The other day I was asked what one single thing could do the most to save our economy. What one idea or tool might help us create a more just society? My answer was "shame."
Shame isn't always a wasted or negative emotion. On the contrary, it can perform an important and socially useful function. Shame enforces our moral values even when legal and political institutions are too broken or corrupt to do so. Our society must learn to develop a "moral economics," and morality is often enforced through shame.
We live in a society where it's no longer considered shameful to oppose spending $6 billion to save nearly 8 million lives, even though that's less than $800 apiece. This kind of cynicism is so accepted, in fact, that even the more liberal political party doesn't dare suggest it. We live in a society where it's not shameful to let crooked bankers go unpunished while asking everyone else to pay the cost of their illegal enrichment. Nowadays even the lawbreakers aren't ashamed of themselves!
Perhaps no single change to our culture could do more to improve our lives than the rediscovery of the shame we used to attach to vile, greedy, selfish, and corrupt behavior. Consider how far we've fallen:
Not long ago people would have been ashamed to appear in public if they had shattered the global economy by cheating millions of innocent people, accepted the outstretched hands of the same people they'd cheated by accepting an unconditional bailout, and then cheated them again.
Not long ago a politician who accepted the corrupting dollars of known criminal bankers immediately paid a steep price. (See the Keating Five, for example.)
Not long ago political figures and pundits were ashamed to openly advocate the deaths of millions of people just to provide tax advantages for the wealthy or ensure more favorable market conditions for predatory corporations.
In 2012, it's time for shame to make a comeback.
Where would it be useful? Here are just four examples out of thousands to choose from:
1. We should be ashamed that we don't give more to fight global AIDS.
A new medical study showed that developed nations could save 7.9 million lives in the next eight years by increasing AIDS funding for developing countries by $6 billion. That comes out to about $760 for each human being whose life would be spared. As an added benefit, an estimated 2.5 million people would never be infected with AIDS at all.
George W. Bush began the anti-AIDS program known as PEPFAR in 2003, and funding grew steadily every year until President Obama took office. It then flatlined in the first year and dropped in the second year, before increasing slightly in the third Obama budget:
Image source: Kaiser Family Foundation
An ethical society -- not just ours, but of all developed nations -- would find it unacceptable to deny these programs the funding they need. Six billion dollars sounds like a lot, but the top 25 U.S. hedge fund managers made $22 billion last year. Taxing them at the same rate they paid under Ronald Reagan would cover the entire amount and would save all those lives.