We hear a lot of talk about morality and values from our political leaders these days, as if we exalted these people to save our souls instead of just electing them to run our government. Their concept of morality seems oddly narrow, though, extending to issues of sexuality but not to other areas of human life.
To economics, for example.
Consider the case of Carly Fiorina. As head of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina rammed through a controversial merger with Compaq that cost 18,000 people their jobs. In her five years as CEO, the company's stock dropped 30 percent. Yet when she was finally fired, she walked away with a severance package worth $21 million.
Is that kind of reward system moral, or is it evidence of some deeper sickness permeating the culture of this country?
Is it moral to do what President Bush is doing in his latest budget, cutting spending on education, housing and food by claiming that we have no choice given the looming deficit, even as he proposes $1.3 trillion in tax cuts for Fiorina and others in her tax bracket, cuts that will increase the deficit?
Is it moral to continue handing out lucrative tax cuts even in time of war, thus creating huge deficits that our children and grandchildren will have to pay on our behalf?
Or how about "tax reform," in which the goal of many conservatives is to remove all federal taxes from "unearned income," meaning investment income collected almost exclusively by the affluent. Inevitably, that would put all of the burden of paying for government on earned income, the paychecks of people who go to work each day to make a living. At a time when globalization is already undercutting the earning power of the working and middle class, is it moral to use government to further comfort the comfortable, and further afflict the afflicted?
I could go on and on — "tort reform" that makes it more difficult to challenge corporations in the courtroom; the disarming of government agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Office of Safety and Health Administration, to prevent them from doing their duty to protect us from corporate malfeasance. We seem to have entered a new era in which government shrinks from challenging corporate power, in which the individual is left to stand on his own to challenge the great forces arrayed against him.
(Of course, this process is marketed by the right as a great empowering of the individual, but its net effect is to make the individual more vulnerable and less powerful.)
President Bush himself suggested the dawning of a new era in his recent State of the Union speech. "Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth," he said, attributing the quote to President Franklin Roosevelt. For Bush, it was a sly way of suggesting that the era of Roosevelt was passing, and that of Bush beginning.
The quote in question — which Roosevelt himself borrowed from a 19th-century poet — comes from Roosevelt's Second Inaugural Address, delivered in 1937, eight years into the Great Depression.
"We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals," Roosevelt told the country. "We know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run, economic morality pays."
Heedless self-interest is bad morals
. . . economic morality pays. What utterly quaint notions. We don't even acknowledge the existence of economic morality anymore, let alone the notion that it pays.
"We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life," Roosevelt said, lauding the importance of "practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men."
"In our personal ambitions we are individualists," he concluded. "But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people."
You know, some truths don't change over time. It's just that successive generations have to relearn them over and over again, sometimes the hard way.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
© 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution