Tuesday, October 8, 2013

America 2013: a State of Denial

As we enter our second week of the "Government Shutdown" we come to realize that the government hasn't really shut down at all - just the fun parts like the National Park Service and all the museums. But the mail still comes, police are on the street, prisoners still locked up and the military has been assured that their paychecks won't stop - not to mention that all the legislators who voted for the shutdown, or didn't, are still getting their cheques as well. 

So it doesn't matter. The sky is not falling, but even assured that the sky will stay where it is, there is disconcerting evidence that our underpinnings are eroding - that creating the world's largest prison population through the War on Drugs and creating a permanent underclass of people who live below the poverty line through unemployment and insufficient job creation will eventually come to threaten the backbone of our country. And the average American is just blithely unaware of any of this at all - living in a State that is in a State of Denial.

The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

This book, by Michelle Alexander, Stanford Professor and Civil Rights lawyer, has become a national best seller by illuminating the fact that since 1980 and the start of the War on Drugs, that the US prison population has grown from roughly 300,000 to over 2.3 million (the highest in the world) and that over 80% of the prisoners are black or Latino - not to mention that there has never really been a 'drug problem' in the United States (Crack didn't even show up until 1985 and most of the prisoners are in for minor marijuana violations).

But the fact that most of the prisoners are black cannot be overlooked. As simple as it might be for the police to be busting down the doors of frat houses at universities across the country looking for joints, that's not what's happening. Instead the police focus on low income areas with more poorly educated residents because it's just plain easier to not only arrest, but to convict them. And once convicted, mostly of drug felonies, they lose their chance of ever becoming functioning, taxpaying, members of society - and so end up adding to our national economic woes. And did you know that prisoners are not counted in our numbers of unemployed? And that once released, stay unemployed because felons are certain pariah for any worthwhile employment.

And so we, as a country, have chosen not just to incarcerate our poorest, least educated members, but to screw them for life by never giving them the shot that Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey got. That's not going to work out well for us.

Give us your poor, your tired your hungry - or we'll just make them ourselves

What's the poverty rate in America? How many are there? What's the poverty threshold? And what is one supposed to do once they reach a 'threshold'? According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 50 million Americans can be considered as living below the poverty line - and 20% of our entire population are children living below that line. How might we think that's going to grow into the future? When the total poor population of any developed country reaches the size of more than Spain or Argentina that just can't be a good idea. Statistically, the Chinese have fewer people below their poverty line than we do. And the average American thinks the Chinese are poor.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg here in New York thinks that just adding more rich people to the mix would solve it - so that they can pay the taxes that support everyone else. "If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.", he says. But that seems just totally bass-ackwards, because the way people get rich is by selling things to the middle classes - so the more you grow the poor side of the equation the less market there is for reasonable profit margins from the people who are making a decent buck.

Why not grow the middle class by growing it out of the less fortunate class? Why not graduate the poor to the middle by providing a path of growth based on acquiring knowledge, experience and providing value to society? Maybe Mr. never President Bloomberg can answer that question for me - because I'm not a billionaire - just an aspiring social architect.

But economically, it makes sense. For every commercial dollar you put back into the hands of a socially dependent citizen, that's less you have to spend on taking care of them, and the more that they put back into the commercial spectrum by buying a bag of chips, a bus ticket, whatever. The money our government puts into the food-stamp program doesn't help anyone economically. It's just an expense - whereas, should that dollar go directly to that person, they're going to spend it in a way that benefits a few other citizens.  

Take your percentage, rich people, but don't take so much. The disparity between rich and poor in this country is the issue - not that we don't have enough money so we have to shut the good parts of the government down. We just manage our finances poorly. That's the issue - our State of Denial.

So where does the money come from to realign our society?

Chart please:

World military spending in billions

But wait a minute. China has five times the number of people to protect as we do. So why are they not near as preoccupied by war as we? Maybe it's because they're not pissing off nearly the number of people we are globally. And maybe because one of China's major sources of income is us - both in commercial products made in China and sold in the US and in debt. For all the money the US borrows every time we raise the "debt ceiling", the majority of it comes from China. But that's not really the story here. The story is that for all our military spending, for having not only the highest incarceration rate (and wildly higher per-capita) in the world and for having the developed world's nearly worst child poverty rate - that we are grossly fucking up our future.

World child poverty rates by country

And barely a small fraction of America knows these things. A collective State of Denial that allows the rest of them to make the monthly payments on the Chevy, keep the cable and maybe repaint the house next year. But the last thing most Americans want to hear about is how their children will have to deal with this - and a Chinese kid will not. "Just get the kid out of college - and then I'll be out-a here", they think. 

But when you think that the total number of convicts sent to Australia over an 80 year period from England (the penitentiary in England being embarrassing and a totally American concept they thought) was only 160,000, and they turned out fairly well, I might think that setting our prisoners free, growing a society that supports the common man and not needing a military to defend anyone against that - might be a worthy goal. 

But it won't be called America. It will be a State of Acceptance - instead of a State of Denial. 

Maybe called just, "Home".

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