Saturday, November 15, 2008

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Obama and Remedying Hyper-Individualism

Sunday, November 16, 2008

© 2008
Washington Post Writers Group

By Neal Peirce

Is there a chance that election of Barack Obama, combined with financial meltdown, will start turning us away from the hyper-individualism of recent years?

What’s hyper-individualism? Like pornography, you can recognize it when you see it. Lifestyle choices such as picking a gas-guzzling SUV to reach a suburban McMansion so big you rarely visit all the rooms. Headphones and solo video games in place of group activities. Disdaining civic life or responsibilities. Chronically shopping ’til you drop. Needlessly running up credit card balances. And economically, consistently wanting more, more, more.

It’s true, technology has set us up for this. Our encapsulated private lives–automobiles, television, air conditioning, the Internet, or shopping for cheap foreign goods in vast, impersonal big box stores–they’re all the antithesis of life around an historic town square or Grange hall.

But after John Kennedy’s plea to do more for our country, what other politician–until Obama–urged “a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice?” Remember President Bush after 9/11? He announced a global war on terror and simultaneously advised us: “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life.”

Now in the face of our mortgage excesses, our incredibly shortsighted investment and credit rating houses, our near doubling of the national debt in eight years, we face a grim awakening.

Today’s crisis will sorely test Obama, his governing team and Congress, indeed the American people. Yet if we have a chance, the decision of Nov. 4 may prove critical. The racial factor–the first black president in a nation that once tolerated slavery–turned election night into a powerful national catharsis.

But beyond race, Obama’s belief in a common good, a shared American enterprise, comes at the moment we most need to climb out of our hyper-individualism.

An e-mail from my friend Bert Wakeley, who spent 20 years in public service including stints for five governors (two Democrats and three Republicans), says it well:

“Obama- a child of America and Africa. A person committed to public service. I believe he is smart, savvy, calm, spiritual, tough, brave and inspiring. And he is not afraid of tough public policy discussions. He is not afraid of other smart people. He seems to understand politics from the ‘better angels’ side.”

Which makes me wonder–can Obama also help restore our faith in our government, our institutions, our neighbors?

A first issue has to be giving all Americans a fair chance to succeed. Rich households (the richest 1 percent now receiving their biggest income share since 1928) are leaving both middle and lower income groups in the dust. The purchasing power of the top 10 percent households is highest among the 30 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations. But incomes of the poorest 10 percent of Americans are 20 percent lower than the OECD average.

High inequality means children have less chance to do better than their parents. The American Dream is deeply threatened–personally, collectively. So President Obama will be challenged: if banks, insurers, even auto firms can be rescued, how about poor and jobless American families?

And while families are critical, how about physical infrastructure–repairing roads and bridges, fixing dilapidated schools and building new “green” ones, expanding public transit and building world-standard rapid rail systems? Like FDR’s New Deal, such projects put people to work and make for a stronger nation to come.

Notably, voters Nov. 4 passed the vast majority of ballot measures for transportation, conservation and water quality improvements, according to a survey by Phyllis Myers of State Resource Strategies. Among the approvals: $9.95 billion for high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a project supporters claim will create a half million jobs.

But it’s also true that the economic downturn is ravaging state and local budgets–800 jobs in Philadelphia, 4,000 in New York City, for example. Each state and local cutback deepens the recession. Shouldn’t Washington help out?

And there’s the lurking, mega-issue of our time: climate change. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are rising even more rapidly than the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change’s already alarming projections of 2007. Per capita, we Americans are world leaders in throwing tons of waste into the fragile ecosystem of earth. The only conceivable cures include rapid energy savings, radically reduced driving, regional and home-grown foods, more compact communities. Climate dictates we get “back together again,” purposefully recovering from the Bush administration’s shameful dereliction.

So is there any alternative to purposeful change, relinquishing our profligate lifestyles, abandoning our hyper-individualism, learning to pull together as we’ve not done since World War II? Economist Paul Romer famously declared: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” My bet is that Obama will agree–and move accordingly.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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