America Infected by Dreadful Disease

Just a few weeks ago we Americans were infected by a dreadful disease.  Not a plague of the body that escaped from Africa — one of the mind that was deliberately spread here.

Ebola was producing hysteria when I posted What to Do About Ebola following comments on my post about how politicians and the media were using Ebola to promote fear.

“Obama’s spectacular incompetence turns deadly” wrote Joseph Curl on October 15 in the Washington Times.  The election was coming up…

Joni Ernst, subsequently elected to the Senate from Iowa with ads showing her castrating hogs and pulling a handgun from her purse, claimed that Obama simply didn’t care if we get Ebola.

Just before the election, Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post: “Ebola has crystallized the collapse of trust in state authorities.”  Everything that’s wrong is Obama’s fault…

But the next day, October 31st, in the same paper, Paul Waldman wrote: “If you actually look at the facts, the disease has been completely prevented and contained here in the United States.”

Waldman continued: “Imagine that a year ago, I told you … west Africa would see the largest Ebola outbreak in history … that despite regular travel in and out of the affected countries … there would be a grand total of two … Americans who contracted the disease here …  both of them would be treated, and would survive and be healthy … You’d say that sounds like a public health triumph.”

On November 11, Steve Benen reported: “The U.S. is now free of known Ebola cases.  That’s not to say the threat is over … but Americans can nevertheless feel good about where things stand.”

Perhaps we will hear no more about Ebola now the election is over and it it is clear there never was a reason to panic.   That would be unfortunate because there will continue to be outbreaks in West Africa.

We could afford to reduce and perhaps even end those outbreaks by spending less to protect ourselves against military threats that do not exist.

We could also make ourselves less vulnerable to such plagues by establishing a health care system that encouraged all those with symptoms to get promptly checked and, if necessary, treated.

But you and I as individuals can only think through whether we even want an affordable, equitable health care system.  We can’t establish one by ourselves.

What we can do, though, is grow less vulnerable to fear, the disease with which we are deliberately and daily infected.    As I write in Why I Write About Fear and Loathing, fear shuts down our reason.  It makes fools of us.

No need to be fools.  No need even to admit to others when we have been.  No need to despise or hate politicians, media personalities or anyone whose ideas are different from ours.  No need for unquestioning confidence or fear of our government.

All we need do is question what we are told, verify the facts, test the logic and above all be kind.

Not everything we are told makes sense or is healthy for us.

 

Why Write about Fear and Loathing

Fear whipped up by the media stimulates our emotions, shuts down our reason, and excites “flight or light.”   That makes us selfish and violent.

We must understand what is being done to us.  Selfishness and violence are not intrinsic to our nature.   My inflammatory “Fear and Loathing” title for these posts is because we’re on fire!

I didn’t share Hunter S. Thompson’s hatred of Nixon, who he said represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” and I don’t hate Obama or others now.  But Thompson’s  “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is a great title.

We are being brainwashed to feel fear and loathing.  It’s time to be alarmed about that.

What fears?  Immigrants stealing into our “homeland” taking our jobs and living on “welfare,”  a disease from Africa sweeping through our land, Islamic terrorists slipping in from Mexico to do terrible things, fundamentalist Muslims overwhelming our Christian values, Iran nuking us, and on and on…

I began to explore these fears in Ebola and Homo Politicus.  I showed how our expectation about the performance of government agencies is based not on facts but political bias.  Now I’m exploring the implications.

In Fear and Loathing of Immigrants I surveyed history.  Immigrants are often blamed for society’s troubles, but illegal immigration only became a big issue in the 1990s.  Then, after 9/11 , we expanded our border forces enormously.  That was when fear and loathing were very deliberately cranked up.

I followed the logic of militarizing our border to its conclusion, that we should also deport every “alien” already here, and, observing that Christian Church leaders condemned the 2012 GPO budget for failing to help our “poor, hungry, homeless, jobless,” I pointed out it’s not just that we no longer want other nations’ “tired, poor, huddled masses.

We are also being brainwashed to reject all those like them, even our fellow citizens.  We’ve been told the poor are bleeding us dry ever since Reagan’s 1976 campaign anecdotes about a “welfare queen” who defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The woman Reagan spoke of appears to have been a murder and kidnapper as well as a thief, but the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is an idle black woman.  The label plays on racial fear.

