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Experts Discuss Ethics of National Decline at Naval Academy

Posted on: May 02, 2013 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

The Naval Academy hosted a number of speakers during the annual McCain Conference April 25-26 to discuss the ethical and other implications of the U.S. fiscal crisis and the possibility of decline.

The McCain Conference is sponsored by the academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership and brings together experts from a variety of disciplines to discuss the ethical issues of a specific theme.

This year’s theme, “The Ethical Dimensions of Extraordinary National Challenges,” focused on the theory and history of great power decline with emphasis on assessing the challenges faced by the U.S., identifying their moral and cultural causes, and recommending appropriate courses of action to leaders of culture-forming, economic, political and military institutions.

Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who now serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for a New American Security, spoke about the need to ensure national security in times of long-term budgetary restraint.

She listed four key areas where the Defense Department could reduce spending:

  • Minimizing the multiple management levels within the civilian force, as the private sector is doing
  • Aggressive management of health care to reduce spending without sacrificing quality
  • Eliminating excess infrastructure
  • Acquisition reform by encouraging program managers to find efficient ways to spend and save, rather than pressuring them to spend money before the fiscal cycle ends.

Robert Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University debated whether or not the U.S. is in fact destined for decline, asserting that with wise leadership decisions, the U.S. “should remain in an exceptionally strong position.”

“The idea of American decline is widespread,” said Lieber. But this isn’t the first time “doomsayers” have predicted decline - and were wrong.

“There is a tendency to extrapolate and over-hype present trends into the future,” he said.

Lieber argued that the U.S. has the resources - both human and material - to maintain dominance and recommended putting entitlement spending on a sustainable level, regulatory reform and tort reform for medical costs as critical to a positive future.

Hedrick Smith, author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” focused on the changes in the U.S. economy and political system since the 1970s, when public activism forced politicians to create regulatory bodies - such as President Richard Nixon and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Two things changed this, he said. First, business leaders organized to counter activist movements and unions, increasing the number of corporate lobbyists in Washington, and it worked. People stopped demonstrating and protesting for what they wanted.

“There’s a disconnect between Washington and the country,” said Smith.

Secondly, there was a shift from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism with increased focus on profit only. The idea that business had to take care of all stakeholders kept middle class income levels high. Now, the ratio of executive pay to rank and file pay has increased greatly, said Smith.

David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist and author of “Bobos in Paradise,” also looked to a shift in our history, this time cultural rather than political.

 “The conventional story is that American culture was conformist in the 1950s and shifted in the 1960s, and that was the big cultural watershed in recent American history,” said Brooks.

But Brooks contends that a cultural shift was happening as early as months after World War II, from a culture of self-effacement and humility to one of self-actualization and expression, a sense that each individual is “special.”

“There has been a shift. We’ve told a generation how special they are, and they believe us. And this shift has produced some real-world effects,” said Brooks.

Some of these effects include increase in consumption, risk-taking, debt, polarization, distrust of leadership, and what Brooks called moral inarticulateness.

We’ve raised a generation that hasn’t been trained to think in moral or ethical terms and have a deep suspicion of anything that can’t be quantified, said Brooks.

He believes that this is the foundation of our public debt problem which is “the essential problem,” but he ended his talk on a note of optimism.

“Overall, I think the country is in decent cultural shape. All the indicators are pointing in the right direction. The country is still a country, and that central American zeitgeist is still the zeitgeist that will save us in the end.” 

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