Are we that different?

A recent exchange of emails with a good and thoughtful man on the opposite end of the political divide from me concluded with “We’re soooooo far apart….”   It’s been bothering me for days, mostly as I don’t think it is true.  Not for him and me, and not for most Americans.  On most of the big important stuff, the things that matter, I suspect we are closer than we know.

I rarely broach politics in my newsletters.  This will be the exception. There are huge financial incentives and deep political motivations to exaggerate the differences between us.  Those on the right and the left can raise massive amounts of money by emphasizing and fanning the flames of distrust and fear.  Couple this with a media bent on exploiting this schism for financial gain (we’re talking billions of dollars) and it becomes obvious that there is more money to be made from discord than from finding common ground.

My friend and I may not agree on how to best solve the problems we see, but we’re probably more aligned on problem identification than we think.  But, there’s only one way to find out, which is to outline what I think and see how left of center he thinks I am. Here are some of my political beliefs:

  1. Love of country, belief in democracy, freedom, and “the American way.” I’m all in.  I believe we live in the greatest country in the world.  While it has its flaws and areas in which we could improve, I’d prefer to live here than anywhere else.  This does not mean I believe we do everything perfectly. I have no problem taking a clear look at other countries and finding areas where they’re doing something better than we are.  When we see that, we should figure out how we can get better in that area.  Does wanting to take a clear look at areas where we could improve or pointing out where someone is beating us make me unpatriotic? Gee, I sure hope not. My business experience taught me it was critical to analyze and understand competitive offerings and to view our own with clear-eyed skepticism.  When you stop trying to beat your competitors with better offerings and rely on slogans, “drinking the cool-aid” so to speak, you’re on a downward trajectory.
  2. Religious Freedom: Worshipping as we please and to whom we please is a fundamental right imbedded in our constitution, including the right to not believe. We are free to think and believe what we want and no one is allowed to tell us what we can or can’t think. No other country maps out and articulates such strong support in our Bill of Rights.  John F Kennedy warned that “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”
  3. Law Enforcement:  Police play a critical role in keeping the peace and making us feel safe. For the vast majority of the time, they do a remarkably good job, even when work rules and restrictions make it difficult to impossible. They should be tasked and funded to do the tasks we need and want them to do.  When the system fails to fund systems and processes for keeping nut cases off the street, for instance, it shouldn’t fall only on the police to clean up the mess. Citizens of the US should expect the same treatment from police based on their behavior, and not because of what ethnicity they are.  No one should fear being pulled over 2-3 times a year when driving at night, just because they are black.  If that is happening, it is a problem and should be addressed.
  4. What Government is really all about: Most of what the government is involved in doing and must do well for a full-functioning society is not political in any way, shape, or form.  Earlier this year (2022), Netflix launched a television series with comedian Adam Conover called “The G Word,” showing the best and worst of government.  It covered things like meat inspectors, weather meteorologists, and a lot more.  It’s not a whitewash. It exposes the massive jobs we’ve tasked our government to do in areas most of us never think about and, points out efforts that work well along with those that could use improvement.  We should pick our leaders at least in part on their experience and expertise in making systems like the ones below work better for us as citizens, and not just for their stance on hot-button political issues that rarely make a dent in our daily lives.  If the most expert, knowledge and effective person to work on my vintage motorcycle is a Republican, why would I care? Same for many government duties.  Below are just a few of them:
    1. The Dept. of Agriculture has standards and makes sure all the meat we buy is safe to eat. Same for milk, fruit, veggies, and in fact, all of our food. Which of us has any idea how many inspectors this effort takes and the sort of training, scheduling, reporting, etc. which they need to guard against contamination and disease?
    2. Administer Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Note administrative costs in healthcare generally run about 31-32% of the total spending.  Medicare, on the other hand, has administrative costs of 3-4% of spending, depending on whether you include efforts to track down and eliminate fraud.
