Fifty years ago, the richest Americans paid higher taxes than they do now, but the money funded interstate highways, public schools and science research that made the nation strong.
A tax rate of 50 percent or more on the wealthiest citizens wasn't called socialism. It was called national purpose. It strengthened the middle class, and it kept America out of debt (see www.wealthforcommongood.org). That era of productivity was built on shared values — among them, belief in God and opposition to Soviet communism.
Two unifying factors — a Protestant establishment and a Soviet enemy — are gone now. Replacing them are religious pluralism, faith in individualism, trust in technology and an expectation of federal entitlements. A once-confident land is now dizzy with debt and political stalemate.
Houses of worship previously reinforced community values. An unofficial social contract valued fairness and gradual reform. But public purpose has lost favor. "I make my own reality," people say. We retreat into customized websites or favorite cable news shows that echo our cozy competitive little political superiorities.
As long as it pays well to keep us divided, nothing will change. Smugness rules. The Nov. 2 elections will intensify the loathing. A sputtering spiritual poverty is hurting society and making people secretly ashamed. Is there no unifying national purpose anymore?
Some dissenters against this status quo say we need a more ambitious, global dream of the ethical life. Let's unite to end world poverty. Embrace the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which are showing progress. Poor nations are combating malaria and HIV/AIDS, educating children, empowering women, reducing child mortality. Let's redouble efforts to meet the goals by 2015.
Closer to home, writer Michael Kinsley has a different idea. Baby boomers should rise above self-absorption and create a legacy akin to the Greatest Generation's wartime victory over Hitler. But how? In the October The Atlantic, Kinsley proposes: pay off America's debt. Pay down $14 trillion in estimated federal, state and local debt by taxing the trillions of dollars that boomers will inherit from their elders in the coming decades. Rescue the dollar, upgrade schools, repair bridges, fix America.
Is this fair? Of course not, Kinsley says. It wasn't fair to ask young people to go to World War II either. But they went.
Finding a national purpose sounds high-minded and impractical. But it is a pragmatic undertaking, because it's in everyone's self-interest. What we endure now is hopelessly impractical — impotent government, dangerous imbalances between rich and poor, a nine-year war, a crisis of values.
It's reassessment time. Be skeptical of information sources that reinforce anger, fear and sentimentality. Talk to people who disagree with you politically and religiously. Reset imagination. Revelations await.
Columnist Ray Waddle is a former Tennessean religion editor who lived in Nashville for 20 years. Now based in Connecticut, he can be reached at email@example.com.