Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Taking stock of American progress

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

— Henry David Thoreau

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What might he think of the progress his country has made toward the vision he dedicated his life to realizing?

The way of looking at the root causes of human misery that has made the most sense to me is the Buddhist claim that all misery arises from some combination of greed, hatred and delusion. Although Dr. King did not speak in those terms, his vision can be seen as a one of striving to bring about a society in which fewer of our actions are motivated by greed, hatred and delusion and more are motivated by generosity, love and wisdom.

Greed is alive and well in America, and since the time of Dr. King it has gone from being a motivation that people were ashamed of and tried to disguise to a motivation that they actively and openly pursue. American culture has become much more dominated than ever before in my lifetime by an ethic of making as much money as possible, acquiring as many possessions as possible and avoiding as much as possible sharing what one has with others. No politician dares to declare openly that he or she favors raising taxes for anyone in any form at all. Money that people acquire through selling their labor, through investments, through gambling, and through inheritance tends to be seen as money that they have earned and that is therefore theirs to do with as they please.

In conversations I have had with people who are opposed to taxation, an argument I have heard several times is that when people are taxed heavily by their governments, then they are less likely to give to charities. That observation is not borne out very well by statistics. In the United States, for example, a recent study published in the Guardian indicates that 60% of people in the United States make charitable donations, which qualifies the American people to rank 18th in the world, behind Malta (84%), Netherlands (77%), the United Kingdom (78%) and such countries as New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and Denmark. According to the Worldwide Tax website, the tax rates for individuals in Malta, whose population ranked first in percentage of its population that gives to charity, are the same as those in the United States; in both countries, the maximum tax rate is 35%. In the second-ranking Netherlands, on the other hand, the maximum tax rate is 52%. In both Malta and the Netherlands, there is a high VAT or sales tax. The Dutch pay 19% VAT. Americans pay none; even in states and municipalities with relatively high sales taxes, Americans rarely pay more than 10% sale tax. The Dutch and the Belgians have very similar income tax rates and VAT rates, but only 40% of Belgians donate to charities. Japan has individual tax rates similar to the Dutch and Belgians, but only 17% of Japanese people donate to charities. South Africans, like Americans, have some of the lowest individual income tax rates in the world, but only 15% of South Africans make charitable donations. Clearly, there is no correlation between the amount of taxation in a country and a culture of charity. The reason why Americans rank no higher than 18th place in the world in charitable donations cannot be attributed to taxation rates.

Americans as individuals may not compare all that well with the citizens of other countries in their generosity, but how does the United States do as a nation? How generous is the United States government in giving foreign aid in comparison with other national governments? According to the Bill Gates Foundation, in percentage of its Gross Domestic Product given as foreign aid, the United States government ranks 22nd in the world, just behind Italy, Greece and Japan. Top-ranking Sweden gives nearly 1% of its GDP to poorer nations. The United States gives 0.19%, about one-fifth as much as Sweden, less than half the international average of 0.45% and well less than one-third the United Nations target of 0.7%. (Only five nations meet that UN target: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Luxembourg.)

Remarkably, Americans perceive themselves as being far more generous than they are. According to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting website, in an article published in October 2005

Americans think about 20 percent of the federal budget goes toward foreign aid. When told the actual figure for U.S. foreign aid giving (about 1.6 percent of the discretionary budget), most respondents said they did not believe the number was the full amount...

It appears that generosity is not doing well in America, but delusion is still robust.

Something has been said about greed and delusion in America, but what about hatred? I am old enough to remember a time when some well-educated and well-respected Americans openly and without embarrassment expressed racist views. The sort of racism I saw on an almost daily basis in the 1950s is difficult for many young people today to imagine. Thanks in no small measure to Martin Luther King, Jr and other people who were involved in working for social justice, it is no longer the case that capable and intelligent people are kept out of universities, high-quality housing, corporate boardrooms, public office, and the voting booth because of differences in appearance and culture as a matter of public laws and policies. Overt racism, against African Americans at any rate, has given way to much more subtle forms of racism. Now, people who may be uncomfortable with the fact that an African-American family is living in the White House do not dare declare the reasons for their discomfort openly; instead, they make factually incorrect insinuations that the president was not really born in the United States and is thereby violating the US Constitution. Or they make the ridiculously inaccurate claim that he is a socialist.

The target of fear-driven exclusion has become more diversified than it used to be. A high wall is constructed across the Mexican-US border to keep out Mexicans and Central Americans, who are undesirable not because they speak Spanish and may have native-American ancestors, but ostensibly because they are willing to work for low wages and because they pay into a social security program from which they will never draw a penny. The animosity and fear and suspicion and ignorant stereotyping that used to be reserved for African Americans, Chinese Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans is now shared generously with Muslims. All things considered, America is not much less of a breeding ground for hatred than it was the day when Rev. King was assassinated.

Given that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to raising the awareness of Americans on issues of economic and social justice, and on the terrible consequences the war in Vietnam was having on all Americans and on the Vietnamese people, it is not at all difficult to guess how he might have felt about the directions in which the current Congress is headed. He would not be pleased to see Congress proposing that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, all funding to NPR and PBS be cut, and that more than one billion dollars be withdrawn from health centers and food assistance programs for low-income Americans, and that there be dramatic reductions in funding for education—both for the amount of money available to pay teachers and their aides and the amount of money made available to provide tuition aid for low-income students. He would especially not be pleased to see all those reductions in discretionary spending be made while the budget of the military remains bloated far beyond any kind of necessity. He would not be happy that the United States still has stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and military bases in more than 130 countries, and wars being conducted for the better part of a decade in two countries, and more than 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles being fired into Libya at the cost of $1.6 million apiece. These were not the policies and values for which Martin Luther King Jr lived and died.

On the 43rd anniversary of his assassination what might Dr King think of the progress his country has made toward the vision he dedicated his life to realizing? Realize the answer, America, and be ashamed.