WHAT ARE AMERICA’S VALUES?

The Declaration of Independence enshrines in American consciousness life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what makes Americans happy? And what if that which makes us happy causes other people—maybe millions of people—unhappiness?

The answers to these questions reveal a lot about what we, as individuals and a nation, really value. In this light, three recent pieces of journalism caught my eye.

In last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Kathleen Pender painted a disturbing portrait of super-wealthy Californians. The headline: “State hit hard as wealthy relocate.” For some of our richest residents, California’s state income tax conjures a reverse alchemy by turning the Golden State into lead.

Of course, few people like paying taxes. But most conservative Californians understand that state government has some role to play. Likewise, most liberal Californians don’t like to see governments waste their tax dollars. Above all, most of us love living here, so we pay the freight.

The thing is, major millionaires aren’t going to live any better in states without an income tax like Nevada, Texas or Florida. Say you’re a not-quite-but-almost-super-rich person with assets of $25 million and/or an annual income of $2.5 million (both admittedly arbitrary figures). What can another state offer for saving you a few bucks when you already can have anything you want? What they can’t give you is the Golden Gate Bridge, the Santa Monica Pier, the casino-less side of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the redwoods, the beaches of… well almost anywhere… and, to be sure, proximity to the nation’s top technology centers in Silicon Valley and San Francisco not to mention Hollywood.

Also on Sunday, Tom Friedman wrote in his New York Times column, “If I Had a Hammer,” that technology is changing our economy. Yes, we know. But importantly, according to Friedman, “our generation will have more power to improve (or destroy) the world than any before, relying on fewer people and more technology.”

Friedman’s column raises key questions. What purposes will our incredible technology serve? Do new apps and smart phones and Google glasses truly make us more fulfilled as human beings? Do they bring us closer together? As the demand rises for a college-educated workforce, what happens to people without coding know-how and other tech skills? And if “low-tech” folks do have jobs, how can they thrive without a living wage?

Finally, Lane Kenworthy of the University of Arizona writes in the January/February edition of FOREIGN AFFAIRS (“America’s Social Democratic Future”) that America “does not ensure enough economic security for its citizens.” The nation also “is failing in its promise of equal opportunity.” And “too few Americans have shared in the prosperity their country has enjoyed in recent decades.”

Nothing challenges our values more than the concept of “the working poor.” Imagine holding two or three jobs, caring for a family and having nothing to show for it at the end of the month. Then think back to the Chronicle article on California’s wealthy eyeing other states.

Two final questions: What is the pursuit of happiness really all about? And in their pursuit, do too many Americans, rich and poor, resemble dogs chasing their tails?

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of my new novel, The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. And read my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.

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3 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Jan 17, 2014

    Thought provoking. “He who is rich is content with what he has” comes to mind, but the income distribution skew in America today is alarming. Looking at the Gini Coeficient (a statistical tool to measure income distribution) we note that we are quickly approaching 0.50, which is a sort of benchmark that is fairly predictive of civil unrest. As point of reference, we’ve gone from .403 in 1980 to about .482 today. Measures of less than .400 are considered fairly stable. I guess I align with Lane Kenworthy, and am concerned about where we are headed.


  2. Carolyn Perlstein
    Jan 17, 2014

    There needs to be in our society a place for everyone, rich, poor, working class alike.


  3. Ira
    Jan 17, 2014

    David Brooks comments on this references the causes of inequality and emphasizing that raising the minimum wage is ineffective. I agree with his analysis of “it complicated” but I think raising the minimum wage is the least we can do.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/opinion/brooks-the-inequality-problem.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

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