Look at the Stats — America Resembles a Broken Banana Republic

 by CJ Werleman, AlterNet, December 9, 2013

Last week, President Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency when he spoke about the rapidly growing deficit of opportunity in this country. It was the president’s most focused and deliberate address on income inequality to date, but for many it wasn’t nearly alarmist enough, for it didn’t recognize how far this nation has fallen. It’s time we call it what it is: we’ve become a third-world nation.

America has become a RINO: rich in name only. By every measure, we look like a broken banana republic. Not a single U.S. city is included in the world’s top 10 most livable cities. Only one U.S. airport makes the list of the top 100 in the world. Our roads, schools and bridges are falling apart, and our trains—none of them high-speed—are running off their tracks. Our high school students are rated 30th in math, and some 30 countries have longer life expectancy and lower rates of infant mortality. The only things America is number one in these days are the number of incarcerated citizens per capita and adult onset diabetes.

Three decades of trickledown economics; the monopolization, privatization and deregulation of industry; and the destruction of labor protection has resulted in 50 million Americans living in abject poverty, while 400 individuals own more than one-half of the nation’s wealth. As the four Walmart heirs enjoy a higher net worth than the bottom 40 percent, our nation’s sense of food insecurity is more on par with developing countries like Indonesia and Tanzania than with OECD nations like Australia and Canada. In fact, the percentage of Americans who say they could not afford the food needed to feed their families at some point in the last year is three times that of Germany, more than twice than Italy and Canada.

The destruction of labor has been so comprehensive that first-world nations now offshore their jobs to the U.S. In other words, we’ve become the new India. Foreign companies now see us as the world’s cheap labor force, and we have the non-unionized South to thank for that. Chuck Thompson, author of Better off Without Em, writes, “Like Mexico, the South has spent the past four decades systematically siphoning auto jobs from Michigan and the Midwest by keeping worker’s salaries low and inhibiting their right to organize by rendering their unions toothless.” Average wages for autoworkers in the South are up to 30 percent lower than in Michigan.

In Sweden, the minimum wage is $19 per hour and workers enjoy a minimum of five weeks paid vacation every year. In the U.S. the minimum wage is a tick above $7 per hour and workers can expect no more than 12 days of annual vacation. So guess what? IKEA has set up a factory in Virginia. Volkswagen has set up in Tennessee, and the likes of Hyundai, KIA, BMW, Honda, and Toyota have all set up in the South to take advantage of the world’s latest cheap labor source. Moreover, the profits of these foreign companies goes toward stimulating their economies instead of ours.

So, it’s amusing when Republicans blame Detroit’s bankruptcy on liberal policies because nothing could be further from the truth. Detroit is bankrupt thanks to the Republican business model that has turned the entire South into a third-world banana republic. A business model that the rest of the country is forced to compete with i.e. lower wages, low corporate tax rates, low property taxes, and low environmental and labor protection, which results in a migration of industry and jobs from the northern states, which means a shrinking of the tax revenue base in cities like Detroit. Since 2000, the population of Detroit has fallen 20% and property tax revenue has plummeted 26%. Take this as an illustration of how we are in a never-ending death spiral race to the bottom.

Obama’s speech clearly depicted an America losing touch with its ideals. Not only is the middle-class fast becoming the working poor, but upward mobility is becoming almost impossible to attain. At a time when America should be investing in its own future, it is dealing with a sequestration that was never meant to have happened. It happened because the GOP congress would rather destroy the economy than see a black president succeed. Also, raising revenues runs against the GOP’s fundamental pro-corporate strategy of “starving the beast” i.e. starving the federal government of the revenues it needs so it can use deficits as an excuse to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare and replace them with for-profit alternatives.

Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford of the National Priorities Project [3] write:

“Robust public investment had been a key to US prosperity in the previous century. It was then considered a basic part of the social contract as well as of Economics 101. As just about everyone knew in those days, citizens paid taxes to fund worthy initiatives that the private sector wouldn’t adequately or efficiently supply. Roadways and scientific research were examples. In the post–World War II years, the country invested great sums of money in its interstate highways and what were widely considered the best education systems in the world, while research in well-funded government labs led to inventions like the Internet. The resulting world-class infrastructure, educated workforce, and technological revolution fed a robust private sector.”

America is in urgent need of significant investment. We need to, as Obama said, “not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.”

That’s one part of the solution. The other part is a rejection of the Republican Party business model. A higher minimum wage; higher taxes on corporations and the rich; and a greater percentage of the labor force protected by collective bargaining will help restore the America whose middle-class was once the envy of the world, and whose people were among the happiest and healthiest on the planet.

