Christians are supposed to care about their neighbors and share the fruits of their labors with those who are in-need, are they not?
What do I know about anything? I’m just a retired senior citizen whose biggest responsibility now is in taking care of his little great granddaughter following daycare each day. But I have a vision, a dream actually, one that has taken me a lifetime to develop.
My dream is of an honorable, righteous, and caring United States of America — a nation in which education and knowledge are valued above material possessions and show- manship — a nation in which politicians care more about what is good for their constituents than about getting themselves reelected. I dream of a time to come when long-range consider- ations will trump the desire for immediate gratification, when the good for the many outweighs the good for the few and when workers are valued over corporate profits. In my dream, Americans will one day wake up to the realization that there is nowhere else to go and that we must honor future generations with good stewardship of the planet’s resources.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I remember coming home to jeers rather than cheers. After our trans-Pacific chartered flight touched down at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, we were advised to change quickly into civilian clothes and to exit the airport individually by side doors, coming back later for connecting flights to our home cities. It was January 1970 and the headlines were all about the recent My Lai Massacre and the pending trial of Lt. William Calley, the platoon leader who had ordered the killings. Those of us in uniform weren’t too popular back then. Our former Commander-In-Chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson, wasn’t either.
Being a military officer, I was more conservative in my political views back then. I had cast an absentee ballot while still in Vietnam for Richard Nixon, and I was pleased to know that he had been elected. My future in-laws, however, had been devastated by Johnson’s announcement early the previous year that he would not run again. They were Texas Yellowdawg Democrats. But, looking back on that time, I’m sorry now that LBJ’s unpopularity did in. He is remembered today by some historians as having been one of our greatest presidents owing to his legislative victories for the common man. I see him now in a very different light.
Serving out what remained of John F. Kennedy’s one term as president, Johnson completed the unfinished work of JFK’s New Frontier. He pushed through two very important pieces of legislation. First, the Civil Rights Bill that JFK promised to sign was passed into law. He also signed into law the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The law created the Office of Economic Opportunity aimed at attacking the roots of American poverty. A Job Corps was established to provide valuable vocational training. And Head Start, a preschool program designed to help disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn was put into place. The Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) was set up as a domestic Peace Corps. Schools in impoverished American regions would now receive volunteer teaching attention. Federal funds were sent to struggling communities to attack unemployment and illiteracy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyndon_B._Johnson
Campaigning in 1964, Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” He challenged Americans to build a “Great Society” that would eliminate the troubles of the poor. He won a decisive victory over his archconservative Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. American liberalism was at high tide. It became a progressive era.
Some of Johnson’s Great Society legislative accomplishments were: Medicare which was created to offset the costs of health care for the nation’s elderly; the Voting Rights Act which banned literacy tests and other discriminatory methods of denying suffrage to African Americans; the Immigration Act which ended discriminatory quotas based on ethnic origin; the Wilderness Protection Act which saved 9.1 million acres of forestland from industrial development; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which provided major funding for American public schools; the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities which used public money to fund artists and galleries; an Omnibus Housing Act which provided funds to construct low-income housing. In addition during Johnson’s years as president, Congress tightened pollution controls with stronger Air and Water Quality Acts, and standards were raised for safety in consumer products.
