May 4, 2014

I’m a sucker for the flag. I love standing up for the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events. I always have my cap off my head, my hand on my heart and my eyes glued to the flag. I just wish I could sing without bothering everyone around me!

However much I enjoy the flag and all of the positive notions it represents, I have very mixed emotions about our country. I love the concept of a “a shining city on a hill,” first described by John Winthrop in 1611 as a simple “city on a hill,” and popularized in more modern times by Ronald Reagan.[1] There is something very cool about being a citizen of the greatest country on earth. But, and this will upset many, are we? Is the United States of America the greatest country on earth? Still?

Pearl Buck’s oft-quoted observation that “if our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all” commands us to consider children. If we do, the picture is not pretty. The U.S. infant mortality rate is better than Latvia’s, about the same as the rate in Hungary, Poland, Malta and Slovakia, and worse than the rate every other country in the industrialized world.[2] Fewer infants die, per capita, than in Sub-Saharan Africa, so we do have something to crow about, but that’s hardly exceptional performance.

More broadly, our nation performs a little better when it comes to children, their mothers and women in general.[3] None of the rankings for these important groups, comprised of the people on whom successful societies depend, are exceptional! And we should, frankly, expect exceptional rankings given our wealth and power.

How are children doing in school? Is our children learning?[4] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) includes 30 leading developed countries. It reports on, among other things, education. In its 2005 report the U.S. ranked ninth in the number of people aged 25-34 who have graduated from high school, and tied for seventh with respect to those who have a college degree.[5] in the world. Again, better than many nations, but hardly exceptional, and surely not what we should expect from the wealthiest nation on the planet. People can debate the reasons for unexceptional performance until the cows get back to the barn (and many do), but the performance is hardly exceptional.

Let’s not even mention how poorly we deal with major national problems. We simply blow them off! No plan for energy self-reliance, other than “drill, baby drill.” Vitriol and claims about “death panels” and “euthanizing Granny” when the President and the Democrats suggest health care reform, with much of the screaming coming from the same people who rant about health insurers. And on and on it goes, as if we have all of the time in the world and the status quo is an acceptable alternative to change of any sort.

Collectively, we’re simply not at the top of our game. We’re coasting, running out the clock. Where’s the passion for solutions? The coming together to solve big problems? The kind of national action, occurring in the 1940s, that caused us, more recently, to label the young men of that era “the Greatest Generation.” Can you imagine the sequel, if a bit of leadership and a request for assistance brought people together to solve problems?

I followed the story of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase in 2007 of Dow Jones, a public company and the owner of The Wall Street Journal. I have been involved in several cases where family legacy issues have arisen in business settings, and I find the human aspects of these cases very compelling. Anyway, reports reflected bizarre behavior on the part of certain members of the Bancroft family, who controlled the corporation.[6] For example, one family member/shareholder/director/ trustee boycotted a meeting of family members that was called to discuss the sale, allegedly on account of hurt feelings.[7] The same individual also tried to get Mr. Murdoch to pay some personal expenses–these people are rich, remember–in return for abstaining from voting on the sale. Another family member/ shareholder/director refused to speak with Mr. Murdoch because she didn’t like him.[8] The deal only got done when Murdoch agreed to have the company pay $30 million in legal and advisory expenses for the controlling shareholders, whose take in the deal will be about $1.2 billion.[9]

The connection between the Dow Jones/Rupert Murdoch deal and my comments? I think our nation’s attitudes and actions resemble the manner in which the Bancrofts and some third and fourth generations heirs to great fortunes go about their lives. Collectively, we act like we’re on third and think we’ve hit a triple. We live high off the hog and spend the nation’s wealth, and more, as if the clearance sale starts at 9 and everything will be gone by 9:05. Building for the future? Nah, that’s boring, that’s what great grand-dad did and look at him now, pushing up daisies. We talk about our children’s future, but we can never seem to find the money in the nation’s budget to make sure all of them are clothed, fed, insured and well-educated.[10] What, about how we are living our collective lives, gives us any reason to believe we’ll be special in 100 years, even if we want to believe we’re special now?

I’ll keep standing up for the flag, and I’ll still find it very pleasurable. I gotta tell you, though, that if our nation was coming together to face and solve big problems, standing up for the flag would be ever so much more pleasurable!


[1]Governor John Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity, a sermon he wrote on the Arbella while he was traveling to the New World. Governor Winthrop was the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan colony. His sermon was written before he arrived in the New World.

The sermon focuses on several themes, including community, wealth, the role of the government in the lives of its people and the obligations we all have to one another. In very simple terms–analysis of the sermon is lengthy and not well-suited to “sound bites”–Governor Winthrop advances the notion that the individual and the state rise and fall together. He supports the notion of wealth, but he cautions against excessive wealth and, with it, pride and a disregard for the needs of those less fortunate.

President Ronald Reagan spoke often about the city on the hill, although his city was almost always shining. In his farewell address on January 11, 1989, just nine days before leaving office, he described his city this way:

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that; after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

Stirring words, no doubt! And, in many respects, impossible to argue with, so long as people ignore the increased and ever-increasing disparity between the poor and the well-off and, even more, the growing gap between the well-off and the super-rich, both trends that really began in the 1980s.

[2]Save the Children’s “2006 State of the World’s Mothers Report,” at 38.

[3]“The State of the World’s Mothers Report,” at 40-47, includes a Children’s Index, which looks at variety of factors and places the U.S. No. 5. The same report’s Mother’s Index ranks the U.S. 10th and its Women’s Index places the U.S. 13th.

[4]President George W. Bush, Florence, South Carolina, January 11, 2000.

[5]CBS News, September 13, 2005.

[6]Public companies that own newspapers often have voting and non-voting shares, an ownership structure that lets a controlling family–think Sulzbergers (New York Times), Grahams (Washington Post) and Bancrofts–convert its ownership into liquid wealth while it still maintains control over the company and its assets.

[7]The board member was reportedly Christopher Bancroft, and the story was reported by Joe Nocera on August 4, 2007 in the New York Times.

[8]This board member was Leslie Hill, and the claim appeared in the same Joe Nocera story.

[9]Reuters, July 31, 2007.

[10]According to a study by Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, our nation spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as we do on children.

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