Monday, October 31, 2011

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

click on chart for larger image

The right wing in this country constantly extols the idea of American exceptionalism. If we stand apart from other developed countries, however, recent data seems to indicate that this may have more to do with our own country's social and economic backwardness than any kind of legitimate exceptionalism about which to feel proud.

I've written in the past about my own experiences living in Europe, where the harsh edges of capitalism are smoothed down just a bit by the communitarian ethos of many European countries. In Belgium, where I had the honor to study, just about everyone has a decent paying job with excellent benefits and ample vacation time, high quality education is provided through the graduate level for those that qualify, and health care, of course, is universal. People in a place like Belgium may not be able to earn quite as much as their American counterparts, but a progressive approach to taxation ensures that every one's basic needs are met, while still allowing for adequate social mobility.

When I was teaching political theory at Rangsit University in Bangkok in 2003, I was always surprised to find the students in my class talking about the U.S. as though it was some kind of paradise. The students I taught came from all over Asia, but the one thing they all had in common was their unshakable belief in the sublime perfection of the American way of life. To put things into perspective, I had them look up data on crime, education levels, access to health care, infant mortality, and overall happiness in the U.S. and other nations. And much to their surprise--though not mine own--the U.S. actually ranked fairly poorly in all these categories.

I made the case then--with these students who would one day become part of the elite in their own countries--that if they really needed a model for development, they should probably look to Scandinavian countries, which outranked the U.S. in every category that matters except one--income inequality. In this category, at least, the United States truly was #1. The tremendous disparities of wealth that existed in this country back then, in fact, made places like Saudi Arabia and Mexico look positively egalitarian by comparison.

The recent data that has come out, if anything, shows that the U.S. has fallen even further behind other developed nations than when I had raised this issue eight years ago with my students in Thailand. A new report entitled "Social Justice in the OECD--How Do Nation Member States Compare" puts our continued decline relative to other developed nations into stark perspective, and should make anyone who cares about the future of the United States wake up and take notice.

Fortunately, for those of us who become mind-numb reading socio-economic reports, Charles Blow of the New York Times, has put the information that came out of the German study into a format that even someone as data-challenged as myself can understand.

As you can see from this chart above, the U.S. now ranks towards the bottom of developed nations in terms of its poverty rate, education rates, and health rates. Once again, however, we continue to lead the pack in terms of income inequality.

Whenever I hear right-wing pundits brag about the U.S. being the greatest country on earth, I always want to ask, "yes, but for whom?" If you're in the top 1% economically in this country, then this is probably a perfectly swell place to live (assuming you have no soul or conscience, that is). For the bottom 99%, however, the United States is increasingly becoming something very much like the banana republics of old, where the majority to survive were forced to serve the needs of the ruling elite, catering to their every whim.

That's not the kind of country that I want to live in, and I don't think it's the kind of country most Americans want to live in either.

So the next time some reactionary jackass starts claiming that the U.S. is #1, you can certainly agree with him. We're fatter, dumber, sicker, and poorer than just about any other developed country in the world...and damn proud of it too!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Income Inequality: Why We Should Care

Some of my colleagues on the faculty think that my emphasis on income inequality as one of the biggest problems in the country today is misguided. One of my thoughtful friends from the Business Department, for example, while acknowledging that income inequality is "a problem and an issue," disputes the idea that this inequality is "the key driver of what ails the US economy."

I also heard supporters of Wall Street argue that the fact that the top 10% of the population is doing so well is a sign that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing as good capitalists--generating wealth. And that wealth, they argue, will eventually be put to good use, expanding business and creating jobs once there is a climate of greater economic certainty in the country (i.e., once Obama is driven out of office).

I've argued that the very inability of business people to understand the anxieties that Americans are experiencing is what is fueling the kinds of protests that we are seeing going on all around the country. And since (as the above graph clearly indicates) the richest Americans are getting richer at the expense of the average worker, these protests are only likely to get more extreme in the future as the middle class is forced to suffer with years of potential stagnation.

What we are experiencing, in fact, is a new Gilded Age--one in which the wealthiest Americans control more wealth, power, and political influence than they have almost at any other point in American history. Recent data clearly indicates that the wealthiest Americans now control almost exactly the same percentage of the nation's total income as they did at the beginning of the Great Depression. Income inequality in itself is not necessarily a problem. But the kind of radical inequality that we have now means that those with excessive wealth are able to buy elected officials of their own liking and lobby to weaken financial regulations and environmental protections (as they are currently doing). It means that we no longer have a government "by the people, for the people, and of the people"--a true democracy in other words--but a corporatocracy--rule by corporate interests for their own benefit.

