Occam’s Shadow

Occam’s razor sometimes casts a dark shadow.

“Speaking on the myths and misconceptions surrounding the demise of the video game manufacturer Atari, founder Nolan Bushnell notes that “a simple answer that is clear and precise will always have more power in the world than a complex one that is true.” Bushnell’s observation is not limited to the situation with Atari. When it comes to subjects that are not fully understood, it seems to be a reality of human nature that we have a propensity to prefer easy answers and simple “truths” over more complex—and oftentimes more accurate—explanations. This certainly describes the study of the history of psychology: many prefer simplistic answers that ignore inconvenient facts, rather than explanations that take into account the full range of human experience and all its fascinating complexities.

“People often display a strong preference for simple answers and a compulsion to have everything settled (rather than withholding judgment until more information is available); we seem to have an aversion toward unknowns and ambiguity. Yet subjects that we are not entirely familiar with are generally more complex than we first realize. It behooves us to resist the impulse to make snap judgments and succumb to the illusion of mastery for subjects we don’t fully understand. by prematurely making up our mind about a topic we are unfamiliar with, we risk the tendency to oversimplify and to only seek evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. withholding an opinion on new ideas until we have adequate information to make an informed judgment takes a great deal of effort and self-discipline.”

Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Introduction, pp. 7-8

Parasitism vs Public Good

Here is a theory of mine. The US is an immigrant country founded on the populations and territories of multiple empires. The US doesn’t have it’s own stable traditional culture, although a few small sub-populations do.

Because of this, the US has developed a society and economy that is dependent on a constant influx of immigrants and hence a constant infusion of social capital that these immigrants bring. The American Dream is most strongly believed in by immigrants because that is what it is designed for, as advertising to sell a product.

There is a dysfunction at the heart of it all. The US depends on and devours the social capital that other stable societies produce, but doesn’t seem able to produce enough of its own. The US is in many ways a parasitic society.

If the US suddenly stopped immigration or immigrants stopped coming, there would be no more replacement social capital. Could the US survive that for long? Would Americans find a way to transform their society into something more stable and self-sustainable? Or would the whole thing collapse?

The US is a young country. It’s dynamic culture is its strength and weakness. It’s normal for a young country, like a young person, to be unstable and dependent on others. But for long-term survival, a young country has to eventually grow up and gain maturity, if only for the reason other countries will lose tolerance and patience with the immaturity.

Ready or not, the US has to enter adulthood. What kind of society will we grow up to be? Assuming we don’t kill ourselves first, as the young sometimes do.

* * *

As a comparison, what comes to mind are the other countries based on former colonies of the British Empire. Such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. All of them seem more mature and stable, compared to the US.

Maybe this relates to several factors. The main one is these other countries didn’t have as much good farmland to attract, employ, and feed such massive waves of immigrants. They also didn’t have such vast amounts of other natural resources that allowed the economic boom in the US.

Without such things, they were able avoid the misfortune of having their ruling elite tempted by imperialist aspirations. Instead, they were forced to develop more internal stability and national self-reliance.

Canada particularly stands out, as it is quite a bit younger than the US and yet shares the same continent along with much of the same history. When Canada was founded as a country, it had a population about the same as when the US was founded. A similar starting point that went in a different direction.

For whatever reason, Canada never had large waves of immigrants and I’m not sure they were ever interested in following the immigration example at their southern border. Canadians seem to have had more of an immigrant policy of quality, rather than quantity. As far as I know, they don’t have a gigantic statue with resounding words about inviting huddled masses to their shores.

Is a country like Canada somehow more stable and mature than the US? If so, what might be the reason for this? Is it just because of what I mentioned? Or is there more going on? What makes possible, within a country, the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of social capital and culture of trust?

* * *

Anu Partanen, in The Nordic Theory of Everything, has got me thinking about what countries both create within their own society and how they impact other societies.

One example is education. The US has low ratings for primary education, while the Nordic countries rate more highly. On the other hand, the US has a higher education system that ranks high on some measures, although this is quite misleading.

The major rankings of national higher education only look at the best schools from each country which creates an inherent bias against smaller countries with fewer college students and fewer schools. If including all students in all higher education within the US and Nordic countries, the latter actually ranks higher. So, per capita, the Nordic countries are better educating their populations at the primary and higher levels.

Still, it remains true that the US ivy league schools are among the best in the world. There is an important factor to be considered. A large part of ivy league professors, graduate teaching assistants, and students were born, raised, and received primary education in other countries. The US benefits from the brain drain of other countries, but the US doesn’t have to pay for creating this benefit. The most brilliant people in the world will usually want to work in the best schools in the world and this constantly stacks the deck in favor of particular countries.

As such, the US doesn’t have to improve its own primary education. It can simply rely upon other countries with awesome primary education to keep producing high quality students to attend the US ivy league schools. Even wealthy Americans who go to ivy leagues typically got their primary education from high quality schools in other countries or else private schools in the US that avoid the problems of the US education system, as they certainly weren’t going to be sent to crappy public schools in the US.

The US benefits in many other ways as well. Partanen offered some great examples in how well functioning social democracies help to create an atmosphere of public good that isn’t limited to a single country. A welfare state, what the author calls a well-being state, allows for experimentation and innovation without fear of the consequences of failure. It can be easier to try new things, when there is social capital and a culture of trust to support your endeavors.

Below is the relevant passage from The Nordic Theory of Everything (Kindle Locations 4278-4301):

“We’ve seen how successful Nordic businesses are, and to be sure, in the Nordic private sector, the desire to make money is a powerful motivator. But Nordic societies are also leading innovators in the public and nonprofit arena, which has contributed to their dynamic competitiveness and prosperity as well. The creativity and ambition of Nordic government and nonprofit sectors are living proof that people in a capitalist democracy can be motivated by much more than simple greed.

“Consider Denmark again, a country that is pursuing the world’s most ambitious engineering solution to address climate change. Copenhagen has set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by as early as 2025, and has been installing an ultra-high-tech wireless network of smart streetlamps and traffic lights that themselves save energy and also help traffic move more efficiently, reducing fuel consumption. All this is good for the environment, the nonprofit public sector, and the private sector. By aiming to wean itself as a nation off fossil fuels before 2050, for example, Denmark has become a world leader in the wind-power industry.

“Sweden, meanwhile, has set itself the ambitious goal of completely eliminating deaths from traffic accidents, and in the process is reinventing city planning, road building, traffic rules, and the use of technology to make transport safer. The country established the goal in 1997, and since then has reduced road deaths by half. Today only three out of every one hundred thousand Swedes die on the roads each year, compared to almost eleven in the United States. Consequently transportation officials from around the world have started to seek Sweden’s advice on traffic safety, and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has based his street safety plan on Sweden’s approach.

“Of course one could also argue that the biggest Nordic innovation of all is the whole concept and execution of the well-being state.

“Americans might be surprised, too, by the ways that some of the key building blocks of the global technology sector have been the result of nonprofit innovation. The core programming code of Linux, for example— the leading computer operating system running on the world’s servers, mainframe computers, and supercomputers— was developed in Finland by a student at Helsinki University, Linus Torvalds, who released it free of charge as an open-source application. When Torvalds later received some valuable stock options, they were a gift of gratitude from some software developers. In addition Finns have made other significant contributions to the global open-source software movement, a community of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create free software for anyone to use. One of the world’s most popular open-source databases, MySQL, was created by a Finn named Monty Widenius and his Swedish partners. Today just about all American corporate giants— including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Walmart— rely on MySQL. Widenius and his team have, in the years since, nevertheless made good money, but they did so by providing support and other services, while the software itself remains free to the world.”

