Is the American system due for a major overhaul? Three recent crises have exposed major weaknesses in that system. The economic bubble burst after decades of rising prosperity. Health care expenses have soared beyond reason. The military finds itself mired in two wars, even though we are told that a rocky recovery is underway, these crises are more fundamental than they appear. Three pillars of American life are cracking, along with the beliefs that hold them up.
The first, the economic crisis, attacks the belief that money is a panacea. We are so used to prosperity that it’s almost an American patent. Our typical approach to any problem is to throw billions of dollars at it. To be rich is the same as being happy. None of this is necessarily true. Billions of dollars haven’t stopped the drug trade, ended poverty, or cured cancer. On the darker side, the rich have grown obscenely richer, Congress has been deeply corrupted by special interests groups, and even getting elected to higher office is a privilege open almost entirely to the wealthy. New York has a billionaire mayor who spent in excess of $100 million of his own fortune to be re-elected.
On the health front, the skyrocketing cost of medical care reflects the belief that drugs and surgery are the best cures. After decades of teaching and preaching, Americans continue to ignore exercise, diet, and general prevention. As a result, we are an aging society suffering from obesity and a host of lifestyle diseases like coronary artery disease and type II diabetes. Instead of practicing wellness, we allow ourselves to be gouged by hospitals, big pharma, and a Medicare system that pays doctors to perform unnecessary procedures that line their pockets.
On the military front, two wars have resulted directly from the belief that armies and armaments produce security. America spends an inhuman amount on so-called defense, playing into the hands of reckless militarists, whose foreign adventures destroyed Iraqi society and killed at least 100,000 innocent civilians. In Afghanistan our best intentions have mired us in tribal hatred that goes back for centuries, not to mention a failed state where the most basic institutions have collapsed.
How can it be that this country depends on greed, militarism, and medical extortion? I am not painting a bleak picture in order to frighten or depress anyone. It seems only realistic to examine a belief system with fatal flaws. Perhaps it’s time for some false gods to topple. The good news is that we now have leadership in Washington that seems to understand what these crises mean. President Obama represents a turning of the page, and although he faces enormous challenges, he could be the right leader at the right time. He understands that endless military actions, soaring healthcare costs, and unfettered greed aren’t just bad things. They undermine the basis of a healthy society.
But there’s a huge gap between rhetoric and achievement. Without the collective will behind him, and in the face of entrenched special interest groups, Obama will be stranded. A general is helpless without an army, and in this case the army is us, ordinary citizens who can rally behind necessary change. One can only hope that Obama will be able to open the eyes of more and more people, because the future definitely depends on it.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle