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Article – Please Pay Attention to What Really Matters: Wake Up, USA!

Please Pay Attention to What Really Matters: Wake Up, USA!

There are several huge, almost overwhelming problems facing us today: the Covid-19 pandemic; the economic downturn; climate change; the effects of shifting international power, especially with the decline of the US as a world power and the corresponding rise of China; the increasing dominance and rent-seeking behaviour of many big businesses; social fragmentation; and concerns over the loss of privacy as digital technologies impact on our lives.

It is hard to avoid the sense that we are at the end of an era. At the same time, the relentless dissemination of information through news, commentaries, networking sites, experts and online magazines makes it hard to pay attention. Thousands of daily updates about events and issues drown us in detail, to the point we lose sight of what matters. Experts ‘explain’ everything to such an extent it is hard to be clear as to what is important and what isn’t, what is simply opinion and what is factual. What is really going on?

If we stand back from the deluge, I think there are some important shifts taking place, impacting on the US, on the world economy, on climate change and on the current pandemic. I have three perspectives to offer. They help me deal with all the dreadful things we read about today. This explains them briefly, and the conclusions I have drawn. I have not written this note because I am confident I am correct in my analysis. I have written it because I believe it’s important to focus clearly on the critical elements in what is changing, and address the significant challenges confronting our world before their effects become unstoppable. This is a perspective on what is happening in the US but it might apply elsewhere. Nothing I am saying is new, and I may be ill-informed on many issues, but my concern is the need to look carefully at some pressing and fateful issues impacting our lives in order to act before it’s too late.

  • Other People

We used to care about other people, about neighbours, friends, the community. Now we care about ourselves.

When I was growing up, my small London suburb comprised a set of overlapping communities, built around church, schools, sport and pubs, and other venues. Those various intertwined connections and links helped keep the community together. You would meet people at a church fete, at the model railway club, at school functions, at a local cricket match in the park, at the swimming pool (yes, even in the UK people went to the swimming pool!), when you were learning macramé or how to paint, or attending a talk on flowers in the local park or on local history. Some of the people you saw you knew quite well; some were relatively unfamiliar. You kept an eye on a schoolboy you knew who was often in trouble. You would notice if an older man along the road hadn’t taken in his morning delivery of milk While many were at work from Monday to Friday, hours weren’t excessive. There was leisure time, and, to borrow from Robert Putnam’s analysis, if you went ten-pin bowling, you didn’t go alone, but would join a team, or meet with a regular group, holding competitions with others you knew. Many of the links were local. If you had a car it was used to visit family in other places, or long-term friends who had moved to another town, but much of your life was centred on your local community.

I don’t want to idealise that world. In England class mattered, and it was so deeply embedded it was accepted without much protest. The differences shaped language, dress and behaviour, but, despite class divisions, local events, children at primary school, sport and shopping were great counterweights. An older lady falling over in the street would be helped, whatever her background. If neighbours in your street went away, you kept an eye on their house, even if you didn’t really know them. Of course, when I was growing up it was already evident the middle class was inherently selfish. As one friend reminded me, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, selfishness ruled: memorably, Thatcher stated “there is no such thing” as society.

Today, we scarcely know our neighbours. Churches, sports and leisure activities have become more exclusionary. Television has drawn us inside. Youth and adult leagues in soccer, volleyball, baseball, softball and tennis still exist, as do book and other leisure interest groups, but participation is declining, and has been for the last 30 years. Going out to watch a football match or baseball team has become something of a tribal past-time; perhaps it always was, a means to give you a needed sense of shared identity. Certainly, it is part of our nature to want to categorise, especially people: dressing in team colours offers a signal: like me/not like me. At a game today, it seems team allegiance is much more than just about identity: admiration for an example of good play is often swamped by abuse, cries of cheating, or biased umpiring, sometimes accompanied by ominous chanting; supporters are becoming more like gangs.

We have become selfish. We demand our rights, we look for advantage, and, even worse, we convince our children and our grandchildren they are special, clever, good looking, deserving. Just as in Lake Wobegon, every child is above average. It is easy to oversimplify, but it is hard to be a good parent today, encouraging the values of caring, commonsense, and a respect for facts and evidence. Whatever we might say or suggest, a young person is bombarded with advertising, and the subtle and not so subtle messages in television shows and movies, fostering needs and wants. Living in a world where having more seems important can create anxiety, and a necessary desire to remain ‘in’ with your group, not ‘out’ like others.

