The North American Way

There is no silver lining to the cloud of horror that
descended on America September 11. Many are engaged in burying the dead and
tending to the survivors or facing the awesome responsibility of satisfying the
national demand for action that serves justice rather than multiplying evil.
Those of us who are going back to "business as usual" have an obligation, as we
do so, to reflect on what we have seen.

The September 11 attacks revealed some truths about the American political
economy that have been obscured in recent years. One is just how much of our
economy is made up of what used to be called the "working class"--the
nonsupervisory, non-college-educated people who make up 70 percent of our labor
force. For the last half-dozen years, the media saw economic trends through the
eyes of the glamorous, globe-trotting business executive--to the point that many
people abroad must think the corporate elite represent the vast majority of
American workers. And one could hardly find a more fitting symbol of the new
global economy than the World Trade Center--surrounded in the evenings with herds
of sleek limousines waiting to serve the masters of the universe at the end of
their day.

Yet it turns out that the enterprise was run by thousands of data clerks and
secretaries, waiters and dishwashers, janitors and telecommunications-repair
people. The list of trade unions mourning their dead is long: firefighters, hotel
and restaurant employees, police, communication workers, service employees,
teachers, pilots and flight attendants, longshoremen, engineers, electrical
workers, federal employees, construction workers, and a variety of state, county,
and municipal employees. And many were in no union--meaning no job security, no
benefits, and certainly no limousines.

A second insight revealed by the awful gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline
was how ill served we have been by a politics that perpetuates the illusion that
we are all on our own and holds the institutions of public service in contempt.
For two decades, politicians of both major parties have celebrated the pursuit of
private gain over public service. Shrinking government has become a preoccupation
of political leaders through deregulation, privatization, and cuts in public
services.

One result is that the United States is the only major nation that leaves
airline and airport security in the hands of private corporations, which by their
very nature are motivated to spend as little as possible. So the system was
tossed in the lap of lowest-bid contractors, who hired people for minimum wages.
Training has been inadequate and supervision extremely lax. Turnover is estimated
to run 126 percent a year and the average airline-security employee stays on the
job for only six months. Getting a job at Burger King or McDonald's represented
upward mobility for the average security worker. In an antigovernment political
climate, the airline corporations were able to shrug off the government
inspections that consistently revealed how easy it was to bring weapons on board.
The competition for customers sacrificed safety to avoid inconvenience. How else
to explain the insane notion that a three-and-a-half-inch knife blade is not a
weapon?

Private provision of public services has been the dominant philosophy of
government in recent times. Only natural, the economists told us. People were
motivated by money. It's human nature. "Greed is good," said the movie character
in the send-up of Wall Street--a sentiment echoed by politicians of both parties:
"Collective solutions are a thing of the past.... The era of big government is
over.... You are on your own." Public service was "old" economy, just for losers.
A teacher in New York City schools starts at $30,000; a brand-new securities
lawyer starts at $120,000. Does anyone believe that this represents sensible
priorities?

And does anyone believe that the firefighters who marched into that inferno
did it for money? Does anyone think that people working for a private company
that hires people for as little as possible would have had the same
motivation--would have been as efficient? At the moment when efficiency really
counts?

When the chips are down, where do we turn? To the government's firefighters,
police officers, and rescue teams. To the nonprofit sector's blood banks and
shelters. And to big government's army, navy, and air force. During last year's
election campaign, the current president of the United States constantly
complained that the people knew how to spend their money better than the
government did. Overnight, we just appropriated $40 billion for the government to
spend however it sees fit. Who else would we trust?

The stock market itself made one point. Despite calls for investors to
exercise patriotic restraint, the market opened with an avalanche of sell orders,
driving the Dow to its largest point loss in history. As one broker said, "This
is how capitalism is supposed to work." Just so. The market is about prices, not
values.

Finally, perhaps we learned something about our national identity. It is
common--almost a cliché--among political philosophers and pundits to
define the United States as an "exception." For many, this nation's
exceptionalism means that it is the best place to get rich. For others, it is our
unique set of laws--our Bill of Rights. Still others see this country not in
national terms at all, but as a patchwork of ethnic groups and regional
interests.

There is some truth in all of these views. But those who risked and gave their
lives--both the public servants and the brave civilian passengers who rushed the
terrorists and forced their jetliner down in Pennsylvania before it could hit
Washington--are unlikely to have acted out of reverence for the deregulated
market or for our court system or out of ethnic or religious loyalty.

Everything we know tells us that they acted as human beings responding to the
agony of other human beings, or trying in one last, desperate effort to spare
their country more damage--not because it is the world's superpower, but simply
because it is their country. No country has a monopoly on simple patriotism. If
America is, as the politicians often remind us, the "last, best hope" for
humankind, then it is not because we as individuals are exceptional and different
from the rest of the world, but because we are much the same--full of the normal
set of human traits, which at times of stress often bring out the best in us.

It is obvious that we can no longer rely on our exceptionalism to keep us
safe. In the coming weeks and months and years, we are likely to be reminded of
that. To get through this, we need to be disabused quickly of the illusion that
we are all on our own. America's strength, like the strength of any other
society, is in our ability to be there for one another.

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