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Exceptionalism? Maybe Not So Much »

Other countries must think us delusional Oct 8 2013

America’s claims to exceptionalism broke the surface again with the recent duel of words between Presidents Obama and Putin a month ago. Arguing in a televised speech for a punitive strike against Syria, Obama closed with “I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth”.

Putin bridled at Obama’s hubris. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional” he wrote in a New York Times” op-ed. “There are countries big and small, rich and poor…but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal”.

Obama at the United Nations then doubled down with “I believe America is exceptional in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest but for the interests of all”.

America’s spotty record brings into question just what interests have been served by those sacrifices given its disastrous missteps in Vietnam and Iraq, but, fair enough. It seems, though, that our exceptionalism is defined by our military rather. As he had said earlier, “For more than seven decades America has been the anchor of global security”. It may have peeved Mr. Putin that several of those decades had to do with holding his country in check.

in our dna

America thought itself exceptional early on. The Revolution brought about the world’s first large republic to throw off the yoke of divine right and hereditary ascendancy, installing in its place, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The world was watching this grand experiment, and this was understood from the very first in John Winthrop’s shipboard sermon to his fellow Pilgrims who were about to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony: ”We must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us”. As Tom Paine put it, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind”.

That we had landed on these shores, with a giant continent beckoning, inhabited only by those we thought a backward people, seemed to be telling us it was ours to take. It was our Manifest Destiny to do so. What was exceptional was the incredible courage of pioneers moving west into “Indian country” and entering on a perilous, hardscrabble, unforeseeable future. We would then go on to forge the world’s oldest continuous democracy, which could be claimed as the most exceptional accomplishment of all.

But that was then and this is now.

Now we lecture to the world about democracy, free speech, and human rights yet regularly violate our avowed principles at home. The 9/11 attacks caused us immediately to sink into a depravity of torture, rendition and indefinite imprisonment without trial. Racism persists, evidenced particularly by the otherwise inexplicable ratio of prison-incarcerated blacks. Government, this one especially, has increasingly acted to throttle and intimidate journalists and those who leak the truth to the press.

Our democratic structure has suffered erosion. There was a remarkable turning point when the Supreme Court intervened to choose a president. Then came its ruling that corporations and unions are “persons” in the political process and may now spend unlimited amounts in elections. And as this is written the justices seem sympathetic in McCutcheon v. FEC to the argument that there should be no aggregate limit to what a person may contribute to candidates in elections.

With a majority more than accommodating to business, the Court has allowed corporations to gain increasing sway over the populace. The Court has repeatedly restricted who may band together in class action law suits, leaving to the individual the economically impossible task of taking on big corporations. And to do business with those corporations — mortgage lenders, credit card banks, securities brokers, all are grabbing this brass ring — the Court has upheld their right to require you to agree to arbitration if any dispute arises. Which is to say, you, private citizen, have signed away what you might have thought was a fundamental right: your access to the courts.

The Senate has abandoned simple majority rule; a super majority is now required for anything of consequence.

States nationwide are adopting laws to inhibit voting by blacks and students. Gerrymandering after the 2010 census has made it impossible for one party or the other to have any prospect of electing their candidate in districts all over the country.

And now we witness a complete breakdown of government with a faction of Congress able to bring government to a halt to sabotage a duly voted and signed law it dislikes.

societal decline

Americans tell themselves that we have the greatest health care in the world. The truth is far from it. We may spend triple what the average of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spend per patient, but the results are mixed — highly ranked in heart disease and cancer treatment, yet 4th from last in infant mortality, for example.

In the most recent among many reports that compare health results in developed countries, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine has us dead last among 17 advanced countries in “deaths from all causes” per unit of population. U.S. death rates for 15 of 21 diseases were higher than the average. A major contributor to this dismal statistic, as compared to countries with socialized medicine, is that uninsured low-income persons only see a doctor when a disease has progressed to a life-threatening stage.

We also allow our hospitals to charge whatever staggering amounts they choose to drive some 700,000 families a year to bankruptcy.

