4/19/14: Update here.
4/3/09: Read an update on the five problems here.
We could blather endlessly about all the problems in our society, but there are a few that are so catastrophic and so influential on our lives that they need to be recognized and addressed as such. If we’ve become too numbed by fear-cloying news stories, let’s not forget that some things truly are disastrous.
I ranked these five things because the other social ills we might wring our hands over derive from these, and they, in the order I present them here, flow from each other. For example, one might protest that abortion isn’t mentioned here, but I see that as a subset of #3 and #1 below. Likewise the increasing health problems of Americans are caused by #4 and #3 (and, ultimately, #1), as the increasing costs of health care fall under the umbrella of #5 and #4 (and, to an extent, #1). It could be argued that, with this thinking, every problem could be traced back to #1. To which I say: yes, exactly.
#5. Government Size and Spending
“The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” –Gerald Ford, 38th U.S. President
Our republic was founded on principles of individual liberty, limited government, and respect for private property.
Respect for private property is now gone. The Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that governments can seize your property from you for whatever reason they see fit.
The federal government now gives $150 billion of “corporate welfare” each year to companies that don’t need it.
Another $100 billion per year is simply wasted. Government doesn’t seem to be terribly “limited” anymore.
Further, as of January 2008, China, a potentially hostile nation, owns nearly $500 billion dollars of our debt, or about a quarter of the entire foreign total. Hostile Middle Eastern countries own nearly another $150 billion. What does this mean for us? Potential for foreign veto power over us, virtually amounting to blackmail. So much for sovereignty!
To cover this outrageous, sprawling bureaucracy, the government takes about a third of our incomes annually. The most productive members of society are disproportionately targeted as victims of this extortion. For example, as of 2001, as the title of this report puts it, “Top 50% of Wage Earners Pay 96.03% of Income Taxes.”
America’s work force must labor for about the first third of the year just to cover the government’s expenses, before they start taking home a single penny for themselves.
And, of course, the increasingly heavy hand of government regulation kills innovation, stifles liberty, and costs our economy trillions of dollars every year, all while being completely counterproductive. Here’s proof: “The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which placed extremely costly additional financial burdens, is estimated to have “cost in lost market value of U.S. companies at $1.4 trillion.” So individual liberty is also severely curtailed.
And most recently, the socialist sub-prime mortgage bailout courtesy of Uncle Sam, with its frozen interest rates, will only further hurt the economy, to the tune of $20-$25 billion of our hard-earned tax dollars.
Which leads to the next worst problem in American today:
#4. Individual Fiscal Irresponsibility
“God gave the world to men in common; but…He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” –John Locke, English philosopher
I live in zip code 89031, which had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year. I see the results of monetary immaturity in the “bank owned” and “foreclosed” signs on about every third house in relatively good neighborhoods.
Also, how is it not a catalyst of mass national panic that we now spend more than we make each year, creating a negative savings rate? Since 2005, we’ve lost all budgetary restraint as a nation. We now keep less money than at any time since the Great Depression.
#3. Decline of Morality in the Media
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” –John Adams, 2nd U.S. President
A cursory observation of any teenage hangout in America answers an age-old question quite handily: life most definitely imitates art. Not only is the media the dominant force in shaping the character of Americans today, nothing else even comes close enough to bother counting as second.
A 2004 Harvard study found that movies with coarser content are getting lower ratings than they used to; PG-13 is the new R.
A disturbing 2001 PBS special chronicles in detail how the youth-oriented music and film industries manipulate their products to pander to the worst impulses of juveniles, effectively addicting them to their basest desires in a very successful bid to pick their pockets.
Depravity sells. A 2006 New Yorker article showed how another company produced the popular series of “Bratz” dolls by purposely making the “Barbie” model of dolls much sleazier. As the article put it, “8 is the new 13.”
No matter how much the $13 billion a year video game industry might want to bury it, the fact is that the unanimous verdict among researchers is that media violence has a strong, immediate, and devastating effect on children.