 

Homelessness and Mental Illness

I was talking to a friend. The topic was depression. She told me that, “I have a lifelong fear of being homeless and alone.”

I’ve had similar fears for a long time, about becoming homeless. Maybe that’s a common fear for many people who deal with depression or other similar conditions. But it can be so much worse for women, as they can find themselves living in constant fear of rape or of being exploited for prostitution (the same for many young boys).

Many homeless people simply die from such a hard life: hypothermia, heat exhaustion, untreated health conditions, malnutrition, victims of violence, etc. Mental illness can lead to homelessness and, considering how difficult such a life can be, many homeless have deteriorating mental health. The other place many people with mental illnesses end up is in prison, which isn’t exactly a better fate.

In America, we’ve come to consider this barbaric state of society to be normal. This is the American Dream meeting capitalist realism.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everythng
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 525-551

As I got to know my new acquaintances in the United States better, however, I was surprised to discover that many of them suffered from anxiety just as severe as mine— or worse. It seemed that nearly everyone was struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of daily life in America. Many were in therapy, and some were on medication. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that almost one in five adult Americans suffered from an anxiety disorder, and the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in the country— alprazolam, known to many Americans as Xanax— was for treating anxiety.

Soon I didn’t feel so alone, or so crazy. This may sound strange, but imagine my relief when I heard about a study conducted in 2006 by a life insurance company in which 90 percent of the American women surveyed said that they felt financially insecure, while 46 percent said that they actually, seriously, feared ending up on the street, homeless. And this last group included almost half of women with an annual income of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. If American women making more than one hundred thousand dollars were afraid of ending up in the gutter— and this study had been conducted even before the financial crisis— then perhaps I was channeling the same unease that Americans themselves were feeling in droves. The difference was that for me, the fear was brand-new and strange, while for them it was just life. So maybe I had it backward. Maybe I wasn’t racked by anxiety because I came from a foreign country. Maybe I was racked by anxiety because I was becoming an American.

As the months passed and I did my best to settle in and learn to live with this uncertain new existence, it seemed that all around me Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society.

Since I’d arrived in the United States a couple of months after the Wall Street collapse, people were talking more and more about the huge gap between the very rich in America and the rest of us, and about stagnation in the incomes of the middle class. Politicians were also fighting, of course, over what to do— if anything— about the tens of millions of Americans who lacked health insurance. In the meantime the nation was buckling under the astronomical costs of medical care, burdening everyone else. At parties or get-togethers, a frequent topic of conversation was the fights that people were having with their health-insurance companies.

Lots of people were also discussing how America could improve its failing schools. I read about poor families trying to get their children out of terrible schools and into experimental ones that might be better. Well-to-do families were competing ever more fiercely, and paying ever-larger sums, for coveted spots at good schools, and at the same time competing ferociously in the workplace for the salaries they needed to pay the out-of-control expenses of not only private schools but also of college down the road.

The American dream seemed to be in trouble.

Unprepared for all this, I struggled to reconcile myself to it all— to my new home, to the excitement of this country’s possibility, but also to the intense anxiety and uncertainty that America wrought, on me and seemingly most everyone I met.

 

Kindle Locations 3802-3849

This could have been a scene from a Charles Dickens novel depicting the impoverished suffering of the nineteenth century. It could have been a scene in some dirt-poor Third World country. But it took place in an otherwise clean and orderly twenty-first-century New York City subway car, not long after my arrival in the United States, and it left me disturbed for days. I had seen homeless people before, of course. But never in my life had I seen such an utter, complete, total wreck of a human being as that man on the New York City subway, and certainly never back home in Helsinki.

The Nordic countries have their psychiatric patients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and unemployed, but I couldn’t imagine a person in a similar state roaming the streets of Finland’s capital or any other Nordic city. Usually everyone has someplace to stay, if not in public housing, then in a decent shelter. And while you see the occasional person talking to themselves in public, the health-care systems reach more of the mentally ill than in the United States. Encountering the man on the New York subway was one of the moments that made it clear to me early on that in the United States you are really on your own.

Eventually I got so used to seeing the homeless that I stopped paying attention. Instead my attention was drawn to the other end of the spectrum.

As I began meeting people and sometimes getting invited to events or gatherings in apartments with roof decks, or gorgeous lofts with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline, or brownstones with several floors and backyard gardens, I began performing a new calculation in my head. How were they able to afford it all? Some of these people were lawyers, doctors, or financiers, which easily explained their wealth, but some were artists, employees of nonprofits, or freelancers working on their own projects. Their well-appointed lifestyles mystified me, but I felt awe and cheer when faced with such uplifting examples of America’s ability to remunerate talent. The American dream seemed to be alive and well, not to mention within my reach. If all these people were making it, surely I could, too.

Finally I realized that many of the people with an expensive lifestyle but a seemingly low-earning profession had family money supporting them. I hope it doesn’t take someone from stuffy old Europe, like me, to point out that inheriting wealth, rather than making it yourself, is the opposite of the American dream. America became an independent nation partly to leave behind the entrenched aristocracy of the old country, to secure the opportunity for Americans to be self-made men and women.

I’d traveled the globe, and I’d lived in Finland, France, and Australia. Now in America I felt as if I’d arrived not in the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, but in that proverbial nineteenth-century banana republic of extremes— entrenched wealth, power, and privilege on the one hand and desperate poverty, homelessness, and misfortune on the other. A cliché, yes. But that makes the reality of it no less brutal. Never before had I seen such blatant inequality, not in any other nation in the modern industrialized world.

For someone coming from a Nordic country, it’s hard to comprehend the kinds of income inequalities one encounters in the United States. The twenty-five top American hedge fund managers made almost one billion dollars— each— in 2013, while the median income for an American household hovered around fifty thousand dollars. At the same time homeless shelters were overflowing with record numbers of people seeking help. It’s telling that many of them were not drug addicts or the mentally ill, but working families. The United States has returned to the age of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and The Great Gatsby, and the trend in that direction isn’t showing signs of slowing. After the financial crisis, incomes for the wealthiest bounced back quickly, while the vast majority of Americans saw little improvement. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent captured more than 90 percent of the entire country’s gains in income. This is not a problem that is only connected to the financial crisis. The share of income going to the richest Americans— the 1 percent, or even the 0.1 percent— has grown dramatically in recent decades, while the rest of America has faced stagnating incomes or even seen wages diminish.

The reasons commonly given in America for these changes are by now familiar. There’s globalization, free trade, deregulation, and new technology, which allow the brightest talent to reign over larger realms and to amass more wealth. Today the most visionary CEO presides over a vast multinational corporation, instead of having fifty top executives running smaller companies. The best product is now sold everywhere, replacing local products. Because of advances in technology and the outsourcing of low-skilled work to poorer countries, workers in developed countries need increasingly specialized skills. The few who have such skills benefit. The many who don’t suffer. At the same time arrangements at work have become less stable. Part-time and low-paying work has become more common, as technology has let employers optimize production, and as the power of labor unions has faded.