Most disturbing for our future is our steep decline in education. Once the pioneer in public education, America now ranks far down the list when measured by results. The OECD began in 2000 to evaluate student achievement at age 15 in 18 advanced countries with its PISA program (Programme for International Student Assessment). By 2009 their analyses placed the U.S. 17th in reading proficiency, 23rd in science and 31st in math. Finland and Singapore lead the list.

A UNICEF study in 2010 compared the well-being of children in 24 developed countries and found that the United States ranked 23rd in educational resources and child living space, 19th in math and science literacy and 22nd in health, including diet and exercise.

Update: Behind in Workplace Skills Also Oct.11: In a report just released, tests administered by the OECD to about 160,000 people of ages 18 to 65 in 23 countries found that Americans are well behind most other countries in basic math skills (3rd from last), literacy (6th from last) and working with technology (2nd from last).
    

Even in higher education, where more than half of the top universities worldwide are American and eight are in the top ten, we rank 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-to-34 year-olds with degrees.

No end of studies have found that the sooner young children are exposed to learning, the better they do in the years following, but we are 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-school, exceeded only by Romania. An Obama proposal in his 2013 State of the Union would provide funds to states to expand early learning, but Republicans viewed it as another entitlement program adding to the deficit rather than an investment in the nation’s future.

Speaking of Romania, at 34th we are exceeded only by that country’s greater proportion of children living in poverty. And for all our prattling about human rights, we were tied at 49th in civil liberties in the "Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2008". With the government spying that has been exposed since, it can only be assumed that we are now much deeper on that list. Several countries — Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway — tied for first.

Our land of the free has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, one in every 107 adults.

And for all our emphasis on business, we have been slipping every year in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of how competitive we are in world markets, dropping to 7th in 2012 behind countries such as Switzerland, Singapore and Finland.

Supposedly egalitarian America had the 4th highest measure of income inequality of the 34 OECD countries measured, and that trend has only grown worse in the latest findings of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, economists who have regularly reported on this subject. They found that the top 10% took home fully half of all income earned in the United States in 2012. With the bottom tiers of U.S. workers stranded in low-paying jobs offering little opportunity for advancement, this country now ranks below traditionally class-stratified Europe in social mobility.

Put all that together and it is not surprising that the every five year World Happiness Report from the United Nations says Americans' level of happiness declining 4% since 2007.

undiminished self-esteem

Yet despite all that, we are full of ourselves. Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey in 2011 that asked agreement in whether “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior”. France must have come out on top in notions of self-esteem one would think, but instead it was the U.S., leading Germany, Spain, Britain and France in that order. When they hear us speaking of our exceptionalism, people in those countries must wonder what on earth we are talking about.

the culture

Moral Decay the Cause of Income Inequality Says Controversial Book »

Feb 15 2012

Just in time to add ammunition to the class wars, along comes a book that says income inequality isn’t caused by Wall Street bonuses, outsized corporate CEO paychecks or even a tax code skewed to the wealthy.

The book is “Coming Apart, The State of White America”, by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who claims it is not the 1% vs. the 99%; rather it is the 20% at the top vs. the 30% at the bottom. The 20% is made up of educated achievers who raise their children to strive for excellence, press them to vie for entrance to the top schools, and see them graduate into the best jobs, marry other smart people, and raise the next batch of bright children to propel the 20% still higher. Meanwhile, the 30% drift ever downward and further apart.

Those in favor of the status quo, eager to deflect Occupiers’ claims that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, have embraced Murray’s evaluation of the 30%. Murray says it’s a values thing.

The lower social strata are ordinarily held up as the exemplar of family values, but that’s mythology. Murray says it is the upper stratum that has retained what he calls the key "founding virtues" — industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion — that the lower stratum has forsaken. The latter marry less, have higher divorce rates when they do, and bear far more children out of wedlock. They drop out of high school, are uninvolved with their communities — they even go to church less than the 20%. They lack ambition, they watch television all day, they subsist on one or another welfare program, and fall further behind. They don’t have jobs because they don’t want to work, says Murray.

