I belong to some private finance online discussion groups that on weekends go off topic for general discussion. This was a response to one of my comments regarding the state of our country. Many of these folks are much more intelligent than I as you can see. Ken
I’ve been taking a nice hiatus from posting, and only lurking occasionally. But your post caught me, and made me want to respond. So here goes.
That situation is reflective of a much greater convulsion we’re seeing now, of course. I don’t get any perspective from thinking close to a problem like this – it’s the way I think. But stepping way back I personally see some clarity.
We all are privileged to have lived in a very great country. Despite some pronounced competitive advantages we still have, it still seems to me that we have been steadily losing some of the greatness that lies at our core.
On the level of our enterprise for more than a generation we’ve collectively and gradually cast aside the good common sense that you can’t have more than what you can pay for. At almost every level – Federal, state, municipal, union, and personal – we’ve been financing a lifestyle beyond our means from borrowing, and pretended that it was sustainable. But to me at least, that is only surface behavior that’s evidence of deeper problems. This is OT stuff, so bear with me.
To me the question is why is this happening? I could think of different reasons others may suggest, but to me there’s a single prominent cause. It’s pretty deep, but I think it’s the real cause.
I see what’s happened as a fundamental change in our personal and national moral character. If you compare the kind of the stories you’ve no doubt heard from something like the book “The Greatest Generation” to what we’ve witnessed in the course of the last generation, I think it becomes clear. Our brightest and best young people choose Wall Street ahead of other more fulfilling and serving professions. After 9/11, the response asked of citizens was to “get back out and go shopping”. Now as we face the unavoidable sacrifices which must be made to restore our collective balance sheet to rationality, we still are in denial and have no political will to prick the boil that will with certainty fester sooner than most would dare think.
But this is still something more of surface behavior. To me the deeper moral behavior is where the ultimate problem lies. Many others may strongly disagree with me but I think we’re suffering from the loss of (or attempts to redefine to something that suits us) some of the basic elements of society – family, sexuality, and life itself. Look for example at what’s happened to one of the less fortunate level of our society – black Americans. At one level, through government we’ve made raising their station a national priority. Yet instead in the 45 yrs. since that was started, the family structure of black Americans has declined enormously. Today a black baby conceived has only a 60% chance of not being aborted before birth, and less than a 40% chance of being raised by a father and mother if he or she is born (the percentages are less drastic for Caucasians, but still far higher than they were in the same time frame comparison).
I like to study history, and I don’t know of any other period in American history with a shift in morality anything like what I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. In my own reading the very best observer of the American character I know of is someone who lived a long time ago and who wasn’t even an American. It was Alexis de Tocqueville, a French statesman and philosopher who came here in the 1830’s to find out for himself why there was so much energy and vitality in the United States compared to the European states. He travelled throughout what was then the entire nation, interviewing thousands of people both great and humble. His writings are full of insight into what made us a special nation. Few people might think it’s relevant today, but I sure do.
De Tocqueville saw deep into the American character, and saw sharp differences between it and the European character. Those insights are some of the most quotable sayings about us that have ever been made, and I think still very relevant. They cover a wide array of observations about us, our government, our enterprise, our families, our ideas, and much more. But the most significant thing he found about America that distinguished it was by it’s morality. He said it in many ways. Here are my two favorites:
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
“Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.”
Both observations to me are still valid lenses through which we can view and understand the status of our society today.
And just to note one other observation that isn’t so deep but is still something I think very appropriate:
”The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
Whether the nation’s greatness will continue to ebb isn’t known to me. I certainly hope not. But I think I can say that we’ll necessarily have to continue to going through a cathartic period to get back to something closer to the morality that made us great in the first place. Going back even further to John Adams’ observation about the nation’s foundation and the character of its people tells me it’s the only way: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”