In a striking underground example, the 60s popularized non-medicinal pot leading to an agricultural economy in Humboldt County, CA in which normal, happy school children worked after school with manicure scissors to trim the buds, adding value above a thousand dollars an ounce for brands in high demand whose aggregate worth is well over a $1 billion annually. So is the country undergoing an equally dramatic, seismic reorganization in its values. It changes our national identity and policies; it reconstructs our moral ground and redefines how we act and respond to issues on America’s every corner.
(1) In economic policy, the ideology that now guides politicians and policy makers fails its own means test. Besides not hitting its numbers and ignoring better percentage plays, it fails to note that the economic arm of American exceptionalism is philosophically rooted and connected historically to an astonishing and exceptional social action: it originally held that individuals or groups who achieved great economic success would would give more and do more, to benefit all.
This idea born in American democracy was a remarkable, radical break with previous global and historical actions. Wealth would no longer be hoarded as a prize of absolute power, maintained by brute strength and a blind eye to the plight of those with lesser means. Instead, American exceptionalism meant wealth would contribute to the success of the whole. It would dampen destructive conflicts and renew progress. Less Hobbes, (although Hobbes sought protections for labor as a worker’s property); more enlightened Rosseau. Its highest result: the Marshall Plan after World War II. Rosie’s muscle stood for our collective might.
Today’s ideology stands the old, founding principle on its head. Exceptionalism has come to be the wolf pack of lone wolves, bound together by obscene obsessions with their power and privilege and wealth. The result: 7 and 8 figure bonuses for executives which 70% of Americans favor banning. Twenty percent of the population controls 85% of the wealth, leaving only 15% of the nation’s wealth for the remaining 80 percent. The top one percent controls more than 40 % of the country’s financial wealth, as charted by NYU’s Edward Wolff. The result: where we once led the world in progressive policies and organized capitalism for its greatest benefits, we are now stand against the global trend.
(2) Morally, many want to be like the men and women enjoying the spoils, tone deaf to suffering. Who cares how much Bill Gates give away today? What the NBA is to inner city neighborhoods, corporate America is to a large segment of America: a dream that cannot be fulfilled but is rooted on for its place at the top. The fallacy is obvious: the dream depends on fewer and fewer people winning. The biggest lottery prize has the most losers.
But a large part of the country overlooks this contradiction. Despite the cognitive dissonance of knowing we can’t win and will be ultimate losers, a segment of America thinks ignoring the inconsistency and tension makes us stronger. The result: transplant patients who die because they can’t afford life saving operations while the state funds the study of algae as a fuel. The result: South Carolina’s new Governor Nikki Haley increasing a staffer’s salary (he worked on her campaign!) by $27,000 before he performed a day’s work or demonstrated any competence in public service. This from an official in her first week in office who promised to be fiscally responsible and cut the public budget to reduce the state’s debt. The result, rooted in Emile Durkheim, is a weaker society ripe with alienation: conspiracy constructs, secret cabals, guided by those estranged; harsh words, wary mistrust; a tyranny conceived to be real and posited by remote control.
(3) Socially, the exhilaration of reveling in the playhouse of our worst instincts, shrinking our sphere of concern, and linking effete, self-indulging hands empowers much of our public participation. Like those naively walking the Knife’s Edge arȇte on Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, (a trail a mile long, a mile high and often only six feet wide), many of us seek only the thrills and are blind to the dangers, and blame others when we fall. The result: we never improve our climbing technique but only demand a safety rope (read: bail-outs, gifts of tax cuts, debt for our causes, security for our purposes).
Political activists and pundits of all stripes should be required to perform a day of public service a month: real contact helping, listening, and serving real people. Let Newt tutor in Kenyan colonialism; Boehner in restaurant management. Hands on means fewer will be found with hands out, and maybe those whose hands have been raking it in will understand the value and mutual benefit of joining hands and truly giving back.