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January 25, 2014

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JFK’s citizenship message needed in America today

JOSEPH Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, says: “For most Americans, there is no recovery, with 95 percent of the gains going to the top 1 percent. Even before the recession, American-style capitalism was not working for a large share of the population.” (Shanghai Daily, January 23).

That says a lot about a yawning wealth gap in America. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

“American workers are treated like disposable commodities, tossed aside if and when they cannot keep up with changes in technology and the marketplace. The difference now is that these workers are no longer a small fraction of the population,” observes Stiglitz.

Andrew Lam, an accomplished American writer, has this to say: “Once home for bohemians and artists and poets, San Francisco has become a city for the rich and high-tech workers. The tension between the haves and have-nots in fact is rising fast where the high-tech workers buy up real estate in droves and leave those in the middle class floundering.” (Shanghai Daily, January 7)

But America used to be different. American historian Scott Reich reminds us of what John F. Kennedy said half a century ago: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

One may argue that Kennedy certainly did not bring about a better America where the strong are just, the weak are secure, people are safe and everyone can participate in national advancement. But the late US president at least dared to dream of it.

In essence, Kennedy was calling for a generational change by urging Americans to embrace citizenship, that is, the spirit of cooperation for the nation’s greater good. That stands in stark contrast with American-style capitalism we see today.

The efficient market hypothesis, developed in the 1960s and accepted as mainstream in the 1990s in America, worships unregulated market forces and encourages everyone to compete in what is antithetical to Kennedy’s vision of citizenship.

End of faith

“Kennedy’s death was indeed a transformative event,” Reich writes in his book “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation.” “It was the end of people’s trust in government and general faith in ‘the system,’ and the beginning of distrust, disbelief, and disappointment. The idea of American greatness morphed from a feeling of collective invincibility that united citizens into a cheapened campaign slogan that divided them. Politicians spoke to voters’ fears rather than hopes. America became a different place.”

Reich says it’s the responsibility of the new generation of Americans to carry Kennedy’s torch by incorporating citizenship — the spirit of cooperation — into daily life. In other words, Americans today should be committed to the “public good” instead of “self-interest.”

That’s exactly what Joseph Stiglitz and many other American economists who favor fairness over so-called efficiency imply in their opinions against whopping income gaps.

But can American-style capitalism, which today so favors Wall Street over Main Street, reinvent itself to serve the public good or, in Kennedy’s words, “help the many who are poor”?

Stiglitz says market economies (in Europe as well as America) are failing to deliver for most citizens. He wonders: “How long can this continue?”

Reich also tries to give an answer. But instead of seeking structural reform, Reich suggests that ordinary people consider their individual talents and see if they can help their communities for free. For example, if you are an educator, consider tutoring under-served students for free.

Perhaps Stiglitz seeks a top-down structural reform to make American society more inclusive, while Reich advocates a bottom-up approach in which everyone, however humble, should start thinking differently — from focusing on self-interest to focusing on public good.

Whichever way, the rest of the world is watching America for what it will stand for: prosperity for all, or prosperity for a few.

Kennedy may not be a perfect model, but Reich’s book does help people — Americans and other readers — rethink the value of cooperation and altruism long lost in a misguided belief in efficiency and self-interest.


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