However, these oft-repeated reasons are not the whole story. Every wealthy nation is dealing with all these dislocating changes, not just the United States. Yet how different the experience has been in places like the Nordic countries, which have made serious efforts to adapt to this brave new future with smart government policies that fit the times. Rising inequality doesn’t simply result from inevitable changes in the free market. Much of it follows from specific policies, which can direct change in one way or in another. Even though the times demand the opposite, American taxes have become more favorable to the wealthy. Partly as a result of this shortsighted change, American social policies have had to move from supporting the poorest to having to help prop up the middle class. Income inequality has increased everywhere, but in the United States it’s particularly pronounced because taxes and government services do less to mitigate the effects of the changes in the marketplace than elsewhere in the modern developed world.

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Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism

A favorite topic of mine, as anyone knows who regularly reads my blog, is that of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. It’s part of my general interest in social history, social science, social consciousness, social behavior, social change, and social constructs. A major frame to my thought is the social nature of humanity. Even our modern notions of individuality are a product of specific social conditions and cultural factors.

I just purchased and started perusing a new book: Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind edited by Marcel Kuijsten. It’s a collection of essays about the bicameral mind. All of those I’ve looked at so far are fascinating. In jumping around in the book, I came across a reference to an anthropological case study. There is a small section discussing a specific tribe, the Ugandan Ik, that up into recent times may have been a bicameral society or still carried strong elements of it. Examples like this are rare because most traditional societies are altered or destroyed before anyone gets a chance to study them, but in cases like this we are able to glimpse what a society once was before contact with modernity.

A central feature of bicameral societies were command voices, necessary as a way of organizing larger numbers of people that resulted from gardening and farming. These command voices were a repertoire of divine commandments, idioms, folk wisdom, and accumulated knowledge—primarily passed on in metric form for easy memorization.

Bicameral people didn’t think in the way they do. Instead, they acted according to habit, until a situation arose where habit didn’t apply and an external voice would be heard telling them what to do. They had no interior sense of self, but it didn’t stop them from being able to apply complex thought and calculations—from precise astrological measurements to building large pyramids. Their mental repertoire was vast since the mnemonic devices, maybe along with synaesthesia, allowed these mostly or entirely preliterate people to carry an immense library of knowledge in their minds (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly). We don’t appreciate the achievements of these societies for, without being written down, their complex cultures mostly disappear when the society itself collapses and the knowledge systems disappear from living memory.

There are a few things to note. The Ik had an agricultural society. This is significant, as Jaynes’ theorized that bicameralism developed when societies began to permanently settle down, after having given up the nomadic lifestyle of hunting-gathering. Bicameralism was one of the first steps toward making possible what we refer to as ‘civilization’.

They had an extremely stable societies that was highly dependent on their environmental niche, so well adapted were they to a particular place and way of life. Their stability was also their weakness, as it would turn any major threat into an existential crisis. They couldn’t simply leave and start over elsewhere for, like the Australian Aboriginal songlines, their entire societies were place-based. To remove these people would be to destroy them and that is what happened to the Ik.

I shouldn’t overemphasize this weakness, though. Another example is given of enslaved Africans who revolted. They developed a society that appears to still be bicameral, which one might presume was a rebuilding of the society they came from in Africa. Maybe enough priests had survived to allow the living tradition of command voices to continue uninterrupted. Also, maybe the new environment was similar enough to their old environment to allow much of their traditional knowledge to be applied.

Social orders are dependent on social conditions. This makes them precarious in a way we moderns don’t think too much about, as we live in societies that have come to dominate the world around us, not to mention as we live in an unusually stable period of earth’s existence (environmental changes may be what destroyed the early bicameral societies). So, given minimal levels of stability, it can be surprising how persistent cultures can be, results from centuries-old events still shaping social experience and behavior into the present.

Barring environmental catastrophe, maybe those bicameral societies weren’t entirely incapable of dealing with change. They may not have had individuality to fall back on when social disorder ensued, but they had other resources to rely upon. Protecting their elders and priests must have been of prime importance.

* * *

“Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman
From Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten
pp. 118-119

Such voices are not the property of either the ancient world or the Western world. In The Mountain People, anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes the Ik, a Ugandan tribe who had lived peaceably when they could both hunt and garden, until they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to an area where they could no longer hunt. Along with their ancient home, they lost their economy, their religion, and their social bonds; they became the cruelest of individuals, neglecting to grow the crops they once raised, eating whatever they could find each day, snatching food from old people and babies. They had once been guided by the voices of their ancestral spirits, the abang, who came to priests in their sleep and told them what they wanted to know. The last priests died shortly after the Ik were forcibly moved, and only one person was left who could still hear commanding voices, Nagoli, the daughter of a priest. Because she was not allowed to become a priest herself, she was called mad. Isolated with the voices of the abang, “she was always off on her own, tending gardens that required care and hard work while everywhere else food grew wild.” The voices told her how to live by the old agricultural rules, even when no one else obeyed them.

A contemporary group of people who still hear commanding voices enforcing inherited codes are the Saramaka of South America, interviewed by Richard Price, who recorded their oral histories in Alabi’s World. Their ancestors were brought from Africa to Central America as slaves but soon rebelled against white domination and created a unique culture preserved n a heroic oral tradition. In one episode, the gods appeared to the Saramakas after the war against the whites and gave instructions on how to clear and burn three garden sites to renew agriculture. And even the present-day Saramakas, who are supposed to be Christians, call on the speaking apukas who helped their ancestors win the war of liberation. People “still have such gods in their heads, ‘calling’ them for purposes of divination and curing inside people’s houses.” Although I have not made any systematic search of the anthropological literature for speaking gods, I have found by accident enough to convince me that the voices Jaynes has found among several ancient cultures have existed in many more, both ancient and still living.

On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc

Someone by the name C. Atkins responded to a comment of mine. It’s from the lengthy comments section of a worthy article, I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump by Jonna Ivin (STIR Journal).

He was disagreeing with me and I disagree with him, but he was courteous and seemed sincere. I wanted to respond fully to him, not an easy task because I needed to gather the info to make my case. The main problem was that he was speculating based on his own biases. He took his speculations as being obviously true according to his experience. Even though he offered two links, he pointed to no specific evidence. Speculation isn’t necessary, since there is a ton of good data out there, some of which can be found below. It’s an extremely complicated topic demanding a thorough analysis. I’ll try to cover the main points at hand.

To start off he wrote that, “Actually, the negative effects of SSI, the lack of incentive to get off it (most recipients are long-term recipients) and the need for reform have been fairly well documented in recent studies and articles.” Well, actually, that isn’t true, as far as I can tell, although I’d welcome evidence to the contrary. To supposedly back up his claim, he offered an article from The Boston Globe (A legacy of unintended side effects by Patricia Wen), but nowhere in the article does the author discuss anything about most recipients being long-term recipients. All the data I’ve seen, including what I offer below, agrees that most welfare recipients are temporary.

He then offers a personal observation in saying, “Anecdotally, I have lived in an impoverished rural area, and most families I knew and worked with relied on SSI as a permanent source of income for the whole family. Instead of providing financial planning services or anything that could help families get out of poverty, the government cut whole communities monthly checks.” My main response is anecdotal evidence is mostly meaningless. As he lives in an impoverished rural area, his experience doesn’t apply to most Americans, including most poor Americans and most welfare recipients. Rural people in general and poor rural people specifically are a small and shrinking part of the population. Disproportionately, they are those who were too old, disabled, uneducated, or whatever to move elsewhere to find work when good jobs left the area (e.g., closing of mines, factories, and such)—the people left behind, both by their fellow citizens and by the economy.

