I’ve just read one of JFK’s favorite books, Pilgrim’s Way, by John Buchan (1875 – 1940). Kennedy quoted it to his friends, saying they had to read it to understand him. Buchan’s sterling integrity leaps right out. He depicts values from bygone days, when people used to read the ancient classics, of a “long evening” at home and obtained a “standard of values” from the “spectacle of such magnificence.” He entered Britain’s Parliament. Clearly, politicians differed in their ideas, but all had a “delicate courtesy” and a “moral elevation.” All worked for the common good. They met socially. Conversation was “something of an art.”

Where, oh where, is that moral elevation today?  President Barack Obama believed that the more reasonably he treated the GOP, the more reasonable they’d be in return.  He abandoned the Canadian single-payer health-care idea urged by Democrats. He proposed the “individual mandate” first suggested by the conservative Heritage Foundation and enacted by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney.  But as thanks he got Republicans’ hatred, even though he handed them their own idea on a silver platter.

Nobody cared about this rank hypocrisy. This was simply politics as usual.  That’s America’s tragedy.

The world isn’t impressed by American politics. The Founding Fathers’ ideals of rational debate have ended up as mud-wrestling.  The British media report Republican dirty tricks almost as though America were a Third World country run by robbers. The German magazine Der Spiegel stated (Nov. 2012) that we are “frittering away” our role as “a model for the rest of the world.” America’s political system is “plagued by an absurd level of hatred, the economy is stagnating, and the infrastructure is falling into a miserable state of disrepair.”

Plainly, this absurd hatred is caused by a lack of integrity, but what causes that? It’s the money, stupid.  Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have only cared for the super-wealthy and corporate lobbyists. The super-wealthy are not greatly interested in integrity or the common good. Surprise, surprise: They’re interested in money. Integrity is pushed aside and replaced by hyper-competitiveness, intolerance and greed.

Over time, this has attacked the body politic itself. Lapses of integrity corrode the American system of divided government. This system was expressly based on integrity and compromise. But ever since Newt Gingrich, compromise has been a dirty word to the GOP. He tried unsuccessfully to shut government down. We now have gridlock, the “fiscal cliff” nonsense, and the possible loss of Uncle Sam’s AAA credit rating. This would cost money.

Make no mistake — lapses of integrity cost money. George Bush Junior rushed the country into two wars, without debate, based on perverted “intelligence” and wholesale lies. The cost of this insanity is measured in trillions of dollars. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have calculated that around $6 trillion will be added to the national debt. It’s already started. That rascal Obama gets the blame, naturally.

This is chicken feed compared to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Republicans pushed Bill Clinton for financial industry deregulation. They got it. Loans of dubious quality were soon being gobbled up by Wall Street and spun into securities sold around the world as AAA investments. Some called “Magnetar trades” were specifically designed to fail, cheating buyers out of billions, but making billions for their sellers. When they failed, banks failed. As holders of a certain type of security, the liquidators of insolvent German bank IKB were entitled to get the bank’s money back. There wasn’t any. The Economist (a respected right-wing British magazine) described the American financial system as “rotten to the core.”

Then the cracks turned into chasms and produced the Great Crash of 2008. This cost the world economy an immense amount of money. It might have destroyed it but for immediate concerted action by central banks worldwide. (Conservatives Ron and Rand Paul want to abolish the Federal Reserve, our central bank; go figure that one.) Millions of Americans have suffered. Millions still do. Notably, this didn’t come out of the blue. Brooksley Born of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission warned of the dangers prior to the passing of the deregulation act in 2000. Naturally, as a woman and a Democrat, she was ignored.

It’s impossible to say what this has cost America but estimates are generally around $12 trillion. (Let me know if you have a better number.) In current dollars, that’s three times more than WWII.  There’s a little conversation-stopper for you.

So America’s vanishing integrity has damaged its reputation, produced staggering economic damage, wrecked millions of lives, and nothing happens.

What can the average citizen do? In truth, not much at first. But some things are abundantly clear. You must get interested in politics. Pericles of Athens said in 430 B.C., “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.” Form your own opinions logically. And remember: If you don’t demand integrity, you won’t get it.