The effect of these atrocious role models is undeniable, and they’re reflected in the last two major problems facing our people now:
#2. Decline of Literacy and Education
“A popular government, without popular information…is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both…” –James Madison, author of the Constitution and 4th U.S. President
What’s the practical result on a generation (or three) of never having been weaned from the constant electronic teat of the entertainment industry?
A recent study found that we have now reached the point where only 1 out of 2 American high school students in major cities even graduates.
A 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts proved that Americans not only read far less than previous generations, but they read far less well, and this decline has major detrimental effects in the real world. Among the findings:
American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.
- Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.
This isn’t something that might become a problem in the future, it’s a crisis now.
#1. Decline of the Traditional Family
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder” –Arnold Toynbee, British historian
As with media violence, the long term damage done to children, and society at large, by family decay is starkly revealed by a slew of research: children in intact nuclear families are statistically better off in virtually every way.
Among the seemingly endless varieties of emotional shrapnel that have embedded themselves in the American psyche as a result of people’s selfishness, is this shocker: 1 out of every 4 teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted disease.
That’s not just another “issue,” it’s a pandemic.
And perhaps most chilling of all is the fact that the decline of marriage and family inexorably leads to the decline of the human presence on Earth, period. Our choices in the 20th century have created an environment where civilization may well whimper and slink away into the shadows in the 21st.
With our fertility rate barely at replacement level (and that still puts us in the lead for the developed, Western world), people are starting to realize that the world we’re leaving to our children will not only be poor, amoral, and ignorant, but also vastly smaller than the teeming masses brewing in hostile parts of the globe.
Ultimately, the end of the world.
Conclusion: The One Thing We Can Do
Whenever these subjects arise, the reflex is to call for more personal responsibility. Sure, if everybody just grew up and did what they were supposed to, we could eliminate all these problems tomorrow.
But it won’t happen. For example, Russia pays people to have more children, to shore up their flagging population, but people still refuse to reproduce. Once widespread ennui sets in, entropy takes over and no external stimuli can reverse it. Humanity no longer accepts any incentive to work.
Some things have helped: “broken windows” policing and turning welfare into “workfare,” for instance. Other things might help, such as tort reform and voting wiser leaders into office. But all these things are only band-aids. They make a dent, but every conceivable idea is just spitting on a forest fire at this point.
Actually resurrecting the long-dead notion of stigmatizing bad behavior, if we hadn’t erased it from our memories, still wouldn’t be enough to make a sizable difference.
The one and only thing powerful enough to heal the wounds inflicted by the modern world, the sole path that can return us to safety and strength, is religion.
Nothing we can do will fortify ourselves and our own families, much less influence for good the world around us, as much as faithfully living the positive dictates of our religions. “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.” (Alma 31:5)
Keeping ourselves worthy of the Spirit, being good examples and ministers to others, and inviting others to join with us in love—that has always been the only sure way of protecting society.
No, I don’t think enough of us will do enough good to turn America around. No matter how hard we tried, I doubt it would avail anything. I’m not aware of any civilization that has sunk as far as we have and then successfully regenerated itself. It’s my opinion that much of this nation has reached the point that Paul described as “having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). That’s why I can only recommend faith; we’re past the point where appeals to patriotism, duty, or any other such motivator will have an effect. Even so, we might be able to help some few who would listen and benefit from a better life.
Even if not, we are called to live a certain way. “And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.” (Moroni 9:6) Actively living the way of the great organized religions will lead us to be involved citizens, careful with money, morally strong, mentally alive, and, most important of all, committed to a wholesome family life.
It is my most profound prayer that as many of us as possible will accept the call and take upon us the cross that we must bear in a disintegrating world, and live the best life we can live, “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save,” avoiding and fighting the evils I’ve numbered here, so that we, again with the Apostle Paul, might say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)