have within their grasp the ability to take good care of themselves. Not all Americans do. We must pay attention to how and among whom we live. The blinders of pop diversions, consumerism, pharmaceuticals, and gated communities will not shield us from a decline we ignore at our peril. Strengthening the health, education, economy, sustenance, culture, and spirit of all Americans is the antidote to our decline.
William Schubart is a resident of Hinesburg. This essay was first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.