Who are we, what are we

A few nuggets on America society to go with your morning coffee:




+ Since the massacre 18 months ago of 20 children at a school in Newtown, Massachusetts, there have been an additional 74 school shootings in America.


+During the same time period, the number of school shootings everywhere else in the world… is one. (Nairobi, Kenya)


+There are more non-military firearms in the hands of American citizens than in the rest of the world combined (around 310 million).


+In a poll of the current countries in the World Cup in Brazil, the most disliked country is Iran. Next is America.


+ Here’s a link to an article in yesterday’s NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/business/economy/uninsured-on-the-wrong-side-of-a-state-line.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar


Texarkana is a unique city in America, a city that is half in Arkansas and the other half in Texas. If you live in the Arkansas half and get sick, you’re covered because your governor signed up for expanded Medicare under the new Obamacare legislation. Rick Perry, the ultra-conservative governor of Texas, would have none of that, so the Texas half in Texarkana has no coverage. The article puts a human face on these politics. One woman hasn’t the money to treat the hole in her tooth. Another man with congestive heart failure and bronchitis has nowhere to go. “It makes me mad,” said Mr. Miller, who is not receiving any federal benefits at the moment despite his array of illnesses. “They need to quit playing games with people’s lives. Rich people. Government people.”


+ A friend sent me a link to this YouTube clip from the movie “The Dictator”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_8kQNbRo9c

It’s brilliant satire from Sasha Baron Cohen on America, playing a dictator. Here’s what he says:

Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1 percent of the people have all the nation’s wealth.

You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests.

+ With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970 our prison population has risen 700%.

+The minimum wage in America is $7.25/hour, though some states and cities have mandated a higher wage. The yearly salary for a worker at this rate is $14,500 per year. Nearly two-thirds of the work force at this salary are women, and nearly 80% are over 20 years old. (By comparison, the minimum wage in Australia is $16.25/hour, or $32,500/year.)

+ There’s a reason why we met so few Americans out in the world and yet so many Europeans, especially Germans. Americans are too busy working. On average, an American works 20% more per year than his/her German counterpart (and for no more money). It’s a mandate in all EU countries to give their workers a minimum of 20 days of paid holiday per year. Meanwhile, one in four American workers hasn’t a single paid day of vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. By contrast, the average private sector U.S. worker receives 16 paid vacation days and holidays.

Think about that. Now think harder about that.

A worker in Country A gets 35 days of paid leave per year, or 7 full weeks. A worker in Country B gets 16 days of paid leave, or about 3 weeks.

Country A is Austria, but reduce that total by a few days and that country is anywhere in Europe, and anywhere in Australia and New Zealand.

What does mean?

It means that an American only has time for a short vacation to the Jersey Shore every summer, plus maybe a few extra days around Christmas. There just isn’t the time to explore the world. 3 weeks is nothing. 7 weeks is something. With 7 weeks you can jump off shore and explore another country at length. With 7 weeks you can really observe how another culture organizes its society—how they manage health care and education, how they provide internet service, how they may be a walking and bicycle culture, how they may have solar panels everywhere (like in Nepal), how they may have more than just two political parties, how they take two hours to eat a meal. What a wonderful opportunity to open your eyes in this way… but also dangerous. Dangerous, that is, if you want to keep your work force compliant and working, if you want to keep your citizenry in the dark about other, better ways of living.

Conclude what you will, but keep the statistic in mind: 7 full weeks of paid vacation in much of the world, compared with 3 weeks of paid vacation in America.

+ You need three things to travel to faraway places: money, time off, and an appetite for other cultures. Regarding the first two, I just made the point that most American workers don’t have enough vacation time. But what about money. Do we have enough disposable income to travel?

Well, just think of one factor that is a unique burden to too many Americans, and that’s student loans. Obama calls it a crisis that this loan amount that now exceeds 1 trillion student loans. Rather than putting money toward traveling the world, the recent graduate is paying off his heavy debt for a decade or more. Not so in Europe, not so in Australia and New Zealand, where most higher education is tuition free. Here’s a passage I just came across:

“It is quite unfathomable for most Europeans that you would start your adult life tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” says Oberle, who researched higher education systems in countries such as the U.K., Hungary, Argentina and Turkmenistan for her book “College Abroad.”

