America’s Sorry State Is No Accident

Posted on September 27, 2016 in Equality Policy Context – Opinion – Powerful interests have worked hard — and won much — promoting misinformation and ignorance.
22 Sep 2016.   By Mitchell Anderson

America is a mess. The world’s sole superpower seems cleaved by race, income disparity and social divisions. Worse, a disturbing number of Americans subscribe to beliefs that are ill-informed, insane or just plain wrong. That the prospect of President Donald Trump is no longer a satirical plot line on The Simpsons is a testament to just how far gone our southern neighbour has become.

Perhaps this sorry situation is actually a credit to the United States. After all, Canadians are no more inherently virtuous or intelligent than our American cousins. Believing otherwise would amount to being somehow racist towards the vast American melting pot.

The only plausible explanation for such aberrant American public opinion is that people in the U.S. are exposed to a vastly different worldview. A misinformation campaign of a scale enormous enough to account for the enfeebled U.S. zeitgeist speaks to how much some special interests gain in investing in and promoting such systemic ignorance.

Only 45 per cent of Americans believe that global warming is “a very serious problem,” a level of climate indifference that plunges to 20 per cent among Republicans. Compare that level of concern to 86 per cent per cent in Brazil, or the global median of 54 per cent. Since the U.S. is leading the global economic conga line, such outliers in public opinion are particularly troubling, and suspiciously intentional.

Politics is the art of the possible and, sadly, democracy doesn’t care if voters know what they are talking about. If only 41 per cent of Americans believe that most scientists agree there is evidence of climate change, chances are that bold public policy to limit carbon emissions will remain gridlocked no matter who gets elected. In case anyone cares, 97 per cent of climatologists agree that humans are affecting the climate.

On a completely unrelated note, the fossil fuel industry is the world’s largest industrial sector, worth more than $3 trillion in America alone. Secretive donors reportedly shoveled $125 million towards climate misinformation efforts over three years through a constellation of right-wing think tanks.

Odious? No doubt. But also a shrewd investment given that the fossil fuel sector is 24,000 times more valuable than the dark money spent protecting it from expensive public policy.

Guns and race are other peculiar outliers of U.S. public opinion. More than 60 per cent of white Americans believe the right to own guns is more important than the need to control them. Strangely, that number drops to 30 per cent for blacks and Hispanics. You would think America already has a glut of guns — about 300 million at last count. However, U.S. gun sales still top 10 million firearms each year worth more than $13 billion.

Why do people buy ever more guns? Sixty per cent of gun owners report personal safety as the main motivation. Fear — particularly among white people — seems good for the gun business.

So are mass shootings. The day after the Orlando massacre in June, stock prices for Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger both jumped by more than six per cent.

Why does America still lack meaningful gun control? Because vested interests have made the National Rifle Association the most feared lobby on Capitol Hill. Several CEOs of the largest U.S. gun manufacturers have had the dubious honour of donning the NRA Golden Ring of Freedom jacket, provided in exchange for a $1-million tax-deductible donation.

A daily diet of racial fear-mongering on U.S. cable networks doesn’t hurt gun sales either, or help heal historic wounds that make American more enfeebled. As opportunistic demagoguery takes root in America, we should remember the prescient words of Eleanor Roosevelt — “Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.”

I have often wondered why the U.S. still tolerates a health care system that is the most wildly expensive in the world yet delivers such lousy outcomes. The richest country on the planet ranks about fifty-seventh in the world in infant mortality and thirty-sixth in life expectancy, reports the World Health Organization. It gets even more embarrassing at the state level. If Mississippi were a country, more children would perish in infancy than in Botswana.

In spite of so-called Obamacare, more than 40 million Americans still lack any health insurance.

Why does this persist? Because the U.S. population has somehow been convinced it wants it that way. Obamacare has actually been reasonably successful, proving coverage to 20 million people who were previously uninsured. But more and more, facts just don’t matter.

Almost half of Americans dislike the program, a number that rises to more than 80 per cent for Republicans. Congress voted more than 60 times to defund, cancel or delay Obamacare, making this modest effort to insure the uninsured into a high profile political piñata.

Let’s assume for a moment that money does matter. The U.S. spends some $3 trillion per year on health care, more per capita than anywhere else.

Let’s also assume that humans around the world are somehow medically similar — implausible I know, but let’s press on. How much money would be left on the table if the U.S. delivered health care as efficiently as Finland, which has an infant mortality rate less than half that in America?

