This week marks the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
That remarkable document lists certain self-evident truths. We all know them: that all men are created equal, that all of us have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments derive their powers from the governed. After 236 years, how are we doing in keeping the promises we made?
Do all Americans enjoy equality? Seems not. For example, there's ample evidence that pay equality for women is by and large nonexistent in the private sector.
Last month, Senate Republicans once again thwarted the will of the majority of Americans by blocking the pay equity bill. Earlier, Wisconsin governor and right-wing pinup guy Scott Walker repealed that state's pay equality law, prompting Mitt Romney to call him a "hero."
Pro-business supporters oppose minimum wage laws on the grounds that it hurts small businesses. The Founding Fathers were mute on the unalienable rights of corporations, but I think that they were thinking more about people than the American Petroleum Institute.
As for unalienable right to life, we have room for improvement. America keeps company with China, North Korea, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, those human rights pariahs, in enforcing the death penalty. Happily, in 2005, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional for minors.
Last month, another 5-4 vote ruled that life imprisonment without parole for minors is also unconstitutional.
These decisions give me great hope that we will soon follow the example of the rest of the English-speaking world, and essentially all of the rest of the Western Hemisphere and Europe, by doing away with this relic.
How are Americans doing pursuing happiness? Well, it depends on how well you chose your parents. While money doesn't buy happiness, it helps, and both poverty and wealth are inherited.
If you were born into poverty, the chances are that you and your children will remain poor for your entire lives. Escaping poverty requires education, hard work and luck. Some people do climb out, but for every one who does, hundreds more stay stuck. We can't do very much about luck. Either the gods smile on you or they don't. But we can do more by making quality public education available to all. Changing the culture of poverty requires (among many other things) changing attitudes toward education and improving public schools. We have much work to do here.
It's a matter of faith that our elected representatives really do represent us. It isn't a matter of fact, though. The wealthiest individuals and corporations write the legislation that affects them, and when they do, you can absolutely rely on its being to their advantage, not yours or mine.
Money equals access to power, and let's be clear: you cannot afford to buy the kind of access that billionaires like Koch and Adelson have (or that Soros and Buffet could have, too, if they wanted). The only consent that matters to our representatives comes in the form of multi-million dollar "donations." For instance, most of us want to know if we're eating genetically modified food. But agribusiness doesn't want that, so the law doesn't require accurate labeling of foods.
If America is to make real the idea of a truly representative government, then we really must restore balance in financing elections and get rid of the corrupting influence of outrageous, multi-million dollar donations.
Exactly four months from today, we will elect a president, an entirely new Congress and a third of the Senate.
If we truly want to move the country closer to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, we need to educate ourselves and cast informed ballots.
If we truly want our government to work for us, we have to learn what our candidates truly stand for. As far as elections go, ignorance is blindness, not bliss.