As in 1929, we are entering a period of crisis. Now, as then, the root of the problem is not technical, financial, or economic, but moral
Looking back at my last two posts (here and here), I realized that they might give the impression that I think the most salient dimension of the current meta-crisis that we find ourselves in is a financial or economic one. That could not be farther from the truth. The most important measure of our failures is the moral and spiritual dimension. This is also the part of life and awareness that has been hounded out of the workplace and the public square in recent years and decades, and which must be restored if we are to avoid even worse disaster.
The coronavirus crisis is showing us that the American myth - of leadership, moral authority, or even basic competence - is now well and truly exploded. The awareness that America has lost its premier status has been a part of the conversation already for some time now, but I think that even many of the most cynical among us are still surprised to see how far, and how fast, America has fallen. A few weeks ago, most of us would have admitted that the United States would probably lag behind many other countries in disaster preparedness and ability of the public health system to respond to a crisis, but we are finding out that we are actually very close to or at the bottom of the list in terms of testing capacity, agency coordination, and other things that are crucially important at a crisis moment such as this one.
America is Broken
This thoughtful piece by David Wallace-Wells eloquently makes the point that this we are confronting a deep and fundamental failure, and confirmation that American leadership in the world is dead, and will not return. Wallace-Wells gives a succinct list of reasons for how we got here, and one of them is
...the long story of neoliberalism, which has taught us all that we make our political mark on the world through consumer choice and individual behavior, that we shouldn’t expect much but economic management from government, and that citizens are meant to be unleashed into unemcumbered markets.
This is absolutely true, and one of the most important points in all of this, but there is something that needs to be added to it. Underneath this ideological folly is a very simple human mistake: a poor choice of values. In treating material prosperity as the highest and only expression of human success, progress, and meaning, we have catastrophically missed the forest for the trees, and forgotten that material wealth is meaningless without spiritual wealth, and that, in fact, materialism can get in the way of spiritual actualization and the achievement of real human goals.
Dahlia Lithwick raises among other important issues, the loss of public trust - in our institutions and in each other - which underlies the decay in our social, political, educational, economic, and other systems. I have raised this issue before, particularly in the context of income inequality. This is another opportunity to recommend The Spirit Level, perhaps one of the most important books of our generation, which convincingly argues that our obsession with income, and maximizing it for a small segment of our society, is disastrously wrong and misdirected. What really determines the health of a society and its members is not the level of material income or wealth, but the level of things like trust, empathy, feelings of inclusion. In emphasizing wealth maximization for a few over a fair distribution, we have created a society in which only a few - the 'richest' - are true participants and stakeholders, and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.
For decades, we have been told that all sorts of basic dignities are out of reach, that as a society, we can't afford to raise the minimum wage, provide health insurance, education, paid parental or sick leave, and on and on - at the same time that we apparently can afford to pay CEOs mind-bogglingly huge salaries, spend trillions of dollars on stock buybacks, give massive subsidies and tax cuts to huge corporations, and allow a whole class of economic parasites (financiers, management consultants, high-paid 'administrators') to suck real wealth and value out of the productive economy, force the majority of citizens into financial serfdom, and put the health and survival of our entire way of life at risk in order to enrich themselves. But crucially, that false scarcity comes from a fundamental lack of concern - that too many of us simply do not care for the welfare of anyone but ourselves, and perhaps our immediately family members. We must learn, once again, to cultivate empathy and concern for all of our fellow human beings and for the planet.
The source of our ills is that our values are fundamentally, perhaps irredeemably, out of whack. We have put profits before people and built a slavishly materialistic society which does not even acknowledge that the primary human needs are immaterial ones - trust, love, compassion, expression, exaltation. Given this profound and fundamental misorientation, no amount of income, growth, management, or technical 'progress' will cure what ails us. And in fact, these things, which have driven everything else out of our collective awareness and decision making in our key institutions, are making life worse and our problems more intractable.
America and the world have faced crises such as these before, and we must look to history for guidance. In his first inaugural address, President Roosevelt made it clear that the crisis of that moment was not primarily an economic, but a spiritual one:
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.
Unfortunately, in a metaphorical and literal sense, we are at this moment stricken by a plague. But Roosevelt's comments are that much more relevant in the face of a crisis which is, if we can image, worse than the one faced at the outset of the Great Depression. Roosevelt's type of leadership, which recognizes that the greatest need in a moment of darkness is for spiritual vision, seems sadly lacking in the highest realms of our government. Sadly, the current crisis, as with the one FDR was addressing, will have to get worse before it can get better. If we, as a nation and a world, can recognize that only a restoration of ultimate values will save us, then we will find the strength and the means to succeed.