Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cultural Taboos Threaten American Progress

American culture is evolving in ways that pose increasingly dangerous and unnecessary constraints on the ability of American society to imagine effective solutions to the highly interconnected set of foreign policy, economic policy, environmental policy, and health policy problems it currently faces.

Politics in the U.S.—at the level of policy-making—has a degree of rigidity, narrow-mindedness, and short-sightedness that causes enormous harm to the security and quality of life of Americans. The artificial constraints that American voters and policy-makers impose on themselves, the unstated and unreasoned taboos that are accepted without a second thought, have the effect of preventing Americans from taking full advantage of their vast natural and intellectual resources. The result is a set of interlocked policies that needlessly undermine American security and worsen the general quality of life in American society.

Taboos obstructing honest evaluation of fundamental policy choices prevent American society from moving effectively in new and desperately needed directions. The American system is based on open debate to find answers to complex problems. That is the best system yet discovered for resolving national problems, but it only works when society faces its options honestly. New directions do exist for addressing this set of challenges, but the roads will only be found if we are willing to look for them.

Ironically, these fundamental decisions—precisely the ones meriting the most meticulous public debate—are typically the public policy decisions made with the least care, the least debate, the least thought. The results include a foreign policy based on military force even when force intensifies hostility; health care as a business rather than a right; environmental policy favoring consumption now rather than preservation for future generations; and an economic policy that has more or less steadily been enriching the super-rich and impoverishing the rest since the Reagan era.

The careful reader may notice an underlying similarity among the four policy arenas: a foreign policy based on force benefits the military-industrial complex, an environmental policy favoring consumption benefits corporations looking for short-term profits, the economic policy benefits the Wall Street, banking, and real estate businesses; the current health care system benefits the insurance and medical businesses. And all four harm the average American.

That American society now faces a crisis in each of these four major policy arenas--foreign policy, economic policy, environmental policy, and health care policy--is now fortunately becoming widely recognized, though at an enormous cost (a decade of war against radical Islam, a still-deepening recession made in Washington, declining environment [see the New York Times' expose this past week of corporate poisoning of the nation's drinking water], and one of the least effective health care systems in the modern world).

The economic decline of American society, just to take one example, over the last half century is easy to see if one only recalls that in the 1950s, a man could support a middle class family on his salary alone, that by the 1990s a middle class lifestyle required that both husband and wife work, and that today a rising percentage of families face the perilous situation of the wife being a temp without benefits while the husband is unemployed. The overall economic trend is not “a natural result of the rest of the post-WWII world catching up.” That excuse contains just enough truth to be marketable, but the real reason is socialism for the rich. “Socialism for the rich” is not just a cute slogan, though few people ever stopped to think about what it really means until last fall’s billionaire bailout brought the idea to everyone’s attention.

Given the current recession, perhaps the most obvious example of “socialism for the rich” is taxing wages but not the profits from derivatives. This policy, if one thinks about it, sends the clear message that the U.S. government discourages people from holding honest jobs and prefers that the rich gamble on the market and, in particular, gambles by inventing financial tricks that enable the rich to evade legal requirements for collateral, instead building financial houses of cards. A more traditional but equally scandalous type of “socialism for the rich” is allowing huge lumber companies to clear-cut national forests (perhaps the most precious natural resource in the possession of the American people) virtually without paying any compensation at all to the thus cheated American taxpayer and, needless to say, without being required to restore the forests. Anyone who is shocked at this revelation need only drive on a side road somewhere in Oregon, notice the fine line of trees, and then walk 50 feet off the pavement: behind the screen, all you will find in a shocking number of places is a national desert.

Similar analyses could easily be made for foreign policy, environmental policy, and health care policy. The broader point is to figure out why Americans have such trouble reforming public policy. It is far more subtle than just “crooked politicians.” American voters consistently support politicians who favor socialism for the rich, environmental destruction, military force as the core of foreign policy, and health care as a business to enrich insurance companies rather than a natural right of all Americans. Intellectually serious reform candidates ran in the recent presidential election under Republic, Democratic, and several third party labels.

At the heart of this self-defeating American attitude toward public policy lies American culture, and unfortunately American culture is evolving in exactly the wrong direction. In only the last couple decades the trends toward irresponsibility (“it’s society’s fault”), winner-take-all, and bullying (whether it’s bullying your neighbor on the highway or Muslims worldwide) have become all too visible. Combine these negative trends in general culture with some highly pernicious cultural taboos that prohibit the honest public analysis of our public policy options, and the result is a social system condemned to self-defeating governance.

