Friday, July 15, 2011

America Needs a Heart Transplant

Another of these thinking-aloud-but-not-really-getting-anywhere kind of posts.


I find I've been reading books of a certain tenor lately. Chicken-and-egg, I don't know whether these books are spurring me to read more of the same or whether I'm in a new place philosophically and I seek out books to satisfy this hunger. But there's a common theme here.

I began with Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals, about the ethics of eating meat. I followed that with Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and that one with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Lest we think the theme I'm referring to is about food per se (for which impression one could be doubly forgiven when my previous post about insulin resistance is considered), I went from there to Matt Taibbi's Griftopia (with a brief stop for the film Inside Job), and am now reading Chris Hedges' Death Of the Liberal Class (with a few more waiting in the wings: Hedges' Empire of Illusion; Nomi Prins's It Takes a Pillage; Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power).

The thread connecting all these books? We're fucked.

OK, not really that, exactly. But all these books refer however obliquely to a massive sleight-of-hand being systematically perpetrated upon us which is changing the landscape right beneath our feet. The one theme that comes up again and again here is that our existence, our country, our government, are much less to do with personal freedom than I have spent my life believing. I grew up thinking that one could with a bit of application do almost anything in life that one could imagine; we were limited only by our imaginations and our ambition. But in the past few years I've come to think that the needs and wants of the individual--the sanctity of the individual in our system--has been absolutely trumped by the needs and wants of a power center that has almost nothing to do with the average citizen. What remains is the mere illusion of choice and self-determination.

Always it strikes me that I'm only now grasping what people were trying to teach me in high school and college. The lessons of American history and of class struggle and workers' rights and the rise of industrialism and the great robber barons; all these things went in one ear and out the other, as though the lessons of the past had no real application in a world marching inexorably forward. But as I get older I begin to understand (as I was told) that there really is nothing new in the world, and we're only living again and again the lessons and travails that we've seen before in recorded history. (What I wonder now is whether all this reading has given me an uncharacteristic Glenn-Beck-like paranoia about things going bump in the night.)

We find ourselves now in a society in which the needs and wants of big business have been given supremacy over all else.
  • Tax obligations for big business are easily gotten around (i.e. there are no tax obligations for big business), and government oversight is virtually non-existent. Despite this, the relentless pursuit of profits over every other consideration has caused these companies to ship millions of jobs out of our country to subsistence economies and then hide the vast resultant profits offshore (thus escaping having to sustain the system which they've gamed for these huge rewards).
  • We have spent the last 30 years dismantling government oversight of safety and environmental concerns, and further efforts are ongoing. This is likely to be catastrophic for us--for pollution of ground water and air and global climate and so on--but the imperative to get everything out of the way of big profits is given the first chair at the table.
  • We've discussed the absolutely disastrous interface between big business and the food we eat, and we have an epidemic which is growing at home and abroad at alarming rates (a survey I heard the other day on NPR claimed that 68% of American adults are now overweight or obese. 68%! Almost 3/4! These figures are up sharply in just the past couple decades).
  • Since 2003 we have been engaged in a war of aggression based on highly spurious and shifting rationales, first in one country and then another (and now a third), at a staggering financial and human and moral toll to the nation. The outcome of this policy (if one can call it that) has been to make vast sums of money for the private contractors who constitute a majority-and-growing share of the effort, supporting a smaller and smaller cadre of men and women who are actually in harm's way. The turning over of military functions to private, for-profit industry is now an established and dominant fact, and it undermines any political will we may have to end the conflicts since continuous war is a huge moneymaker for the big corporations who are running the show.
  • There is a similar move afoot to privatize other government functions--health care, social services, infrastructure maintenance, etc. (Chicago recently sold its parking meters as a "business" to a Middle-Eastern consortium, as well as its Skyway expressway, and many other cities are poised to do the same to get operating cash.)
  • The information we receive--carefully-packaged and skillfully marketed in 24-hour portals--all comes via the filters of huge industry-owned media conglomerations, which helps to explain why we spend much of our time in titanic battles over gay marriage and abortion instead of focusing on foreign wars and the realities of national economics.
  • The financial services industry (a behemoth that didn't even exist a century or so ago) has engaged in the last decade in immense, industry-wide fraudulent gambling schemes (the impetus for which is--you guessed it--the accumulation of obscene wealth) which have brought the very economies of the industrialized world to the teetering brink of ruin. The disaster was averted by our government hollowing out the wealth of the nation itself and making the debts--no, worse: the obscene payouts--good. In the aftermath of this scare we've done exactly... nothing.
  • The conservative Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same standing and rights as citizens. (Put me in a courtroom against DuPont or KBR and tell me who's going to prevail?)