This is not simply a "problem and an issue." It's a catastrophe for our democratic institutions.

During the Great Depression, it took someone like Franklin Roosevelt to save American capitalism from it's own excesses, greed, and shortsightedness. The rich didn't appreciate him for the financial regulations he put in place as part of the New Deal, but, in fact, Roosevelt was probably the greatest friend American capitalism had at the time. By moderating the excesses of capitalism, one could argue, Roosevelt gave us 40 years of economic growth that benefited business owners and workers alike.

Unfortunately, we have no Franklin Roosevelt on the public stage today. Republicans want to roll back all economic regulations and destroy the few government programs that still exist to protect the average American, and Democrats are too timid and corrupt to ever propose truly progressive legislation like we had during the New Deal or Johnson's Great Society.

So until the next FDR comes along, we probably have to resign ourselves to years of economic instability and hardship for the poor and middle class. But we certainly shouldn't expect those who are suffering most simply to disappear. There will be many more protests ahead of us, and these protests may in fact turn violent, as they already have in Europe.

That, unfortunately, is simply the price we will have to pay for our moral, political, and economic blindness. Consider it karma worked out on a societal level. In the end, we will most certainly reap what we have sown economically.

...and I'd hate to be working on Wall Street when that happens!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Youth In Revolt - Part 2

The hostile reaction of Wall Street plutocrats, Republican presidential candidates, and right-wing commentators on Fox "news" seems to indicate that the Occupy Wall Street movement is beginning to hit a nerve. The general talking points of these conservatives is that this is a movement of frivolous, pot-smoking, lazy, unfocused youth, most of whom don't have a clue about why they are protesting.

You could expect that the right-wing in this country, which is so cozy with Wall Street, would do everything they could to discredit this movement, which by all accounts is a legitimate popular uprising. But this smear campaign doesn't seem to be working. A recent Time Magazine poll, for example, clearly shows that OWS is viewed far more favorably by Americans than the Tea Party is. Only 27% of Americans have a favorable feeling about the Tea Party, while 54% feel favorably about OWS. Even more telling, 89% of those who had familiarity with the protests agreed with the statement, "Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence on Washington," 79% agree with the statement, "the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large," and 68% agree that "the rich should pay more taxes."

It would appear that a vast majority of Americans are in agreement with the basic guiding principles of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that the more they learn about this movement, the more supportive they will become.

The problem so far is that the movement has not done quite as good a job identifying solutions to our economic problems in the United States as they have drawing attention to the problems themselves. Nor has the Democratic Party and President Obama effectively taken on the issue of income inequality, which is the ultimate source of most of our economic difficulties. The reason for this is obvious to me: the Democrats take at least as much campaign money from Wall Street as the Republicans do, and you don't ever "bite the hand that feeds you."

So until the Democratic Party gets over being so testicularly challenged, it is up to those noble men and women at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere around the country to keep the pressure on Wall Street and on Washington. To the extent that they can do this, I feel confident that more and more Americans will come to view this movement favorably and will ultimately begin to understand--as the protesters clearly do--that the real problem in this country is not that there's too much government, but that the American government has become co-opted by the top 1% of economic elites.

...and when the 99% of the country, who have been bearing the brunt of this economic down-turn, start to realize who is responsible for the mess that they are in, watch out Wall Street.

The real occupation is just beginning....

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Snapshots from An Occupation

I had the privilege of going with my students to experience the "Occupy Wall Street" protest at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan yesterday. Although there certainly were the odd assortment of weirdos and exhibitionists that surface at every public gathering in New York, I was highly impressed by how disciplined most of these people were and also how thoughtful they were about precisely why they were protesting. It was nothing at all like the circus of misguided freaks that the media likes to present.

Although the battery of my camera died within a short while of arriving at the park, I managed to get enough footage to put together this video. I think it gives a fairly nice snapshot of the atmosphere in the park.

I also was able to shoot some video of activist Tom Trottier putting the protests into context for the students. Tom has been fighting against THE MAN for the past three decades. His radicalism began during the Regan years, when you had to be super-committed to speak out against corporate capitalism, and his dedication to the cause of social justice has not wavered one iota since then.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Youth in Revolt - Part 1

For several weeks now, a committed group of young men and women have encamped at Zuccotti Park and have been protesting daily on Wall Street. The protests in New York have captured the attention of the entire country and have been duplicated in cities throughout the United States.

