Hard Truths about the ‘American Way of Life'

I suspect we all have our rogues’ gallery of vexing social issues, those that get under our skin and, like splinters not easily removed, hurt. Here is my gallery: credit cards, medical technology, global warming, and the automobile. That may seem a disparate, unconnected list. But the four have in common one disturbing feature: each is giving us considerable trouble and each admits of no solution short of a cultural revolution.

This leaves me with a troubling question. How do we go about changing embedded ways of American life, upending patterns of desire and behavior that are at once very popular, praised for their numerous benefits, commercially profitable, and so widespread that it is almost unthinkable to do without them? I have no clear answer to the question, or even a muddy one, but the question is urgent.

Consider the subprime mortgage crisis. It appears to be the fault of an irresponsible industry that made bad loans to millions of people, and that is surely true. But it could not have happened so easily had Americans not become captured by a way of life that made it easy for them to take out foolish loans so that they could own their own homes. We had already been preconditioned by credit cards, the beginning of the slippery slope.

Initially those cards were thought of as nothing more than a convenient way to avoid carrying cash to pay small bills. When it gradually became clear that...

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About the Author

Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.