Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The American Creed

While living and traveling in Peru and meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, I was led to reflect on what might be described as the "character" of the American people. I wasn't forced by my friends and acquaintances to "defend" what it means to be an American; rather, conversations about European politics (Finnish parliamentary elections, the French presidential election, etc.) and Peruvian development inspired me to compare American attitudes toward government, education, and civil society to those of other nationalities. It was an open debate.

My Finnish friends in particular provided me with an interesting set of ideas about government, education, and civil society that stood in contrast to what I think is the predominant "American" view of such things. Finnish students and professionals alike remarked that while their country's very high taxes are at times a personal nuisance and too often mismanaged, the common, public good that those taxes ultimately serve is worth 1) the nuisance, and 2) the effort to reform government to become more fiscally efficient.

The socialist-style Finnish system applies a graduated income tax to its citizens so that the wealthy are responsible for paying more taxes (relative to their income) than the poor and working classes. And to be sure, there's the usual discontent among the middle and rich classes about social welfare -- the perception that many poor and working-class Finns don't do their part in finding gainful employment or in trying not to live off the state. Despite these very real social and economic problems, however, my Finnish friends told me that most well-off Finns continue to believe that it's ultimately a good thing to buttress the country's infrastructure and social networks with their taxes.

Hearing this made me ashamed to be an American. I knew instinctively that such a view of the common, public good was/is utterly foreign to the vast majority of Americans. Perhaps it wasn't always so. Or maybe this has always been the case in a country that prides itself on its individualist ethos and cult of self-determination. What I do know is that the American creed of every man (or: nuclear family unit) for himself was perfected during the Reagan Revolution, the late-'70s to mid-'90s social and political movement that, among other things, valorized private enterprise and unfettered capitalism at the expense of public institutions, social welfare, and, specifically, the very idea that the country's tax burden would be shared by all citizens.

One truly sad result of this long period of dismantling the bonds of our civil society is that many well-off Americans actually feel victimized by the government when it tries to raise their income tax (which of course is modest compared to those paid by citizens in other "First World" countries). Even worse is how well-off Americans tend to feel victimized by the poorest sectors of society -- those who don't earn a living wage, who need to work three jobs to make ends meet, and need I mention "illegal immigrants"? The poor: whom the well-off characterize as morally and culturally deficient leeches, in so many words. The poor: whose socioeconomic poverty is somehow their fault, and theirs only.

It's this cult of victimization that's uniquely American, it seems to me. The well-off Finns have their complaints, sure. But at least many of them are able to distinguish a problem of social inequality (the poor needing help and the state mismanaging the system that distributes "help" to the poor) from a basically personal feeling of resentment, which, as Nietzsche reminds us, is the other face of self-righteousness (the poor are themselves deficient and so offend "me" by taking "my" money).

But why take my word for it? Durham's weekly news magazine The Independent cites this quotation from a recent article in the daily newspaper The News & Observer:

"The last thing I want to do is put more money into education, because I don't want to pay for something I never use."
--Bob Williamson, 46, a childless real estate executive from Wake Forest, quoted in an N&O story about how a majority of Wake County residents who don't have children oppose new taxes to help the schools keep up with growth.

So goes the American creed.

[For: Katri, Maria, Tiia, Lissu, Laura]

1 comment:

Kinohi Nishikawa said...

My friend Maria (one of the Finns I refer to in this post) elaborates on the point I'm trying to make about Scandinavian countries:

"Actually, the middle classes in Finland are one of the biggest beneficiares of the welfare state. The large public sector, for which the Nordic welfare states are famous, is also a main factor in emancipation of women. It is one of the biggest employers for women as well as providing the women the opportunity to work since the day care is free or subsidized for all the Finnish people. Middle classes are often ready to pay higher taxes because at the same time they can use the various public services as day care, education and health care. Also, it is very important to have their support since they are also paying the taxes that's why the public sector system is mostly universal, i.e. giving all the people the same benefits and not like in the U.S. where the public health care is means tested (Medicaid and Medicare for poor elderly people and children only). Of course the middle classes are unwilling to pay for this because they can't see the obvious advantages."

Maria's clarification is valuable: she helps us understand how and why the support of the middle classes is essential to the construction of a more equitable social system. Because the middle classes constitute the largest tax base, it's important that they see the "obvious advantages" of supporting a robust public sector.

Maria's examples here are illustrative: daycare (and gender-related services), education, and health care -- public services whose advantages are tangible and of daily importance for the average citizen. In the States, however, these very services tend to be either privatized or determined by income level (in addition to Maria's example of Medicare and Medicaid, see: wealthy suburbs supporting the best public schools while inner-city public schools languish). The American "public" sector is thus rigidly tiered to favor the privileged.

This imbalance can account for many Americans' resistance to giving up "their piece of the pie" to help out those less fortunate: because they "pay" for the services they use, why should someone without their means have access to the same services? The reasoning behind this view is faulty for at least two reasons. First, taxation is supposed to be a mode of contributing to the common social good, not a form of capitalist exchange, where one expects a specific tax to entail an individual "return." That is, one does not pay a tax to invest in one's future -- it goes to the future of the common social good (better schools, better roads, better medical services, etc.).

Second, such reasoning ignores the indirect consequences of not tending to the least fortunate sectors of society. Things like crime, teen pregnancy, and urban decay emerge out of the vacuum left by depleted or non-existent social services. This is precisely why middle-class resistance to contributing to the public sector harms not just the poor but all elements of the social fabric.

It's important to take this second point to heart if we're to really change the way Americans think of their life in a *community* and not just in their fortified, SUV-driving nuclear family units. The work of convincing the American middle classes that there are, in Maria's words, obvious advantages to a more equitable social system has only begun.