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Losing Our Moral Compass in Pursuit of Profit, Efficiency

Recently, on a cold morning with a little snow fooling around in the bright air, I was chilled by this sentence in an AP news story:

"The idea isn't to just raise revenue, economists say, but finally to turn Americans into frugal health-care consumers by having them face the full costs of their medical decisions ("Tax Break on Employer Health Plans Targeted" Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP 11/29/10)

Oh, of course -- all Americans should face the full costs of their decisions to have broken bones, heart attacks, or sick children, right?

Even more chilling to me were the underlying assumptions that economists/technocrats decide what's best for everyone, and that it's just as important -- if not more important -- to turn Americans into tame consumers for the private sector as it is to raise revenues for the common good.

This led me to some further, chillier assumptions:

  • democracy and politics are messy and unmanageable and must be replaced by the disciplined professionalism of scientists, technicians and economists.
  • ordinary citizens lack the ability to deal with the "real world" of money, brokerage, extraction of natural resources, wars, weapons and political power, and must be kept out of decisions about them or even knowing about them.
  • our most important moral obligation to our children is to not leave them any debts.
  • to be secure we must pre-emptively kill terrorists, would-be terrorists, might-be terrorists, geriatric terrorists, stone-throwing juvenile terrorists.....
  • the economically sound is the morally right.

In his recent book "The Logic of Discipline", Alasdair Roberts proposes that democracy has been undermined by financial liberalization, free trade and a globalized economy. Technicians, economists and managers, he observes, are very skeptical of the ability of democracy to make "the right decisions" for financial stability and security, and they doubt that ordinary politicians and voters are ‘disciplined' enough to make sensible policy decisions.

That's why, Roberts suggests, we have a new generation of professional technocrats and managers supported by corporate money and ideology who are running not only our giant corporations but our political parties and our governments. They have reconfigured central banking, fiscal control, farm policy, taxes, health and safety regulations, port and airport management, infrastructure development and energy policy to meet the economic needs of multinational corporations in a global economy, not the needs of human beings on a fragile planet. And they have determined that secrecy is a basic necessity for good management, to keep the public from interfering with the professionals' decisions.

That's why we have public officials, democratically-elected (sic) politicians, banks and giant corporations like Amazon & PayPal all deciding that WikiLeaks is a criminal operation and Julian Assange is a terrorist who deserves to die.

Roberts further notes that the world of fiscal discipline is amoral: efficiency and objectivity always trump emotional and unreliable ideas of right and wrong

That's why -- or at least how -- in the pursuit of profit, efficiency and financial stability in global marketplaces, Americans are losing our moral compass. Many people now believe -- or say they believe -- that our most important moral responsibility is to the economy: reduce the deficit, cut taxes, protect profits, and shrink government spending, and keep actions of public officials secret.

So: we have messed up the entire world socially, economically, politically and morally, and have failed to address our habits of consumption that are warming the planet and destroying ecosystems that sustain the web of life. The oceans are rising, disaster and disease stalk humans and ecosystems, war and destruction consume natural resources, but the most important things to us are to cut taxes and government spending, reduce the deficit and keep secret the actions and words of government officials because we the people can't be trusted.

We don't even trust coming generations to find better ways to live together. Instead, we base our expenditures for their education, nutrition and health care on principles of profit and "fiscal responsibility", we teach them that killing in war is noble and exciting, and that most strangers should be feared and mistrusted, while we use up the natural resources they will need to survive.

What now? In this Christmas season it's tempting to speculate: What if God, finally fed up with our arrogance, pride, greed, cruelty and bungling, decided to send down a new prophet, a few more angels, or another Savior, what would they recommend?

A new prophet could hardly do better than Micah: "...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

The angels of the nativity story gave us a fine moral ideal to aspire to: Peace on earth and good will toward all, but it's never caught on. Neither has the excellent advice of Jesus of Nazareth: Love your neighbors, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile.

Because finally, democracy and freedom cannot be created by a Savior, or by economists or presidents.  Democracy can only be created by the people within it. If people can be "turned into frugal consumers" or kept in the dark about how their government operates, they aren't free and there is no democracy: they are not participants but pawns, not citizens but subjects.

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