The cause? He says it was the ‘60s culture and alludes vaguely to “a whole set of reforms” that “élites put in place… which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing”.

Aha. So it’s not the worsening educational system, outsourced jobs to other countries, the decline in manufacturing, the collapse of unions, the sheer lack of jobs because corporations are not hiring — these are not the reasons for the economic decline of the bottom 30%. No surprise, then, that conservatives, who oppose taking action with fiscal stimulus and social programs, have clambered on board in praise of Murray’s worldview.

Niall Ferguson of Harvard, who writes a column for Newsweek proclaims Murray has come yp with “by far the best available analysis of modern American inequality … a blessed relief”. He even works in the canard that President Obama wants to “make America more like Scandinavia”.

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, gushes in this piece that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’”. He goes so far as to say, “the liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1% narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness”, an accusation that we are struggling to make sense of. As a card-carrying member himself of the out of touch élite, he says:

“It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the élites.”

What's wrong is his determination. The problem of the masses is that they would like to see opportunity restored in this country and instead see a plethora of advantages conferred on the wealthy while their world stagnates. In a final head-scratcher Brooks says what we need is a national service program.

At least David Frum, a conservative once a speechwriter for George W. Bush now writing at The Daily Beast/Newsweek, disagrees. Murray, he says, in a multi-part piece, ignores that the decline in wages and living standards is pervasive in the western countries as jobs have moved to low-paying countries in the East. What sense is it therefore to conclude that, whereas economics is the cause there, moral collapse uniquely is the cause here?

Murray is renowned for deploying reams of data but seems guilty of the sin of twisting them to fit his preconceived beliefs. Much more persuasive is how he marshalls data to present the sweeping social changes that support his “Coming Apart” title.

Whereas once those of different economic levels were commingled in smaller towns, living on the same streets or close by, chatting on the church steps after the Sunday service, the long-term trend has been for people to seek out those of their own economic level and political outlooks and cluster into communities of only their own kind. Murray is not the first to make this observation. Most recently there was “The Big Sort”, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop subtitled, “Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart”.

Murray says we need to merge again if we hope to stem this fragmentation, and has taken that step himself, moving his family to a small, rural Maryland town. Bill Clinton, after reading “The Big Sort”, sounded the same theme, saying, "Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks". That way the 20% would be in place to transfuse their values to the 30% because “the new upper class just need to start preaching what they practice”, says Murray.

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the culture

Social Security Out of Money Three Years Sooner »

And it’s no mystery why May 14 2012

We’re living longer and the baby boomers are retiring, but we’ve known these dynamics for years. So how can the Administration explain the sudden discovery that the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2033, three years earlier than was predicted just a year ago.

The answer is something that a Democratic administration doesn’t want to bring up: the surge in disability claims. The fund within Social Security allotted to disability is slated to go broke by 2016.

Most Americans are probably only dimly aware that one can qualify for payments from the Social Security Administration (SSA) beginning at any age if able to prove an inability to earn an income over $1,000 a month. (And after two years under that plan, that person qualifies for Medicare as well, irrespective of age).

Manufacturing has declined and hazardous jobs along with it, there are no genetic defects suddenly manifest that account for increasing infirmities, the cure rate for crippling disease continues to improve, accidents on the highways have declined — what could be the cause?

First the obligatory acknowledgement that disability is real, that society has a moral responsibility to help those dealt the unfair hand of an illness or mishap that can cause a life of possibly unrelenting pain even, and — because the Social Security payments are no bonanza — the prospect of penury.

But those worthy beneficiaries under the social contract are not our subject and their cohort does not account for the Congressional Budget Office telling us that the number of Americans on disability had by 2009 doubled as compared to 1970, whereas the population rose only by half.

One in five dollars paid out by the SSA is now for disability; 8.56 million people and 2 million dependents will received $122 billion this year, and another $90 billion for those who have qualified for Medicare as well.