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Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/economy/america-rich-name-only-look-stats-we-resemble-broken-banana-state

Links:
[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/cj-werleman
[3] http://nationalpriorities.org/
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/wealth
[5] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Celebrating Inequality

By GEORGE PACKER, New York Times, May 19, 2013

The Roaring ’20s was the decade when modern celebrity was invented in America. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” is full of magazine spreads of tennis players and socialites, popular song lyrics, movie stars, paparazzi, gangsters and sports scandals — machine-made by technology, advertising and public relations. Gatsby, a mysterious bootlegger who makes a meteoric ascent from Midwestern obscurity to the palatial splendor of West Egg, exemplifies one part of the celebrity code: it’s inherently illicit. Fitzgerald intuited that, with the old restraining deities of the 19th century dead and his generation’s faith in man shaken by World War I, celebrities were the new household gods.

What are celebrities, after all? They dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach. They are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. But in times of widespread opportunity, the distance between gods and mortals closes, the monuments shrink closer to human size and the centrality of celebrities in the culture recedes. They loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.

The Depression that ended Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age yielded to a new order that might be called the Roosevelt Republic. In the quarter-century after World War II, the country established collective structures, not individual monuments, that channeled the aspirations of ordinary people: state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organizations.

One virtue of those hated things called bureaucracies is that they oblige everyone to follow a common set of rules, regardless of station or background; they are inherently equalizing. Books like William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man” and C. Wright Mills’s “White Collar” warned of the loss of individual identity, but those middle-class anxieties were possible only because of the great leveling. The “stars” continued to fascinate, especially with the arrival of TV, but they were not essential. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Perry Como, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Paar, Doris Day and Dick Clark rose with Americans — not from them — and their successes and screw-ups were a sideshow, not the main event.

Our age is lousy with celebrities. They can be found in every sector of society, including ones that seem less than glamorous. We have celebrity bankers (Jamie Dimon), computer engineers (Sergey Brin), real estate developers/conspiracy theorists (Donald J. Trump), media executives (Arianna Huffington), journalists (Anderson Cooper), mayors (Cory A. Booker), economists (Jeffrey D. Sachs), biologists (J. Craig Venter) and chefs (Mario Batali).

There is a quality of self-invention to their rise: Mark Zuckerberg went from awkward geek to the subject of a Hollywood hit; Shawn Carter turned into Jay-Z; Martha Kostyra became Martha Stewart, and then Martha Stewart Living. The person evolves into a persona, then a brand, then an empire, with the business imperative of grow or die — a process of expansion and commodification that transgresses boundaries by substituting celebrity for institutions. Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them.

After all, if you are the institution, you don’t need to play by its rules. Mr. Zuckerberg’s foundation myth begins with a disciplinary proceeding at Harvard, which leads him to drop out and found a company whose motto is “Move fast and break things.” Jay-Z’s history as a crack dealer isn’t just a hard-luck story — it’s celebrated by fans (and not least himself) as an early sign of hustle and smarts. Martha Stewart’s jail time for perjury merely proved that her will to win was indomitable. These new celebrities are all more or less start-up entrepreneurs, and they live by the hacker’s code: ask forgiveness, not permission.

The obsession with celebrities goes far beyond supermarket tabloids, gossip Web sites and reality TV. It obliterates old distinctions between high and low culture, serious and trivial endeavors, profit making and philanthropy, leading to the phenomenon of being famous for being famous. An activist singer (Bono) is given a lucrative role in Facebook’s initial public offering. A patrician politician (Al Gore) becomes a plutocratic media executive and tech investor. One of America’s richest men (Michael R. Bloomberg) rules its largest city.

This jet-setting, Davos-attending crowd constitutes its own superclass, who hang out at the same TED talks, big-idea conferences and fund-raising galas, appear on the same talk shows, invest in one another’s projects, wear one another’s brand apparel, champion one another’s causes, marry and cheat on one another. “The New Digital Age,” the new guide to the future by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen of Google, carries blurbs from such technology experts as Henry A. Kissinger and Tony Blair. The inevitable next step is for Kim Kardashian to sit on the board of a tech start-up, host a global-poverty-awareness event and write a book on behavioral neuroscience.

This new kind of celebrity is the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up. Their superficial diversity dangles before us the myth that in America, anything is possible — even as the American dream quietly dies, a victim of the calcification of a class system that is nearly hereditary.