Let me pull out a couple of things from Patricia Wen’s article. Here is a central point made by the author: “A Globe investigation has found that this Supplemental Security Income program — created by Congress primarily to aid indigent children with severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and blindness — now largely serves children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. It has also created, for many needy parents, a financial motive to seek prescriptions for powerful drugs for their children.” There has been an increase in the diagnosis of many psychiatric and neurocognitive conditions. No one knows to what degree it’s an actual increase in incidents or simply greater diagnosis. There are environmental factors that have been proven to contribute to such things: social stress, economic problems, growing inequality, parasite load, environmental toxins, etc. Take lead toxicity as a key example—the rates are highest in poor communities and they are positively correlated to numerous problems: lowered IQ, learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, self-control issues, autism, asthma, diabetes, obesity, etc (obesity is an interesting, if non-intuitive, example—as one way the body protects itself from toxins is by storing them in fat cells; plus, the heavy metal toxicity itself causes metabolic disorders). Besides lead, there is other heavy metal toxins such as mercury with its own diverse set of problems. Plus, there is a vast increase of diverse chemicals that humans are exposed to and, because toxic dumps are mostly located in poor communities, those most exposed are the poor.

There has been little research done on the majority of these chemicals, much less what effects they have when combined. Still, there has been some useful research that offers damning conclusions: “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.” That is limited to just deaths, not lost income from sickness and disability, not the costs of increased need for healthcare, not all the other problems that follow when high rates of pollution-related diseases and death hit entire communities.

To continue with the article, Wen writes that, “In New England, the numbers are even higher — 63 percent of children qualify for SSI based on such mental disabilities. That is the highest percentage for any region in the country. And here and across the nation, the SSI trend line is up, with children under 5 the fastest-growing group. Once diagnosed, these children often bring in close to half their family’s income.” That caught my attention because regional differences are a useful way of looking at variations in populations. Many differences are seen from one region to another, such as personality traits, for reasons not entirely understood. This might relate to the regional disparities in certain environmental factors, such as New England having higher rates of toxoplasmosis, from the feline-spread parasite toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasmosis can severely alter neurological functioning with a quite interesting array of effects. As Americans have increasingly kept cats in their homes, the rates of toxoplasmosis have increased. One might predict certain kinds of disabilities, specifically mental disabilities, would increase at the same time.

I would point out one important detail. Such things as lead toxicity and toxoplasmosis harm the young most of all. When the brain and nervous system is developing, these environmental factors can play havoc with normal development, leaving behind permanent damage, some of which can be measured but not all. Research has found that, for every drop in IQ point, there is a large amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. That doesn’t even include other costs such as for healthcare and personal struggle and suffering. The point being that we should expect to see these problems primarily in children, but of course they will be carried over into adulthood.

C. Atkins added a second comment with another personal observation: “Again, anecdotally, many people were on SSI for reasons entirely preventable by diet (diabetes, etc.). And yet, the government doesn’t limit SNAP purchases to foods that won’t slowly kill you. The government doesn’t support education about healthy diet, or programs that seek to make healthy food more accessible. In rural areas, people have traded kitchen gardens for free potato chips and soda (they’re cheaper than vegetables – I get it). People were starving before, but now we have a crisis of obesity-related diseases killing people. Which is worse? (I wish I knew, statistically speaking).” Again, anecdotal is what it is and nothing more. It might be true for the particular community he lives in, although his perception of his own community could be severely skewed by the people he knows or chooses to focus upon. All I can say is that I know of no data that supports his claims. For example, welfare recipients don’t eat any less healthy than the rest of the population. That isn’t necessarily saying much, as the average American doesn’t eat the healthiest diet, but the point being that welfare doesn’t particularly alter people’s eating habits. It is true that many welfare recipients live in food deserts which makes eating healthy more difficult. That is also true of many poor people who aren’t welfare recipients. It simply sucks being poor for many reasons because life is made a thousand times more difficult. Having to drive long distances or spend long periods of time on public transportation looking for stores that sell healthy food does not incentivize healthy eating habits, not that this has anything to do with welfare.

Along with that comment, C. Atkins included a link to another article. It’s an NPR piece by Chana Joffe-Walt, Unfit For Work. That is a much better article, but maybe I’m being biased since it favors the conclusion of my original comment. There is a lot more going on than is apparent from a casual look. Even those on welfare in poor communities generally don’t have the perspective to understand the larger context of their situation. I give Joffe-Walt great credit in willing to challenge her preconceptions and talk to people to figure out what is going on. One lady she talked to had back problems, a common disability for poor people who spend their lives doing physical labor. It’s not easy growing old while poor. The lady explained that she was on disability because she couldn’t stand for long periods of time and the only jobs available to her were those that required the very thing she was unable to do. Joffe-Walt was surprised by this because, in her professional class world, sitting jobs were the norm. From the transcript, she explains:

“At first, I thought Ethel’s dream job was to be the lady at Social Security, because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But no. After a confusing back and forth, it turned out Ethel wanted this woman’s job because she gets to sit. That’s it. And when I asked her, OK, but why that lady? Why not any other job where you get to sit? Ethel said she could not think of a single other job where you get to sit all day. She said she’d never seen one.

“I brushed this off in the moment. I was getting in my car. It was getting late. And also, it just did not seem possible to me that there would be a place in America today where someone could go her whole working life without any exposure to jobs where you get to sit, until she applied for disability and saw a woman who gets to sit all day. There had to be an office or storefront in town where Ethel would have seen a job that’s not physical.

“And I started sort of casually looking. At McDonald’s, they’re all standing. There’s a truck mechanic, no. A fish plant, definitely no. I looked at the jobs listings in Greensboro– occupational therapist, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, truck driver heavy lifting, KFC, registered nurse, McDonald’s. I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

“It is that gap between the world I live in and Ethel’s world that’s a big part of why the disability program has been growing so rapidly. A gap that prevents someone from even imagining the working world I live in, where there are jobs where you can work and have a sore back, or, in her husband Joseph’s case, damaged nerves in his hands.”

Like Joffe-Walt, this is something few of us ever think about. It brings me back to my grandfather who worked in the same factory most of his life. He had almost no education and wasn’t particularly smart, but he got a good job at a time when none of that mattered. With on-the-job training, he worked his way up to a floor supervisor position. The thing is that is all he knew how to do. If he had become disabled, such as a back injury, he simply would have been out of work with no prospects of finding a new job, despite his having lived in a fairly large city. There just aren’t many sitting jobs for people who spent their lives doing physical labor. And in areas where poverty is most concentrated, there just aren’t many sitting jobs at all. Chana Joffe-walt continues with this line of thought:

“Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability.

“This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles.

“The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people. This is happening so often in so many parts of the country, this shift from work to disability programs, that I have actually been reporting on it for years, and I didn’t even know it.”

This is why so many people remain clueless about how bad it has gotten for so many. The permanently unemployed also aren’t added to the unemployment rate. The government, since Reagan, has been hiding the data from the public. That is the time period when the economy was beginning its decades-long descent for most Americans, such as with wages continually stagnating for the average worker and dropping for lower income workers since 1974, this trend still having yet to stop. So, even for those lucky enough to be employed, times have been getting tougher for quite a while now. Even many professionals with college degrees are struggling. It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to live below the poverty line, especially preschool teachers, one of the most important jobs in any society.

As David Autor explained (from the same transcript), “Well, that’s kind of an ugly secret of the American labor market, that part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low until recently is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program. They’re on the disability insurance program. And they don’t show up in the labor force statistics. And so it artificially reduces the unemployment rate that we observe.”