Finland spends about $3,500 per capita on health care, compared to about $9,500 in the U.S. — a difference of $6,000 for each of the 324 million Americans. Doing the math, America would have a cool $2 trillion in extra walking-around money every year while achieving vastly better health care outcomes if it just copied Finland.

So who gets that extra $2 trillion now? Perhaps the same people who spent $4.2 billion on health care lobbying between 1998 and 2010 — more than any other sector except finance, which shelled out a similar pile of money to hector elected officials. Since 64 per cent of U.S. health care is paid for by the taxpayer, such savings would mean various levels of government would have an additional $1.2 trillion to spend on improved programs, paying down debt or providing tax breaks.

America is a magnificent but increasingly failed experiment. If you want your heart broken, read this poignant essay in The Guardian < >.

The country that gave the world Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Aretha Franklin is becoming fatally poisoned by ignorance, intentionally administered to make this mighty nation divided, desperate and fearful. That America has attracted such decades-long mischief-making by various vested interests is a testament to its remarkable intrinsic worth. Only by recognizing the cause of this ailment can there be a cure.

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Two American Dreams: how a dumbed-down nation lost sight of a great idea

TheGuardian – US Nesws – As Clinton and Trump prepare to debate next week, noble ideals are overwhelmed in a culture where most Americans do not know what is real anymore and the dream of equal opportunity is a fantasy
17 September 2016.   by Ben Fountain

“Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face.”          Billy Joel, Allentown

It’s one of the greatest inventions of all time, and just like it says on the dollar bill – novus ordo seclorum – it created an entirely new order in human affairs. After millennia of pharaohs, emperors, kings, queens, sultans, caesars and czars, with all their attendant aristocracies and locked-down social structures, a country was founded where birth and lineage didn’t matter so much, where by application of your talents, energy, labor and willingness to play by the rules, you could improve your material lot in life and achieve a measure of economic security for yourself and your family. Peasants and proles could aspire to more than mere survival. Radical!

We know it today as the American Dream. The now-obscure historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The Epic of America, defining “the American dream” as:

” a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Adams was writing in 1931, but the dream was there from the start, in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “happiness” residing in its 18th-century sense of prosperity, thriving, wellbeing.

Nobody ever came to America with a starry-eyed dream of working for starvation wages. Plenty of that available in the old country, and that’s precisely why we left, escaping serfdom, peonage, tenancy, indenture – all different iterations of what was essentially a “rigged system”, to put it in current political verbiage – that channeled the profits of our labor upstream to the Man. We came to America to do better, to secure for ourselves the liberation that economic security brings, and for millions – mostly white males at first, and then slowly, sputteringly, women and people of color – that’s the way it worked out, nothing less than a revolution in the human condition.

Upward mobility is indispensable to the American Dream, the notion that people can rise from working to middle class, and middle to upper and even higher on the model of a (fictional) Horatio Alger or an (actual) Andrew Carnegie. Upward mobility across classes peaked in the US in the late 19th century. Most of the gains of the 20th century were achieved en masse; it wasn’t so much a phenomenon of great numbers of people rising from one class to the next as it was standards of living rising sharply for all classes. You didn’t have to be exceptional to rise. Opportunity was sufficiently broad that hard work and steadiness would do, along with tacit buy-in to the social contract, allegiance to the system proceeding on the assumption that the system was basically fair.

The biggest gains occurred in the post-second world war era of the GI Bill, affordable higher education, strong labor unions, and a progressive tax code. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, median household income in the US doubled. Income inequality reached historic lows. The average CEO salary was approximately 30 times that of the lowest-paid employee, compared with today’s gold-plated multiple of 370. The top tax bracket ranged in the neighborhood of 70% to 90%. Granted, there were far fewer billionaires in those days. Somehow the nation survived.

“America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her syndicated column of 6 January 1941, an apt lead-in to her husband’s State of the Union address later that day in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential to American democracy, among them “freedom from want”. In his State of the Union address three years later, FDR expanded on this concept of freedom from want with his proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights”, an “economic” bill of rights to counteract what he viewed as the growing tyranny of the modern economic order:

This Republic had at its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship … As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy has expanded – these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.