Naturally, there are those who are not at all enamored with what these young people are trying to do. The protesters have been accused by conservatives of engaging in class warfare and lawlessness. House majority leader, Eric Cantor, for example, called the protesters "a growing mob." Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, labeled them as "anti-American" because they are "anti-capitalism and anti-free market" and just plain jealous of the success of Wall Street tycoons.

The protesters have also been accused of having an intellectually incoherent agenda. Certainly, their cause was not helped by interviews that were aired with bubble-headed neo-hippies, who seemed incapable of explaining why exactly they were on Wall Steet in the first place or who appeared to have agendas that had nothing to do with corporate greed at all.

In fact, most of the protesters are united in a common theme--namely that 99% of the country is being cheated by the richest 1%. Recently, the protesters put out a "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," which couldn't be clearer in it's critique of corporate practices that have driven the United States to the brink of economic disaster.

For twenty years I've been bemoaning the fact that American youth has been totally apathetic in the face of widespread economic injustice, the concentration of power in the hands of a corporate elite, the co-option of government by these same elites and their enablers in the White House and Congress, and the frightening growth of the military-industrial complex. Now the Millennial Generation finally seems to have found it's mojo and I am damn proud of them for it. The Occupy Wall Street Movement represents what is noblest about the American tradition--the fact that ordinary citizens have the right (and indeed the duty) to speak out against social and economic injustices. The spirit that animates these protests is the same that inspired the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movements of the 60s and it has the potential to be equally as transformative.

So what can we do to support this important movement. First, read about what the protesters are actually saying, rather than relying on the distorted commentary of the mainstream media. Then, if you live in a city where protest are going on, consider lending your support. Numbers, unfortunately, do count, and if enough Americans register their disgust at the way things are going in this country, our elected official will be forced to take notice.

I, for one, will be taking a group of students this Friday to Zucotti park to find out what's really going on and to interview protesters for this blog. I look forward to sharing my insights in a few days.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Intersubjective Nexus Project

I use the Internet all the time. Without a doubt it’s a great tool for the dissemination of unconventional ideas that might never have seen the light of day in the D-B-I (the dark and depressing Days Before the Internet), where THE MAN had almost total control over what you could read or watch.

But the Internet was also supposed to be a place where people all around the world could connect to one another in meaningful and personal ways. While this happens on occasion—think about the revolutions occurring throughout the Middle East that have been facilitated by people interacting with one another using programs like Twitter and Facebook—what I’ve noticed is that, for many, the Internet has actually increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Despite the occasional success of hook-up sites like, web-based interactions tend to be totally superficial, because we never really know who it is we are communicating with. The connections we forge with people in on-line chat rooms or as fellow cyber citizens in First Life, can never be truly like the connection we have with a good friend, because the latter sort of interaction is based upon trust, loyalty, and real empathy…three things you really never can get from an on-line relationship.

I think we are poised to see an entire generation of isolated and alienated young people, who have become so addicted to the endless stimuli that the web provides that they don’t even know how to be truly intimate with flesh and blood human beings. Eventually, in fact, the on-line experience will become so hyper-realistic that people will be able to live their entire lives interacting with cyber avatars who will provide all the things we want from a relationship—companionship, the veneer of sympathy and affection, intellectual stimulation…even sex—without all the hassles of having to deal with real flesh and blood individuals.

No matter how realistic we make the on-line experience, however, in the end people will always know that it is an illusion, and this will merely increase their sense of isolation and loneliness. So what do we do about this? We could start now by encouraging the millennial generation to put down their Iphones, Ipads, and the like, get out in the fresh air, and start learning how to relate to other real human beings. But this is not going to happen any time soon. The 20-year-olds are too far gone for that already and probably so too are their equally addicted parents.

So I decided, if you can't beat them, join them. Let’s create an on-line experience of interpersonal intimacy and connection for all those alienated, isolated, emotionally disjointed youth. And better yet, I thought, let’s make it so absolutely positive and life affirming an experience that they’ll leave feeling as though they’ve just had the best relationship of their lives…better than the kind of relationship they could have even with their closest real life friend, since there would be no threat of rejection or criticism. And, finally, let’s have everyone who participates leave receiving what all of us really want from any intimate relationship—the feeling that through a deep and caring connection with another human being, our pain and loneliness has been healed. Interpersonal connection, joy, and healing…What could possibly be better than that?

So, here is the result of these musings on the viciousness and emptiness of the digital age in which we reside—The Intersubjective Nexus Project. Relax, settle in, play the video, and feel all of your woes just slip away. You will feel loved, cared about, wanted…and, best of all, you don’t really have to do anything at all to earn this. Just turn on your computer.

Nexus 1: Freedom from Anxiety

Nexus 2: Freedom from Fear