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What Kind of Country Do We Want?

What Kind of Country Do We Want?

Do you have 3 minutes this morning to consider this?


What have we done with America? Over the decades we have consented, passively for the most part, to a kind of change that has made this country a disappointment to itself, an imaginary prison with real prisoners in it. Now those imaginary walls have fallen, if we choose to notice. We can consider what kind of habitation, what kind of home, we want this country to be.

No theoretical language I know of serves me in describing or interpreting this era of American unhappiness, the drift away from the purpose and optimism that generally led the development of the society from its beginnings.

This can be oversimplified and overstated, but the United States did attract immigrants by the tens of millions. It did create great cities and institutions as well as a distinctive culture that has been highly influential throughout the world. Until recently it sustained a generally equitable, decent government that gave it plausible claims to answering to the ideals of democracy. This is a modest statement of the energies that moved the generations.

The profit motive has been implanted in our deepest history as a species, in our very DNAThe snare in which humanity has been caught is an economics—great industry and commerce in service to great markets, with ethical restraint and respect for the distinctiveness of cultures, including our own, having fallen away in eager deference to profitability.

In recent decades, which have been marked by continuous, disruptive change and by technological innovation that has reached assertively into every area of life, a particular economics has become a Theory of Everything, subordinating all other considerations to some form of cost-benefit analysis that silently insinuates special definitions of both cost and benefit. 

This kind of thinking has discredited ideals like selflessness and generosity as hypocritical or self-deceived, or in any case as inefficiencies that impede the natural economy of self-interest—somehow persisting through all the millennia that might have been expected to winnow out inefficiencies, if the pervasiveness of this one motive is granted.

Much American unhappiness has arisen from the cordoning-off of low-income workers from the reasonable hope that they and their children will be fairly compensated for their work, their contribution to the vast wealth that is rather inexactly associated with this country, as if everyone had a share in it. Their earnings should be sufficient to allow them to be adequate providers and to shape some part of their lives around their interests.

Yet workers’ real wages have fallen for decades in America.

This is rationalized by the notion that their wages are a burden on the economy, a burden in our supposed competition with China, which was previously our competition with Japan. The latter country has gone into economic and demographic eclipse, and more or less the same anxieties that drove American opinion were then transferred to China, and with good reason, because there was also a transfer of American investment to China.

The message being communicated to our workers is that we need poverty in order to compete with countries for whom poverty is a major competitive asset.

The global economic order has meant that the poor will remain poor. There will be enough flashy architecture and middle-class affluence to appear to justify the word “developing” in other parts of the world, a designation that suggests that the tide of modernization and industrialization is lifting all boats, as they did in Europe after World War II.

Any reader of early economics will recognize the thinking that has recently become predominant, that the share of national wealth distributed as wages must be kept as low as possible to prevent the cost of labor from reducing national wealth.

This rationale lies behind the depression of wages, which has persisted long enough to have become settled policy, a major structural element of American society and a desolating reality for the millions it defrauds.

Polarization is no fluke, no accident. It is a virtual institutionalization in America of the ancient practice of denying working people the real or potential value of their work.

Such an important essay from one of the two best living American authors, Marilynne Robinson.

You can read it HERE.