The common good hasn’t disappeared entirely. People have been supporting others during the current pandemic, people they don’t know. When we had to go into city or state lockdown during the outbreak, we did so because we knew everyone else was doing the same. We were in it together. There is a deep well of caring and concern that has been evident over the past few weeks. However, as restrictions have begun to loosen, concern for the common good is diminishing: controls lifted, so care is weakening, as it’s time to be off to the race track, off to bars, believing ‘I’ll be fine’. The well is emptying. It’s not just the pandemic. Another example is an increasingly popular anti-vaccination movement. One researcher explained parents have come to see inoculation as a personal matter, for their child, for them to decide on an individual basis, with the result they forget or ignore vaccination is also for the benefit of the community.

I know the danger of generalisations. Rural communities are not the same as urban ones. Middle class online employees are not the same as working class essential workers. Many people are active in online communities, many care for others. But the trends are clear. In China on a recent visit, I was observing parents with their children, known as the ‘little emperors’. It was like looking in a mirror. We have been going in a similar direction, creating an increasing number of selfish, entitled young, with their latest iPhone or Nike shoes, while failing to notice many are burdened by the weight of unrealistic expectations; some turn to drugs or crime.

This is the real issue of the covid-19 pandemic. It is only partly the woefully inadequate health system in the US; it is only partly the result of electing a narcissistic, stupid and selfish President. In very large part, it is because we are selfish. As people fall ill, infections spread, and we blame the ‘super-spreader’ (what a convenient new term), China, Democrats, the people over in that suburb, or any others we can think of, while we resolutely refuse to wear a face mask because ‘we’re OK’. We are urged to save the economy at the cost of health in the community. What a paradox that the virus spreads in the community because we are losing a sense of community.

The trend is clear: growing individualism and social fragmentation are evident. Concern over Covid-19 has fuelled racist sentiments, especially those aimed at ‘dangerous’ others, Blacks, Indigenous Peoples and Asians. The tribalism to be found among sporting team supporters is appearing elsewhere. Now there’s the tribe who won’t wear a face mask; there’s the tribe who carry automatic rifles in the street and shopping mall; there’s a tribe that hates transgender and gay people. Even gentle teasing between towns changes. Residents of an Australian border town, Mount Gambier (in South Australia) abuse neighbours from Nelson (close by in Victoria). Why? ‘They’ might be a source of infection, or they might demand ‘we’ stay-at-home.

Every day I hope, perhaps desperately, that younger people are ready to clean up the mess a world of ‘all about me’ creates. Growing numbers are pushing for clean green technologies, and a return to socially aware principles. I suspect the changes have to come from them, as our energy to create a better world is dwindling, but as they drive change, the rest of us should be ready to support them. Our form of ‘free market capitalism’ has run its course and is destructive. We have to change, to overthrow what we have today, and create a truly open and caring society.

My first proposition: today’s capitalism thrives on selfish individualism; we need to change the system and its priorities to re-establish a sense of caring common purpose.

  • The Fate of Empires

Empires rise and empires fall. Many countries in Europe have come to terms with the decline of their power and fortunes. Britain is slowly adapting to its new and lower place in the world order. Today, the American empire seems to be falling apart, ably assisted by its fool-in-chief. It’s not going to be a slow and steady decline. There is every reason to believe the US will emerge from its current problems still a world leader. It has the businesses, the research, the armed forces, to keep its strength up. It might even go through a resurgence. The days of glory are over, nonetheless. Greed has destroyed a thriving democracy, replacing it with the twin disasters of oligarchy and oligopoly. Collapse has happened before, and it is happening again.

What about American exceptionalism? Yes, the country is exceptional, but not as we have been led to believe. Rather it is exceptional in the following ways:

  • Life expectancy is around 78.5 years, just two years ahead of China, but lagging the UK (81), Canada (82), Australia (82.5) and Japan (84): moreover, as other countries see life expectancy increasing, the US remains on an almost flat trajectory
  • US is a world leader in health expenditure, at around 17.7% of GDP, compared to China (5.2%), UK (9.6%), Canada (10.6%), Australia (9.2%), and Japan (10.9%): but all this money is proving woefully ineffective in terms of longevity and other health indicators.
  • The US is a world leader in incarceration rates, with 737 people in prison (per 100,000 in the population), more than double any other country except Russia (615), with China at 118, UK 148, Canada 112, Australia 125, and Japan 62: just to be clear, that overall US rate hides the rate is 2,306 for those defined as Black, 831 for Hispanics, 450 for Whites.
  • When it comes to income share, the US is not exceptional. As in many countries, the bottom 20% get around 5% of the total income, the top 10% around 30%. However, the country is exceptional when it comes to those at the very top: the average annual wage in 2018 was around $37,500, but the top 0.1% earned around $2.8m, and in terms of wealth the top 0.1% owned around 20% of US wealth, the bottom 90% around 25% of the total.
  • Finally, the US government expends around 1% of GDP on higher education, similar to most countries, but with a further 1.5% of private money, much higher than elsewhere. The graduation rate for tertiary education is 57% (similar to most countries). In 2016 student debt is highest in the US (around $40K) and UK ($55K), and increasing (much higher for professions like medicine). While the UK student debt repayment system is fair and manageable, here the US system is exceptional, as for many it’s close to punitive.
    There’s more, but that should be enough.