Maybe violence and overwhelming military superiority are the only way to achieve security. Maybe we want a country with sick poor people and great health care reserved for the “important” people. Maybe we can destroy the environment to our heart’s content and just keep inventing new ways of surviving (yes, I actually read a book making exactly this argument). Maybe the historic capitalist boom-bust cycle is the best of all possible worlds. Maybe…but that conclusion is not obvious. It deserves debate.

Alternatively, maybe allowing Muslims (e.g., Palestinians) to have their own countries and to play by the same rules as everyone else (e.g., nuclear policy toward Israel and Iran) would lead to a more stable and secure world. Maybe the provision of free, public, basic health care with the emphasis on nutrition and disease prevention for all would create a richer and happier and more productive society. Maybe saving our forests for our children would create a stronger America. Maybe America would be a better country if tax policy were designed to encourage honest labor and discourage irresponsible forms of Wall Street or real estate financial manipulations.

These are all fair questions. They deserve debate.
  • Should the U.S. continue to give a blank check to right-wing Israeli militarists trying to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their own land? Or should the U.S. support Israel reformers?
  • Should Iran be denied the opportunity to emerge as a regional power or be forced to accept limitations on its nuclear capabilities that are not imposed on Israel or even Pakistan or India?
  • Should we learn to build more environmentally acceptable homes (i.e., not out of wood) in order to save our remaining national forests?
  • Should we keep the current health care business that has produced the richest medical and insurance companies on earth or pay to create a one-class society where the poor and the unemployed have basic health care?

Unfortunately, such core questions about public policy are considered “off-limits.” Or, at least, those profiting from the current system are trying very hard to sell that viewpoint.

Sure, everyone talks about health care and foreign policy and economics and the environment, but look at content of the debates: it focuses on details. Should we, perhaps, modify the degree of Wall Street regulation a bit (while still leaving the main offenders in business)? Should we, perhaps, talk to international adversaries (in order to get them to do what we previously used the threat of violence to achieve)? Should we, perhaps, add a few soldiers in uniform to your Muslim country of choice or should we use mercenary forces out of uniform (but without altering the goal of our war)? Should we, perhaps, pass a new environmental protection law (but without holding corporate executives criminally responsible for their cheating on the laws already passed)? Should we, perhaps, add a sliver of the disadvantaged to the rolls of those favored with health insurance (but surely without endangering the massive profits of the health care industry)?

The basic questions that address fundamental direction are seldom voiced. They are taboo.
  • A foreign policy of true compromise with reformist Islam is a taboo subject.
  • A health care policy that rejects socialism for the health care industry and institutes socialism for the disadvantaged is a taboo subject.
  • An environmental policy that punishes corporate polluters and preserves the environment (allowing economic functions only within those constraints) is a taboo subject (the recent New York Times expose of corporations polluting the nation’s drinking water notwithstanding).
  • A financial system that controls exploitation and stimulates responsible productivity is a taboo subject.
Americans do have certain cultural/political advantages. Perhaps the greatest is the consensus that those who break taboos are not killed, so, yes, I can voice these complaints in safety, something I would not be able to do in, say, China, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. While I am grateful for this, it does not invalidate my argument. Taboos work more subtly in the U.S.: those who violate them may speak; they are simply ignored. In terms of having influence, if you challenge taboos, you will be cut out of the debate, will no longer be heard, will effectively no longer exist except as an official nonperson, an “…ist,” as in “racist, socialist, leftist.” In (we imagine) highly stable but tenuous Neolithic times, banishment of those who broke village taboos by speaking out may have enhanced group survival; in the contemporary rapidly evolving world, it invites disaster.

The U.S. has an historic power advantage over its adversaries (even after a decade of behaving like a rogue elephant), the best academic establishment on earth, and enormous resources. These advantages give American society an incredibly fruitful array of options. That is, Americans have the collective power to do an unimagined range of different things...if they can open their minds sufficiently to imagine taking new directions toward a fundamentally more just and effective society. Whatever the route to a perfect society, we will never find it (or even succeed in treading water in today's world) if we censor ourselves from discussing the basic options about the fundamental direction of public policy.

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