Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
America's Ethical Decline Is Accompanied by Growing Ignorance of Our Religious Traditions
More and more, the concept of ethics in Congress, in business, in government, and in other areas of our society seems to be an oxymoron.
There has been a succession of headline stories underscoring our moral "pay-to-play" lapses. The alleged pay-to-play scheme laid out by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder -- is, sadly, not much different from the usual political enterprise observed in Washington and throughout the country. "In some ways, the only thing Blagojevich did wrong was he was stupid enough to say it out loud," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. "For other people, it's a wink and a nod. Verbalizing it crosses the line." Northwestern University law Professor Albert Altschuler says that if Blagojevich
. . . made a quid pro quo offer for campaign funds, then he's guilty of breaking the law. There's a thin line. It's different if he said, "If I was in the Senate, I'd be in a position to raise money for you."
It may be legal for those who contribute large amounts to presidential campaigns to be named to ambassadorships and other important posts, but what exactly is the ethical difference between this and what the Illinois Governor is accused of doing?
Or consider the Ponzi scheme of Wall Street insider Bernard Madoff, formerly the head of the NASDAQ stock market. Len Fisher, author of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, writes that:
There seems to be little doubt that Bernard Madoff is a cheat. . . . But was it all Madoff's fault? I contend that the losses would have been less severe, and might not have occurred at all, if many of Madoff's investors had not been cast from the same mold that Madoff was. The facts should have been enough to make anyone suspicious. Madoff's accounts were only perfunctorily audited. . . . Above all his business returns were consistently good -- too good -- and he never reported a down month, let alone a down quarter or year . . . such oddities had to have set off alarm bells. So why did so many professionals continue to invest with him? Only one answer makes sense. Some of these investors must have suspected that he was a cheat but continued to invest because they thought they were benefiting from that cheating. In other words, they took him for a different kind of cheat from who he was -- one who was using information gained from his market-making operation to earn illegal profits rather than one who was operating a breathtakingly audacious Ponzi scheme.
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman asks: "How different, really, is Mr. Madoff's tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole." He declares:
The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation's income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it's not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people's money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole.
Young people, observing the behavior of their elders, are exhibiting precisely the same sort of indifference to traditional moral and ethical standards.
In the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new large-scale survey.
The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at l00 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. Michael Josephson, the institute's founder and president, said he was most dismayed by the findings about theft. The survey found that 35 percent of boys and 26 percent of girls -- 30 percent overall -- acknowledged stealing from a store within the past year. One-fifth said they stole something from a friend; 23 percent said they stole something from a parent or other relative.
"What is the social cost of that -- not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?" Mr. Josephson said: "In a society drenched with cynicism, young people can look at it and say 'Why shouldn't we? Everyone else does it.'"
Among the findings:
* Cheating in schools is rampant and getting worse. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year, and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey.
* Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.
* Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."
Iris Murdoch, in Metaphysics As a Guide to Morals, said:
The child . . . who is led by his observation to conclude that "Do not lie" is part of an espionage system directed against himself, since the prohibition obviously means nothing to his elders, is being misled concerning the crucial position of truth in human life.
This flexibility toward the truth shows later in life. According to a recent study conducted by Who's Who Among High School Students, 78 percent of the high school students polled say they have cheated. Paul Krouse, the publisher, said, "There certainly has to be a breakdown in the ethics and integrity of young people which probably mirrors the society they are living in."
To deal with the ethics breakdown, the U.S. Marine Corps has added a "value training" course to its boot camp curriculum. One senior Marine officer summed up the situation:
The communities (new recruits) are coming from have put less emphasis on ethical standards and these kinds of core values we want to see. . . . They're not teaching values in schools. They're not learning it from church members to the extent. . . . they used to. So there is a need that must be stressed in values-based education.
A decade ago, when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) was sentenced to 17 months
in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding Congress of $636,000 in an illegal payroll scam, U.S. Attorney Thomas Motley called it a "scheme to defraud the U.S. that stretched over more than 20 years." The judge in the case, Norma Holloway Johnson, said that, "When I think of your case . . . the one phrase that comes to mind is betrayal of trust." Yet, when Rostenkowski responded, he said: "Having pled guilty, I do not believe that I am different from the vast majority of members of Congress." Recent examples of congressional corruption indicate that Rostenkowski may have had a point.
One important reason -- perhaps the important reason -- for the breakdown in our society which is evident all around us is the fact that we have entered an era of moral relativism in which we hesitate to declare any action wrong and immoral, or to confront the existence of evil. Will Herberg, theologian and author of the well-known volume Protestant, Catholic, Jew stated:
. . . the really serious threat to morality in our time consists not in the multiplying violations of an accepted moral code, but in the fact that the very notion of morality or a moral code seems to be itself losing its meaning. . . . It is here that we find a breakdown of morality in a radical sense, in a sense almost without precedent in our Western society.
The decline of religion in our society has been recorded by Professor Stephen Prothero, chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University, in his book Religious Literacy. In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, only a tiny portion of them knows a thing about religion. When he began college teaching 17 years ago, Prothero writes, he discovered that few of his of students could name the authors of the Christian Gospels. Fewer could name a single Hindu Scripture. Almost no one could name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
"During the 1930s," writes Prothero:
The neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr skewered liberal Protestants for preaching "a God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." But my students' "dogma aversion" (as one put it) goes liberal Protestantism one further. These young people aren't just allergic to dogma. They are allergic to divinity and even heaven. In the religions of their imagining, God is an afterthought at best. And the afterlife is, as one of my students told me, "on the back burner." What my students long for is not salvation after they die but happiness . . . here and now. They want less stress and more sleep.