Racial fear?  Imagine how the media would have responded if Ebola appeared not in black Africa but Israel.  Where would we have been told Ebola came from and how to respond?  From Palestinian terrorists so it’s time to support an Israeli final solution?  From Iran so it’s time for our nukes to finish what we helped Saddam Hussein attempt?

In Defying Hitler about the German equivalent of 9/11, the burning of the Reichstag, Sebastian Haffner writes:  “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists.  What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter.  With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence.  If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took ‘decisive measures.’ … from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into.”

We are living, as Yogi Berra said through: “Déjà vu all over again.”  Substitute Americans for Germans, terrorists for Communists, September 11, 2001, for 1933.

We must learn from history.  We must do better.

Fear and Loathing of Immigrants

I wrote in Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts that we imagine facts to support what we fear, and that one of the things we greatly exaggerate is the number of immigrants.  I said that’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

So, what have they done based on our fear of immigrants?  First, a reminder.  We imagine that 32% of our population are immigrants while the actual number is 13%.  This means we have 60 million imaginary immigrants in addition to the real 41 million.

Sixty million is a lot of imaginary people!  It’s enough that we’d expect some big actions.  And even though 60 million people are imaginary, we caught 1.6 million entering illegally in 2000 and we do not know how many are already here.  There really is cause for concern.

Immigrants

But what do we mean by “immigrant”?  Everyone was an immigrant when the Constitution was established in 1787.

Our first citizenship law was established in 1790.  Any “free white person of good moral character” who lived here two years and in the same place for one could apply.  The requirement was increased to five years in 1795 with a three year wait, and in 1798 to 14 years with five years notice of intent to apply.

All children born here have been considered citizens since 1868 and African Americans could become citizens since 1870.  Asians could live here then, but not become citizens.

The first law restricting immigration was passed in 1875.  It prohibited any Asian coming to be a forced laborer, any Asian woman who would be a prostitute, and anyone who was a convict.  The labor provision was largely ignored but the ban on female Asians, especially Chinese, was heavily enforced.

Then the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers (it was only repealed at the end of 1943).  Chinese immigration that started in the 1848-1855 California Gold Rush had continued for huge labor projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, but then came the 1870s post-Civil War economic slump.  Chinese workers were blamed for depressed wage levels.

We began deporting those who entered the country illegally in 1891, a year after the Wounded Knee Massacre near the end of when our ancestor immigrants finished dispossessing the Native Americans.

Small-scale deportations began five years before we dedicated the Statue of Liberty with its poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”  We did little to stop illegal immigration, however, until Congress established the Border Patrol in 1924.

Our main focus until the 1950s was Canada.  The first large-scale deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants was Operation Wetback in 1954.  It was not until the 1990s that illegal immigration became a big issue.

At the start of the Clinton administration, Border Patrol had 4,000 agents.  That more than doubled to 9,000 by the end of his administration.  Border Patrol’s enormous growth followed 9/11.  It doubled again to 18,000 agents by the end of the Bush administration and to 21,000 in Obama’s first term.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up following 9/11, Border Patrol was reestablished as part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with a $12.4 billion annual budget and a staff of 60,000 that includes 46,000 gun-carrying Customs officers and Border Patrol agents.

We have spent over $100B on border and immigration enforcement since 9/11.

CBP is by far our largest federal law enforcement agency.  Its 250 planes, helicopters and drones make it the largest law enforcement air force in the world, as big as Brazil’s entire combat air force.

US Border Patrol

Border Patrol’s growth was far too rapid for quality hiring, and it has not been well led.  Until March of this year, it went five years without a Senate-confirmed leader.  An average of almost one CBP officer per day was arrested for misconduct between 2005 and 2012, and Border Patrol agents have shot and killed almost 50 people since 2004.

Not well led?  In Obama’s first year, Border Patrol was ordered to change its definition of “corruption.”  There would be “mission-compromising corruption,” e.g., bribery, narcotics- or human-smuggling, etc. and “non-mission-compromising corruption,” e.g., sexual or other assault of detainees or theft.  Only “mission-compromising” incidents were to be reported to Congress.  That did not cut corruption but it did cut the statistics by almost a third.

Border Patrol’s leader since March has his work cut out, and the October federal budget funds 2,000 more CBP officers, the largest single increase Congress has ever passed.

But no matter how successful BP’s new leader is, stopping people from entering illegally is only half the battle.  We should also make it easy to identify illegal immigrants and promptly deport them.