    3. Run the post office, and prevent mail fraud. Do it efficiently.
    4. Make sure the medications we are prescribed and purchases contain the ingredients that they are claimed to contain. And that they’ll work as promised.
    5. Create and enforce regulations, laws, and inspections which will assure that workers don’t have to work with toxic chemicals or in environments where they could get hurt or killed.
    6. Support everything the Department of the Interior does to protect national parks and wild areas so everyone can enjoy them. It’s always nice to hike a well-maintained trail.
    7. Copyright and patent laws protect creativity and innovation. It’s complex work and not easy, but this (like many) government agencies is understaffed so badly that patents now take years to process, a real detriment to protecting US innovation.
    8. Maintain and improve local streets, state highways, and interstates, and keep them safe. Our is a country of drivers – not public transport. We need good roads, bridges and tunnels.
    9. Public water systems not only ensure safe drinking water but work to figure out how to make sure we have water into the future, which isn’t easy, especially in Arizona.
    10. The FAA makes sure we have a good traffic control system which means we fly with reasonable expectation of safe arrivals in the US.
    11. We have a department committed to serving the needs of our veterans and they work hard to do the best job they can, treating millions of Americans each year.
    12. The government supports research in a whole set of medical areas which help diagnose and treat every disease you can imagine from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. They also to try to prevent charlatan and medical quacks from deceiving us.
  5. We’re a nation of laws. I believe no one is above the law.  Yes, I know the wealthy can hire expensive lawyers and get away with things.  But ultimately, the law tends to catch up with you if the crime is significant.  When imperfect laws are passed or they go out of date with time, there is a well-known and prescribed process for updating, changing and, enacting new ones with the goal of fairness for all. Our democracy forces legislators to work with those they disagree and to fashion a compromise to get things done.  When our elected officials fail to do their job and refresh and revise laws as circumstances change, such as what has happened on immigration with no updates since Ronald Reagan was president, people end up taking the law into their own hands or finding workarounds that defeat the purpose of the laws.  In the end, this undermines our entire system.
  6. Allowance for conflicting ideas: Not all ideals are laws. Americans are compassionate and take care of those who are suffering, having the highest rate of charitable giving in the world. Caring for the less fortunate does not contradict an equally strong belief in self-reliance and willingness to let people try and fail.  We emphasize competition and accept there will be losers along with winners. While these ideals and values sometimes run into one another, posing contradictions, it’s OK.  In fact, we often embrace such tensions among our ideals. It may be a key to American greatness and could help explain why Americans have always rejected appeals for ideological consistency.  Ideological rigidity doesn’t allow for contradictions. Ideology requires an embrace of a doctrine, whether it is a far-left doctrine about equality or shared property or a far-right doctrine that talks about absolute free-marketism and social Darwinism. It requires, above all else, a consistent world view that breaks the world down into simplistic categories. Americans don’t go for that and never have.
  7. Campaign Finance Reform: This may not be a big deal to everyone, but I feel we need to restrict the amount of money going into politics. In addition, any amount over a few hundred bucks should not be allowed to be anonymous. If George Soros or the Koch Brothers want to fund a candidate, fine, but they have to own up to it and citizens need to know who is supporting who and for how much. I also think elected officials should wait a while before becoming lobbyists.

One additional area does not fit neatly into the above and that is how one thinks about “the moral decay of society.”  This is an area, I suspect, where we do see things differently. Many people do.

Everyone seems to feel the country’s values are deteriorating. They’re bad and getting worse.  Headlines scream it at us.  It’s in our nature to want things as they were in the “good old days”. This is a sentiment held by just about every generation.  Britain’s postwar population pined for the Victorians as beacons of moral fortitude. The Victorians?  Well, they looked back to before the days before “the Industrial Revolution screwed everything up.” Even the Romans moaned about changing family values, and the writings of Socrates and Hesiod complained about how lazy the youth were and how much better things were when they were kids.

