Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt/America: Inequality And Complacency

As this fellow at Washington's Blog points out, economic inequality is higher in the United States than in Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen. This is another fact that would probably be very surprising to most Americans.

The author at WB asks the question: “Why are Egyptians rioting while Americans are so complacent?”

It’s a good question and two reasons are given as possible explanations. First he points out that relatively speaking, Americans are (or have been) some of the wealthiest people in the world, with an abundance of luxuries and comforts. Second, and in my opinion more important, he references a study showing that Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in their own country.

Both of these observations are relevant but I’d offer a third factor that explains American complacency. It’s important to understand that the unrest in Egypt isn’t solely the result of economic inequality. Equally as important, if not more so, is that the Egyptian people have no voice in their own political system. Without a legitimate democratic process there is no effective way for the Egyptian population to address their grievances against the government. That is the significant difference between Egyptian society and American society.

As Americans we operate under the assumption that we the people determine who our leaders will be and that our elected officials are accountable to us, and are therefore obligated to do our will. On the surface this appears to be the case. Elections are held every two and four years and the candidate(s) with the most votes win. For presidential elections this isn’t technically correct due to our peculiar institution of the Electoral College, but we can ignore that for purposes of this discussion.

I would argue that this appearance of political self-determination goes a long way towards explaining why Americans happily tolerate inequality that surpasses that of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

What’s overlooked in the American political process, and the reason I use the word ‘appearance’ in the statement above, is that any political candidate running for high office in America stands no realistic chance of winning unless they are endorsed by America’s corporate elite. Votes are important but money is more important. Almost without exception, the candidate who raises the most money wins the election. Obama received more corporate largesse than McCain. George W. Bush received more than Al Gore. Without financial backing from corporate giants in the finance, pharmaceutical, insurance, energy, and military industrial sectors, it is not possible to be a viable candidate in American national politics.

It’s why candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader were not taken seriously by the media and political establishment when they ran for president. And it’s why an allegedly liberal president with a democratic senate and house majority pass a law that requires every American to purchase health insurance from a private health insurance corporation and why,even after “reform”, it is illegal for Medicare to negotiate drug prices or re-import American drugs from other countries whose governments are not held captive by our pharmaceutical industry.

Unfortunately perception is usually more powerful than reality. And despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary, American voters still accept the notion that their government is beholden to the people, not the moneyed interests who allow candidates to reach office in the first place.

There are obviously other factors to consider but I’d argue that it’s this misperception about political power in America that best explains why extreme economic inequality causes riots in countries like Egypt, but gets little to no attention in the US.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt: A Useful Example

I want to state something obvious about this Egypt situation because I know it’s not obvious to many of my fellow Americans. Let’s be clear about what’s happening. The Egyptian people are rising up to protest an undemocratic, repressive, tyrannical dictatorship – one that has been the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the past 30 years, second only to Israel. Most of this has been in the form of military aid.

The United States - which espouses values like freedom and democracy, and frequently intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries to allegedly promote these values – has been sending about $2 billion each year for the past three decades to a dictatorial, undemocratic regime with a horrendous human rights record.

Stated more simply: The US has been heavily subsidizing repression in Egypt.

Pardon the redundancy but I’m emphasizing this point because I know it will come as a surprise to a lot of Americans. Prior to this week’s events most were probably unaware of the nature of the Egyptian government and the plight of its people. And it’s likely even less were aware of the kind of money flowing to Egypt from the US.

I’m mentioning it here because in my experience Americans genuinely cannot understand why many foreigners, especially in the Middle East, view the United States so negatively. The US’s support of Mubarak is but one small example of how America comes to be seen as a hypocritical nation that supports violent dictators when it serves its interests to do so, and makes war against them in the name of freedom and democracy when it doesn’t.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Catching On

According to a new poll, Americans are losing trust in business.

I see this as further confirmation of my theory that if you smack people upside the head enough times they eventually start to develop an unfavorable view of you. Well, roughly 50% of them anyway. The other 50% will continue to deify you for your benevolence and graciously repeat “Thank you sir, may I have another”. Then they drop whatever it was they were doing and run to the tv because look! – it’s almost 4:00 and Glenn Beck is about to be on!

The banks, insurance companies, and other victims of this negative public sentiment probably just see this as a ‘messaging problem’.

But as a casual outside observer I’d offer the following reasons as another possibility for this bad PR:

  • 12-16% real unemployment while corporate profits are at historical highs and corporate treasuries are fairly bursting at the seams with unprecedented levels of cash on-hand.

  • An oil spill that devastated the gulf coast, causing environmental and human damage of epic proportion.