None of this has happened by chance. This has been a systematic and ongoing Republican effort--with much Democratic complicity--to paint the very idea of government as evil and to get it and every other impediment out of the way of maximizing profits for a handful of folks at the top. We have been fed a firehose of horseshit about rising tides lifting all boats while our pensions and homes and salaries have been drained. And the net result of all this has been to take the collected wealth of the nation and shift it up to a tiny segment at the very top of the food chain--a transfer of wealth that has been unprecedented in history. And we appear powerless to stop it. Worse, in what seems like an ultimate example of Stockholm Syndrome, we seem eager to protect and facilitate the ongoing transfer--to the point of angrily demanding it! Meanwhile, the media are dutifully "reporting" that it's greedy union workers and lavish government handouts that have brought us to this point--the very converse of what the facts show; it's the common worker who has stagnated or gone significantly backward while the rich have gotten MUCH richer.

Chris Hedges points out in Death Of the Liberal Class that there are 35,000 paid lobbyists in Washington. Think of that. The people sent there to do OUR bidding--those we elect to govern our country--number exactly 636 (plus a few hundred staff). Is there any question who will prevail in any issue that comes before our elected representatives? I now feel like an epic fool to have written my representatives, ever. Even the threat of removal from office has no sting if what waits is better yet.

The question is what to do about any of it? The elected representative who goes to Washington with even the very best intentions is inexorably disabused of his / her starry-eyed ideals. The perks of playing along are simply too lucrative, and again and again we see people move from government service to one of those highly-paid lobbyist spots when their tenure is done. Experience has shown that it's simply not realistic to expect most elected officials to retain the convictions which gained them their office; it simply doesn't happen. So any idea of electing our way out of this mess is stillborn.

So what to do? Is there any saving the system?


dbackdad said...

As usual, you are so thoughtful and thorough that a drive-by reading of your post and a casual comment would not do it justice.

I've been in the same place you are after reading books of recent years. My moment was after reading Jared Diamond's Collapse and Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. The first lays out in exquisite detail how, on a smaller scale, societies fuck themselves over by ignoring the signs and consume themselves into extinction ... and how we are doomed to repeat it. The second lays out how governments and groups use crisis to shove through their agendas, specifically a version of capitalism elevated to godlike status. In short, the combined message is that we are stupid, not really in control and are destined to keep repeating it.

I don't know how we fix it. I have so little faith in our elected officials. There are not enough Kucinich's, Bernie Sanders's, and Russ Feingold's of the world to counteract the congressmen of both party that are completely bought and sold.

wunelle said...

I think this is a reality which is only dimly assembling itself in my instant-gratification brain. And it's my sense (wrong, I hope, but I cannot see how) that we have virtually no prospects for reversing these trends that causes me to chew more and more on this stuff.

Plenty of people whose blogs I read have been tackling these issues, or parts of them, for years, but if they get too strident I tend to tune out. My life is good; how bad could things really be? And maybe things have always been this way, with the common person content to aspire to a position of prominence and the REAL prominent people chuckling from their insular, guilded halls. But when I cannot see any realistic chance of electing people who will stay on message when the bribes are flying, then I have little hope of our fixing any of this.

Anonymous said...

Glenn-Beck-like paranoia is just not helpful! Elections will not change the course in America. Our representative democracy is a tarnished facade, at best. Corporations run this game...just watch what will ultimately happen with the debt ceiling debate. Big business does not want the public trough to run dry. The Republicans are really just sanctimonious pricks. They all know that the debt ceiling will be raised because that is what Corporate America wants. What a mess. Go for a bike ride and clear your head!!!

wunelle said...

Good advice: a Buell cleansing!

I can't make heads or tails out of the debt ceiling thing: how is it even possible for a major political party to threaten economic meltdown to keep taxes from being raised on a tiny segment of the population? (One way is to believe the Faux News Tea-bagger hype that says "it's no big deal to default on our debt;" this sounds remarkably like "global warming is a hoax" and "evolution didn't happen.")

I'd just like to see things maneuvered so that the entire Repuglican party is fed into the philosophical wood chipper.