Sunday, October 31, 2010

America's Dysfunctional Soul

With each election cycle, the American populace is literally pummeled by political advertisements that often promote greed, hatred, selfishness, and xenophobia--and done so with ever-increasing degrees of mean spiritedness.  We've strayed so far from John Kennedy's inaugural plea for altruism ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country") that many people don't even know what the term altruism means.

When I consider another term that is bandied about by political candidates and pundits like a beach ball, Christianity, I fear for America's soul, for our public policies at times are antithetical to any of Christ's teachings.  Of course, the founders of this country wanted a separation between church and state, but that doesn't prevent politicians from espousing so-called "Christian values" even though one would be hard-pressed to find any reference in Christ's teachings that greed is good, that one should promote hatred for those who don't share your opinions or who are different or "illegal," that selfishness is better than selflessness--I'm puzzled as to which New Testament some politicians supposedly adhere to when they claim to be Christians.  I do know that the Bible has over 3,000 references directing us to help the poor, but I can't find any stipulation that corporations and the wealthy should receive corporate welfare or "subsidies."

If the poet John Keats correctly noted that the world is a "vale of soul making," America is in a vale of soul destroying.

For example, some want to overturn what they call "Obama Care" as if Congress' constitutional duty to care for "the general welfare" of the populace doesn't include health care.  Most industrialized nations of the world provide public health care just as they provide for police and fire services:  They are public goods that benefit all and aren't driven by a for profit ethos.  In contrast, wealthy people throughout the world can always afford quality health care regardless of the countries in which they live; they can always fly to the best clinics with no concern for costs.  Imagine, for a moment, if health care was paid for by our taxes in the same way we collectively pay for police and fire services.  Imagine how much less our health care costs would be since the profit motive to provide such services would no longer exist.  Let me use an analogy:  Which are more expensive, public schools or private schools?  Most private K-12 schools require at least $500 a month in tuition ($5,000 a year in tuition--some charge far more) per pupil, yet no one pays $5,000 a year in federal and state taxes just to send one child to a public K-12 school.

When costs for public services--with no for profit emphasis--are widely distributed and shouldered by everyone, costs go down, not up.  For example, the city of Los Angeles has a city-owned utility, The Department of Water and Power (DWP); municipal bonds are the primary resource to pay for its operation.  Los Angeles residents uniformly pay less in water and power costs when compared to those who pay Southern California Edison (SCE) or Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) companies, which are for profit entities, for their water, natural gas, and electricity needs.  If Los Angeles' DWP raises its rates, it does so because of rising costs necessary to provide services; as for SCE and PG&E, they must raise rates in part because their stockholders want to make more profits.

Even if we eventually have publicly funded health care, insurance companies will never go away, so one need not worry about them; they'll always do business insuring lives, homes, automobiles, and personal property.  And what about medical professionals who want to earn as much money as possible to provide for their families?  Hopefully, those who become medical care-givers do so because they have a personal desire to care for others, just as many police officers, firefighters, and educators look to their professions as a means of aiding others.  If one is truly motivated by greed, Wall Street brokerage firms and banking institutions are notorious magnets for those so inclined.  (Imagine if the recent bailouts went to pay off late mortgage payments and high interest credit card balances instead of providing financial conglomerates the ability to hand out huge bonuses that are often larger than the incomes many people earn in a lifetime:  That kind of individual citizen-centered bailout would have truly stimulated our economy by reducing individual debt while still helping financial institutions that issued those mortgages and credit cards.)

Many spiritual texts emphasize love and compassion for fellow human beings, and one way societies have implemented such a directive is via communal programs paid for by taxes.  Taxes pay for a myriad of things we take for granted:  roads and highways, public schools, college and vocational student grants, housing loan programs, traffic control and street lights, flood control systems and sewage treatment facilities--even the electricity we get from private companies could not have become a commonplace phenomenon had it not been for electrification projects paid for by tax dollars (any good American history text will make clear how various government-initiated, tax-payer funded programs have resulted in the nationwide infrastructure we use on a daily basis).

Nevertheless, politicians have promoted the notion that taxes are evil and hinder your ability to live a fruitful life.  Consequently, the common mantras are "no new taxes" and "tax breaks for all."  But what if you had to build or repave the roads you personally use because substantial tax reductions wipe out funds for such improvements?  What if you had to pay for every time you needed police service or fire department help?  What if you had to pay 50% down to buy a home and had only 5-10 years to pay off the remaining mortgage?  (Historian and author Stephanie Coontz notes in her essay "A Nation of Welfare Families" that this was the standard home purchasing protocol prior to the creation of the Federal Housing Authority, Fannie Mae, and Ginnie Mae when the federal government went into the business of insuring and backing housing loans.)  What if you had to pay for tuition to send your child to a private K-12 school because public schools could no longer accommodate all school-age children due to reduced tax revenues?

Taxes might make us wince when we see the net results of our take-home earnings, but taxes also insure that we can expect certain public services that we wouldn't want to be denied.  More importantly, those who make millions each year should pay a minimum amount of taxes every year despite all of the loopholes they currently utilize:  Who would feel sorry for someone who makes millions of dollars a year--or even one million dollars a year--and would have to pay at least half of his or her earnings in taxes?  I wouldn't feel sorry for someone who would have to live on $500,000 a year--who would?  If I were in a position to make millions each year, I wouldn't feel somehow less of a human being if half of my income went to help the general populace; if anything, I would feel good that I'm helping to reduce the taxes of those whose incomes are far less than mine  (remember "Ask not what your country can do for you..."?) while improving and sustaining the country's infrastructure.

Keats was right:  The world is a "vale of soul making."  Instead of scapegoating the poor, the undocumented, and the unionized workers in this country (unions came about largely because of greedy business owners who didn't care about the working conditions, health, and welfare of their poorly paid employees), we need to realize that our country's soul depends upon our collective ability to integrate our spiritual awareness into our public policy awareness.  If we're truly committed to "acknowledge Him in all thy ways"  (and I'm fairly sure all means all), we must incorporate altruism in every aspect of our lives, including our political lives and our public policies.