“People always seem stunned that the American system even sustains itself under the current conditions,” she says.

+ Student debt is symptomatic of a larger issue, which is overall private debt in America. We owe too much money to go traveling. In the 1950s private debt was 50% of GDP; now it’s 250%. A large chunk of that debt goes towards mortgages that skyrocketed the past decade. But an enormous amount is just from debt on credit cards. Here’s a startling statistic: The average credit card debt per U.S. adult is $4,878.


That’s the average.


Since I have no such debt, and I presume lots of others have no such debt, that means that the guy over there has a debt of $16,932, and that woman over there is $26,449, and so on. And since the interest on credit cards is… what? 15% or so—which is utterly criminal, right!—then people are probably just paying down the interest and not the principal, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.


That begs a bigger question: What are we buying? Why are we racking up these debts with money we don’t have? What is it about America that makes credit so easy and purchases so necessary?


You need that car. You really do. You can’t be driving your child around in a 20-year-old car with a big dent in the side. And those cleats! You need cleats! You can’t have your child running around a soccer field in tennis shoes, for god’s sake. Cleats are $87 at Big Five so go buy them so the poor kid isn’t humiliated, okay. Same with his baseball mitt and bicycle. Just buy them and leave the paying for another day. Well, while I’m here I suppose I could buy those jeans that make me look pretty hot in the mirror in the dressing room. $56, that’s not bad, may as well buy two.


And on it goes, and on it goes.


America: The teenager of the world.


+ So not enough time, not enough money. But what about curiosity. Are Americans even curious enough to explore Peru or Ghana or India?


That’s a more complicated answer. The geography of America isolates us, makes it possible to disregard our two neighbors (do you know the leaders of Mexico or Canada? I don’t.), makes it possible to go a whole lifetime speaking just English and using only green dollars as your currency. Not so in Holland. We kept meeting Dutch on the road, a people who speak impeccable English and German and Dutch and maybe French. They are surrounded by Denmark up there, and Germany over there, and Brussels over there. They can’t help but have a world orientation, whereas the orientation in America is just us. For some Americans that “just us” gets carried toward the extreme: down with the United Nations, down with “coalition building,” down with immigration.


At the same time, America remains this mix of ethnicities and cultures, or at least that’s the case if you live in a particular place. To walk down a street in New York City is to visit the world. Close your eyes and listen to a range of other languages. Inhale deeply and smell the kitchens of the world, the curries and tortillas and sushi of the world. The same in San Francisco, somewhat the same in Modesto—and yet very little in childhood home of Lakewood, Ohio, and my grownup town of Sonora, California.





America: What are we, what are we not? What are the forces that give us an illusion of ourselves? What are the forces that want to keep us in check, to keep us isolated?


Okay, that’s enough food for thought for this morning.






1 Comment

  1. J. Schiavo

    I agree, that’s a lot of food for thought. The question is how do we shift the balance back toward something more equitable. Each day, while congress sits in partisan gridlock, we appear to proceed a little farther down the path of inequality. If we have the 99%, shouldn’t that be power enough to match the wealth and power of the 1%?

    I suggest that the solution to America’s “issue” requires a change to our cultural values toward wealth, power, status etc. In America these things are valued more highly than the well-being of our families and personal relationships. We value our 2nd Amendment right over the safety of our schools and children. We continually sacrifice for this pipe dream of an American Dream without realizing what it costs us. We need a new American Dream. Legislation can only do so much; our (American) values should not be dictated by Congress.

    When friends indicate their jealousy of the amount of time I have to spend with the kids or pursue my own interests I can’t help but smile and quietly pat myself on the back. These are the same friends, let’s call them the Jones, who are able to afford nice cars, vacations, and a McMansion because they work so much (too much?). As much as I would like to live in a McMansion and drive a Mercedes, my American Dream is about having less and needing less, allowing me more control over my own time and more choice in how much work I’m willing to engage in to satisfy those needs.

    Thanks for letting me borrow your soap box…

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