  • A Great Recession caused by the irresponsible, greedy actions of a handful of giant financial institutions, followed by a taxpayer bailout of those institutions, followed by jaw-dropping bonuses paid out to the executives of those institutions with taxpayer money!

  • A CEO-to-average worker pay ratio that has increased from roughly 24:1 in 1965 to 42:1 in 1980 to 475:1 by 2004.

  • Grossly imbalanced income growth over the past three decades with 35% going to the top .01% while the entire bottom 90% received only 16%.

  • A broken healthcare system where 1 out of every 3 dollars spent ($800 billion per year) goes to corporate profits, stock-options, executive salaries, and marketing – not towards actual healthcare!

  • 1.4 million jobs created overseas in 2010 versus less than 1 million created here in the United States where millions of people are unemployed due to no fault of their own, losing their homes and often much more.

  • Those are just a few quick ones offhand. But hey, this is America. And even as these poll results are being published our president and congress are falling all over themselves to reassure business leaders that we love them, and we’re here for them – and we’re sorry for all those mean things we said the other night when we were drunk; we didn’t mean it.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Why Do It

    One of the people I’ve enjoyed reading over the past year or so has been this guy. His focus is finance and economics, which isn’t nearly as interesting of a topic to me as it once was - but still. You have to take the world as you find it, not as you wish it to be. (Or so I’m told.) And I find a world that is utterly at the mercy of what happens in business. I’d just as soon do away with commerce and money if I could conceive of a plausible alternative for human society. But realistically, holding out for an Enlightened Utopia is wishful thinking leaning heavily towards impossible fantasy. On an individual level Enlightened Utopia might just be doable and a fine thing to work towards, but on a large scale, fuggedaboutit.

    Anyway – BR’s “Why Blog?” post was timely for me as I have recently decided to start doing this again, with the aim of doing it with some regularity. He lists ten reasons a person might start and maintain a blog. Of his ten, I identified with #3 (“You want to figure out what you think, and do so in public”) and #9 (“You want to create a permanent online record of what you are reading, looking at, or thinking about”).

    A few thoughts on each of these…

    You want to figure out what you think, and do so in public:
    For me, the lesser emphasis is on the ‘in public’ part but knowing that other people will or might be reading your work can be an incentive to try harder. And depending on the subject matter, feedback can be helpful. The downside is that it also has the potential to result in either: self-censorship (so as not to offend or disappoint would-be readers), an overly self-conscious “it must be perfect!” attitude, or an inauthentic approach that’s more about portraying a certain image or impressing others. These are just a few of the hazards that come to mind. ‘Figuring out what you think’ wasn’t one of my original reasons for starting a blog but it has turned out to be a rewarding and pleasantly challenging side-effect. Don’t be fooled by how easy it sounds. Articulating your thoughts about (sometimes) complex issues in a coherent, concise, and intelligible way can be a formidable undertaking; even more so if there’s the chance that other intelligent, more-sophisticated minds might be there to challenge and critique your conclusions. We all have opinions. But taking the trouble to actually hash-out and justify those opinions is no trivial thing.

    You want to create a permanent online record of what you are reading, looking at, or thinking about:
    One of the main reasons I do this now. I honestly can’t remember why I started blogging in the first place but this may be the reason I decided to keep it going. I’ve found it to be fascinating and enlightening to read back over stuff I posted say a year or two years ago. My reactions to older entries range from embarrassment to pride. As time goes by our views and the way we express them change. It’s neat to have that history out there. And thanks to Google, even if my house burns down or my hard drive gets dropped into a vat of battery acid, my narcissistic drivel humble musings will still be plastered all over the internet. (You’re welcome.)

    Outside of BR’s ten reasons, one of my motivations for doing this is the challenge of it. As he mentions – it’s hard. I’ve seen blog posts that span less than 2000 words where the author has claimed to have spent eight hours or more writing it. And that was a ‘professional’ blogger. I can’t foresee any scenario where I’d put in that kind of time and effort but trying to come up with something to say, in your own voice, sprinkled with some of your own insights, is difficult. But it’s also remarkably fun.

    With that said, I’ll close with one of my own insights which is: Doing something without the aim of making any money or accomplishing any particular goal, doing it just for the sheer enjoyment and challenge of it, without any expectations, rules, or conditions, is an underrated and highly worthwhile endeavor.

    UPDATE: As an example of looking back and being ridiculously amused, would you believe I wrote a post titled Outdoor Urination For Dummies?

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Internal Expose`

    So I've challenged myself to try to start writing blog posts a minimum of twice a week, preferably more. With that kind of requirement there's no telling what kind of breathtakingly fascinating topics are bound to come up. It's sure to be a continuous stream of edge-of-your seat material. Bet on that.