Welfare is not only hiding how bad our economy is and has been for a long time. It also props up the economy. Without welfare, there would be poverty so severe and desperate that it would destabilize the entire society. Many of the lost jobs are never coming back and, as automation and computerization further takes hold, even more jobs will be lost. This is particularly true for the kinds of jobs that once helped the poor live decent lives and to move up into the middle class. The consequence of this is that socioeconomic mobility has decreased and the middle class shrunk. Recent generations of Americans, beginning with Generation X, are doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

There are many secondary effects to all of this. It’s not just economic problems. Increased stress has proven deleterious effects on individual health (physical and mental), on marriages and family life, and on communities. This has been exacerbated because at the same time the War on Drugs and mass incarceration has decimated entire populations. Some communities not only have a majority of their residents unemployed, since factories and mines closed down, but also a majority of their male residents caught up in the legal system and for those people it makes finding a job even harder. The sad part is a large reason they get caught up in the legal system is because, lacking employment opportunities in the legal market, they are looking to make money on the black market which is the place of last employment. It’s unsurprising that when you take away people’s gainful employment and cut welfare, ever larger numbers of people will become stressed and desperate. For the poor who are employed, many of them end up working multiple jobs, leaving little time left over for spending time with spouses and children, for shopping for healthy food and cooking meals, etc.

Will live in a severely dysfunctional society that is getting ever more dysfunctional as time goes on. These problems are so vastly beyond what individuals can deal with. The poor are struggling just to get by on a daily basis. Even if they magically found the time and money to seek education and training, the economy is so bad right now that even many with education and training are struggling to find good work or to find work at all. If you’re an older worker who loses their job, few companies want to hire you. You’re just fucked and our heartless society cares little about what becomes of you. Throw some mental health and physical health issues on top of that and you are even more fucked. Then your only hope left is to get disability pay so that you won’t spend the last years of your life sleeping on someone’s couch or, worse still, homeless.

* * *

Relevant articles:

Who’s on Welfare? 9 Shocking Stats About Public Assistance
By Megan Elliott

About 39% of children received welfare benefits during an average month in 2012. Roughly 17% of adults between 18 and 64 received benefits and 12.6% of people over age 65 did as well. Those under 18 also received larger average monthly benefits than adults between 18 and 64 ($447/month vs. $393/month).

Your Assumptions About Welfare Recipients Are Wrong
By Bryce Covert

In reality, many of these benefits that families rely on are paltry and, worse, have recently shrunk. The value of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare, have fallen so that their purchasing power is less than what it was in 1996 for the vast majority of recipients. A family of three that relies solely on TANF won’t be able to make market rent for a two-bedroom apartment and will live at just 50 percent of the poverty line, or $9,765 a year. Food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were reduced in November to an average of less than $1.40 a meal and more cuts are likely on their way after Congress agrees to a new farm bill. Housing assistance from the Section 8 rental voucher program got hammered by sequestration and local authorities had to rescind vouchers from those who had gotten off waiting lists, freeze the lists, and reduce the amount of rent each voucher would cover.

Get a Job? Most Welfare Recipients Already Have One
By Eric Morath

It’s poor-paying jobs, not unemployment, that strains the welfare system.

That’s one key finding from a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that showed the majority of households receiving government assistance are headed by a working adult.

The study found that 56% of federal and state dollars spent between 2009 and 2011 on welfare programs — including Medicaid, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit — flowed to working families and individuals with jobs. In some industries, about half the workforce relies on welfare.

“When companies pay too little for workers to provide for their families, workers rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the university’s Center for Labor Research and Education and one of the report’s authors.

Most people on welfare use it temporarily
By Emily Badger

This new data follows participation from 2009 to 2012. And it reveals, across those four years, that the vast majority of people receiving welfare — about 63 percent — participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for cumulatively less than 12 months. Less than 10 percent were enrolled in the program for most of that time. Similarly, about a third of people using food stamps and Medicaid were what the Census would consider “short-term program participants.” And the same is true of about a quarter of people getting housing assistance.

This means that sizable shares of people moved out of these programs within a year of needing them (or that they needed them for stretches that amounted to less than a year over a four-year period). And this snapshot reflects a particularly rough stretch in the economy at the end of the recession.

At any given month in 2012, just 1 percent of the U.S. population was relying, for example, on welfare, the program that’s drawn particular scrutiny of late.

Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households
By Arloc Sherman, Robert Greenstein, and Kathy Ruffing

Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percentof the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

A small number of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) programs also provide substantial benefits to individuals, but the lack of full funding for some of these programs means they do not reach all eligible recipients. Indeed, in some cases — such as in low-income rental assistance programs — the vast majority of people who are eligible receive nobenefits because of program funding limits.[4] If we broaden the universe of programs examined to include the principal discretionary programs that provide benefits — low-income housing programs, the WIC nutrition program for low-income women and young children, and low-income energy assistance — the result is essentially unchanged. Some 90 percent of the benefit dollars still go to the elderly, the disabled, and working households.

This figure also changes little if we tweak the definition of a “working household” or of who is “disabled.” This analysis defines a working household as one in which an individual works at least 1,000 hours in a year; raising the threshold to 1,500 hours makes little difference. This analysis defines a disabled person as one who receives Social Security disability benefits or the disability component of the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) or who qualifies for Medicare on the basis of disability; modifying the definition to include disabled people who are not in one of these categories also makes little difference.

Moreover, if we look only at entitlement programs that are targeted to people with low incomes, the percentage of benefit dollars going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households remains high. Five of every six benefit dollars in these programs — 83 percent — go to such people.

If anything, these figures understate the percentage of the benefits that generally go to people who are elderly, disabled, or members of working households. As noted, these data are for fiscal year 2010, a year when the unemployment rate averaged 9.6 percent and an unusually large number of Americans were in economic distress. In fiscal year 2007, the share of entitlement benefits going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households was a bit higher.

6 SNAP (FOOD STAMP) MYTHS
From Coalition Against Hunger

Myth #1: People who get SNAP don’t work.

FACT: The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children—more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.”

What’s more, many SNAP participants aren’t physically able to work. About 20 percent of SNAP participants are elderly or have a disability, according to the USDA. […]

Myth #3: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.

FACT: “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SNAP fraud has actually been cut by three-quarters over the past 15 years, and the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than 3 percent. The introduction of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards has dramatically reduced consumer fraud. According to the USDA, the small amount of fraud that continues is usually on the part of retailers, not consumers. […]

Myth #6: SNAP leads to unhealthy eating habits and obesity.

FACT: National studies show no significant link, positive or negative, between food stamps and healthy eating. Nor do they demonstrate a relationship between food stamps and weight gain.

The Myth of ‘Out of Control’ Disability Benefits
By Chad Stone

True, the disability insurance rolls have grown in recent decades, but most of that reflects well-understood demographic factors that have increased the number of insured workers, especially in the crucial 50 to 64 age group where risk of disability peaks. These factors include: overall population growth; the aging of baby boomers; the rise in the share of women in the labor force; and the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age from 65 to 66.

Properly measured, the share of insured workers receiving disability insurance benefits has risen much more modestly than the raw number of beneficiaries

New Government Study Debunks Social Security Myths
From Citizens Disability

A government study issued in April 2016 revealed that the vast majority of people denied their Social Security Disability benefits do not return to work. In a comprehensive study conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, only 27 percent of claimants who were denied ended up returning to work.

