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OPED: America is hurtling toward rock bottom

Perry L. Weed
The Baltimore Sun
In this file photo, the U.S. Capitol dome backdrops a column of American flags standing at half-staff at dawn on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, at the foot of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington.

America is headed in an unhealthy downward direction. A large majority — dissatisfied and disillusioned — believe the country is on the wrong track. Major institutions are mistrusted. The Congress is dysfunctional. The U.S. Supreme Court has become unapologetically politicized.

The country at large is deeply afflicted by fractious divisions. Our lives in recent decades are increasingly dominated and defined by what we consume, not what we produce. We have become obsessed with buying things and wanting more. We define not only status but also pleasure and well-being through what we buy and what we own. We put a monitary value on everything — on our homes and our neighborhoods, just as we do our designer handbags and high-end watches.

The pursuit of excessive and conspicuous consumption has weakened our commitments to long-standing cultural values and thereby to our communities. All this is unraveling the country’s social fabric and the network of relationships among Americans. We now define each other by what we have or haven’t got.

The vast benefits of globalism and automation have flowed to large corporations and the upper middle class. Our leaders have failed to help those Americans who have been hurt by these developments, by the Great Recession and its aftermath, and who struggle with inadequate education and mobility. Those on top have come to look down on non-college-educated, small town and rural Americans. The result has been a broad populist backlash demanding change and widening the divisions among us.

We have abandoned the “can do” spirit that in the past enabled America to tackle and solve its biggest challenges. Now the looming issues of immigration, health care, infrastructure, climate change and global upheavals seem to have left us divided and stymied. Despair and fatalism are endemic.

The failure of government and business to ensure that a flourishing economy “lifts all boats” — that is, helps those who are displaced and falling out of the middle class — contributes to cultural and social decline. Large numbers of us have lost hope in the promise of America.

The rot in our social conscience is most glaringly evident in our treatment of our children. In a deliberate federal policy intended to deter illegal border crossings, undocumented immigrant children have been separated from their parents for long periods. The enormity of the long-standing criminal abuse of children by Catholic clergy and its cover-up by the church is being dealt with as if it were an issue that requires debate and consensus rather than moral outrage and criminal prosecution.

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Millennials who aspire to quality higher education often have to take on multiple loans — often multiple jobs — and defer many of the achievements and milestones that mark adulthood. Student debt nationally now totals $1.5 trillion. It used to be easier to make it in America.

There are other indicators of cultural and social decay. Many of our major cities are considered “failed states,” as is Puerto Rico. Active-shooter drills in our schools, businesses and communities have become a substitute for meaningful control of gun violence.

Violent crime is on the rise. Government and corporate corruption are commonplace. Overcrowded jails — often for-profit and with primitive living conditions — are rife with drugs and violence, but few rehabilitative initiatives.

Drug addiction is tearing the nation apart, compounded by the economic desolation that has swept through many American homes and communities and abetted by the drug companies and prescribers. More than 40 percent of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 involved prescription drugs.

Globalization and technology have facilitated illicit trade on an unprecedented scale. Organized crime uses social media and the dark web to traffic in narcotics, armaments, prostitution and sex slavery. There is a burgeoning commodities market in women’s bodies.

Gambling, off-site betting and lotteries have become pervasive, booming enterprises — and actively and seductively promoted by governments, which are among those who rake in the rewards.

All these cultural and social ills portend a frightening reordering of the nation we once knew. The continued failure to confront the problems and predicaments of those left behind will drive future anger and disruption — far greater than what we have seen so far.

— Perry L. Weed is an attorney and founder and director of the Economic Club of Annapolis.