An Obscenity of Assets, a Dearth of Compassion

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

As a citizen of this good nation, and as a 10th-generation Virginian native to the Shenandoah Valley, I am embarrassed – and revolted – by a devil in our midst. No matter its Republican or Democrat dressing, that devil is the SuperPAC with its spawn of Superdonors. According to National Public Radio, by mid-June 2012, more than two dozen people or groups had donated at least $1 million each to the new SuperPACs, which can raise unlimited funds to help one candidate and bash another. In June alone, the Democratic Party raised $71 million; the Republican National Committee, $106 million. Increasingly, their media propaganda, advertisements, and internet campaigns too often seem twisted fabrications of the truth, shrewdly leading many astray and away from the issues that really matter to a nation of 313 million souls of wondrous variety. Some estimates suggest that $1 billion or more will be raised and spent in 2012 on the U.S. presidential campaign. In my book, that is an obscenity of assets misspent for a nation of many needs.

Imagine how $1 billion might be directed otherwise to cure a disease, solve an environmental crisis, or educate our youth! Imagine how just part of that $1 billion might be spent to build a library or hospital or research laboratory or art center or recycling facility or house for the unfortunate in communities across the nation!

But to squander $1 billion instead on abusing a presidential or Congressional candidate in a breathtakingly negative campaign cycle? To be sure, the perception of high political stakes is an enticing argument. Ultimately, however, it’s the art of respectful and strategic compromise – not dogged fundamentalism or unyielding idealism — that wins the day in a democracy. From all the candidates, let’s hear how they pledge to foster a society of compassion and mercy, not how they intend to rout their political opponents.

Other devils flourish in our midst. An obscenity of assets is peppered throughout diverse parts of American society. For example, let’s take a quick look at the petroleum industry. ExxonMobil reported a total profit of $41 billion in 2011 – that’s $112 million per day! Shell announced $31 billion for the same period, and BP showed a profit of $5.3 billion just a year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. (So tell me again why I have to pay so much per gallon at the pump?)

Another example: Sports. Boxer Floyd Mayweather earned $85 million between June 2011 and June 2012; in the same period, golfer Tiger Woods, $59.4 million, basketball player LeBron James, $53 million, tennis player Roger Federer, $52.7 million, football player Lionel Messi, $39 million, and race car driver Fernando Alonso, $32 million. (So tell me again why I have to pay so much for a sports arena ticket?)

A third example: Actors and Program Hosts. Katie Couric, $15 million; Johnny Depp, $30 million; Harrison Ford, $65 million; Angelina Jolie, $20 million; Brad Pitt, $25 million; Daniel Radcliffe, $52 million; Will Smith, $30 million; and Oprah Winfrey, $165 million. (So tell me again why I have to pay so much for a movie theater ticket?)

And a fourth example: University Presidents. Henry Bienen at Northwestern University, $2.2 million; William Brody, Johns Hopkins University, $3.8 million; Donald DeRosa, University of the Pacific, $2.4 million; and Constantine Papakakis, Drexel University: $4.9 million. (So tell me again why undergraduates have to pay so much for tuition?)

Can anyone argue that such staggering profits and salaries are sustainable, fair, and bona fide indicators of value?

Politics, industry, sports, the arts, academia – all seem awash in assets during a global economic downturn often compared to the Great Depression. They all have devils of affluence that smack of a callous dog-eat-dog capitalism to chill the soul. Mind you, I’m not calling the Democratic or Republican parties “devils” nor am I picking on ExxonMobil or Floyd Mayweather or Katie Couric or William Brody. These represent, arguably, gainful opportunities for individuals or corporations (aka “corporate personhoods” as a long-standing, but much maligned, legal concept) who have exercised their legal rights as citizens. I’m most concerned instead about an underlying attitude of intolerance that accompanies a dearth of compassion in these early years of the 21st century. We’ve allowed a heartlessness to take hold in the machinery of society that seems to turn its back on the poor, the needy, the sick, the abused, the forgotten; and, increasingly, we seem to favor a top-down approach to prosperity – a belief that “the wealthy know best” how to cure our woes and fix our misfortunes. Where is compassion or mercy or an ability to carry suffering in this mountain of money?

One unassailable need for any great nation is the prerequisite of a healthy environment as the context for a functional and sustainable society. Yet we hear again and again about self-serving political assaults on some of our greatest science-based environmental laws: for example, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Wilderness Act. When one political party or another (1) assaults our environment by saying incorrectly that protective regulations harm business, (2) supports big businesses and industries that have a long-standing record of environmental injury even with the regulations, and (3) misleads the polity with their anti-science rhetoric, then an informed public must defy avidly the indoctrinating politico-speak. To borrow words from the façade of the National Archives, “The price of conservation is eternal vigilance.” Without a healthy environment, all our ideals, sensibilities, and arguments as a nation are meaningless. The mountains of money then become the price, not of conservation and a sustainable society, but of entry through the gates of Hell into a world where extinction, climate change, and pollution reign supreme.

Our choice in the months ahead: an obscenity of assets, a dearth of compassion? Or a nation of leaders in a free, equitable, and sustainable society that empathizes readily with the downtrodden: both human and nonhuman?