Is this recently cited “fact” really true and if so, to what extent?  Well, it depends on how you define moral values.  How you think about mass shootings, drug use, racial hatred, homosexuality, abortion, legalizing weed, cohabitating, social injustice, incivility, fraud, or white supremacy, will have a big impact on whether you think things are getting better or worse.  Less controversial is what is causing it.  The most often cited examples include mass media and social media, peer pressure, and poor family involvement.  How can one NOT believe everything is going to hell if that is the only message one sees, over and over.  No amount of “facts, statistics or trends” can stand up to the onslaught of a narrative so consistently and constantly sold.

But what are these morals that are decaying? Morals are the prevailing standards of behavior that enable people to live cooperatively and provide guidelines for human interaction.  Morality often requires people to sacrifice their own short-term interests for the long-term benefit of society.  We’re supposed to direct our political behavior around service – “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Moral “good” behavior becomes hard to define as individuals and we often define what is moral and immoral for ourselves in our situations, and these could very well be different for someone else in the same situation. Agreement on standards of behavior is exceptionally difficult and I’m not even sure it’s possible.  But it is worth thinking and talking about at the very least.  The more people discuss these topics the greater insight they will gain.

Steven Pinker

Authors like Steven Pinker, Rafaela von Bredow, and Johann Grolle have written extensively about the dramatic human improvements since the 18th century in the areas of racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide.  Pinker points to extensive data showing how things are getting better across a host of measurable areas.  For instance, one’s risk of dying a violent death at the hands of another has gone down precipitously. The number of people who die of malnutrition and disease has shrunk as well.    Pinker addressed critics of his book “Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later,” in this rather long essay, although it’s much shorter than his book, which I also highly recommend.

One fun thought experiment Pinker suggests in his essay is to ask yourself this question: “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be – what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into – you wouldn’t likely choose 100 years ago.  You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies.  You’d choose right now.”  Or wouldn’t you?

So, what is the cause of our persistent feelings of moral decline, despite the lack of concrete evidence of the opposite? Every year the Gallup Poll interviewers ask people two questions: how are things now and, how will they be in the future? Every year, respondents insist we’re on a downward spiral, yet the proportion who say things are bad right now doesn’t increase, but instead, is remarkably stable, even going down in 2020, which some speculate may be due to an increasing faith in our fellow humans amid the pandemic.  What it says is there is a persistent belief that things are going to get worse, alongside evidence from the same people suggesting that, over time, it hasn’t.

Some pundits argue that the idea of a morally debased youth has been turned on its head with the rise of the “woke” generation who stand accused of being, if anything, too righteous. Call them naive, misguided, or sanctimonious, but morally weak? Maybe not so much.  School kids today report bullying and harassment from other kids more frequently than when we were kids.

While evidence of decline is sketchy in areas of murders, crime, health and safety, examples of changes in attitude in other areas are easy to find; same-sex marriage laws in dozens of countries; the first black president of the United States; removing the stigma from mental illness. Often, youth are raising moral concerns – even children sometimes, like the climate strikers who managed to push environmental issues to the top of the agenda at Davos.  It will be up to historians of the future to decide whether these changes in moral values point to decline or improvement. I am optimistic about the future.  My great-grandparents lived in a time when people were allowed to own other people. It was fully moral at the time, supported by laws, tradition and the church. But today, most people are glad that part of our history is closed.  My parents lived in a time when it was against the law for people of different races to marry, facing jail if they did.  I’ve lived most of my life in a time when people of the same sex were not allowed to get married and could lose their jobs and careers and be socially ostracized because of who they loved. Those laws and attitudes have changed and each year that passes, fewer and fewer people will be around saying “I want those policies and attitudes back.”

Morals evolve with the culture they serve.  History will judge us on the choices we make and how hard we tried to get things right and how much work we put into doing the right things.


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2 Responses to Are we that different?

  1. Joseph Stickney says:

    Steve, One word: Masterful. A reasoned approach to the common good, well articulated. I especially like how you summarized the immigration problem in two sentences. The failure to update our immigration laws for 40 years has led to workarounds and enacting our own solutions.

  2. Mary I. says:

    Amen, Steve!

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