We are often told to learn the lessons of history. I am never quite certain what that means. What I do see as I read about the past few millennia is that no empire lasts for ever. It is as if there is a natural cycle. A vigorous new state begins to exploit its resources and innovations. As it looks around, it sees neighbours ripe for the picking. Expansion begins, and what was a state becomes an empire. Then, in middle age as it were, the vigour begins to decline. Greed and laziness take over, invaded and oppressed subjects become restless, and slowly but surely bureaucratic rigidity and self-satisfaction eat away at previous strengths. The decline begins. In the US today, an example of what is happening is evident if we look at the four major IT companies (Apple, Facebook, Google (Alphabet), and Microsoft). Once the drivers of Silicon Valley’s amazing innovations, they are still key to the economy, but now they happily buy up or thwart new entrants and new ideas, oppressors rather than creators in their bloated middle age.

Overseas, China’s strength is increasing as its resources keep enlarging. Money, intellectual capital, innovation, economic power and shrewd political bargaining are extending its reach. This is an empire growing (some Chinese would say China has never gone away, but for certain, this is a new China, unlike the feudal empires of the past). If today it is autocratic, this may be a function of two issues: it is still growing, and the leadership feels the need to keep tight control over the forces it is building, (although almost certainly wrongly). At the same time it has a traditional culture in which family and community have been more important than the individual. Growing wealth will, eventually, sap all that, and China will slump into a middle age of comfortable wealth. Perhaps I should have said: “empires rise, empires get fat, empires fall.”

I used to think that we were moving into a world with three or four equally important economies in some kind of balance – the US, China, Europe and Japan, soon to be followed by India. Now I think I was wrong We are more likely to see the familiar process continue: as one world leader goes down, another one comes up. Japan’s recent decline anticipates the fate of Europe and the US: it was rich and self-confident, but it proved unable to act effectively, unable to change enough to deal with a new and different world. Yes, China is growing now, but other new empires will arise in time. At some point India will be important, but not yet, and maybe not for several decades. It remains deeply entangled in a fragmented and unworkable democracy, riven with religious fissures, the country as a whole still hobbled by a huge, poor rural population.

History offers another lesson. Major change is often sparked off by a galvanizing event, by a war, or a worldwide recession. By a pandemic? Will covid-19 do more than demonstrate the fragility and the inequity in our current economic and political systems, but also provide the pressure for change, revolutionary change? If it does, the risk in accelerating an empire’s decline is to abandon everything that had been there. As Churchill suggested, our democratic system may not be ideal, but we haven’t found anything better: we might try to retain the logic of a tripartite political system, balancing a democratically elected parliament with an independent and fair judiciary and a professional, politically neutral executive. At least until we devise one better, let’s hold on to democratic principles and practice, while rejecting the oligarchy we have today.

My second proposition: empires come and go – accept it and move on.

  • Climate Change

The world is undergoing progressive and alarming climate change. The biosphere has enormous capacity to adapt to a change like this, sloughing off animals and plants that no longer suit a new environment. It we leave on one side man’s unbelievably stupid fascination with nuclear weapons, the world will adapt and change, as it always has.

If we do nothing to stop this process, humans as such won’t survive, certainly not in the way we are today. However, we humans are unique. We have the capability to address climate change, to slow down its effects, to find new technologies that are sustainable and effective. Every decade we fail to take up this challenge, the more inhospitable the world will become, and the greater the risks of war, famine and massive population disasters.

Why don’t we act? Is it because we have become selfish, so focussed on what we want, so tempted by the toys and trinkets offered by corporations that we have become passive and uncaring? Several years ago, Barry Jones, an Australian polymath, politician and social critic, wrote Sleepers, Wake! a treatise on the consequences of poorly understood and poorly managed science and technology. Well, we didn’t wake up; we are still asleep.

The evidence for climate change is compelling:

  • The planet’s average surface temperature has risen by around 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, largely from increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions.
  • Most warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2014.
  • The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased; Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same time period.
  • The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.
  • Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
    Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year.
  • Since 1950, the number of record high temperature events has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, together with increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
    All this, and considerably more, is incontrovertible.

