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Our Great Moral Decline: “Two Distinct Monologues”

Asked to explain his support for Rick Santorum in Michigan’s primary, voter Sandy Munro said, “Now what we need is a strong political leader to do something to get us out of the moral slump that we’re in.”

Mr Santorum would agree, having noted that “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” As would Mitt Romney, who has attacked the decay caused by Barack Obama’s “secular agenda”. Newt Gingrich has gone the furthest, stating, “A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have.”

But what are these problems? When considering America’s moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he’s probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America’s moral decline.

So let’s look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.

Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, “the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.” So where is the evidence of this moral decline?

Here’s one for the declinists: the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion has increased, while the number of those attending worship services has declined. And here’s another: out-of-wedlock births have increased in America so that now at least four in ten children are born to unmarried women. This is something Mr Santorum has focused on during the campaign, and he is right in pointing out that the children of unwed mothers in America tend to do worse in terms of health, schooling and income later in life.

But here’s where the real debate over America’s moral position comes into focus. As the New York Times notes, out-of-wedlock births are increasing in much of the developed world—for example, over half of babies in Iceland and Sweden are born to unwed mothers. But according to Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, “In Sweden, you see very little variation in the outcome of children based on marital status. Everybody does fairly well… In the US, there’s much more disparity.”

So out-of-wedlock birth need not correspond to worse outcomes for children. And if it didn’t in America, should we still consider out-of-wedlock births a moral problem? One could ask a similar question about religion. While rates of religious participation may be declining in America, young people today have similar moral beliefs as their parents and grandparents. So is the decline in religious observance a moral problem?

When it comes to out-of-wedlock births, the issue is complicated because discouraging these types of the births may be a more efficient way of securing children than the type of nanny-state intervention that can be found in a country like Sweden. But in general, I think the debate over America’s moral position comes down to this: Republicans want the best outcomes based on solutions that fit into preconceived notions of what society should look like. So even if there are few tangible harms that point to our moral decay, any move away from their vision of society is evidence of declining virtue. Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned with outcomes, even if that means upending the way things were (or accepting that they have been upended and cannot be restored).

So in the case of out-of-wedlock births, Republicans would probably see the increase as a moral problem regardless of the outcome. Whereas Democrats might feel more comfortable with, say, promoting a corresponding increase in stable familial relationships outside of marriage. It is a dynamic we’ve seen elsewhere recently, in regard to issues like gay marriage and contraception. And it leads to a debate over what “moral” really means. If “immoral” means “causing avoidable harm to other people” then gay marriage, pornography, sex, reality TV, soft-drug use and euthanasia are hardly immoral, even if distasteful to some.

But as we grind through the Republican primary process, it seems like the debate over morality in America has less to do with moral outcomes and more to do with a vision of how society should look based on idealistic remembrances of how things were. So people like Mr Munro and the Republican candidates believe America is in a moral slump. The odd thing is, people on the left might actually agree, though for very different reasons. They are upset by the perceived greed of the 1%, and the broad acceptance of torture and war as foreign-policy tools. In the end, the debate over morality more closely resembles two distinct monologues.

By: Democracy in America Blog, The Economist, March 2, 2012

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Democrats, Ideology, Republicans | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Republican Budget Cuts Promote ‘Trickle Up’ Poverty

How appropriate that Washington’s most challenging budget crisis in decade coincides with the Republican Party’s centenary birthday celebration of Ronald Reagan, whose attacks on “welfare queens” and the social safety net in the name of deficit reduction caused indisputable collateral damage to middle class Americans. The Ronnie-like budget cuts that Republican leaders are proposing today—against unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing—all boast the potential to carry on the Reagan tradition of hurting the very middle class they aspire to help. 

Why? Because the cuts to the programs the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives are targeting would increase poverty, and more poverty lowers property values, diminishes the quality of life, and drives up family taxes and expenses of middle class Americans. 

Cuts to federal housing programs will increase homelessness. Combine increased homelessness with vacant public housing and you have a cancer that will spread, reducing property values in communities across our nation. Or consider cuts to unemployment and food stamps. These are likely to cause grocery stores in urban, suburban, and rural areas—many of which serve the middle class—to either close or lower the quality and selection of their wares, just to preserve profit margin. 

A persistently high unemployment rate may well also translate into desperation and increased property and personal crimes. Not only will more crime lower our quality of life, it will drive up the cost of local policing. That could mean higher local taxes meet crime-fighting demands.

Public schools were once the first choice of middle class families; these schools are the first to fail as poverty rises. Where school was once free, poverty forces many middle class families today to shell out thousands of dollars to educate their children. These new costs are a fact of life for more and more middle class Americans as poverty spreads across the country. Sadly it’s at just the time they can least afford it.

Let’s be clear. No one rejoices at the prospect of spending billions of dollars for subsidized housing or food stamps or Medicaid. And Glenn Beck acolytes and progressives alike can agree that good paying jobs are better for families than a plethora of government subsidies. But the problem is that our economy and the policies that drive it are not creating enough decent paying jobs for all able-bodied Americans to cover their basic household expenses. Federal subsidies for basic needs make up for the shortcomings in our economy. And they help a surprising number of people. 

To be sure, we can find ways to run these programs more effectively and more efficiently. And that’s where the hard work of budget cutting should concentrate. The ubiquity of technology, even in low-income communities, presents a huge opportunity to shed administrative costs. We should also find ways to better align these programs so that they enable workers and their families to more successfully move out of poverty. If we are serious about protecting and expanding the middle class, then the tough discussions on how to overhaul the delivery of these income-support programs need to commence.

But it’s simply not in the interest of most Americans to swing an ax at these programs amid a nascent economic recovery. Today, over 10 million Americans are collecting unemployment, and nearly that many citizens are in apartments with rents subsidized by the federal government. More than 40 million Americans put food on the table with the aid of food stamps. Fifty million Americans are able to go to the doctor or the hospital because of the Medicaid program. And fully one in six Americans is dependent on federal and state support for their basic necessities of life. 

The consequences of reducing federal income supports will be devastating on the poorest among us. But the impact will not be contained to them. Remember: Ronald Reagan tried to convince us that wealth trickles down. His enduring legacy, however, is that poverty trickles up. 

By: Donna Cooper,  Senior Fellow-Center for American Progres, February 14, 2011

February 14, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits, Jobs, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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