The high likelihood of being promptly deported would be the greatest deterrent against attempting to enter illegally.

That would require some form of national ID, which advocates of civil liberties oppose.  Because the Constitution grants all rights to the States that are not specifically granted to the Federal government, driver licenses and other identification cards are issued by each State separately.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 established standards for state-issued identification documents to make them acceptable for restricting entry to DHS headquarters, nuclear power plants, and other restricted federal facilities, and eventually to restrict boarding of federally regulated commercial aircraft.  Only 21 States were compliant at the beginning of 2014.

The REAL ID Act is not aimed at identifying who is and is not eligible to live and work here.  The State driver license and other such databases are neither uniform nor interoperable, and that is how State government officials and civil rights advocates want it to stay.  The States want to retain their prerogatives.  Civil rights advocates fear government abuse if we are all recorded in one big database.

There certainly is potential for abuse.  Hoover’s FBI kept files on enormous numbers of people he considered suspect and all of us are now in the NSA’s database.  Our emails, texts and phone calls are searched and stored.  Our travels probably are, too, if we carry a smartphone.  Our activities are captured by surveillance cameras and presumably searched with facial recognition software.

But civil rights advocates are misguided.  We already have far less privacy than we imagine, and we are rapidly losing more.  The protection we need is around the use of data.  We need to protect ourselves directly against government abuse and corruption, not hobble its ability to protect us.

What we need is a dependable way for everyone who has the legal right to live and work here to prove that, and for the form of proof to be very hard to forge.

Our passport system may be a good starting point for the identification documents all legal residents should have.   More than a third of Americans (35%) now have a passport.  That is up from 6% twenty years ago and passports issued since 2007 contain chips that enable facial recognition.

We could establish a system for checking who has the document and deporting those who do not.  We don’t consider it abusive that we must carry a driver license whenever we drive a car.  It would be little more burdensome to carry an identification document at all times.

What have I left out?  Stopping illegal immigration is not enough, we must also establish a just and effective way of deporting those who are here illegally…  Oh, yes, we must also decide who we want to have immigrate and make it easier for them to do so.

We no longer want other nations’  “tired, poor,  huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Actually, as well as not wanting them, we also want to get rid of those like them who are here legally.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Ryan’s proposed 2012 budget, which the GOP House passed, because it “fails to meet the moral criteria” of the Church, failing to help “the least of these as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless.”

Ryan is still chairman of the GOP’s House Budget Committee with more power now the GOP controls the Senate.  We are not likely to get a more Christian budget or immigration policy any time soon.

Our fears will be used to legitimize more violence.

Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts

We imagine facts to support what we believe.  That’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

It’s the same in every country.  This global survey by Ipsos MORI, key findings of which are summarized here, highlights how wrong we are in 14 countries about the make-up of our population.

Emotional innumeracy is the root of the problem, a term from a research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis) who studied immigration innumeracy, the inability to reason about immigration.

Herda found that emotional factors create innumeracy:  “Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy.  It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively.”

So, if we believe immigrants pose a threat, we overestimate the immigrant population.  Fear drives our overestimate; the overestimate increases our fear.

Immigrants

US respondents imagine that immigrants make up almost a third (32%) of our population, two and a half times the actual number, 13%.

Immigrants are perceived to be a threat in all nations surveyed, and the smaller the actual percentage of immigrants, the greater the overestimate.  The miniscule 0.4% of Poland’s population who are immigrants are overestimated at 35 times that number, Hungary’s 8 times, Japan’s 4 times and so on.  Australians with by far the highest percentage of immigrants (28%) overestimate by only a quarter.

The percentage of Muslims is also universally overestimated.

Muslims

The overestimate of our Muslim population by US respondents is 15 times the 1% small reality.  That is consistent with the overestimation in other countries with small (2% or less) Muslim populations  – Hungary 18 times, South Korea and Poland 13 times, Canada and Japan 10 times, Australia 9 times, Spain 8 times.  But even in countries with a more noticeable 4% – 8% Muslim population the overestimates are at least 3 times reality.

The percentage of Christians is correspondingly underestimated in most countries.  Four of every five (78%) Americans report themselves to be Christian while we estimate it is less than three in five (56%).  Even in Italy where 83% of the population is Christian, the estimate is only 69%.  These underestimates result from perceived threat to that heritage.

The percentage of Christians in South Korea and Japan is hugely overestimated.  These overestimates also result from perceived threat to their traditional culture.

