Bill Moyers Essay: America is Falling Apart at the Seams

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As he waits in line to return a broken humidifier, Bill Moyers contemplates how the big bureaucracies of the private sector have fostered a nation of faulty machinery.


BILL KURTIS: Bill Moyers is going to be joining us all this week as we look ahead to the next week presidential inauguration. We welcome him back from Geneva. And today he takes us to the steps of the Capitol by way of a suburban shopping mall?

BILL MOYERS: That’s right, Bill. I intended to begin this week talking about politics and the second Reagan term, but life got in the way. First, the repairman called to say he couldn’t come to fix our oven after all. His truck was broken and there was no one to fix it. Then, our new humidifier went on the blink and I had to take it back before the department store closed. If you’ve ever stood in the complaint line at one of those monster bazaars late of a Saturday afternoon when half the population of the county is returning something that doesn’t work, you know the noblest thought inspired there is not of political philosophy but assault and battery. I can’t imagine Walter Lippmann writing the first draft of The Good Society while waiting to return a defunct humidifier, or Mortimer Adler weighing six great ideas.

The thought did occur to me, though, that this would be a swell place for President Reagan to get some fresh material for his inaugural speech next Monday. I’m sure in that speech he’ll claim that in his first term he cured the curse of big government. Now he could announce that in his next four years, he will call the private sector to a reckoning too. I’m serious about this. One of the most astute observers of our society, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, thinks America may actually be dying of a broken part. In his book entitled Why American Changed, he says we’re a people plagued by loose wires, missing screws, things that don’t fit, things that don’t work. His evidence ranges from the catastrophe to the nuisance, from steel and concrete roofs that cave in on civic centers to a 45-cent circuit board in the military computer alert system which signaled that the Soviet Union had just launched a missile attack to the hundreds of costly Grumman buses which had to be removed from service in several American cities after they developed cracks and sagging rear ends to pop up toasters that don’t pop up and faulty thermostats on coffee makers and vacuum cleaners with plastic handles that wobble and break. These are the result, says Marvin Harris, of the indifference and apathy fostered in both management and labor by big bureaucracies in the private sector. He uses the old-fashioned word for it, oligopoly, corporate oligopolies.

This transcript was entered on June 16, 2015.

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