Political rights notwithstanding, “freedom” rings awfully hollow when you’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death in your everyday life. The Roosevelts recognized that wage peonage, or any system that inclines toward subsistence level, is simply incompatible with self-determination. Subsistence is, by definition, a constrained, desperate state; one’s horizon is necessarily limited to the present day, to getting enough of what the body needs to make it to the next. These days a minimum wage worker in New York City clocking 40 hours a week (at $9 per hour) earns $18,720 a year, well under the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s a scrambling, anxious existence, narrowly bounded. Close to impossible to decently feed, clothe, and shelter yourself on a wage like that, much less a family; much less buy health insurance, or save for your kid’s college, or participate in any of those other good American things. Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a bad joke. “It’s called the American dream,” George Carlin cracked, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“Necessitous men are not free men,” said FDR in that 1944 State of the Union speech. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A dire statement, demonstrably true, and especially unsettling in 2016, a point in time when the American Dream seems more viable as nostalgia than a lived phenomenon. Income inequality, wealth distribution, mortality rates: by every measure, the average individual that Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated is sinking. Exceptional people continue to rise, but overall mobility is stagnant at best. If you’re born poor in Ferguson or Appalachia, chances are you’re going to stay that way. Ditto if your early memories include the swimming pool at the Houston Country Club or ski lessons at Deer Valley, you’re likely going to keep your perch at the top of the heap.

“That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime”

Income inequality, gross disparities in wealth: we’re told daily, incessantly, that these are the necessary consequences of a free market, as if the market was a force of nature on the order of weather or tides, and not the entirely manmade construct that it is. In light of recent history, blind acceptance of this sort of economics would seem to require a firm commitment to stupidity, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true, that the free market exists as a universe unto itself, as immutable in its workings as the laws of physics. Does that universe include some ironclad rule that requires inequality of opportunity? I’ve yet to hear the case for that, though doubtless some enterprising thinktanker could manufacture one out of this same free-market economics, along with whiffs of genetic determinism as it relates to qualities of discipline and character. And it would be bogus, that case. And more than that, immoral. That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime equal in violence to child abuse or molestation.

Franklin Roosevelt: “[F]reedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” The proposition goes deeper than sentiment, deeper than policy, deeper even than adherence to equality and “the pursuit of happiness” as set forth in the Declaration. It cuts all the way to the nature of democracy, and to the prospects for its continued existence in America. “We may have democracy in this country,” wrote supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Those few, in Brandeis’s judgment, would inevitably use their power to subvert the free will of the majority; the super-rich as a class simply couldn’t be trusted to do otherwise, a thesis that’s being starkly acted out in the current era of Citizens United, Super Pacs, and truckloads of dark money.

But the case for economic equality goes beyond even equations of power politics. Democracy’s premise rests on the notion that the collective wisdom of the majority will prove right more often than it’s wrong. That given sufficient opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, your population will develop its talents, its intellect, its better judgment; that over time its capacity for discernment and self-correction will be enlarged. Life will improve. The form of your union will be more perfect, to borrow a phrase. But if a critical mass of your population is kept in peonage? All its vitality spent in the trenches of day-to-day survival, with scant opportunity to develop the full range of its faculties? Then how much poorer the prospects for your democracy will be.

Economic equality can no more be divorced from the functioning of democracy than the ballot. Jefferson, Brandeis, the Roosevelts all recognized this home truth. The American Dream has to be the lived reality of the country, not just a pretty story we tell ourselves.

•••  “I have always gotten much more publicity than anybody else.”          Donald Trump

Then there’s that other American dream, the numbed-out, dumbed-down, make-believe world where much of the national consciousness resides, the sum product of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex: movies, TV, internet, texts, tweets, ad saturation, celebrity obsession, sports obsession, Amazonian sewers of porn and political bullshit, the entire onslaught of media and messaging that strives to separate us from our brains. September 11, 2001 blasted us out of that dream for about two minutes, but the dream is so elastic, so all-encompassing, that 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the the matrix of FIC. This exceedingly complex event – horribly direct in the result, but a swamp when it comes to explanations – was stripped down and binaried into a reliable fantasy narrative of us against them, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim. The week after 9/11, Susan Sontag was virtually crucified for pointing out that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand how we came to this point”. For this modest proposal, no small number of her fellow Americans wished her dead. But if we’d followed her lead – if we’d done the hard work of digging down to the roots of the whole awful thing – perhaps we wouldn’t still be fighting al-Qaida and its offspring 15 years later.