    I actually had a particular subject in mind for tonight's offering but now that I'm here - and determined to do this in fifteen minutes or less - it's clear that I'm not in the mood for that post right now. Instead I want to touch on something more personal, while bearing in mind that getting too personal and/or specific is probably a terrible idea in this venue.

    Oh look, my clock is ticking...

    In each of our lives there will be a few very notable, very defining moments in terms of who we are as individual human beings. I'm talking character here, and values. We all claim to have certain high-minded ideals and principles. It's easy stuff to say, primarily because there are few actual situations that require going beyond the mere words.

    The true measure of character comes when our ideals are put to a test that require some concrete, tangible action. We know when this happens because it usually feels like a difficult or conflicting situation, one of those things where deeper down we know what we should do, the only problem is that it's the one thing we really, really don't want to do.

    What can make this kind of scenario even more difficult is if nobody will really know one way or the other. Nobody but you. You find yourself rationalizing and playing little mind games with yourself trying to justify taking the easy way out, only to realize what that will mean. It will mean that you don't really believe what you claim to believe, that you can't live up to something that you've long thought was a deep part of who you are.

    So what do you do? You have this little battle with yourself that goes on for however long is necessary (if you're fortunate enough to have the luxury of that kind of time) and you make a decision that either exposes you as a fraud or confirms your integrity. To put it another way: you find out what you're made of.

    Such has been the kind of incident that I've encountered recently and the outcome was positive. It's probably gone the other way before but this one was a clear victory. But it wasn't one that I can claim solely on my own. Without the right words and the right understanding from a supportive and compassionate spouse, it would have been a fairly gut-wrenching situation for me. (See...getting personal, but not too personal!)

    So...thank you supportive spouse if you happen to read this.

    Here's the thing. I knew the right answer within seconds. The heart is quicker than the head, but when the head goes to war with the heart...look out! No telling what might happen.

    As it is, I feel that I passed the test.

    Damnit though. Went a little past my fifteen minutes.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Tea It Up

    It doesn’t seem to matter where it is I’m going or what I’m doing but I’m almost always running late. Time often feels like a menacing burden. There’s the sensation that something’s chasing me, lurking just out of sight but gaining. I have no way of knowing what it is – I just know I better hurry. ‘Hurry’ might be the theme for the way of life that I see all around me and the one that I am immersed in. There cannot possibly be that many critically important things that so many frantic people have to attend to so urgently, all the time.

    Nonetheless, time presses down relentlessly on all of us and you see it everywhere. There is a good bit of historical evidence that our ancestors enjoyed much more leisure time than we do. Leisure is not valued in our culture, at least not beyond its function of allowing us to be useful participants in the consumerist lifestyle. It’s defined for us as time to be spent buying some product that will allow us to fully relax and truly be ourselves. That so much consumption results in the necessity of most of our time being spent in the pursuit of money, thereby depriving us of true leisure, doesn’t get discussed nearly enough.

    Being so pressed for time results in a high premium being placed on the concept of convenience. Fortunes are made catering to our perceived and/or actual need for convenience. What’s overlooked is the high price - in terms of dollars, quality, health, and authentic experience – that is paid for the sake of convenience. Most of the good things in life are not convenient. They take time and attention. There’s a reason that patience is classified as a virtue.

    Anyway, as an act of rebellion against all of this I have decided to forego all of my worldly possessions and relocate to a cave in New Mexico where I will adopt the lifestyle of humans that lived there 5,000 years ago. Just kidding. But what I will do is drink tea. I mean real, time consuming, painfully inconvenient tea. Maybe I should phrase it more esoterically: I will partake of the ancient ritual of Tea.

    The art of taking tea has a grand history from Eastern culture to Western culture that spans the ages. Granted it’s become a huge industry, another exploit of commercialism, but that’s a trapping that can scarcely be escaped. The act of making and enjoying a genuine cup of tea requires slowing down and engaging in something simple, subtle, and inexpensive.

    For my tiny act of rebellion tea time will be early morning, before work, the time when I’m naturally feeling the most rushed. Water will be boiled via stovetop, not microwaved, and allowed to descend to its prime temperature for that particular tea. For my purposes I’ll be using mostly varieties of green, loose-leaf tea that require water just below the boiling point. My first few samples have been: “Sky Between The Branches” green tea, “China Dragonwell” green tea, Wu Yi Oolong tea, and a Roasted Green Tea Mint that is my favorite so far.

    My tea ritual will follow my morning round of Sun Salutations and will be a slow, deliberate, mindful act that will be a kind of thumbing of the nose at the hurried, frantic conditions that tend to transpire at that time each morning. And though it falls short of taking up residence in a Himalayan cave with naught but a loin cloth and a candle, it’s a beautifully inconvenient start.