What Have We Become

June 2020

Answer: A country obsessed with the adulation of self. We turn our back on others to enable us to be number one. We yearn for greatness measured in trinkets. We stand on the shoulders of others and deny others to stand on ours. We proclaim our benevolence without the commitments for fulfillment. We learn how to reach for the stars while failing to teach compassion for the disadvantaged. We question our reasoning and believe in our mythologies.

Part 1.

I assumed it was not a rhetorical question and referred to the country as a whole. Being somewhat “off shore”, I guess I may see the forest and not the individual trees. Reading a number of economic, social, political books may have helped. Yes, there are good people, and certainly no single person should be described as above. But there are obvious problems, hence the question.

Does this describe the country as led by President Donald Trump? Yes, but it’s not just one person (the President) that is the problem. He is very adept at using the “problem” and taping into the general frustrations, especially of the white (male) middle class. That segment of the population has stagnated over the last 40 years. Whatever productivity increases, and there was, the benefit went to the top (7). With a promise to Make America Great Again, as if we could turn back the clock of time, it was certainly appealing to those who felt left behind (and in many ways, were). Unfortunately, he has no realistic plans to address the frustrations, only ways to deflect attention to the problems (and to create Red Herrings supported by his enablers).

As far as the black population and the racist elements, I think many Americans are still fighting the Civil War. The above MAGA is no solution. One of the first things I remember on TV was news coverage of race riots in the late 50’s and early 60’s. What really has changed?

After WWII and up to the start of the 1980’s social capitalism provided for a fairer distribution of wealth, here and abroad. Actually, this time period was an a-typical period. Historically the top 10% of the population (land owners, factory owners, inherited wealth) always held the majority of the wealth and political power of the developed countries. That was disrupted between WWI and II as societies adjusted to the decrease in the top wealth holders (for various reasons). Societies continued to try different ways to lessen (not eliminate) the inequality between their citizens that (if for no other reason than to avoid civil war – at least over the last 200 years or so) as large inequalities does destabilize societies (7). The Soviet Union’s idea was communism. Fascism and central authority were other methods. Capitalism, of course is an economic system, and not a political system. Social Capitalism worked well (think social security, Medicare, public education, public servants, public works etc.) when the political system, democracy, allowed it to work as it did from WWII to the 1980’s (1).

The wealth of the country (1950-1980) can be broken down as follows: 50% of the population has virtually no wealth (living paycheck to paycheck, little saving or other wealth); 40% of the population (the middle class) has about 40% of the nation’s wealth; 10% of the population owns 60% of the wealth, and the majority of that is owned by the top 1%. In all societies, inequality must be justified – as dictated by those on the top. Political power is concentrated at the top as they, individually, have a lot at stake. After the 1980’s wealth increased at the top end increasing the differential and therefore the inequality.

So what happened after the 1980’s? Many things.

“Social democracy proved unable to cope with… inequality because it failed to update and deepen its intellectual and political approach to ownership, education, taxation, and above all the nation-state and regulation of the global economy” (1). All of those can be discussed at length.

A number of books I’ve read come to a similar conclusions (1,2,4,6) as to education. However, all the other elements are not inconsequential.  Education was/is a major key for people to progress in the world. The split between the more educated and less really started to widen in the 1980’s. The “education gap” led to many social and even medical problems (2). This gap – which can be measured by various metrics between non college grads and college grads – took a real toll on the middle class, especially in the U.S. We do have the best universities in the world – the majority of the top 10 in the world. But if you look at the top 500 in the world, the U.S. is far down on the list. This is a reflection of the general education level of the country. No doubt we have some of the brightest (and successful) people, but they are a thin veneer of the general population. Much more can be said of this but at a time when other factors took place, our education system didn’t keep up for too many people.

The breakup of the Soviet Union cast a pall over the term and meaning of socialism. In the 80’s and 90’s socialism became known as a failure and something the “West” conquered. It was something to be avoided even though most people don’t have a full understanding of it. Capitalism was given free rein (de-regulation, lower taxes etc.) while democratic socialism was under fire (and still is). The top 1% now had a great justification (and need) of why they are so wealthy – they are not socialists! Capitalism evolved into “hype-capitalism” (1). National borders meant nothing to international companies. Tax havens, off-shore shell companies, capital flows, and the social disruptions that were caused were disengaged from national politics and certainly from those “left behind” (1,3,5). One reaction to these changes can lead to the call for “nationalism”. A simple solution that cannot, nor will not, bring back “the good old days”. The interconnected world will not be undone.

Technology enabled all this but can’t itself be blamed. The lack of transparency in international money flows, tax avoidance, the inheritance of wealth, are things that can be controlled or regulated for a desired effect (see Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) and for the common good. But not unilaterally ignoring the world’s interconnected economies. Don’t expect those with wealth to volunteer to give up their Meritocracy. Meritocracy has its disadvantages, not the least of which contributes to the number of people “left behind”(2).

All this is going around in my head and so, out comes a paragraph on Facebook post that asks, how did we get here? The above is a small snip-it of thoughts. How we got here took a long time, and it was not by accident (4) Today we have in this country an Educated Elite (Democrats?) and a Business elite (Republicans?). But who talks and honestly cares for the bulk of the population that feels left behind? There are no simple solutions but “politics”, “economy”, “religion” and “ethics” must be discussed. Education comes in many forms and is not limited to schools, universities or age.

I understand that “politicians” do what they want. They do, because we let them.

I talked to Laura the other day and asked how Michael is doing as far as looking into college or what he is interested in. I realized that the question “What do you want to be” may not be all that useful. Maybe a better question is, “What problem (in the world) do you see that you want to solve?” It’s a question we all should ask ourselves.

  • 1 Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty
  • 2 Deaths of Despair, Anne Case
  • 3 Dark Towers, David Enrich
  • 4 Dark Money, Jane Mayer
  • 5 Panama Papers, Federik Obermaier
  • 6 Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty
  • 7 The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz

Part 2

With the background written in part 1, here is my annotated answer to the initial question.

A country obsessed with the adulation of self – reference to Meritocracy: “I earned what I got”, while ignoring all the support, even governmental, labor and family that went into “what you got”.

 We turn our back on others to enable us to be number one – There are 320 million people in the U.S. How many do we know personally? Our decisions based only on the people we personally know are inherently suspect.

 We yearn for greatness measured in trinkets – Its not the greatest minds, the most caring, or the most humble that gain our attention, but how much wealth they have.

 We stand on the shoulders of others and deny others to stand on ours – For example, union workers fought hard for their gains, which are taken for granted and leave others to fend for themselves.

 We proclaim our benevolence without the commitments for fulfillment – the “right to life” but little help for the following 18 years.

 We learn how to reach for the stars while failing to teach compassion for the disadvantaged – Yes, rockets are good, but wide encompassing education for all, including compassion, seems beyond our reach.

 We question our reasoning and believe in our mythologies – climate hoax, virus hoax, vaccine hoax, conspiracies of deep state, are questions of process and institutions. Human’s innate ability to imagine fills in the blanks when education fails.

I have always said the only difference between us and all the other animals on earth is our intellect. Ignore it at your peril. So, to the collective WE the People of the country: Its good to question why we are the way we are. Let your voices be heard!

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