How has this gone out of control? The first reason is that in the last few decades, the threshold for claiming disability has been defined ever downward. Reasons that never would have qualified in the past — depression or “persistent anxiety” or “chronic fatigue”, for example — are now accepted as reasons for disability awards. None of these were ever acknowledged in times past as reasons not to work; people went to work anyway, and worked their way through them. (“60 Minutes”’ Mike Wallace acknowledged suffering from depression but didn’t quit working until age 90. Or think of Jack Kennedy, who Lyndon Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro describes as strapping “a canvas brace with metal stays tightly around him” to face the day.) These may be real syndromes, but the unscrupulous have caught on to how difficult they are to disprove and have learned to masquerade their way onto the Social Security rolls.

"Congress and, derivatively, the SSA have gradually expanded the availability of entitlements to greater and greater numbers of persons," write SSA administrative judges Jeffrey Wolfe and Dale Glendenning in the Cato Institute’s magazine. The judges further point out that, whereas in 1971, one in five applicants were accompanied by a lawyer, the ratio has since quadrupled, which should tell you that finding and shepherding clients through the process of getting on the dole has become a lucrative practice for the legal profession. The recession is certainly a major factor, as the unemployed feign disability in order to find an income.

Charles Murray would have us understand that it is more than economics. In his widely quoted recent book, “Coming Apart” ( see this related article), Murray marshalls copious data to show that there is now a sub-culture comprising 30% of white Americans who have disengaged from society and its responsibilities. They come from broken marriages, drop out of school, stay single, abandon religion, resort to petty crime, aspire to nothing and, having done little to equip themselves with the skills needed to win what jobs there are, have instead learned how to game the disability system. In this group, the percentage on Social Security disability has quintupled since 1960, rising from 2% to 10%.

On the one hand it speaks of a creeping moral rot that has eaten away at the social fabric, an attitude of taking whatever one can get without concern for the once bedrock principles of honesty and self-reliance. It brings to mind a New York Times investigative report in 2008 which found that virtually every employee of the Long Island Railroad applied to the federal Railroad Retirement Board for disability the moment they retired, and virtually all — 97% in one recent year — were routinely approved, each paid tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars a year in addition to their pensions. The paper “sometimes dozens of them” on the golf course. Somehow, every railroad worker was untroubled by cheating and thought him- or herself entitled to other people’s money.

The announcement by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that the trust fund would run dry sooner simply acknowledged disability costs as a factor. There was no speculation as to evident fraud. To this, the government turns a blind eye, especially in an election year when votes reliably take precedent over any notion of expanding funding for investigative surveillance to root out disability cheats. So, like so much going wrong, we can expect the problem to grow progressively worth with the future of Social Security at risk for seniors who have paid into the fund all their lives.

1st amendment

Are We Becoming a Police State? »

Nov 27 2011 Don't Take Our Word for It Dec.4: In our wake The New York Times has now asked "Is this the militarization of the American police? in this article.

Our title sounds alarmist and exaggerated, doesn’t it? But the uniformity of method, the rush to violence by police from New York to Oakland, from Portland to Atlanta to Los Angeles, tell us otherwise.

The Occupy movement told us something we were unsure of, after nearly half a century — that Americans would take to the streets. In 1968 it was primarily the Vietnam War. Today the self-declared 99% are angry at a distorted society that has bestowed too much on too few and left them with dim prospects.

But when they take to the streets, and mayors find reason to shut down the right of  "the people peaceably to assemble" guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, the police quickly resort to violence reminiscent of the “police riots” at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 in Chicago. Evidence of physical provocation by Occupiers are few, non-violence being key to winning public support, but the police in several cities went straight to tear gas, pepper spray and beatings.

So in New York early in the occupation, police attacked protesters and onlookers with pepper spray as seen in the video above, in which we hear women screaming from the burn of the chemical agent.

In another New York incident police used truncheons (now given the gentler name “batons” by the media) to savagely beat the crowd captured on film here. In neither case is there evidence of provocation that justified a violent response.

