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#377 The Buck Stops Here: From the Shadows to Wall Street to Main Street – Antinomianism Runs Rampant

May 12th, 2020

Richard Marker

Reader alert: Make no mistake – this post is unabashedly political. Those who wish to restrict their readings to “philanthropy only” might want to take a pass. It summarizes some of the stark systemic challenges we as funders face as we consider our move to the COVID-19 “next normal.” Much of this is USA focused but I daresay that much of this can be applied elsewhere in the world as well.

I don’t know if it is true or just one of those national myths, but it is said of President Harry Truman that he had a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here.” Even if only a myth, my understanding was that he was a very decent guy who represented the very best of a down to earth community-committed businessman. [I was alive during his entire presidency but too young to remember.]

The ascribed sign signified that a leader has distinct and unique responsibilities, and the larger the role, the greater the responsibilities. It isn’t always an easy burden, as history has demonstrated, but those who try to evade or abuse their responsibilities wreak havoc on their businesses, their organizations, and as we have seen too often, their nations.

In so many ways, we are paying the price of the buck stopping in all the wrong places.

It is easy to lay blame only on the person currently occupying the seat of the POTUS. And, from my perspective it would be an understatement to say that his words and behaviors and leadership are beneath contempt. Many have written about and proven his incompetence, dishonesty, misogyny, and misanthropy; I need not add to those incontrovertible facts. The shame he has brought to the American image around the world and the loss of respect for what America stands for [or should] will take a long time to overcome.

But if we are honest, the buck may stop there, but the blame doesn’t. The Senate, over the last decade, has been a co-conspirator. A flawed “leader” should be held accountable as our Constitution mandates; the Senate may not be able to fully mitigate the damage, but it can certainly minimize it. The Senate’s behavior over the last decade, therefore, vies for equal shame. Ascribing to an extremist partisanship that mocks their own mandated role, they handcuffed the lawful role of the Barack Obama presidency and abetted the unlawful practices of the current occupant of that seat. They have approved judicial appointments that have distorted any claim to an independent judiciary, they have passed legislation upon legislation that has magnified the divide between the very richest and the rest of society [including, it must be said, hidden and embedded in the recent COVID-19 bailouts], and have allowed incremental but real erosion of civil liberties as understood by the framers of our Constitution.

But I daresay that the challenge of all of this goes much deeper into what has happened to America over the last generation or more. If one examines these items closely, we will see that it appears that we now have the government that we deserve.

1. Education: We have reduced support for and respect for the value of education. Many have been decrying the erosion of an understanding of science as people too readily dismiss the overwhelming facts of climate change or medically acceptable responses to COVID-19, or the value of vaccinations, or even the legitimacy of evolution. The very concept that all knowledge is nothing more than “opinion” has allowed all sorts of bizarre and frankly destructive behaviors to infect our education system, and thus our populace. The erosion of education, though goes deeper, though, and has led to #2.

2. Civil Society and Democracy: An analysis of the causes or effects go beyond the scope of this article, but the erosion of a belief in or commitment to civil society, civil liberties, and the rule of law applied equitably is more profoundly disturbing than the anti-science tendencies. This has been a long time coming: extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression practices, anti-“choice” laws, and more. When the “government” acts as if equal access should have partisan limitations, it implies that the law should only be relevant if it supports one’s own preferences. Why should I care if my behavior impacts anyone else [the conceptual underpinning of every legal and religious system in history]? Why should I pay for public education if I don’t have a child in a public school? Why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare? Why should someone of another race or religion or national origin or gender identity have any rights if I don’t like them?

3. Xenophobia as Public Policy: I will keep this one short since there has been so much written about our nation’s endemic racism, its anti-the other – as reflected in our counterproductive immigration policies, in the laws restricting the legitimacy of practices or identities we don’t agree with, disproportionate [read racist] enforcement of laws, etc. And it is particularly disturbing to see the public acceptance of racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, gender bias, Sino-phobia and more. It would be naïve to believe that one can eradicate the wrong-headed views of individuals; it is unconscionable to legislate those wrong-headed views as public policy.

4. A Privilege-based Tax System: I alluded to this above, but it requires its own statement. Any objective reader of our incomprehensible tax code can come to only one conclusion: it has been written to secure the advantage of the haves to the disadvantage of the have nots. Those discrepancies do more than reallocate the resources of our society to companies and individuals; they also render a belief in compliance to be a fool’s errand. If one reads of hugely successful companies paying their leaders and shareholders exorbitantly while having no tax liability, why should the working middle class have any confidence in the fairness of the system? [I have nothing against people getting rich; I have a lot against a rigged system that affords privileges to the rich while leaving the un-rich perpetually vulnerable.] Anyone who runs for office on the basis that they will reduce taxes as its own goal, or who espouse any variation of trickle-down economics should immediately be disqualified. Taxes should be used to provide what the needs of a society demand. Perhaps someday when we invest in infrastructure, guarantee health care for all, and assure equal access to education, we can discuss lowering taxes. Until then, such a position is antithetical to the proven needs of our society. And, no, this is not socialism – it is accepting responsibility as one citizen to another for the underlying health and wellbeing of everyone.

5. Individual rights vs unlimited self-indulgence: Perhaps the most troubling, and most telling evidence of pervasive antinomianism is the underlying and often articulated statements by the protesters in the last few weeks regarding COVID-19 quarantine. They argue that there should be no limits on their individual behaviors – no matter what the cost to anyone else. No government, no authority should limit what they want to do whenever they want to do it. Eventually, it comes to mean, as we see on the streets throughout the country, that true antinomian behaviors have run amok. Why should a “law” about wearing facemasks apply to me if I don’t want it to? Why should there be any restrictions on my preference to carry military weapons unimpeded in any setting I choose?

This absolute claim of individual privilege runs counter to every religious system, every ethical system, and every known governance system. The US historically has granted the greatest individual autonomy [at least conceptually] and freedom from government interference in personal life, but that freedom ends when it poses a risk to others’ life and limb. In other words, the claim that the government has no right to limit any personal choice, even when it threatens others is simply wrong-headed and morally offensive. It is the very paradigm of antinomian belief.

Is this list long enough? Is this enough of a shopping list for the philanthropy world as we formulate the “next” normal? Is this enough of a moral and ethical compass against which to measure our elected leaders – and our own priorities? Is this enough of a barometer for our own actions and advocacy?

It is surely a start. And, yes, the buck stops here.

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