Bush's Responsibility Society
May 18, 2005
By Bennet G. Kelley
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With all the attention on the President's vision of an "Ownership
Society", people have forgotten one presidential candidate's
2003 call for a "Responsibility Society" in which "each
of us understand that we're responsible for the decisions we make
in life." In a Responsibility Society, citizens are responsible
for improving their communities, corporate America is responsible
to its shareholders and employees and all of us recognize "what
it means to sacrifice for something greater than yourself."
This is a message Democrats and Republicans should embrace, even
if the candidate making this call was George W. Bush. A Responsibility
Society is not necessarily a Republican concept, however, as Bill
Clinton launched his 1992 campaign speaking of a society defined
by "our responsibility to ourselves, to one another and to
Do No Harm
A Responsibility Society demands that we first do no harm but
then also calls us to work towards a better society. Doing no harm
means more than mere compliance with the law, since what the law
permits is not always what is right.
For example, reality TV shows such as "Who Wants to Marry
a Millionaire" or the recent video game reenacting the Kennedy
assassination are perfectly legal, clearly profitable but unquestionably
offensive and irresponsible. Similarly, Wal-Mart has no legal obligation
to provide health insurance for its workers, but it is irresponsible
for a company of Wal-Mart's means to force the state to pay for
the health care of its workers because of the meager benefits and
low pay it provides.
In a Responsibility Society, welfare cheats, deadbeat dads, white
collar criminals and anyone else doing harm are held accountable
for their actions, through sanction of law or society. Unfortunately,
the Bush administration has been very selective in its application
of this concept.
The administration has aggressively gone after perceived fraud
among the working poor by increasing audits for those receiving
tax credits and requiring extensive documentation for participation
in the school lunch program. In contrast, corporations and the rich
need not take responsibility for using tax shelters or failing to
pay taxes since the Bush administration has dramatically reduced
their audits and fought international efforts to pressure Bermuda
and other countries to close tax havens.
Corporate America also need not take full responsibility for failing
to comply with the law since the Bush administration reversed a
Clinton administration rule that government contractors demonstrate
satisfactory compliance with tax, labor, environmental, antitrust
and consumer protection laws, while also dramatically reducing enforcement
efforts in these areas.
Creating a Better Society
Doing no harm is commendable, but the greater challenge is to
create a better society which is no easy task. Alabama Governor
Bob Riley knows this all too well from his 2002 effort to amend
the nation's most regressive tax system to shift some of the tax
burden from the poor to the rich in order to increase Alabama's
dismal record of spending on education and social services.
The Republican Riley advanced this proposal based on Christian
ethics that "we're supposed to love God, love each other and
help take care of the poor" and his belief that is "immoral
to [tax] somebody making $5,000." The Alabama tax reform movement
was fueled by Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama tax-law
professor turned theologian, who concluded that Judeo-Christian
ethics require that citizens not only have their basic needs met
but also "enjoy at least a minimum opportunity to improve their
economic circumstances and, consequently, their lives."
The proposal met stiff opposition; as the Alabama Christian Coalition
moved to "crush" Hamill and the tax proposal, while Grover
Norquist wanted "the whole Republican Party to watch this guy
fall on his face." The Coalition succeeded and on election
day Norquist got his wish.
Leadership and Sacrifice
The Alabama experience highlights the importance of President
Bush's call to recognize the need to "sacrifice for something
greater than yourself," since it often requires great leadership
or calamity to convince the public to embrace sacrifice. During
World War II the nation had both and Americans overwhelming approved
of higher taxes, reduced energy consumption and other sacrifices
to support the war effort. These sacrifices helped President Roosevelt
lead a united and determined country from a "day that will
live in infamy" to the total defeat of Germany and Japan in
Regrettably, President Bush has not asked for a single sacrifice
of civilian Americans in response to 9/11 despite their receptivity
to do so. Instead, Bush used this tragedy to advance a divisive
ideological agenda while also turning the government into a candy
store for his base at the expense of working Americans.
Nothing illustrated this more than the administration's 2003 pursuit
of tax cuts because, in the words of Vice President Cheney, "this
is our due;" which evokes Joseph Conrad's description of colonists
as an "administration [that] was merely a squeeze [which] grabbed
what they could for the sake of what was to be got." As a result,
1346 days after 9/11, the nation is polarized and burdened with
record deficits while Al Qaeda remains a very real threat.
From Responsibility to "I, Me, Mine"
Bush now talks about an Ownership Society promoting individualism
rather than responsibility, sacrifice and a greater good. The Ownership
Society has been used as a mantle for a variety of proposals including
health care savings accounts and social security privatization.
At the state level it has been invoked by those seeking to break
up state pension funds into individual 401K accounts, despite the
fact that these funds have a proven record of investment return
and encouraging responsibility within corporate America.
At the end of the day, however, all the Ownership Society offers
working Americans is the chance to "own" reduced benefits
and increased risks created by Republican efforts to dismantle government
programs. It is a sad irony that the administration, which came
into power stressing that "the grown ups" were back in
charge, has abandoned any notion of responsibility in favor of a
childlike "I, me, mine" philosophy.
One of the most famous lines in American oratory is John Kennedy's
invocation to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask
what you can do for your country." This passage resonates with
Americans because history has always embraced leaders who unite
a country with a call to sacrifice for a worthy cause "greater
than themselves," while also condemning those who asked too
little or nothing at all.
What the Bush administration "grown ups" fail to understand
is that history judges actions, not rhetoric. No President since
Roosevelt has had as great an opportunity to move the nation nor
asked so little of it. By discarding responsibility in favor of
its "I, me, mine" philosophy, an administration that once
had the opportunity for greatness instead will be recorded in history
with a "child on board" label.
Bennet Kelley was the Co-Founder and former National Co-Chair
of the Democratic National Committee's Saxophone Club.
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