As mindless diversions from a sluggish economy and chronic malaise, the new aristocrats play a useful role. But their advent suggests that, after decades of widening income gaps, unequal distributions of opportunity and reward, and corroding public institutions, we have gone back to Gatsby’s time — or something far more perverse. The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods: to flash their favorite singer’s corporate logo at concerts, to pour open their lives (and data) on Facebook, to adopt Apple as a lifestyle. We know our stars aren’t inviting us to think we can be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind.

George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author, most recently, of “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/opinion/inequality-and-the-modern-culture-of-celebrity.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130520

The Secrets of Princeton

by Ross Douthat, New York Times, April 6, 2013

Excerpt

…a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class…

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one…What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?…The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite… The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts. That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones…

Full text

SUSAN PATTON, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. …

Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body “diversity” that’s mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don’t need to be told — that’s how the system already works! The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.

But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.

No, it’s better for everyone when these questions aren’t asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts.

That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.

But really, Susan Patton, do we have to talk about it?

I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-secrets-of-princeton.html?emc=tnt&tntemail0=y&_r=0

It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, New York TImes, December 12, 2012

Before I get to the dreary budget debates in Washington, here’s a bright spot of good news: We’re getting smarter.

My readers are all above average. But if I ever had average readers, they would still be brilliant compared with Americans of a century ago.

The average American in the year 1900 had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would measure about 67. Since the traditional definition of mental retardation was an I.Q. of less than 70, that leads to the remarkable conclusion that a majority of Americans a century ago would count today as intellectually disabled.

The trend of rising intelligence is known as the “Flynn Effect,” named for James R. Flynn, the New Zealand scholar who pioneered this area of research. Countless other scholars worldwide have replicated his findings, and it is now accepted science — although there is still disagreement about its causes and significance.

The average American I.Q. has been rising steadily by 3 points a decade. Spaniards gained 19 points over 28 years, and the Dutch 20 points over 30 years. Kenyan children gained nearly 1 point a year.

Those figures come from a new book by Flynn from Cambridge University Press called “Are We Getting Smarter?” It’s an uplifting tale, a reminder that human capacity is on the upswing. The implication is that there are potential Einsteins now working as subsistence farmers in Congo or dropping out of high school in Mississippi who, with help, could become actual Einsteins.

The Flynn Effect should upend some of the smugness among those who have historically done well in global I.Q. standings. For example, while there is still a race gap, black Americans are catching up — and now do significantly better than white Americans of the “greatest generation” did in the 1940s.

Another problem for racists: The country that tops the I.Q. charts isn’t America or in Europe. It’s Singapore, at 108. (The reason may have to do with Singapore’s Confucian respect for learning and its outstanding school system.)

None of this means that people today are born smarter. While I.Q. measures something to do with mental acuity, it’s a rubbery and imperfect metric. It’s heavily shaped by environment — potential is diminished when children suffer from parasites or lead in air pollution. As a result, the removal of lead from gasoline may have added 6 points to the I.Q. of American children, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Flynn argues that I.Q. is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews.

“The brains of the best and most experienced London taxi drivers,” Flynn writes, citing a 2000 study, have “enlarged hippocampi, which is the brain area used for navigating three-dimensional space.” In a similar way, he argues, modern life gives our brains greater exercise than when we were mostly living on isolated farms.

It’s not that our ancestors were dummies, and I confess to doubts about the Flynn Effect when I contemplate the slide from Shakespeare to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Likewise, politics does not seem to benefit: One academic study found a deterioration in the caliber of discussions of economics in presidential debates from 1960 to 2008.

But Flynn argues that modern TV shows and other entertainment can be cognitively demanding, and video games like those of the Grand Theft Auto series probably require more thought than solitaire. (No, don’t call the police. My teenage kids are not holding me hostage and forcing me to write this paragraph.)

Back to the debates in Washington. To me, the lesson from this research is the vast amount of human potential globally that is available if we can nurture and stimulate kids who now get neglected.

One challenge is to preserve foreign aid. Some 61 million children around the world still don’t attend even primary school, and President Obama in his 2008 campaign was right to propose a global education fund, in part as an alternative to extremist religious schools. I’m hoping the idea doesn’t get dropped forever.

The even greater challenge is nation-building at home at a time when funding for schools is being slashed, about 7,000 high school students drop out every day, and there are long waits to get into early-childhood-enrichment programs like Head Start. Literacy programs can help break cycles of poverty and unleash America’s potential — and a single F-35 fighter could pay for more than four years of the Reading Is Fundamental program in the entire United States.

As we make hard budget choices, let’s remember that the essential fact of the world is that talent is universal and opportunity is not. I hope we’re finally smart enough to try to remedy that.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/opinion/kristof-its-a-smart-smart-smart-world.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121213&_r=0