Social Security Disability Insurance is for those who have worked throughout their lives and paid into the system. If you have to stop working, in most cases you can collect Social Security Disability Insurance as long as your disability begins within five years of when you stopped working. This new study shows that, despite what some people may believe, the vast majority of people applying for disability genuinely cannot work.

If only 27 percent of people applying for disability return to work when they are denied, it is pretty clear that they honestly cannot work. Many people believe that many disability applicants are just trying to “fool the system.” This new study proves that people who genuinely cannot work are applying for disability.

If the myths of Social Security Disability fraud were right, we could expect to see considerably larger numbers of people going back to work once they are denied and need to support themselves. Instead, these number show that most people genuinely cannot return to work, and need the benefits that they paid into for so many years of their working lives.

* * *

Related blog posts:

A Sense of Urgency

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place

Minimum Wage, Wage Suppression, Welfare State, etc

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Unseen Influences: Race, Gender, and Twins

Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Capitalism as Social Control

Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

American Winter and Liberal Failure

Italians, Homelessness, and Kinship

Are White Appalachians A Special Case?

Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems

Americans Fighting for the Good

I’ve been having many discussions about our dysfunctional society. Many people are drawn into such discussions because of the campaign season. But my own focus on this is fairly constant.

The reason for this is that I’ve been painfully aware for decades that I’m a dysfunctional product of this dysfuncional society. This is true for everyone, not that most ever think about it. I guess it’s just more obvious for some of us. My personal dysfunction isn’t well-adjusted to the societal dysfunction, creating a constant state of conflict.

Part 1

Someone asked me what we should do about these societal problems. He complained about what he called whining and conspiracy theories. Instead, he argued we need to strategize and organize.

Maybe this is the wrong way to think about it. We live in a society that is more obsessed with strategizing and organizing than likely any other society before in history. We aren’t lacking in that department. Doubling down on more of the same is less than inspiring, in seeking change in the status quo.

I’m not exactly arguing against anything in particular. It’s not as if, based on principle, I’m against strategizing and organizing. I just don’t see that as the impetus of change. The outward forms of politics seem more to be result than cause.

That seems key. We often confuse result for cause because the latter is easier to see. What we forget is that politics is part of society and, at the most basic level of human reality, we are society. The problems we face aren’t outside of us.

The deeper challenge is that this fundamental truth contradicts the ideological paradigm that rules our perception and thought. We don’t need to create a strategy around which to organize. That is because we are already organized. We make things unnecessarily complicated. Change will happen when we want it enough and no sooner.

Change is a bit of a mystery to us, as we are a mystery to ourselves. It’s easier for us to explain change in retrospect or at least to make up compelling stories about it. But possible future change is another matter, in particular on the large-scale. Change happen when the conditions are right. Even if we can’t force change, we can prepare ourselves to take advantage of the moment when changes begin.

Fortunately or unfortunately, our society is in the middle of major changes at this moment. There is both danger and opportunity. The greatest danger might be simply not realizing what is happening. I see many people acting as if nothing has really changed or else not grasping what is changing. Before strategizing and organizing, what we really need is awareness and understanding.

Otherwise, our attempts at action will be flailings in the dark. We might just hurt ourselves in the process.

Part 2

The above mentioned person further responded. He told me that he is a fighter. Giving some details, he explained that he had been in activism for 6 decades, including starting 3 non-profits for social justice. I applaud that dedication, that willingness to fight against injustice. Still, it doesn’t begin to touch upon the deeper issues we are faced with.

I felt compelled to point out that, in the 6 decades he has been strategizing and organizing, many of the most major problems have been getting worse: mass incarceration, militarized police state, endless wars, millions of innocents dead, military-industrial complex, centralization of power, concentration of wealth, economic inequality, decreasing economic mobility, shrinking middle class, stagnating and dropping wages, loss of good benefits and job security, capitalist corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, cronyism, revolving door between big biz and big gov, regulatory capture, environmental destruction, mass extinction, climate change, etc.

One of the problems is people on all sides are strategizing and organizing. Even those with massive wealth, power, and influence are strategizing and organizing in their causing all of these problems. It’s like raising more money for the Democrats, as Republicans raise more money as well. Maybe the problem is that all that money is corrupting politics, for all sides.

The entire mentality is dysfunctional, always fighting as if society was a battlefield in a war to be won. We have a war on poverty, on crime, on drugs, and on and on. In the end, we are at war with ourselves. This makes for endless conflict. Maybe the problem isn’t a population that lacks a fighting spirit. We Americans love to fight, whether against foreigners or other Americans.

Part 3

Here is the moral calculus of our society.

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. They will often even do good things, contributing to their communities and the larger society. This makes them feel good and, in many cases, people are genuinely helped. Progress and betterment does come from all of these acts of compassion and concern. This should be praised for what it accomplishes.

Yet many of these people are partisans and will consistently vote for establishment politicians who are inseparable from major societal and global problems. It’s never been clear to me that the good these people do in their volunteering, donating, and fundraising outweighs the bad that has been done by the politicians they support.

If someone supports a politician who has contributed to the harm of millions of people (war casualties, sanction victims, families and communities wrecked by destabilized societies, citizens terrorized by propped-up authoritarian regimes, refugees of violence and climate change, neoliberal economic problems, mass incarceration, militarized police, etc), how many other people would they have to help to outweigh the harm they’ve helped cause?

That is a serious question that few think to ask or have the moral courage to answer.

Then I consider the societies like the Nordic countries, specifically as I’m reading a book about them right now (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Those are healthy social democracies and simultaneously they have low rates of volunteering. Nordic parents, for example, send their kids to some of the best schools in the world and would never think of volunteering at the local school. Living in a culture of trust, they simply trust the teachers will do their job well and they don’t worry that the schools will be underfunded.

It’s occurred to me that high rates of volunteering is only necessary in a society with systemic dysfunction like the US. More well-functioning countries would effectively deal with such problems on a systemic level, preventing many problems that Americans allow to fester. We Americans are better at reacting to problems than preventing them or catching them before they get bad.

This is seen most clearly in the American South. It is the region of some of the highest rates of donating and volunteering. But it is also the region of the worst of social problems.

Maybe those two are connected. If so, maybe we need to rethink how we deal with problems in American society, how we do good.

Conclusion

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of Happiness is enshrined in one of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. We are free to pursue it, but we are not guaranteed it. I find it interesting that the Nordic social democracies apparently don’t have any official declarations about pursuing happiness and yet it doesn’t stop them from rating among the happiest societies.

Americans are always warring against and fighting for various things. Similarly, Americans are always seeking and never finding. We are a restless people, never satisfied. Without conflict and struggle, what purpose would we have?

It’s hard for us Americans to imagine anything else.

On Not Caring About Lives Sacrificed

Did you know that about the same number of people died because of the Vietnam War as have died because of the Iraq War? That death count is a bit over a million for each war.

The main difference is that a fair number of those Vietnam War deaths were US soldiers whereas only a tiny fraction of Iraq War deaths have been US soldiers. The other difference is that the Vietnam War included a mainstream media that did its job by regularly reporting those deaths, the very thing the present mainstream media fails to do.

As long as Americans aren’t dying and don’t have to be reminded about those who are dying, most Americans don’t care and often get irritable if anyone suggests they should care. The US government could kill millions more innocent people and it still wouldn’t break through the moral indifference and blissful ignorance of the American public.

That is the brilliance of the elite in ruling the American empire. They’ve figured out how to keep the imperial subjects unaware and docile, even in this age of mass media where so much info is available.