Overestimates of immigrants and Muslims and underestimates of Christians all stem from the perception that traditional values, culture and identity are under threat.

We might question the “actual” count of Christians in the following chart because many who do not go to church consider themselves Christian, but the feeling of threat is to whatever respondents consider themselves to be.

Christians

Herda’s research result: “perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy” suggests that the overall inaccuracy of a people’s knowledge of their society’s makeup is a measure of how threatened they feel.  Ipsis Mori presents that metric as an “index of ignorance.”

Index of IgnoranceSadly, we in the US are almost the most ignorant and/or fearful of all nations.  Only in Italy is there greater ignorance and/or fear of change.

Eighty years ago in his first inaugural address, our President spoke of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That, too, was a time to get real.  “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he went on.

But we can’t get real if we keep imagining the facts and getting confirmation of our fears from media whose interests are so different from ours.

So let’s stop deluding ourselves.  Let’s question what we imagine to be facts.

What to Do about Ebola

“Are you not in favor of quarantine?” I was asked in response to: http://martinsidwell.com/ebola-and-homo-politicus/ about how the media promotes fear.

I am in favor of helping us know when to quarantine ourselves and making it less difficult to do.  I am against handing over more of our rights and responsibilities to our government.

What we have done so far to avert the risk of an Ebola epidemic is misguided.  A few States have established mandatory quarantine of travelers from countries affected by Ebola in West Africa.  Travelers from West Africa arriving at five US airports have their temperatures taken and are questioned about their possible exposure to Ebola.  A 21-day quarantine was initially imposed on all travelers returning from West Africa whether or not they showed symptoms of the disease.

If the best approach were to quarantine all travelers from West Africa, it should be done at every international airport throughout the US.

But why only travelers from West Africa, and why not for other deadly diseases, too?  If Ebola warrants such measures, shouldn’t we also close our borders to more deadly diseases?  Those diseases are everywhere, so presumably we should quarantine all travelers from everywhere.

If we are willing to abandon more individual rights and responsibilities, we should temperature test all travelers, quarantine everyone returning from anywhere whose temperature is elevated and refuse entry to all non-natives with high temperatures.

Every passenger had their temperature taken and anyone with an elevated temperature was denied entry the last time I flew into China’s Tibet.  We could do the same.

But Ebola is not in fact such a great risk for us in the USA.  It has been contracted in this outbreak so far by around 10,000 people in West Africa since March and by around 400 health care workers from overseas, about 20 of whom have been treated in Europe and the US.  That’s not many compared to other deadly diseases, but how contagious is Ebola?

Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who has symptoms of the disease. It can survive for a few hours on dry surfaces like doorknobs and counter-tops and several days in puddles of body fluid. Bleach solutions can kill it.

“Direct contact with bodily fluids of someone with symptoms of Ebola” means there is no risk of transmission from people who have been exposed to Ebola if they are not showing symptoms.  No risk.

And the Ebola death rate is tiny so far compared to other contagious fatal diseases: fewer than 5,000 thousand Ebola deaths this year, hundreds of times more for other diseases.  1.6 million died from HIV/AIDS in 2012, 1.3 million from tuberculosis, 1.1 million from pneumonia, 760,000 from infectious diarrhea, and more than 600,000 from malaria.

The death rate from Ebola could greatly increase, but if closing our borders to it is wise, it is even more urgent to close them to HIV/AIDS and other diseases whose death rate is astronomically higher.

How much liberty and privacy are we willing to sacrifice, though?

Sacrificing our individual rights to our government is a slippery slope.  Our fear of terrorists after 9/11 enabled passage of the Patriot Act, which severely restricted our traditional rights and made possible massive expansion of the NSA’s data gathering.  Our fear after Pearl Harbor led us to incarcerate innocent people of Japanese heritage, which we eventually admitted was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Will we eventually reverse the excesses of the Patriot Act?  Or will we abandon more of our liberty?  Will we authorize the NSA to record everywhere we go using GPS data from our cellphones?  They could then know who is at risk from contact with people who develop deadly diseases.

How much of our liberty and privacy are we willing to abandon in order to feel safer?

What have our politicians done so far?  What they are always tempted to do, take more power.  Is there a more effective possibility?

Yes.  The risk of catching infectious diseases and their death rate is far greater in low- and middle-income countries where limited if any medical care is available.  People travel, so disease travels with them.  This means that by far the most effective way to cut our risk of contracting and dying from Ebola or other deadly diseases would be a universal health care system.