Why can’t we see what is happening? In part, it may be because the changes are slow and incremental: it was a bit hotter last year; we’re having another drought; there have been more hurricanes and tornadoes recently. Someone will point out there was a very hot year 47 years ago. Another will comment on increased snowfalls: clearly the world isn’t warming up. In part, it may be a problem with scientists, making the dramatic boring with charts and tables. We need more, younger David Attenboroughs, more Greta Thunbergs. We should be paying attention.

In part, we are suffering from a ‘dumbing down’ in the population. Fed a constant stream of lies, exaggerated conclusions and unsubstantiated stories, people have become credulous, relying on the opinions and views promoted by media personalities. Confidence over ‘facts’ has been damaged by alternative stories. This is an international problem. In Australia, media concentration through the consolidation of major newspapers and television stations is accompanied by the deliberate downgrading of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the weakening of universities and particularly the humanities subjects (with regulations increasing the costs of courses in these and allied areas), along with intended religious legislation which blurs the line between church and state. Amongst other things, all this embeds discrimination.

In the US it’s the same. Broadcast and written media are routinely denigrated as purveyors of ‘fake news’. The separation between church and state is being deliberately eroded, state university funding slashed, along with cuts in support for both the primary and secondary sectors. All of this is being enabled by a systematic appointment of rightwing and conservative justices, (which is parallel to the process in Australia, with similarly political appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Australian Awards Panel).

How you know what is true? How can you discover the facts? We see leaders telling the story they want us to believe, as they stamp on thinking and legitimate enquiry, and allow business interests and promotional marketing to prevail unchecked. Truth and facts get lost in the noise. Soon, we’ll be told climate change will go away, just as the coronavirus will, it’s not a problem, just an exaggeration or a conspiracy. After all, if Trump said so, it must be true.

Our attention is easily deflected. We’re being tricked into thinking the most important issues are geopolitics, the rise of China, Russia, or whatever other drama fills screens and news sources. There is no bigger drama than climate change. This is a thousand times more important than putting a man on the moon. We did that in 10 years. Close to a tipping point, we have just 10 years to deal with this. Ashoka Maurya, a 3rd Century BC Indian Emperor, said, ‘Doing good is hard – even beginning to do good is hard”. He might have added, ‘but you have to take the first step to start’. Some companies are taking steps, improving energy efficiency, using renewables, accepting social and an environmental responsibilities, while still remaining profitable. Young activists are leading the way. Now, political leadership is needed to make necessary changes.

My third proposition: climate change is taking place, the trajectory is frightening, and the world community needs to wake up and start making changes, now.

A Time for Change

For a long time, the US was exceptional. Although flawed in many respects, it developed a democracy that improved on the political systems we’d seen before. It unleashed the power of a free market, fostered science, technology and innovation, and put in place services and policies to improve the lives of its citizens. In the last seventy years, what it did so well has gradually begun to fall apart. Internationally, the country has become a political, economic and military bully. Internally, it has undercut its democratic principles, encouraged tensions and divisions, and fostered exploitation, while a small minority grows its wealth at the expense of the rest.

What is to be done? Here are some suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more:

  • When you are told something, remember to check:
    a. Seek evidence from reliable, honest sources, and investigate
    b. Question purpose – Why am I being told this? What is being expected of me?
    c. Think before acting
  • Do what you can to preserve the institutions that matter – voting rights, democratic processes, justice for everyone whatever their colour, creed or preferences
    a. Vote for representatives who are pursuing democracy, not oligarchy
    b. Monitor your elected representatives, and write or call them on every failure – keep up the pressure because you know they want your vote!
    c. Protest discrimination and bias – in person, in writing
  • Be clear about your moral and ethical principles
    a. Call out those who fail to do the right thing
    b. Be willing to stand up for the principles you believe in
    c. Tell the truth
  • Support those who are trying to create a better, fairer society
    a. Join or fund pressure groups pushing for equality
    b. Take measures to reduce your adverse impact on the biosphere, reduce the use of non-recyclable products, minimise your use of non-renewable resources
    c. Remember – doing good is hard, even beginning to do good is hard, but you have to take the first step to make a difference
  • Enable the next generation
    a. Show by example how to distinguish truth from ideology and opinion
    b. Demonstrate a willingness to listen, to explore, and to encourage learning together
    c. Above all, never give up: the most important contribution we can make to the next generation comes through our developing, supporting and encouraging them, in their ability to understand more clearly and act more effectively than we did

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