Stress, fear and the American way

In this Nov. 24, 2004 file photo, a United Airlines pilot walks to security check point at O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago.
file,AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

We Americans are afraid. At different times, different groups of us fear: layoff, immigrants, government action, government inaction, gun laws, lunatics with guns, crime, bankruptcy, foreclosure, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, global warming, pollution, cancer, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, obesity, stroke, the next panic attack.

And there are plenty of companies and vested interests fanning the flames of fear. Prescription drug ads on cable TV. Political campaigns promising to pull America back from the brink of debt disaster or some other disaster. A few years back when there were jobs in the U.S., we were supposed to fear immigrants taking over whole states. Anybody who has to use an airport knows we're all supposed to be constantly afraid of terrorist attacks. Some groups say you should fear the government taking away your guns. Or instituting "death panels." Those would be separate from the current, private insurance company rulings that determine who gets what care, and for how much money.

One justified fear: stress. It's killing us and making many of us sick. And the listof stress-related disorders is long and fearful indeed.

The economic squeeze, loss of job, loss of overtime, loss of security, loss of home, threat of foreclosure, threat of medically-induced bankruptcy. Stress. Giant college loans. Cost of care for elderly parents. Rising food and energy costs. Shrinking public services in towns and states across the land. Stress. Recent data shows that more than half of American bankruptcies are caused by medical bills, not bad investments, big credit card debt or even a bad housing market.Most Americans have been getting poorer over the past decade. Talk about stress.

When employed Americans work more and harder than almost anybody else on earth. Our corporations are among the most wealthy and global. Doesn't that make you proud? A free market theory says the financial insecurity makes the American system more competitive, more flexible. Corporations can lay off at will, making it easier for them to change and grow. Just don't calculate the real costs of stress on millions of human beings and their families and public agencies left with the resulting fall-out.

I once worked in another country where six weeks vacation was standard but pay was less than in the U.S. I could not interest a single person there in even applying for work in America despite the chance for much better pay. Two weeks vacation? "Barbaric" was the conclusion by those workers not part of the American Way of Work.

One underlying cause of the fear and stress--mendacity, as Big Daddy said in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." From government to drug companies, from athletes to lawyers, most Americans no longer believe what the "experts" are saying. In my town many children no longer get standard inoculations because their parents don't trust the medical profession. I know a nurse who won't let her children be vaccinated. Home schooling is growing because some parents don't trust schools and teachers.

Mendacity? Bernie Madoff. Can the average Catholic really trust the church hierarchy? Enron. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Media hype on celebrities or the next flu virus. A free market will self-regulate. Mendacity all around. As long as dishonesty fills the air around us, we'll continue to be afraid. Our stress and fear will grow and that fuels the anger in our politics.

Bio: Harry Fuller is veteran television news executive who formerly ran CNBC's European news operations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.