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President Clinton, We Need a New World View

Column by Scott Paradise
Columnist

Dear Mr. President,

We send you our congratulations for your victory at the polls last November and our greetings and best wishes to you on your inauguration day.

In January 1977, as the inauguration of our last Democratic president approached, the need for changes in American policy seemed obvious. Indeed even the direction of the needed changes seemed clear. The last elected President had left office in disgrace. The Vietnam War had ended. The structures of the Great Society stood incomplete, and the work of the environmental movement had barely begun.

We needed a government of integrity in which the people could participate. We needed drastic cuts in the military budget. We needed a more equitable sharing of our country's wealth through progressive taxation, public services, and social programs. The environmental legislation recently passed needed strengthening.

We found in Scripture the compass pointing in this direction: the prophetic commitment to justice and compassion, the New Testament recognition of universal human solidarity and the danger of wealth amassed, and such texts a Leviticus 25 and Matthew 25. As the preferred goal for the human future the World Council of Churches distilled this vision into the phrase a "just, participatory, and sustainable society."

But in 1980 another world view pointing in the opposite direction triumphed in this country. According to this view the Great Society had failed. This view held that no government could advance the cause of economic justice and contribute to the resolution of social problems because government itself was the problem. By its very nature it was inefficient and corrupt. The more tax money government received, the more it would waste. According to this view our society was grossly overtaxed and would be well served by reducing taxes particularly for the rich.

Instead of futilely trying to create a just society through social programs this view proposed deregulating business and industry and thereby unleashing the creative forces of the market. Instead of seeking equality this view contended that we would win wealth and freedom if we let unfettered incentive for gain drive the economy to ever greater achievement. The major legitimate role of government, according to this view, was to support the military in order to contain the Communists, to keep order in the world, and to protect our wealth from the envious.

In our opinion, this world view which has determined the direction America has taken since 1980 is a tissue of lies. It points us directly to disaster. The challenge facing the new administration is to free the nation from the grip of these lies and set a course toward another future. The past twelve years blessed us with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the nuclear arms race. Otherwise, partly due to the dominance of this world view, the condition of both our nation and the world became immeasurably worse.

We have seen the deterioration of our material infrastructure and public institutions, the ripping of the social fabric, the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, the decline of our industry, and the accumulation of a huge national debt. Most important we have seen the environmental crisis take on a new dimension: it has become a global phenomenon which is eroding the carrying capacity of the earth, not just for future generations, but in our own day as well.

Therefore, it is necessary but not enough to recover the vision of a great society in which none are without food, homes, education, health care, and dignity. It is also necessary that this be accomplished without destroying the earth itself. The environment is falling victim not just to the burgeoning Third World populations struggling to survive, but at least as much in developed nations by the over consumption of the wealthy. Our society needs to be reshaped with an eye to modesty as well as justice, to sufficiency instead of affluence. Every decision needs to be tested by the twin criteria: what will its impact be on the poor, and what will its impact be on the environment.

To move toward such a society requires not only new policies, but a new spirit to support new policies. The vision of such a society needs to seize our imagination and win our hearts. Some months ago a poll reported that 70 percent of the American people believed that this country was moving in the wrong direction. It is not clear, however, that we, as a people, realize just how wrong our recent course has been and the seriousness of the challenge facing us. It will take leadership to help us understand and change.

That is the leadership we hope you will provide. That is the leadership that will win our enthusiastic and wholehearted support. On inauguration day and the days thereafter we will remember you in our prayers.

Scott Paradise, an Episcopal chaplain at MIT, wrote this column as an open letter to President Clinton.