Everyone in the USA who contracts a contagious disease could then receive medical treatment and not infect others.

That is the best approach for our people, but what about those in West Africa?  Should we do anything for them?

That’s a moral question.  Facts and analysis cannot provide the answer, although there are practical aspects we can consider.

We currently feel obligated to act as the world’s policemen.  We give our government several trillion dollars each year to destabilize cruel regimes.  But those who survive the bombing fail to establish better government.  That results in us being hated, despised and/or laughed at for our foolishness.

Killling and destruction do not make life in this world better.  We could, however, build a happier world by instead acting as its humanitarian leader.  We could, for example, do more than send 3,000 troops to Liberia to build 17 Ebola treatment facilities.

But we seem to have no compelling self-interest in West Africa as we do in the Middle East without whose oil our economy would collapse.  If Ebola arrives in India’s slums, however, and sparks a widespread epidemic, our cancer, HIV-infected and other patients will not get their medicines because 40% of generic drugs in the US come from India.

We do have interests throughout the world, and our behavior is noticed.  If we stop killing people to make their lives better and instead help them heal themselves, we will be more loved, less hated and therefore much safer.

It is hard to imagine us overcoming out feeling that we must rule the world, however, and almost impossible even to imagine our government building a better situation for our own people in our current political climate.

What does seem somewhat realistic is to avoid Ebola hysteria.  Let’s instead of foolishly sacrificing more of our rights, require our government to educate us about Ebola and make it less difficult for anyone with symptoms to quarantine themselves and get treatment.

Ebola and Homo Politicus

Here goes Homo Politicus again.  Few of us really know anything about the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but most of us have views about whoever is our President.

Homo Politicus says those views tell us all we need to know about the CDC’s effectiveness.

A recent survey finds 76% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans confident in the federal government’s ability to respond to Ebola while a 2006 survey about avian flu found 72% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats confident in the federal response.

The difference?  A Democratic President now, a Republican President then.

Partisanship of Disease Preparedness

We can see the swing taking place.  At the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak in President Obama’s first year, 81% of Democrats were confident and 70% of Republicans still remained so in the federal response.

But does it matter that our expectation about the performance of government agencies is formed not on the facts but on our political bias?

It matters very much.  We panic about how we imagine our government will respond to Ebola but do little about diseases that we bring upon ourselves.

It makes no sense, for example, to panic about Ebola and at the same time smoke cigarettes.

Ebola Cartoon

And it is shameful for us to panic about Ebola being brought here from Africa when we’ve done so little to eradicate it there.

Malaria is estimated to have killed over 600,000 worldwide in 2012, 90% of them in sub-Saharan Africa.  But that death rate is estimated to be down almost 50% since 2000.

The same success could have been achieved with Ebola.  It still could.

And what is the single greatest real reason to fear an Ebola catastrophe here?  Our healthcare system.

People without health insurance who have the disease will put off visiting a doctor until it gets worse.  Of course they will.  They will infect others before they get to medical care.

We could fix that, too, but we are distracted by Homo Politicus.  How very sad it is that we listen to him.

The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

Our cranial roommate, Homo Politicus, identified by Aristotle long before the birth of Christ, is a trouble maker.

The following observation is true enough, but Homo Politicus latches onto one word and says “There you go again!”

All forms of conservatism are symptoms of mental illness.  The fact that they are collective and rooted in ancient fragments of wisdom does not change the fact, just makes them more dangerous, difficult to acknowledge as pathological, and hard to treat.

Because Homo Politicus sees everything as political and “conservative” is a political label, (s)he distracts us from what’s important, the root of the mental illness that manifests as conservatism.

What is that root?  Fear of change.

That’s important because so may of us fear change.  It’s not just Republicans, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists or others who profess conservative values.

And conservatism is not our only mental illness that manifests in politics.  Progressivism is also a delusion because we cannot in real life manage societal change.

Although our every behavior causes change, we cannot control the result.  The network of causes in which we exist encompasses everything that ever happened.  We cannot be in control because we are embedded in that network of causes.

Over-excitable Homo Politicus distracts us from the fact that knowing we cannot be certain about all its results does not mean our behavior doesn’t matter.

In fact, it is only our behavior that matters!  Because they so often guide our behavior, we must be very wary of our mental roommate’s beliefs.

