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The Health of our Nation

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Des Moines University
3200 Grand Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312
United States

May 29, 2011

President Franklin, trustees, faculty, and most of all members and families of the class of 2011.

Graduates: congratulations for the efforts you have undertaken and the sacrifices you have made in obtaining an array of distinguished degrees.

From its inception over a century ago, Des Moines University has provided innovative, quality education in the health sciences. But as one who is not a professional in the health field, I thought it best to address this morning a subject other than anatomy or physiology. Instead, I would like to talk with you about the health of our country and, in so doing, suggest the need to apply analytical methods common to medical practices.

What is equal about all Americans, whatever our backgrounds or occupations, is that we each have citizenship responsibilities. We are all responsible for our country’s health. This shared accountability has seldom been more important because today the vital signs are worrisome.

Here at Des Moines University you have been trained to look at symptoms a patient may exhibit in order to develop a diagnosis that can ameliorate or cure the problem.

We must do the same for our country.

Public policy needs a North-to-South check-up and East-to-West tune-up.

What are the symptoms?

At home, joblessness is of near-epidemic proportions. In a period with few parallels in our history, income disparity is widening. As the hopes and dreams of citizens are put on hold, public angst has become accentuated, making incivility a growing aspect of domestic politics. In the corridors of government, partisanship has become so strident that the good will necessary to even make decisions has grown tenuous.

Abroad, our country appears to have lost its luster for a growing number of peoples. Some have lashed out in such a manner as to globalize terrorism. We are thus at war in two Islamic countries and dropping bombs in two others. Others have employed a variety of techniques, from bribery to currency manipulation, to tilt competitive markets and erode our manufacturing base.

What is the diagnosis?

Management of debt at the federal, state, and local levels as well as within the typical family is the principal issue for most Americans. A lean frontier country has become obese with sugar-coated debt. Swallow today and pretend there will be no consequences tomorrow.

Perspective is in order. In modern history we have never had a lower tax burden relative to the Gross Domestic Product or higher levels of spending. Last year, for instance, the federal government raised approximately 15% of GDP in revenue and spent 25%. This is unsustainable. It is also dangerous. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted, our national debt may be the greatest threat to our national security. Economic strength, after all, is the foundation of military power.

Over the course of our history the general practice has been to raise revenues to cover or partially cover the costs associated with the country going to war. Taxation was considered a form of shared national sacrifice for the common defense. However, for the first time in our history and perhaps the history of man, America’s wars in the 21st Century have been “de-financed” with tax cuts, with disproportionate benefits flowing to higher income citizens. The multi-trillion dollar costs of these 21st Century wars—the longest in our history— will thus have budget ramifications for decades to come.

Today’s political dilemma is self-evident. Modern conservatives too often are willing to embrace domestic spending restraint with inadequate attention to fairness; conversely, modern liberals too often demonstrate populist concern for fairness with inadequate attention to fiscal discipline. And, if this conundrum were not enough, political matters and manners are becoming increasingly entangled with special interest groups whose powers have recently been bolstered by a corporatist Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United) that enhances corporate bullying in the political process.

The consequence is a widening polarization between the political parties and a deepening rupture of trust between the public and the entire political establishment.

What is the cure?

At a time when politics seems shallow and embarrassingly petty, the issues have become increasingly consequential. The question isnut whether the wheels of governance need to be re-balanced but how to go about it. Here let me begin with a caution.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable and configurable by only one individual or one political party. Public decision-making does not lend itself to certitude.

To be certain about something, a person generally knows a great deal or very little. The first condition is preferable to the second, but imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. The best and brightest are not immune from great mistakes. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of a civilized society.

Civility is not simply or principally about manners. It doesn’t mean that spirited advocacy is to be avoided. Indeed, argumentation is a social good. Without argumentation there is a tendency to dogmatism, even tyranny. What civility does require is a willingness to consider respectfully the views of others, with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on each other.

If we are to avoid bifurcating as a democratic society, the question must be asked: is it helpful or counterproductive to shout and name-call; to castigate and impugn, to belittle and embarrass?

What is needed is a new framework of public discourse. One common sense alternative that fits our times and is innately used in certain settings by parents and teachers involves a theoretical approach to dialogue associated with a 20th Century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Rather than argumentation aimed principally at exposing the weaknesses and incompatibility of other positions, Gadamer suggests that the goal should be to work to discover where there might be bits of compatibility or validity in other people’s stances. An approach to dialogue that emphasizes listening and observing encourages creative action and/or avoids irreconcilable conflict. Searching for the good in another’s ideas and implicitly in another person allows the prospect of arriving at a place neither side might have considered or reached alone.

Over three decades as a legislator, for instance, I invariably found that when efforts were undertaken to listen to and, where possible, accommodate other perspectives, the effect was to bring people together. The wisdom of each side could be tapped and everyone could share credit for the end result. The seeking of common ground does not require parties to give up their values or go along with an un-compelling outcome. It does, however, require a degree of humility and a recognition that concerns for political advantage and personal ambition must be secondary to the national interest.

The goal in all social organizations, whether a business, basketball team, or army unit, is to have the whole become greater than the sum of its parts. A legislative body is no exception. When members of a group can’t work together, weakness comes to the fore. That is why there is such a difference between trust and distrust; the common good and shattered dreams. It is why words matter. The utterances of man reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify – or cloud – thought and impel action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes baser instincts.

Uplifting words like Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural for reconciliation with malice toward none and charity for all served as a basis to re-unite a bitterly divided country. Similarly, President Obama’s call a year ago in Cairo for greater communication and respect between people of different faith systems can help bridge rivers of distrust.

Unfortunately, hate-filled speech can have dangerous and enervating consequences. Unlike natural physics where Sir Isaac Newton pointed out that action equals reaction, in social chemistry reaction can be stronger than the initial action. Name-calling, for instance, in the kindergarten of politics can lead to a hardening of attitudes and sometimes violent responses.

The politics of polarization may be an effective attention gathering technique but it is debilitating for society. Care must be taken because the stakes are so high. The world is watching to see if America can pull together and make the necessary trade-offs between revenues and expenditures, between discipline and fairness.

Just as our political judgment is on trial, civilization itself is being challenged from two extremes: the looming prospect that proliferating weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society, the more vulnerable it is to terrorism.

A strong army is thus a national security prerequisite. But military capacity alone cannot protect against all threats when respect between peoples of the world break down. The capacity of committed individuals to lash out and destroy, almost anywhere, anytime, has grown exponentially over the last generation. So has the capacity for committed individuals to bring about uplifting change, whether in American technology or the Arab Spring.

The challenge we citizens have is to recognize that leadership of the world requires us to restore the health of our political economy. As a citizenry we must come together and consider whether it wouldn’t be wise to place more emphasis on job-enhancing trade and less on interventionism; whether common sense dictates the need to combine budgetary restraint with simplification of the tax code, ridding it of a myriad of tax loop-holes; whether a more respectful citizen-centric political ethic demands a red rather than green light be given to special interest moneys in campaigns; whether new standards of civility should be set with acts of decency and kindness, generosity and good works, respect and tolerance replacing the politics of division and hate.

As your graduation speaker, my charge to each of you is to ennoble your health care professions with an ethic of service that includes a commitment to help heal the divisions in our country as well as the aches and illnesses of our citizens.

America is in need of an uplift, an emphasis not only on the civil but the optimistic. Reach for the stars and don’t be surprised to find them in your grasp. The American dream is limited only by the imagination.

Thank you.