America today presents the paradox of a rich country falling apart because of the collapse of its core values. American productivity is among the highest in the world. Average national income per person is about $46,000 – enough not only to live on, but to prosper. Yet the country is in the throes of an ugly moral crisis.
Income inequality is at historic highs, but the rich claim they have no responsibility to the rest of society. They refuse to come to the aid of the destitute, and defend tax cuts at every opportunity. Almost everybody complains, almost everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.
What passes for American political debate is a contest between the parties to give bigger promises to the middle class, mainly in the form of budget-busting tax cuts at a time when the fiscal deficit is already more than 10% of GDP. Americans seem to believe that they have a natural right to government services without paying taxes. In the American political lexicon, taxes are defined as a denial of liberty.
The result of all this is likely to be a long-term decline of US power and prosperity, because Americans no longer invest collectively in their common future. America will remain a rich society for a long time to come, but one that is increasingly divided and unstable. Fear and propaganda may lead to more US-led international wars, as in the past decade.
And what is happening in America is likely to be repeated elsewhere. America is vulnerable to social breakdown because it is a highly diverse society. Racism and anti-immigrant sentiments are an important part of the attack on the poor – or at least the reason why so many are willing to heed the propaganda against helping the poor. As other societies grapple with their own increasing diversity, they may follow the US into crisis.
It's hard to argue with this. The complete collapse of America's positive values into an abyss of greed, corporate domination, intolerance, and racism truly threatens the nation and has led me to the greatest pessimism of my life. I literally believe that if I have kids, their lives will be far worse than mine. It's true that young people are more tolerant than their parents and that the Tea Parties are dominated by old white people, but that doesn't mitigate the potential for long-term damage.
My students, who I would characterize as relatively liberal with some exceptions, even sometimes show this lack of caring. We were discussing welfare and the Great Society in class today and I was surprised at the vitriol expressed toward those on welfare, even though there are so few today because of the 1996 reforms. There's just not a lot of caring about others in America today. And I don't know what to do.