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The crisis in public morality

Republicans have morality upside down. They're condemning gay marriage, abortion, access to contraception, and the wall separating church and state.

But the moral crisis in America isn't a breakdown in private morality. It's a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us.

We're living through a new Gilded Age of financial fraud and conflicts of interest; exorbitant pay to executives, traders, hedge-fund and private-equity managers; tax loopholes that allow them to pay a lower rate than many middle-class Americans; and legalized bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign "donations."

Greg Smith, the former Goldman Sachs vice president who created a furor with a stinging public rebuke of the firm for putting its own profits before the interests of its clients, would have seen the same practices anywhere on the Street.

The problem isn't excessive greed. If you took the greed out of Wall Street, all you'd have left is pavement. The problem is endemic abuse of power and trust.

Political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died a few weeks ago, noted that a broken window left unattended signals that no one cares if windows are broken. It becomes an ongoing invitation to throw more stones at more windows, ultimately undermining moral standards of the entire community.

The windows Wall Street broke in the years leading up to the crash of 2008 remain broken. Despite financial fraud on a scale not seen in this country for more than 80 years, not a single executive of a major Wall Street bank has been charged with a crime.

The new Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to stop Wall Street from a repeat performance is now so riddled with loopholes, courtesy of the Street's lobbyists, that it's almost a sham. Wall Street prevented the Glass-Steagall Act from being resurrected, and successfully fought against limits on the size of the largest banks.

And now money is flowing more freely than ever from giant corporations and Wall Street banks into the coffers of candidates for public office. The Supreme Court's shameful decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates.

Americans are entitled to their own religious views about gay marriage, contraception, abortion and God. A society where one set of religious views is imposed on a large number of citizens who disagree with them is not a democracy. It's a theocracy.

But abuses of public trust such as we've witnessed on the Street and in the executive suites of our largest corporations are not matters of private morality. They're violations of public morality. They undermine the integrity of our economy and democracy. They're leading millions of Americans to conclude that the game is rigged.

Regressive Republicans have no problem hurling the epithets "shameful," "disgraceful" and "contemptible" at private moral decisions they disagree with. Rush Limbaugh calls a young woman a "slut" just for standing up for her beliefs about private morality.

Republicans have staked out the moral low ground. It's time for the rest of us to stake out the moral high ground and demand an end to the abuses of economic power and privilege that characterize this new Gilded Age.

Glass-Steagall should be resurrected. The biggest banks should be broken up. Taxes should be raised on exorbitant incomes. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn the travesty of Citizens United.

Twice before, reformers have saved capitalism from its own excesses by appealing to public morality and common sense. First in the early 1900s, when the captains of American industry had monopolized the economy into giant trusts, American politics had sunk into a swamp of patronage and corruption, and many factory jobs were unsafe -- entailing long hours of work at meager pay and often exploiting children. In response, we enacted antitrust, civil service reforms and labor protections.

And then again in the 1930s, after the stock market collapsed and a large portion of the American workforce was unemployed. Then, we regulated banks and insured deposits, cleaned up the stock market, and provided social insurance to the destitute.

It's time once again to save capitalism from its own excesses -- and to base a new era of reform on public morality and common sense.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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