It is foolish, for example, to think that those with a different political bias are mentally ill while we are sane.  That leads us to ignore important truths they point out.

And Homo Politicus blinds us to our own contradictory beliefs.  Conservatives who oppose government activism at home, for example, passionately advocate the use of force to change other nations.

There are such contradictory beliefs all across our political spectrum.

The result is we live with great social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution based on beliefs or identity – all these ills and more – and we don’t know what to do.

We might imagine too much government got us into the mess, or stronger government could fix the problem.  But corrupt and incompetent as our government may be, it is not our primary problem.

That’s good because government’s flaws are very hard to correct but our individual problems are more tractable.  Of course we must correct our government’s flaws but we will get results faster by correcting our own.

What can we do about our insanity?  We can:

  • Reject “us-versus-them”, start building bridges across perceived divides.
  • Focus more on broader long-term consequences of our actions, less on short-term self-interest.
  • Resist appeals to fear and anger that cloud our judgment, use more analysis.
  • Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.

That we have an insane cranial roommate whose friends and enemies are also deranged doesn’t mean we must remain deluded.  We can pay less attention to their chatter and act more wisely.  We will be happier if we do.

Our Eleven American Nations

I was quite startled to learn that our Constitution has a stated aim to protect the “opulent minority.”   I was impressed when I studied our system of government for my citizenship exam.  Now I realized that I didn’t understand the system’s history or implications.

I started with Robert Dahl’s excellent How Democratic is the American Constitution?  Daniel Lazare’s The Frozen Republic opened my eyes wider.   Then I read Colin Woodard’s enormously helpful America Nations – A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America.

Woodard began his career in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union was collapsing.  He noticed that the boundaries of Hungary, Poland and other nations bore little or no relation to the ethnic and cultural realities.  Groups within those countries had always been rivals and people across borders shared a culture and long history.

That got Woodard thinking about cultural rivalry within our nation.  The South versus the North, the coasts vs the heartland, those grossly simplified divisions don’t explain the reality.  Cultures that came from England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and so on were significantly different and those cultures remain powerfully alive.

Our values and the behavior they motivate are much more those of eleven distinct people than of fifty States, or of an homogenous population with shared values.

What are the implications?

The Constitution’s first words are “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union.”  Coming in the recent past from very different cultures with very different values, many of the delegates did not want union but to be left alone.  Those who wanted union had very different ideas about its form.  The great majority of the population was not consulted, certainly not those whose land had recently been invaded.

The Constitution that resulted from all the necessary compromises results in an ongoing contest between only two major parties.

My conclusion before I read Woodard’s research was that since the Republican Party has been taken over by a tiny minority of the most wealthy Americans in alliance with fundamentalist Christians and anarchists, “something-other-than-progressives” must take over the other Party.  But that would result in even more extreme gridlock.

The Democratic Party must not shift to the far left to balance a Republican Party that is moving further and further to the far right.  It must find a position that accommodates the diverse values of a majority of people across all our eleven nations.

Our world is constantly changing, so our policies and programs must, too.  Sometimes a conservative brake on changes will be best, other times major changes will have grown urgently necessary.  And the priorities of neither major party will permanently align with those of any of our eleven nations.

Some of us wage war on “invasive species”, plants, insects, fish, rodents, mammals, any form of life that “does not belong here.”  Some of us reject people who arrived recently and “don’t belong.”  But as the world inevitably changes, life forms inevitably move.

Recent linguistic research indicates that the first people in North America did not come directly from Siberia across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago.  People from Siberia had been living in Beringia for around 85,000 years.  When the ice melted and their habitat was flooded 12,000 years ago, some came here.  Others went back to Siberia where they perhaps no longer “belonged”.

Those who came here formed into tribes, some peaceful, some making war on each other.  We think of those Native Americans as being decimated by “the white man” as if a single invasive species destroyed them.  In fact, it was a variety of new species, eleven major ones, that set up an entirely new form of government which excluded them.

What we need to do now is figure out how we can use that system of government to better represent the people of the eleven nations who we speak of collectively as “Americans.”

We are not alone in facing this challenge and we have had governments that better represented us all in the past.  We can have such a government again.  We’re in a much better position than, for example, Nepal.  Politicians there continue to wrangle without visible progress over what structure of government could represent all Nepalis, not just the Brahmin elite.

Nepal’s politicians cannot even start to learn how to govern until they choose a structure.  Ours could start governing effectively right now.  We must make them do so.