Unfortunately, much of the money Johnson might have spent on these social programs was siphoned off by the war in Southeast Asia. This began to overshadow his domestic achievements. He found himself maligned by conservatives for his domestic policies and by liberals for his hawkish stance on Vietnam. By 1968, his hopes of leaving a legacy of domestic reform were in serious jeopardy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyndon_B._Johnson
So, where are we today with respect to being a great society? Medicare is still paying some of the medical needs of seniors, but that’s largely funded by retirees’ own contributions before they retire and conservatives now in Congress want to turn it into a voucher program. As for the Voting Rights Act, Congress has reauthorized it five times. But Republican controlled states now, through redistricting done even mid-census which has been ruled Constitutional by the conservative Supreme Court, have found legal ways to undermine the concept of one-man-one-vote. The Immigration Act of 1965 is still in-effect. But with so much controversy over what to do about the many illegal immigrants flowing into the country from south of the border, many conservatives are grumbling and want it stuck or substantially changed in any agreement on dealing with illegal immigrants. The Wilderness Protection Act has brought huge tracts of land under federal protection and management, but private interests continue to press and erode the sanctity of these area. One good example is the pressure being brought by the oil industry and citizens of Alaska who benefit from royalties paid for drilling and extracting oil to expand drilling rights. Funding for the National Endowment for Arts and Humanities has suffered severe cuts year after year since 1980, and there have been continuous attacks against it by conservatives. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been revised by Congress. It is now known as No Child Left Behind, a punitive system requiring states to conduct yearly testing to qualify for federal funds. The government, however, has fails to compensate states for this testing mandate. The Omnibus Housing Act has evolved into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Anyone who feels that they have been discriminated against with respect to where they want to live can file a free claim with HUD. But discrimination in housing still persists. Cities and local communities still find legal ways to prohibit or restrict access to homes and apartments.
Perhaps the best way to determine whether America is really the generous land of equal opportunity and social justice that we like to think it is, we should look at what we spend for social programs as a percent of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total amount of money made in a year by the production and sale of all goods and services. Comparing this to the amount of spending calculated in the same way for other countries gives us a good idea of where we actually stand. See the graphic below, which was generated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD works to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. It uses a wealth of information on a broad range of topics to help governments promote prosperity and fight poverty http://www.oecd.org/pages/0,3417,en_36734052_36734103_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.
Look at the Nordic nation of Sweden at the bottom right on the graphic. Sweden’s GDP per capita is little more than half what ours is, yet they commit twice the percent of their GDP to the welfare of their citizens. They have achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. They benefit from an extensive social welfare system which includes a ceiling on health care costs, education subsidies and childcare, maternity and paternity, yes, paternity leave. They have an old-age pension program and universal sick leave among other benefits. The country has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force. Theirs is truly a great society http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2880.htm.
Now look at Norway at the top, center-right. Norway has a greater GDP per capita than ours and commits ten percent more of its GDP to the welfare of its citizens. Education is free through the university level in Norway. Its health care system includes free hospital care, physicians’ compensation, cash benefits during illness and pregnancy, and other medical and dental plans. There is a public pension system http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3421.htm. By the way, there are more millionaires in Norway per capita than in any other nation in the world. Wealth there is more evenly distributed.
“Yeah, but what about taxes?” you might ask. Aren’t we overburdened with taxes to pay for social programs and other government waste? The answer is no. From all sources, both government and charity, our spending on anti-poverty programs is barely greater than three percent of our GDP. Scholarly studies show the United States to be an outlier in comparison to attitudes and actions taken by other wealthy nations. We have high poverty rates, low public social spending but high private social expenditures, and a rather strong belief that people are poor because of laziness or lack of will http://www.psocommons.org/ppp/vol3/iss2/art3/. The people of most modern states simply do not view poverty in the same way that we do.
Consider the following chart showing our tax burden compared to the rest of the world.
So, where’s the trick? How are these facts skewed to make Americans seem selfish? The answer is that they aren’t.
I find it curious that many in Congress, to reduce budget deficits, favor gutting social programs over increasing revenues collected from the wealthiest of Americans and highly profitable corporations. Still, social conservatives insist that America is a Christian nation. Christians are supposed to care about their neighbors and share the fruits of their labors with those who are in-need, are they not? Yet America, compared to all other nations, is clearly one of the least generous with our own citizens.
So, is my dream an impossible dream? I don’t know. But as my dear grandmother used to say, “Charity starts at home.” Maybe it wasn’t so much that her heart wasn’t in the right place; as an extended family back in the 50s and 60s, there wasn’t much left over after the bills were paid and the groceries were bought. Maybe she just expected more from those who were better off. Maybe, after the vast majority of Americans whose disposable incomes have been shrinking for the past several decades wake up and realize that the wealthiest aren’t really job creators, that trickle-down economics should really be called percolate-up economics, the progressive era that was the Johnson years will be reborn.
Please feel free to comment on this posting whether you agree or disagree.