The disconnect between young Americans and their religious tradition is, in Prothero's view, a subject about which all of us should be concerned. He hopes that Americans will have enough religious knowledge to debate ethics positions using holy texts, to understand Biblical references in political speeches, to question their own beliefs about God -- and to encourage others to question theirs. He faults priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers for not engaging the younger generation. "Far too often," he declares, "religious services in the U.S. are of the adults, by the adults, and for the adults. And don't think young people aren't noticing."
The connection between our ethical decline and the growing ignorance of our religious traditions is a subject to which our religious leaders -- and not only our religious leaders -- should turn their attention.
To Move Africa Forward, It Is Essential to Understand the Real Causes of Poverty
Poverty in Africa is widespread, but its causes are largely misunderstood. Indeed, because of such a misunderstanding men and women of good will in the Western world, seeking to alleviate such poverty, have pursued programs of massive foreign aid that, in most instances, have done little good.
Professor James Robinson of Harvard University, in an article "Property Rights and African Poverty," in Defining Ideas, 2010, declares that:
The real reason Africa has been poor historically and is poor today have to do with property rights. In short, African countries do not have the type of property rights that are connected with economic progress in Western Europe or North America.
The evidence of widespread poverty is stark. The World Bank measures poverty levels by the number of people who live on less than $1 a day; the majority of those people, around 350 million of them, live in sub-Sahara Africa. This is the only part of the world in which the absolute number of poor people is increasing. By 2015, the number of poor people in Africa is forecast to be more than 400 million.
Before the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain about 230 years ago, Professor Robinson points out:
Differences in the level of prosperity among countries were much smaller than they are now. Whereas today, the average income of a citizen of the United States is about 40 times that of a citizen of a country such as Ethiopia or Sierra Leone, in 1750 that difference was probably only two or three times. Between 1750 and 2009, the U.S. experienced rapid economic growth, but African countries did not.
The insecurity of property rights in Africa, Professor Robinson notes:
. . . was exacerbated by the slave trade, which distorted paths of political development and led to the emergence of states, such as the Kongo, based not on investing but on slavery. Africa's increasing backwardness made it vulnerable to colonialism, which replaced one form of absolutism with another. Later, independence did the same, with predictable consequences for property rights.
Sierra Leone was taken over by Siski Stevens, who pulled up the railway line to the south of the country, and sold off all the track and rolling stock to isolate the Mendeland region, where support for his opposition was strongest. The roads fell to pieces and schools disintegrated. National television broadcasts stopped in 1987. The Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board expropriated farms. When the governor of the national bank complained about fiscal profligacy in 1980, he was thrown to his death from the roof of the central bank offices. In 1991, the regime collapsed into civil war. Today most of Sierra Leone is controlled by 149 chiefs. Sadly, this is all too typical.
In a recent report, "The State of Liberal Democracy In Africa," the Cato Institute states that:
Africa's transition to liberal democracy is unlikely to happen without far-reaching economic reforms; in fact, all liberal democracies are also market-oriented economies. Regrettably, many African countries are not only politically repressive but also economically dirigiste. Increased economic freedom and the emergence of a vibrant private sector can bring about direct economic benefits, such as higher incomes, and indirect benefits, such as decentralization of power.
All too often, foreign aid can be siphoned off by corrupt politicians. In the opinion of Professor Robinson:
Three things would help sub-Saharan African societies get on the right track economically. First, give Africans more economic opportunities, which doesn't mean throwing money at them. What it does mean is opening markets to African exports and trade. . . . Second, economics must play a bigger role in foreign policy. Foreign policy toward Africa has been driven too much by short-term politics without focusing on economic development, but promoting prosperity in Africa is good long-run foreign policy. Supporting dictators who are "pro-Western" risks creating an anti-Western society. Finally, development assistance must help change the political trajectories of societies. . . . Good political and economic institutions emerge from a balance of power in society. To achieve this, we should help civil society and the media promote de facto checks and balances on rulers.
There are some dim signs of hope. Sixteen years ago, the world watched in horror as 800,000 Rwandans were systematically murdered by their neighbors. In just l00 days, over 10 percent of the country's population, mostly Tutsis, the country's minority group, were slaughtered. Paul Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the guerrilla army made up largely of Tutsi refugees, that ultimately overthrew the government and ended the bloodshed. Now he's president.
The Wall Street Journal reports that:
You might suppose that the leader of a country synonymous with genocide would be far more interested in seeking foreign aid than in talking supply-side economics. But then you probably haven't met Mr. Kagame. His agenda for improving the state of his country boils down to one goal: "spurring private investment."
According to the Wall Street Journal's Anne Jolis, Kagame told her that:
We believe in private enterprise, free markets, and competition . . . So we have to make sure there is a conducive environment for people to be creative and innovative.
Jolis writes that:
Unlike many of his peers in the Third World, his focus is not on how to beg for charity. During our entire conversation, Mr. Kagame doesn't once utter the word poverty. "We can only have ourselves to blame for our failures," he says. "We don't expect anyone to hand us any success or progress we hope to be making." That attitude makes Mr. Kagame a skeptic when it comes to foreign aid, which he faults for many of the world's ills. "It has created dependency, it has distorted the markets, it has detached people from their leaders and their values, it has created conflicts in some cases."
Rwanda has cut its dependence on aid by half in the past 15 years, and has become self-sufficient in food for the first time in its history. Gradual improvements to property rights, along with government money for fertilizer to farmers, which the farmers have since repaid with the revenue from their produce, have even allowed Rwanda to begin exporting some of its crops.
To help Africa move from poverty to prosperity, it is essential that we understand the reasons for its current dilemma -- and the proper path forward. Property rights and free and open markets represent that path. *
"Equal and exact justice to all men . . ." --Thomas Jefferson