Income Inequality Impacts Consumption

In this post I explore the great increase in income inequality during US economic expansions.  But does income inequality lead to inequality in relative consumption of necessities and luxuries?  Here’s an analysis by quintile since 1984:

http://www.clevelandfed.org/research/commentary/2014/2014-18.cfm

The data overall show (quote): “for lower and middle income quintiles, the share of total inflation-adjusted (real) consumption going to purchase necessities has contracted since 1984, while the share of the total going to purchase luxuries has remained fairly constant or slightly increased. For the highest income quintile, however, there has been growth in the relative consumption of luxuries.”

Wait – lower income folks are now spending less on necessities, more on luxuries?

Relative Real Consumption Shares by Income Quintile

We are not shown the trends for individual items by quintile but when we get to the end of the piece, “implications”, we do get one example of the impact of classifying items as “necessities” or “luxuries”:

Average Share of Total Real Consumption

Education is classified as a necessity although parents struggling to get by and/or maintain their customary enjoyment of luxuries such as “entertainment” and “public transportation” (!) might have a different view.

(Quote): “if the necessity “education” continues to decline as a share of real consumption for all but the highest income quintile, it may exacerbate the income inequality trend over the coming years; increased education is one of the most reliable paths to increased income. However, the lowest, second-lowest, middle, and second-highest income quintiles have all seen their shares of education decline significantly over the analysis period (8.1 to 2.6 percent, 2.8 to 1.2 percent, 2.5 to 1.1 percent, and 2.6 to 1.6 percent, respectively). The highest income quintile has seen its share of education consumption remain relatively steady, declining only slightly from 3.4 to 3.2 percent.”

The devil is famously in the details.

Capitalism, the General Welfare and Education

I’m blessed to have friends whose beliefs I do not share.  They make it so much easier to see that if I believe this, I cannot also believe that.

My ideas were well tested in a discussion of this New York Times article about income inequality analyzed in the context of US economic expansions by Ms. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College.

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, most income gains from the bottom of one recession to the start of the next went to most people, i.e., the bottom 90% got a majority of the increase.  But in each expansion they got a smaller share while the top 10% got increasingly more.

From 2001 to 2007, an extraordinary 98% of income gains went to the top 10% of earners.

In the first three years of the current expansion, the incomes of the bottom 90% actually fell, which meant the top 10% got a seemingly impossible 116% of all income gains.

Inequality Increased with Expansions

The top 10% now gets almost half of all income.  Just the top 3% got almost a third (31%) in 2013 and the next 7% got 17%.  The remaining half (52%) is shared by the bottom 90%.

Making life harder for the bottom 20%, they got only 36% of federal transfer payments in 2010, down from 54% in 1979.

The short term result of rising inequality is weak economic demand.  The longer term impact is lack of progress in education.

The USA is the only high-income country whose 25-34 year olds are no better educated than its 55-64 year olds.  College graduation rates for the poorest increased only 4% from those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s while the rate for the wealthiest increased by almost 20%.

Upward mobility is very limited without a college degree so high inequality in education results in children of prosperous families tending to stay well-off while children of poor families remain poor.

Ms. Tcherneva focuses on the short term issue, weak demand, and observes that our fiscal policy – lower interest rates to increase demand to create jobs – is not working.  She suggests the Federal government focus directly on employment:  “The manpower of the poor and the unemployed can be mobilized for the public purpose irrespective of their skill level, which in turn will be upgraded by the very work experience and educational programs that the program would offer.”

When the discussion began, a different version of the income distribution chart by Robert Reich was dismissed as “bull crap.”  By the end, we agreed that income distribution really is highly unequal in the US and is growing more so.  We further agreed that the trend is unsustainable.  We came close to a consensus that if it continues too long, there will be civil strife. 

And we ended up agreeing that our economy is undergoing structural change.  Off-shoring and automation are eliminating many lower paid jobs.  AI software is also replacing many higher paid jobs.  Perhaps there simply will not be enough jobs humans can do better/cheaper than intelligent machines and we will in the longer term need a new economic paradigm.

When we discussed solutions for today, we disagreed about whether government should try to alter income distribution, directly create jobs, or do more to govern behavior in markets e.g., with stricter bank regulations.  We disagreed about whether government should ever try to influence society in any way e.g., by tax incentives. 

And we disagreed if education should be primarily private or public. 