An 11-year-old girl wears Trump socks at a campaign event for the Republican nominee at the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Here’s a hypothesis, ugly, uncharitable, but given our recent history it begs inquiry: most of the time most Americans don’t know what’s real any more. How else to explain Trump, a billionaire on an ego trip capturing a major party’s nomination for president? Another blunt-speaking billionaire tried twice for the presidency in the 1990s and went out in flames, but he made the mistake of running as himself, a recognizably flesh-and-blood human being, whereas Trump comes to us as the ultimate creature, and indisputable maestro, of the Fantasy Industrial Complex. For much of his career – until 2004, to be exact – he held status in our lives as a more or less normal celebrity. Larger than life, to be sure, cartoonishly grandiose, shamelessly self-promoting, and reliably obnoxious, but Trump didn’t become Trump until “The Apprentice” debuted in January 2004. The first episode drew 20.7 million viewers. By comparison, Ross Perot received 19,742,000 votes in the 1992 presidential election – yes, I’m comparing vote totals with Nielsen ratings – but Trump kept drawing that robust 20 million week after week. The season finale that year reached 28 million viewers, and over the next decade, for 13 more seasons, this was how America came to know him, in that weirdly intimate way TV has of delivering celebrity into the very center of our lives.

It was this same Trump that 24 million viewers – a record, of course – tuned in to watch at the first Republican debate last year, the glowering, blustering, swaggering boardroom action figure who gave every promise of shredding the pols. One wonders if Trump would have ever been Trump if there hadn’t been a JR Ewing to pave the way, to show just how dear and real a dealmaking TV rogue could be to our hearts. Trump’s performance on that night did not disappoint, nor through all the debates in the long march that followed, and if his regard for the truth has proved more erratic even than that of professional politicians, we should expect as much. In the realm of the Fantasy Industrial Complex, reality happens on a sliding scale. The truth is just another possibility.

•••  “I speak the password primeval.
I would give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”           Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In nine days Trump and Hillary will take the stage for their first face-to-face debate. There will be blood. The knives are going to be out, and the ratings are bound to be, need it be said, yuge. The American Dream will no doubt be invoked from both podiums, for what true-blue patriot was ever against the American Dream? And yet for the past 30 years the Democratic candidate has worked comfortably within a party establishment that’s battered the working and middle classes down to the bone. The “new” Democrats of the Clinton era are always strong for political rights, as long as they don’t upset corporate America’s bottom line. Strong for racial and gender equality, strong for LGBT rights (though that took time). Meanwhile this same Democratic establishment joined with the GOP to push a market- and finance-driven economic order that enriches the already rich and leaves the rest of us sucking wind.

That’s the very real anger Trump is speaking to, no fantasy there. Bernie as well; small wonder their constituencies overlapped, though Trump’s professed devotion to the common man stumbles over even the simplest proofs. On whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Trump’s moral compass has spun from an implied no (wages are already “too high”), to implied yes (wages are “too low”), to weasel words (leave it up to the states), to yes and no in the same breath (“I would leave it and raise it somewhat”), and, finally, when pressed by Bill O’Reilly in July, to yes-but (raise it to $10, but it’s still best left to the states). All this from the candidate who’s firmly in favor of abolishing the estate tax, to the great benefit of heirs of multimillionaires and none at all to the vast majority of us.

Meanwhile, the Fantasy Industrial Complex is doing just fine this election season, thank you. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference in March, one of the commanders of the FIC, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS and a man whose 2015 compensation totaled $56.8m, had this to say about the Trump campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in and this is fun … this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

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One Response to “America’s Sorry State Is No Accident”

  1. I completely agree with the fact that the current state of American is no accident, is a total mess, and as a majority, Americans have ill-informed beliefs and worldviews. At this point there is no easy fix, but rather an uphill ideological battle against a powerful opposition. The belief that “reality happens on a sliding scale [and] the truth is just another possibility” is a terrifying concept when dealing with power, and control over the lives of millions. As you’ve stated, “powerful interests have worked hard — and won much — promoting misinformation and ignorance”. The political climate since the 70’s has shifted from state sponsored welfare provision, to “the argument…that interference in the economy by governments is the major cause of economic problems” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 10). As the leaders of the global economic conga line, American political interests and loyalties have been made quite clear. Through a conscious effort to appease the vested interests of corporate greed, the welfare state in turn, has been dismantled piece by piece since the Reagan era, leaving citizens pitted against each other with a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality to further limit access to minimal resources within a dysfunctional safety net. Subjectivity does not equate with fairness or equal opportunity. The ‘American Dream’ has become a fantasy. There is no opportunity for upward mobility is a rigged system. The stagnant mobility of citizens is not only a detriment to the individual, but also had profound effects on a larger scale through the lack of ability to create change, and influence and enact policies which could provide greater equity within a free-market system. Ultimately the U.S. is becoming a global example of corporate greed, and a shining example for us as Canadians of ‘what not to do’ when it comes to the provision of social services and political involvement within the economic market.


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