Ultimately New York City Mayor Bloomberg shut down Zuccotti Park telling us hygiene had suddenly become the problem it had not been for two months. Hundreds of NYPD officers in riot gear swept through the park in early morning hours, rousting campers from sleeping bags and removing and depriving protesters of the tents and gear that had become essential with the change in weather. Police sequestered credentialed reporters two blocks distant where they could not see the action. Bloomberg said this violation of a free press was to “protect the members of the press”. If that truly was the reason, it didn't sound that way when later in a speech he would say, “I have my own army in the N.Y.P.D.”

In Oakland, an Iraq vet suffered a skull fracture and brain function damage when hit by a police projectile thought to be a tear gas canister. Police classify tear gas and other crowd control aids as "non-lethal", but rubber bullets and cans fired from launchers are dangerous at close range and can indeed be lethal. A second Oakland Occupier's spleen was lacerated by a police beating such as seen in this this film clip.

At the University of California, Davis, a campus police officer walked in front of a row of student protesters sitting on the ground with locked arms, thoroughly dousing them with pepper spray, caught in this film:

In Portland, the photo below shows police hitting a young woman directly in the face with pepper spray...


Portland

...with much the same seen in Seattle...


Seattle

...where an 84-year-old woman was a victim of the chemical agent. Pepper spray is derived from the most potent in the spectrum of chili peppers (capsaicin) and causes searing pain and temporary blindness. One student reported that the burn lasted through the night — face, hands — preventing sleep — and into the next day.

In none of these instances caught on film was there any instance of provocation that merited so violent an attack.

In a massive assault, 1,400 police officers, some in riot gear, stormed the Los Angeles Occupier encampment arresting over 200.

“60 Minutes” on November 20th ran a segment on the increasing use by police of Tasers, the brand name for stun guns that shoot into the target’s body a pair of darts at the end of wires, thus closing a circuit for an agonizing electrical shock. The segment shows the unhesitatingly rapid resort to using the weapon on a motorist who is only asking what she had done that called for putting her hands on her car. The weapon has led to heart attacks and death, which, of course, the manufacturer disputes as coincidental. Police, undeterred by its violence toward fellow citizens, seem to gravitate to its use because it is an easy shortcut to bringing a civilian to heel.

american sanctimony

These scenes, uploaded to video sites such as YouTube, show the world that the Mecca of free speech that we fashion the United States to be looks false.

The opposing view was more concerned that the protests were noisy, had inconvenienced civilian activity and might cause property damage. Occupiers were labeled unwashed “hippies” — “lice-infested, shiftless human filth” according to one offended commentator on a right wing website — a view helped along by the media's focus on the bizarre sort that street demonstrations inevitably attract. The objective is to persuade that element of society which values order above all to classify protesters as rabble rather than the jobless young people burdened by student debt who formed the core of the 99% movement. That’s the standard self-preservation tactic adopted by those who hold power to keep the public in its place in order to preserve the status quo.

will protests survive?

The status quo may be with us for good. Glenn Greenwald, writing at Salon offers this troubling assessment:

Despite all the rights of free speech and assembly flamboyantly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the reality is that punishing the exercise of those rights with police force and state violence has been the reflexive response in America for quite some time...

The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed — or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet — many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant — to refrain from exercising their rights — out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

The genius of this approach is how insidious its effects are: because the rights continue to be offered on paper, the citizenry continues to believe it is free. ... As Rosa Luxemburg so perfectly put it: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Someone who sits at home and never protests or effectively challenges power factions will not realize that their rights of speech and assembly have been effectively eroded because they never seek to exercise those rights; it’s only when we see steadfast, courageous resistance from the likes of these UC-Davis students is this erosion of rights manifest.

David Frum, a conservative and former Bush speech writer, has more faith in the American people to rebel. He says in this New York Magazine article, an indictment of what the Republican party has become, that “If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair”.

Will the police fan the flames or subdue all change?