On the White Trash Heap

The below passage caught my attention. It’s written by Nancy Isenberg, from White Trash. The book is a nice read, if you have some curiosity about poor whites. They make for an intriguing historical study. There are centuries of opinions written about them, a favorite topic of discussion for the upper class folk ever perplexed by this alien world of whiteness, often not far away.

Ah, poor whites! Those crackers, dirt poor and the filth to prove it, toothless and ignorant, the lowest of low in the American social hierarchy. They have been looked upon as worse than blacks and Indians. They had the audacity to not fit into the racial order and their whiteness was often questioned.

Blacks always were supposed to be poor and Indians are meant to be in the backcountry. But these white trash have been impoverished by sheer laziness, because of their moral failures and lowly nature, a poverty passed on as their rightful inheritance. And they lived in crappy shacks in rural bumfuck nowhere (or else in ramshackle trailer parks at the edge of town) because that is what they liked, proof that they were barely above being animals.

These pathetic losers, refuse on the trash heap of civilization. Heck, are they even really Americans like the rest of us? It’s as though they live in their own world, purposely cutting themselves off from respectable society and glorying in their backwards ways. They are a step beyond the status of redneck, closer to the category of hillbilly, but really they are in a class of their own. White trash.

We know this because those are the descriptions offered by more well off whites of the past when they traveled among the lower sort. It’s been well documented by astute observers for longer than this land has been its own country.

And ya know what makes these poor whites the worst? They are my people. Ha! It’s probably why I have such a bad attitude.

My mother’s family didn’t come from a respectable background. They were of the Hoosier persuasion, back when to be called a Hoosier was an insult. They were poor whites from Kentuckiana (the limestone region of Kentucky and Indiana). My great grandfather was born a squatter, quite literally. He began his life in an abandoned building that was part of an old abandoned village, at the outskirts of a small border town in a rural county of southern Indiana. It was typical Hoosier territory.

My people were among those first on frontier. They killed and died fighting Indians, when they weren’t fighting each other. There probably was even a bit of mixing with the native folk, not to mention some hanky panky with those of a darker shade (hence the term “Hoosieroon”). Always rumors in poor white rural families that their blood might have more than one color running through it. There is a challenge in determining exact ancestry, many genealogical lines of descent seem to emerge out of the backwoods, as if they had always been there, their natural habitat.

By the time my mother was born, the extended family was finally escaping the fate of dirt poverty. But not all the family escaped. From hearing about some of the family I’ve never met, I suspect there are those who others might look upon as ‘white trash’. Even in her childhood, my mother spoke with that Hoosier dialect that told everyone around her that she was poor white, no matter the fact her father had a factory job. Her father was an alcoholic and on the abusive side, the towering patriarch of his own home. He was born poor and had little education, but to his mind at least he escaped poverty and maybe more importantly wasn’t black.

My mother had two brothers and plenty of cousins about her, the infamous clannishness that poor whites are known for. She still has pride in her voice in telling how she could hold her own in a fight or in a race with the boys. And, of course, she spent her childhood barefoot, as only the poor did back then.

Do you know who else was a poor white Hoosier? Abraham Lincoln.

Abe’s family were small farmers and manual laborers, as was mine. And, like my family, they drifted along as the frontier spread west, from Kentucky where he was born to Indiana where he spent his childhood. His father never understood his love of books and would sometimes burn them. In some of those books, he read about the American founders and it inspired that dirty little backwoods boy to dream of becoming president. But still he was Hoosier through and through. He could scrap with the best of them and he gained some notoriety for his fighting skills, with the strength to pick up a full grown man and toss him.

He also had the grim fatalism of his poor white heritage. He never expected life to end well for him. To rise up out of one’s class was asking for trouble. It isn’t what white trash is suppose do. But along with grim fatalism, he had grim determination to do what he had set his mind to do.

In 1817, when little Hoosier Abe was about eight years old, over in Virginia Thomas Jefferson brought one of his granddaughters to some nearby property he owned where they met a family of low class scrub dwellers. She was shocked by what she perceived as their shamelessness and lack of deference. She would have been even more shocked if someone told her that in her lifetime a dirty little heathen, just like one of those barely clothed children, would hold the same high office as her well-honored grandfather. A few decades later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although he was preceded in 1829 by another president of poor white origins, Andrew Jackson.

That is always the failure of white trash. They don’t know their place. They have their own values and their own sense of pride, no matter what anyone else thinks of them. It might seem the arrogance of brute ignorance, but it’s well earned. They think of themselves as plain Americans, as they identify themselves on census records. Their continued existence despite the odds being against them is their only needed justification.

George Washington, that great aristocratic leader, had a vision for America. He dreamed of a disinterested aristocracy ruling with paternalistic concern. When the poor whites rebelled, he did what any stern father would do and put them back in their place. The problem is they wouldn’t stay in their place, even all these centuries later. Still, they remain useful as scapegoats and so maybe we should keep them around, to occasionally trot them out on the public stage as a lesson for us all.

* * *

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
pp. 114-116

The distance between town and backwoods was measured in more than miles. It had an evolutionary character, forming what some at the time recognized as an impassable gulf between the classes. The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country. In 1817, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph wrote to her younger sister about a trip with their grandfather to the Natural Bridge, a property that Jefferson owned ninety miles west of Monticello. Here, she said, she encountered members of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” The children she met were barely covered by their scanty shifts and shirts, while one man strutted around before them with his “hairy breast exposed.” In this large, unruly family, she noted with disapproval, there were no more than “two or three pairs of shoes.” She was especially surprised by the crude familiarity of their speech. Oblivious to social forms, they conversed with the ex-president as though he was some lost family member. As a proud member of the Virginia gentry, Cornelia was convinced that she towered above the unwashed squatters. To her further chagrin, she was astounded that the poor family exhibited not the least sense of shame over their pathetic condition.

Class made its most transparent appearance by way of such contrasts. We can read volumes into the scorn expressed by the educated onlooker as he or she sized up the uncouth figures who roamed the backcountry. The need to make them into a new breed focused on more than crude living conditions, however. The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy. While traveling in the trans-Appalachian West in 1830, a city adventurer drolly observed of his bed companion for the night, “lantern-jawed, double-jointed backwoodsman, measuring some seven feet one in his stocking feet.” A typical alligator hunter in southern Illinois bore a similar physique: “gaunt, long-limbed, lanthorn-jawed, Jonathan.” (“ Jonathan” simply meant “fellow” here, being a common appellation for a generic American.) The cracker women had the same protruding jaw and swarthy complexion, and were as often as not toothless.

Women and children were important symbols of civilization— or the absence of it. Officers stationed in Florida in the 1830s identified “ye cracker girls” as brutes, with manners no better than sailors, and often seen smoking pipes, chewing and spitting tobacco, and cursing. Seeing their slipshod dress, dirty feet, ropy hair, and unwashed faces, one lieutenant from the Northeast dismissed them all as no better than prostitutes. In his words, everyone of the cracker class was a “swearing, lazy, idle slut!”

The backwoods personality could be found as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, and across the Northwest and Southwest Territories. They acquired localized names, such as Mississippi screamers, for their cracker-style Indian war whoop or love of squealing; Kentucky corn crackers, for their poor diet of cracked corn; and Indiana Hoosiers, for the poor in that state. “Hoosier” is a word no linguistic scholar can define with any precision. Even so, the class descriptor was the same. A Hoosier man ran off at the mouth, lied, boasted, and remained ready to harm anyone who insulted his ugly wife. They were as prone to a down-and-dirty fight as any southern cracker. Hoosier gals were no more refined than their Florida sisters. A Hoosier gal’s courtship ritual, it was said, involved a lot of kicking and hair pulling.

