Changing Ruts: Why Our National Denial is Killing Us
by John Kelley
In the northern Michigan where I spent much of my life, there is an interesting condition that occurs each spring. The dirt and gravel roads turn to mud each day as the sun melts the snow and thaws their surface, and then they freeze each night as the temperature drops. In the daytime the roads are rivers of mud, making it easy to slide, skid and get stuck. It gets so bad that some rural schools have mud days, because buses can’t get down the dirt roads without getting stuck.
In the late afternoon the temperature drops refreezing the ruts of the last vehicles of yesterday in the new day’s mud. Driving then isn’t that bad as long as you stay in one of the rows of ruts. Turning is a rough adventure, as you have to fight the steering wheel to get your car out of one rut to another. It stays that way for a few weeks to a month, and then the snow is gone. The ground thoroughly thaws allowing the surface water to drain away, the grader comes through and the roads return to their normal washboard surface.
America is stuck in a rut, an invisible rut of our own making. We know we are in a rut, one that is carrying us off the road, but have little clue as what to do about it. We know our level of consumption is killing us, gasoline and food prices being the wakeup call, yet we have no clue as to how we are going to get out of this mess. Politicians at all levels in both parties are so dependent on maintaining our path in the rut they manufacture their own facts to confirm it. The most obvious evidence is to exclude food and energy prices as a measure of inflation. Hence the fed can declare inflation still manageable at 1.9% when it is really 11.7%.
The causes of our energy-money trap are many but the biggest one is policy. Despite identifying the problem of foreign dependence on oil 30 years ago, corporate control of government has kept us on this plan for self destruction actually increasing our per capita use of oil significantly during the same time. We have had government officials at the federal, state and local level who have opposed higher mileage standards, supported oil company subsidies while reducing them for green alternatives (Reagan wiped out most of Carter’s energy alternative subsidies in the first 60 days of his administration), encouraged consumerism around the world to increase profits driving up demand, loosened investment and banking regulations promoting speculation, and most importantly reduced our dollar to worthless paper.
To hide our national slide and maintain profits, there has been a consistent piling up of government debt, a constant attack on wages and benefits for workers, outsourcing of production capacity, a constant attack on freedom in the name of security and a steady criminalization of the poor to justify exclusion from the promise of progress in America. “Economic Growth” has been completely decoupled from the cost of living and quality of life.
Bush kicked it up a notch, coming off the dot com crash, then the economic impact of 9-11 he was looking at sliding into a recession while moving to control mid-east oil reserves, necessary to maintain an oil based economy. The solution, run the presses, print money, lower interest rate, moving from an economy that was based in production to one based in speculation.
To continue to put actual capital into the economy required getting citizens to give up the equity capital they held. That was done by promising every day Americans to leverage all of that equity in the great speculative game of Wall Street speculation including buying their own debt. That debt was encouraged by pushing bigger houses, SUVs and unneeded crap on credit cards they couldn’t pay for through a whole new spectrum of “financial products”. The result was the biggest transfer of wealth in the history of the country. As our personal and national debt increases exponentially, the presses run faster and faster to keep the bubble growing to prevent the inevitable collapse, insuring it will be bigger when it does happen. When it does the big guys take what is left, your house, your savings, and your car.
Oil is the new gold, ever rising prices are primarily a response to the falling dollar. As dollars become worth less, buy oil, because even at the current price it looks like a good deal in the long run when compared to a dollar increasingly backed by debt. Oil speculation is basically trading a commodity falling in value, U.S. Treasury notes and dollars, for a rising one, oil. Oil companies and speculators are doing just exactly what they are supposed to do; the criminal part is how they and the politicians they own have influenced public policy to create this situation in the first place. We are trapped by our debt, our transportation system, our sprawl, and our high energy dependent lifestyle but most of all by our denial.
Maintaining the National Delusion
How do you keep people in the dark while you are robbing them blind? Pump up the patriotism and reinforce national delusion. The basis of our common delusion is the myth of American Exceptionalism and it is deeply embedded in every American from the time of their birth. American Exceptionalism is the belief that we are the freest, most moral, best educated, best paid citizens on earth and that of course, is because we are favored by God. Consequently we are not only the bastion of the best, we have a duty to impose this system we have created on every corner of the earth.
This American Exceptionalism is a result of the domination of the Anglo-Saxon conqueror tribal tradition, the Protestant work ethic that tells us that wealth is a sign of the favor of God, our geographical and intellectual isolation from the rest of the world and a national ethic that raises unbridled greed to a moral imperative. The problem is this rut is headed off the road into that pile of vehicles that followed it before, the historical trash bin of dead empires.
History shows that all empires fall and almost always for the same reasons. They overextend their reach, they depend too much on exploiting vassal states for their production, class differences become extreme, and they tend to destroy their own environment. Their leaders become increasingly corrupt infecting all levels of governance under the illusion their personal wealth can somehow exclude them from the certain coming consequences they try and hide from the general populace. We are in the rut of empires, the consequences are certain unless we get out of that rut.
Symptoms of a Dying Empire
According to the World Health Organization we rank last among industrialized countries (and behind many non-industrialized countries) in all measures of healthcare including; infant mortality, life expectancy, accessibility, satisfaction and pay twice as much for the privilege. We rank 8th in per capita income and that doesn’t deduct what we pay for healthcare and other services provided nationally in other countries. We are 18th in educational attainment and 13th in higher education affordability. But we have more liberty and freedom than anyone, right? In freedom of the press we rank 17th, freedom from corruption for business and government 20th, overall freedom and civil liberty 15th.
We are still number one in a number of things that mark a failing empire; number one among democratic nations in surveillance of its citizens, the largest military in the world (almost bigger then the rest of the world combined), child poverty among industrialized nations and the largest number of incarcerated citizens (25% of the world’s total). Of course we are also the leader in global greenhouse gas production.
We also export these things, many of the nations (at least those with oil) we support have terrible human rights records (Uzbekistan, they boil dissenters there), dictatorships (Nigeria), overthrowing democracies (Haiti) and leave them in horrible poverty except for the elite governing class if they do not ascribe to American policy. Then there is always the main beneficiary of our largess in both civil and military aid, Israel, the pseudo democracy that maintains the largest concentration camps in the world called the West Bank and Gaza.
The result of this dominance and corruption of power has resulted in our 6% of the population being able to devour 26% of the world’s resources every year. The state of the world is a collective problem, if we aren’t willing to give up some of our individual greed and sense of entitlement this empire will go the way of all the others. Persia, Egypt, Rome, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany are just a few of the empires who thought they were exceptional and superior as well. The history is clear, those who accepted their change in status and became partners in world survived, those that didn’t were destroyed. We definitely need to get out of this rut.