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Is There An Ethical Crisis In The U.S. Today?

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The key word here is "crisis". What is a crisis? Essentially it involves a point of change; a turning point. Ethics involves moral principles and values, right vs. wrong, and standards of conduct. We have reached a turning point in this country; an ethical turning point. Let's look at just a few of the issues.

In the political arena, one of the first orders of business in the 110th Congress was ethics reform. Some elements of excess, such as free tickets to sporting events, have been eliminated. Others now only need be disclosed. Other elements, however, remain firmly in place. The new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, received almost $1 million from political action committees (PACs) in the 2005-2006 election cycle. Will she now be willing to bite the hands that feed her, both business and labor, to tackle the even larger issue of campaign finance reform? The ethical crisis has not yet been resolved. Both sides of the isle need to respond to this crisis by eliminating the influence of corporations and special interest groups. The real crisis is the fact that some of our elected officials have placed their own interests and the interests of their donors above the interests of "we the people."

In a recent poll (CBS Jan 18-21) asking what the most important problem facing the country today the situation in Iraq topped the list. Approximately two thirds of those polled (CNN Jan 19-21) oppose the administration's plan to escalate the war by sending additional troops and ninety percent say it is extremely important or very important that the President and Congress deal with the issue in the next year. When asked if they approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq (Newsweek Jan 17-18), 70 percent responded "Disapprove." The war/occupation may be happening "over there", but the crisis is "over here", and is one of confidence, moral values and principles, right vs. wrong, and standards of conduct. More to the point; it is the lack of these in many of our elected officials that is a crisis.

Also high on the list of issues of importance was health care. According to the Census Bureau (Aug, 2006) there were 46.6 million Americans without any form of health insurance in 2005, an increase of 1.3 million over 2004. This equates to 15.9 percent of the population; 24.4 percent of those whose annual incomes are under $25,000. According to Physicians for a National Health Program the US spends twice as much, $7,129 (per person) as other industrialized nations on health care, yet performs poorly in comparison on major health indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and immunization rates. They state further that "we are the only developed nation that does not provide comprehensive health care to all its citizens." The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 37th in the world for health system performance.

Much of the debate centers around the rising "cost" of health care, and while Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts recently said he was pleased the President "is finally talking about the growing crisis in health care.", it only addresses the symptoms, not the causes, and is so far, only talk. Nor does it address the real crisis of the uninsured. Bush's proposal is to make health insurance more "affordable" through tax breaks and by removing some tax benefits from the most expensive employer-provided health care plans. As with the campaign finance reform problem stated above, the bigger crisis is being ignored despite the fact that Americans consistently tell pollsters they embrace the idea of universal health care. "We have always seen strong support for the goal of universal coverage but never seen consensus on how to get there or a willingness to pay the price," says Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fifty-six percent say they would prefer universal coverage to the current system (USA Today/ABC News/Kaiser Family Foundation Oct, 2006). The real crisis is the number of uninsured and the overall state of this nation's healthcare system, not the costs. The crisis is the unwillingness to accept a system the rest of the industrialized world has adopted while many of our citizens suffer or die needlessly to enrich the pockets and power of the few.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in 2005 was 12.6 percent and estimated 12.9 million children were living below the poverty line ┬ľ 17.6 percent of all children, or one out of every six in the United States. This sounds unthinkable in the supposed richest nation on the planet, but according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and economic advisor to the United Nations Development Programme, "...extreme poverty, the kind of poverty that puts people at risk of dying every day, affects about one out of every six on the planet." This isn't just a crisis in the U.S.. It's a worldwide crisis.

Let's visit one last poll (Gallup May 8-11, 2006) in which the question was asked "Thinking for a moment about moral values: How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today -- as excellent, good, only fair, or poor?" Only 13 percent responded good, 43 percent as only fair, and 42 percent as poor. Obviously a vast majority of the population believes the ethical state of our country as being in need of improvement.

The list of crises is much broader than those few I have addressed in this short article. You don't need me to list them all for you. You know what they are because they cannot be ignored. Whether we are able to solve all of the problems facing us or not, we must make an attempt to solve as many as possible to the greatest extent possible, to eliminate current crises and prevent future crises from occurring.

The blame game is now somewhat irrelevant. Of greater importance is alleviating the suffering that goes along with each individual crisis we face. The focus now needs to be on solutions. In many instances, such as global warming, the issues transcend national boundaries. The time has passed for partisanship and nationalism. It is time to think globally as well as locally. It is time to face crises head on, not with talk, but with action. Whether it is at the grassroots, Congressional, or international level, the time for action is now, and if that means getting rid of those that refuse to take the necessary action and replace them with someone new, so be it. That, in part, is what the last election was all about. That was the message that was sent to the administration whether Bush wants to accept it or not. The time for change is now; we have reached that turning point.
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Mark Petersen has a B. A. in Speech Communications/Public Address & Rhetoric and is currently a Master of Humanities candidate in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver. His writing and (more...)
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