Sexual behavior was another crucial marker of class status. In a well-known poem of the era, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (1833), the author harkened back to the vocabulary of the Scottish naturalist Wilson. Here again, the cabins were wild nests, a half-human, half-animal retreat perfect for indiscriminate breeding. Using a racially charged slur, the poet identified the children as “Hoosieroons”— a class variation of the mixed-race quadroons. Under their leaky roofs were none of the hearty pioneer stock. Instead, poor Indiana squatters produced a degenerate dozen of dirty yellow urchins.

Filthy cabins, a lack of manners, and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as verified by their patterns of speech. Backwoods patois constituted a rural American version of the lower-class English cockney. In 1830, there was even a “Cracker Dictionary,” preserving their vintage slang. One was “Jimber jawed,” whose mouth was constantly moving, who couldn’t stop talking. The cracker’s protruding lower jaw carried over into his style of talking. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent type; the descriptive “chewed up” literally referred to having one’s ear, nose, or lip bitten off.

But one polysyllabic word may have best captured their identity. The verb “obsquatulate” was a cracker conjugation of “squat,” conveying the idea of moseying along or absconding. For a people who wouldn’t settle in one place, “obsquatulate” gave an activity of sorts to the American heirs of English vagrants. They might flee like an absconding servant or amble at a slow pace without a destination in mind, but in either case it was their dirty feet and slipshod ways that defined them.

America Is Not Great For Most Americans

I just saw a comment that stated, “There is no making America great again. America is better than it’s ever been.”

I’ve seen that same idea repeated by many people. I used to notice it from conservatives. In fact, it was the core message of the GOP inspired by Cold War rhetoric. But now I hear it from supposedly liberal Democrats. It doesn’t matter from which side it comes from. It expresses an utter disconnection from the lived experience and social reality of most Americans.

Inequality is growing. Large personal debt is becoming common. The real unemployment rate is the worst it’s been in a long time. Wages have been stagnating or declining for most workers since the 1970s. There is loss of job security, loss of benefits and pensions, loss of good jobs for the less educated (and, yes, the vast majority of Americans still don’t have a college degree). Factories have been closing down, offshored, or downsized. There are many poor communities (rural and urban, black and white) where the majority of residents are unemployed and the majority of men caught up in the legal system.

As for Trump’s supporters, older whites with average education, the world has decidedly taken a bad turn. Middle aged whites and rural whites are experiencing worsening mortality rates, not seen since data was kept. The middle class in general has been shrinking with many having fallen down the economic ladder, a generation doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

America is better than it’s ever been, really? Wake the fuck up!

If you’re the type of person who keeps repeating this bullshit, know this. It is you, in your ignorance and disconnection, in your lack of understanding and compassion, who are helping to promote Trump’s cause. You are the reason his supporters are so outraged. You are part of the problem.

Why not, instead, be part of the solution?

The War Party Always Wins

Since the War Party dominates both branches of the Two-Party-System, the recent track record suggests that the Republicans will nominate a candidate bad enough to make Hillary look good.

This was written by Diana Johnstone, from Queen of Chaos. The book was published in October 12, 2015. I’m not sure when the writing of it began or was finished, but nowhere in the book does she directly speak of an ongoing campaign season for the presidential election. It seems she is speaking of a purely hypothetical scenario, which is to say a prediction.

She had no way of knowing someone like Trump was going to take over the Republican Party and win the nomination. Her prediction turned out to be more true than even she could have imagined. Trump is about as bad of a candidate as could be found, in making Hillary look good. Apparently, the War Party’s strategy has so far been a major success.

* * *

Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton
By Diana Johnstone
Kindle Locations 3629-3671

Hillary Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State was a great success in one respect: it has made her the favorite candidate of the War Party. This appears to have been her primary objective.

But Hillary Clinton is far from being the whole problem. The fundamental problem is the War Party and its tight grip on U.S. policy.

One reason there is so little public resistance is that the wars started by the War Party hardly feel like real wars to the American people. Americans are not seeing their homes blown up. The drone armada is removing the inconvenience of “boots on the ground” veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome. War from the air is increasingly safe, distant, invisible. For most Americans, U.S. wars are simply a branch of the entertainment industry, something to hear about on television but rarely seen. These wars give you a bit of serious entertainment in return for your tax dollars. But they are not really a matter of life and death…

In fact, it hardly seems to matter what happens in these wars. The United States no longer even makes war in order to win, but rather to make sure that the other side loses. Hillary Clinton accused Vladimir Putin, quite falsely, of adhering to a “zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing”. The United States is playing something even worse: a “no win”, or a “lose-lose”, game in which the other side may lose, yet the United States cannot be called the winner. These are essentially spoiler wars, fought to get rid of real or imagined rivals; everyone is poorer as a result. Americans are being taught to grow accustomed to these negative wars, whose declared purpose is to get rid of something – a dictator, or terrorism, or human rights violations.

The United States is out to dominate the world by knocking out the other players.

“Our ideals” are part of the collateral damage. With its wartime crackdown on internal enemies and its Homeland Security and Patriot Acts, the United States is not only sacrificing its own freedom, it is undermining the very belief in progressive values: in democracy, in progress, in science and technology, in reason itself. By loudly identifying itself with these values, the United States is actually promoting their rejection. Such ideals increasingly resemble a mere camouflage for aggression. What is the use of democratic and liberal ideals when they are reduced to serving as pretexts for war?

And yet, opposition to the War Party is certainly shared by countless Americans. It is probably much greater than the pro-war establishment realizes. But those who are increasingly alarmed by the danger feel helpless to do anything about it. This is because the War Party is firmly in control of the two-party political system.

In February 2015, Paul Craig Roberts wrote:

Jobs offshoring destroyed the American industrial and manufacturing unions. Their demise and the current attack on the public employee unions has left the Democratic Party financially dependent on the same organized private interest groups as the Republicans. Both parties now report to the same interest groups. Wall Street, the military/ security complex, the Israel Lobby, agribusiness, and the extractive industries (oil, mining, timber) control the government regardless of the party in power. These powerful interests all have a stake in American hegemony. The message is that the constellation of forces precludes internal political change.

And he concluded that: “Hegemony’s Achilles’ heel is the US economy.”

If Roberts is right, and it is hard to see where he is wrong, the only thing that can liberate Americans from their warlike fiction would be economic collapse. This is not a cheerful prospect. It is hard to hope for an economic catastrophe as the only way to avoid nuclear annihilation. Whatever the odds, one cannot help wishing that the American people would come to their senses and figure out a way to end this policy of war and thus find a constructive way of dealing with the world. This happy ending is theoretically possible, but looks extremely unlikely because of the American political system.

The U.S. Presidential election is essentially a popular entertainment event. Billionaire sponsors send two carefully-vetted contenders into the arena, sure to win either way. The intellectual level of Republican-Democrat confrontation increasingly recalls that of the parties that divided the early Byzantine Empire, based on blue and green chariot racing teams. In the 2016 presidential election, the Good Cop party and the Bad Cop party will disagree about domestic policy issues before everything gets stalled in Congress. But the most significant issue of all is the choice of war.

Since the War Party dominates both branches of the Two-Party-System, the recent track record suggests that the Republicans will nominate a candidate bad enough to make Hillary look good.