Seeking a philosophical basis for our beliefs, we discussed the Constitution’s: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … promote the general Welfare …”, and its section 8, which gives the legislative branch the power “… To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” 

What, we debated, is the Federal government’s responsibility for “the general welfare” in a capitalist society?

Characteristics of all forms of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor.  Piketty’s research suggests the rate of return on capital is inevitably higher than the rate of growth of wages.  What government action does that suggest?  To what extent should government constrain behavior in competitive markets?  And is the freedom that comes with wage labor sufficient?

What preceded capitalism was slavery where slaves could not seek a better owner, and feudalism which also kept those at the bottom in place.  Capitalism has no such iron-clad constraints.  In pursuit of higher wages, a better boss, more interesting or safer work, we can try to get any job at all, anywhere. 

Furthermore, capitalism requires property rights and other laws while in slave-owning and feudal societies, laws are the whim of the slave-owner or land-holder. 

We did not dispute the ideas in the preamble to the Constitution; that central government must enable us to live in peace under the protection of the law.  Hamilton in the Federalist Papers was emphatic about “a more perfect union” and “common defense”.  States must not have armies, he wrote, because they would go to war with each other if they did.  The nation as a whole must defend itself. 

Where we disagreed was on Section 8, about the meaning of “the general welfare” and the Federal government responsibilities it implies. 

My thoughts were clarified by the discussion.  I believe the central government of any nation is responsible for establishing the infrastructure, broadly defined, that is necessary for the general welfare.

Infrastructure means basic facilities, services, and installations necessary for a society to function, e.g., transportation and communications systems, water and power lines.  Infrastructure also includes public institutions such as schools, post offices, and prisons. And it includes protection of “the commons”, things we all need that nobody owns such as the air.

Different combinations of public and private involvement can create and maintain infrastructure, but the central government is always responsible for ensuring that current and future generations will have an infrastructure that enables the nation to remain competitive and viable.

I have long thought, for example, that our central government should lead us from dependency on Middle East (or other) oil by establishing a suitable electricity grid.  What struck me in this discussion is that I think a well educated and healthy work force is also part of our infrastructure. 

And I want nobody to be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances into which they are born.

That led me to two conclusions about education.  First, it must be funded from the center because if it is not, welfare cannot be general.  Some will be privileged by accident of birth while others who may have high intellect and/or other gifts will not get an education that enables them to fulfill their potential.  Second, the curriculum must be set at the center because if it is not, our workforce will not have a dependable base of skills.

I do not mean specific work-related skills, almost all of which now have a short shelf-life because technology is advancing so fast.  I mean the ability to seek out and recognize facts, to reason from facts to conclusions, and to communicate effectively with people whose ideas are different. 

We are not born knowing how to do any of those things or how to act as members of society, just as we are not born knowing how to read or do arithmetic, and that’s important because we can’t have an effective democracy if voters can’t recognize facts or reason from them. 

In fact, we do not have an effective democracy, and I want that to change!

My views, taken as a whole, seem to fit no label.   I believe, among other things, that:

  • Markets should operate as the engine of creative destruction (i.e., I’m a capitalist)
  • Which means, for example, that too-big-to-fail financial institutions must be broken into smaller entities that can go bankrupt
  • And (almost?) all tax incentives should be eliminated
  • Individuals should be held accountable for their actions
  • Which means we must strengthen regulation and enforcement of individuals’ behavior in markets (i.e. prosecute criminal behavior)
  • Everyone should have a reasonably good opportunity to fulfill their potential (i.e., I’m a progressive)
  • Which means we need a progressive income tax code and high inheritance taxes
  • And Federally funded education with a uniform national curriculum
  • A reasonable amount of health care and etc should be available to all (i.e., I’m a socialist)
  • Which means we need a universal single-payer health system
  • Infrastructure investment by the central government is necessary and can be funded by borrowing (i.e., I’m not a fiscal hawk)
  • But spending programs should be funded with current revenue, i.e., taxes (so maybe I am a fiscal hawk)
  • Our misguided spending on wars should be invested productively, e.g., on an electricity grid that helps us overcome our dependency on oil and coal (i.e., I’m a peacenik) 

My education left me unable to accept an entire package of ideas from anyone else, but it’s hard to avoid cognitive dissonance when you assemble your own set.  It’s almost impossible to spot every inconsistency.  This is why I’m so grateful to my diverse friends for helping me see more clearly.