What We Value
In June of 1966, Bobby Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches at Cape Town University in South Africa. It would come to be known as the ‘Tiny Ripple of Hope’ speech. And as was the case with most of his oration, it resonates today as heavily as it did some 40 years ago. Of course the speech cannot be viewed without the context of what was going on in South Africa (or the world) at the time. However, there is one passage that I believe bares significant relevance to the times we currently live in. In speaking about the individual in Western society, Kennedy stated: ‘At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value - and all society, all groups and states exist for that person's benefit. Therefore, the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society’.
Are individuals the ‘touchstone of value’ in 21st century America? It seems as if a system (capitalism) that was meant to enrich the life of the individual, has instead become a belief unto itself. Even if it means that large numbers of the population that it’s supposed to serve are left out; or not needed for the economy it creates. In an interview on ‘Bill Moyers Journal’, David Simon (creator of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Treme’) said this on the subject of the modern American economic system: ‘Listen, capitalism is the only engine credible enough to generate mass wealth. I think it's imperfect, but we're stuck with it. And thank God we have that in the toolbox. But if you don't manage it in some way that you incorporate all of society, maybe not to the same degree, but if everybody's not benefiting on some level and if you don't have a sense of shared purpose, national purpose, then all it is, is a pyramid scheme. All it is – is who's standing on top of whose throat’. This past decade has painted a very interesting picture of ‘who’s standing on whose throats’.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ‘Two-thirds (62%) of the nation’s total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of U.S. households’. This included a staggering 94% increase for the top .1 percent. While the vast majority of Americans (the bottom 90%) saw income gains of only 4% over the same five year period. By the end of 2007, the disparity within the U.S. economy had reached levels not seen since 1928. Leading one to believe that the economic events of 2008 and 1929 were less than coincidental.
Maybe the worst thing about this imbalance is that many of those at the top don’t seem to really contribute anything to the country. High finance has basically become a casino, making money off of money. They don’t actually ‘make’ anything. They don’t really enhance the lives of individuals or communities. They won’t come up with the next ‘big idea’ or new energy source. They don’t teach our kids, or keep our streets safe. They don’t defend our country or provide jobs for the working class. Some would say that they lend money and provide credit - which allows the economy to function. Well things weren’t really functioning before the recession – and they sure aren’t functioning now. And if anyone thinks that the big banks are acting within society as they have in the past, one only needs to heed the words of Paul Volker. Who at age 82 knows a bit about what banking was, and what it has become.
The ethic of profit making or even profiteering has become dominant in our economic system. Time after time, in industry after industry – the common good is thrust aside to make way for maximum returns. Manufacturing jobs are sent overseas where there’s cheap labor and less worker rights. Medical insurance companies seek to maximize profits by denying coverage to those who are sick, not paying for those who get sick, and making sure premiums perpetually rise. Major food manufactures find faster, cheaper, and riskier ways to mass-produce what we eat - regardless of the impact on our health, or our moral conscience. Those who develop our cities and our neighborhoods consider their creations castles unto their own, rather than pillars of a community. Those that drill for oil or dig for coal cut corners in the name of profit - which ends up costing lives and devastating our environment. All these examples have a common theme - profits over people. And a society that begins to subscribe to such a philosophy begins to operate in ways that are counter-productive to the lives of its inhabitants.
When the notions of material wealth, money, and greed ascend to such prominence; they begin to become the overriding forces that define our place in society. And the ‘individual man’ becomes less and less the ‘touchstone of value’. From the beginning of our lives, it’s increasingly the almighty dollar that has become the great arbitrator of things. It decides where we grow up – which decides how safe our environment is, how our surroundings function as a community, how good our schools are, what kind of food we have access to, and (of course) our access to medical care. Thus are shaped our prospects for higher education (including paying for it), which leads to our prospects for employment. And lets not forget that our current economy doesn’t even create enough jobs for all those who are able to work. Upward mobility into the middle class becomes more difficult (if not impossible). And the economic pressure on the middle class becomes heavier and heavier, while those at the very top see their spoils grow.
Some people will say, ‘Well it’s always been this way’. That may be true, but not to the extent we see today. Others will say that ‘Things will never change’, that this is ‘the nature of man’. Sadly, they’re probably right. And still others might say (of me), ‘He’s a communist! He’s a socialist!’ – but they’re stupid and shouldn’t be listened to. Our capitalist system is fine; we’re the problem. We’re the ones who’ve let it get out of control. If we made more decisions, and crafted more policies with virtuous contemplation - I think we’d be in a better place. It’s about what we value and what we deem important. It’s about what kind of society we want for ourselves. 40 years ago these issues were raised during Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency. And were articulated with eloquence in his ‘Recapturing America’s Moral Vision’ speech on March 18, 1968 at the University of Kansas. It was in that speech that he said the following:
‘But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task: It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction, purpose, and dignity that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product now is over 800 billion dollars a year. But that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.’
Individual liberty and human dignity are part of what makes life worthwhile; and what should make us proud to be Americans. These truths are in our founding - they’re in our blood. And the more we succumb to the raw grinding forces of unattended capitalism – the further these truths fade into the background of our lives and our consciousness. We are why we’re here; and we should never forget that.