An uneasy Independence Day

July 4, 2011

I wandered down to Lexington’s town center this afternoon. In honor of July 4th, American flags on sturdy wooden poles lined both sides of Massachusetts Avenue. The usual tourists, picnickers, and frisbee-throwers were on the Battle Green, enjoying a sunny Monday holiday. Some visitors paused to snap photos of Henry Hudson Kitson’s iconic statue of Captain John Parker while other out-of-towners congregated at the Revolutionary monument, erected in 1799, to read its inscription honoring the Minutemen.

Lexington, MA

I couldn’t help thinking that this Independence Day seemed somewhat different, coming at a time of national discontent and of widespread uneasiness about the direction of the country. Usually upbeat Americans are worried: in some polls, a majority say that their children will not achieve the same quality of life; many believe the country’s best days are past; there’s anxiety about prolonged high levels of unemployment and in the aftermath of the Great Recession concerns about a long-term economic decline for the U.S. Few have confidence in the country’s leadership, Republican or Democrat.

It’s not just our political leaders who are failing us. The Boston Globe carried two stories Saturday about significant ethical missteps by senior Harvard faculty members. A front page story reported that three Harvard Medical School physicians had been sanctioned for violating conflict of interest rules by not disclosing millions of dollars in consulting fees from drug makers. Another Globe story detailed the unsavory connection between Monitor Group, a consulting firm founded by Harvard professors, and Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy. By its own admission, the firm ran a stealth public-relations campaign for Khadafy’s regime between 2006 and 2008 that included “payments to a raft of intellectuals and public figures who visited Libya.”

Personal enrichment—or what used to be called greed—seems to have been a motivating factor in both cases, trumping values like professional integrity and disciplinary ethics, not to mention common sense (What clear-thinking person would get involved with a madman like Khadafy?). Sadly, the Harvard professoriate isn’t alone in its abandonment of traditional values; moral lapses by our leaders have become all too commonplace.

In one key arena, American elites haven’t failed of late: they have perfected the art of self-advancement, along with adopting a quick-money ethos. The growing income gap in the U.S. reflects, in part, this quest for money, power, and (more recently) celebrity. American CEOs collect vast sums of money, even as their corporations stumble and lose value. Hedge fund managers and Wall Street speculators make overnight fortunes for “financial reengineering.” The legal profession hasn’t been shy about sharing in the prosperity (deserved or otherwise) of its clients. Even those in professions known in the past for service have sought—under the principle of “keeping up with the Jones”— to improve their lot: doctors, nonprofit executives, college presidents, and journalists have all seen their compensation levels soar in the past few decades.

It’d be hard to begrudge awarding elites outsized compensation if—and it’s a big “if”—we could see that they’d earned it. But can anyone say that our corporations are better run? Or that Wall Street machinations have helped expand our economy? Or that our nonprofits and institutions of higher learning are doing a better job of meeting their missions? The gap between promise and performance isn’t lost on average Americans; those same public opinion surveys show respect for businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and bankers remains low. (Only military officers and nurses are widely seen as honest and ethical).

The clearest disconnect between American elites and Americans in general is found in our governance. There is the belief held across the ideological spectrum that politicians, whether in Washington or in statehouses around the country, have not been serving the public interest. Instead, they have looked first to their own interests (reelection, special perks, a generous government pension) or to pleasing their top contributors. They have shied away from making hard choices. (Not surprisingly, members of Congress and lobbyists join car salespeople at the bottom of the Gallup survey list for honesty and ethical standards.)

The Tea Party movement that emerged in 2009 represents a populist response to this gap between what Americans expect from their elected officials and what they have been getting. It’s a mistake to see Tea Party activism as solely aimed at President Obama and liberal Democrats—the anger has also been directed at establishment Republicans who have voted for an unparalleled run-up in federal spending over the past decade (much of it for three unpopular wars, it should be noted) despite campaign promises to rein in Big Government.

The challenges we collectively face on Independence Day 2011—a looming deficit, faltering employment growth, growing income inequality, partisan bickering, and concerns about our future place in the world economy—are all surmountable (and certainly no more daunting than the challenges of 1775, 1860, 1929, 1941 or 1980). Yet they will require our leaders to put country first and personal interests second. They will require shared sacrifices. And those entrusted with power—in all sectors, public, private, and nonprofit—will need to lead by example. Whether American elites are willing and able to accept personal accountability and return to an ethos of stewardship is—today—an unanswered question.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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