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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Civic Virtue


Jeffrey Sachs begins his new book The Price of Civilization with this statement:

At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis:  the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite.  A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world.  America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered it civic virtue along the way.  Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.

It is a statement that sheds light on the ongoing debate about Social Security. 

            Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”—a fraud by which the government cheats taxpayers—“investors” in Perry’s analogy—by not returning full value on their investment but instead using it to pay out funds to others.   Perry’s accusation is a good example of the civic blindness that has infected conservative thinking in the U.S. 

            Social Security is not the equivalent of an individual retirement account.  Instead, it is a kind of publicly funded insurance policy.  Behind it is a key assumption:  that those of us who have been able to make a good living will ensure that our neighbors who have not done as well will still be able to retire with a modicum of dignity.  The “return on investment” of Society Security is not what the well-off take out of it, but that our elderly neighbors in need don’t go hungry.

            In the early run-up to the 2012 presidential primaries, we have heard candidates for the highest office in the land suggest that those who cannot afford health care should simply die and that those who don’t have jobs should simply go out and get one.  The lack of compassion among these people—and, by extension, in the general population that keeps these folks thinking they have a chance at being our President—is appalling.  Moreover, as Sachs suggests, it bodes ill for our country’s long-term health.

            Sachs’ book suggests that civic virtue and prosperity go hand in hand.  I would love to hear a debate among the candidates about how they define these terms.  What constitutes “civic virtue” for a Presidential candidate who advocates a government that is inconsequential?   Is a society in which one percent of the population control 20 percent of the wealth a “prosperous society?”  Or is it a poor society with a handful of very rich plutocrats?

            I hope that we can get to a debate about these issues in the months ahead.