Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

I was reading more of Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. The latter part of the book is getting more to what personally interests me. He has a detailed discussion about equality, equity, and fairness. This leads him into the issues of private property and the commons.

I’m learning much from this book. It focuses on these ideas, both as discussed by early thinkers and how they have developed over time. One thing I learned was how central the idea of equality was to so many early thinkers. Even before the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes and other more religious thinkers were arguing about equality, what it means and where it originated (and, of course, what became of that original state). Hobbes saw equality in a state of nature with Death as the great equalizer. Others saw it as coming from God.

John Locke made a different argument than Hobbes. He relied on a more religious argument. Schwartz goes into great detail about Lockean rights. He makes it clear that Locke left many gaping holes in his logic. He goes even further in seeing all rights talk as being problematic. It poses questions it can’t answer and makes assumptions it can’t justify. Instead of focusing narrowly on rights,  especially natural rights, some of the early thinking on equality might give us a stronger foundation for understanding the values that will better serve us, in our aspirations for a just and moral society. Equality was always an important concern in Western thought. It’s just that we Americans have come to overlook its importance and forget the role it once played.

I was also thinking more about the cultural angle not covered by Schwartz. Locke grappled with both the issues of rights and equality. I was wondering about his background. Maybe I should read a good biography of him one of these days. The detail of his life that has caught my attention is his having spent time in Netherlands, in order to escape repression back in England. Some have conjectured that he might have been influenced by Spinoza or else by the same atmosphere that helped to shape Spinoza’s thought.

That is an interesting conjecture because of the important role Netherlands played in British history. It was a relatively short distance across the channel from East Anglia. The Puritans also had left England to escape repression, some going to Netherlands. When they returned, many settled in East Anglia. The Puritans then carried a particular tradition of egalitarianism to America. This was the foundation of the regional culture of New England.

Following different pathways of influence, other regional cultures developed quite differently.

“The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame.

“These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism—even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales, American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

“Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support. The Quaker vision of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy.

“But each of these four libertarian traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England’s Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller’s words, “a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind.” Virginia’s cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania’s Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology.

“Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world.”

Fischer, David Hackett (1989-10-19). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) (Kindle Locations 14541-14561). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

See also:

Liberty and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations
by Colin Woodard

Revolution of the Mind
by Jonathan Israel

The United States of Inequality


This is a long video, but it’s a very important topic. The video brings together a lot of data and analysis. I highly recommend watching it.

The fundamental issue isn’t solutions per se but rather what helped to create a situation that is so in need of solutions. It wasn’t accidental. This is the result of specific policies and market factors which have been a part of a class war that has been going on for a long time.

I gained some insight about this when I saw psychological research showing that social inequality tends to bother liberals and tends not to bother conservatives. To the conservative mindset (in its most extreme form), there is no problem and so no solution is needed. There is no point in talking about solutions if we can’t agree that there is even a problem.

I wrote about some of the psychological research in recent posts:

Right Vs Left: Personality Differences

Violence vs Empathy, Indifference vs Unhappiness

Also, I think insight is to be found in the analysis of George Lakoff which I’ve mentioned before:

National Debt, Starve the Beast, & Wealth Disparity

George Lakoff, Moral Politics, pp 194-6:

The conservative political agenda, for example, is not merely to cut the cost of government. The conservative agenda, as we shall see, is a moral agenda, just as the liberal agenda is.

Consider, for example, the issue of the deficit. How did it get so large?

Liberals like to think of Ronald Reagan as stupid. Whether he was or not, those around him certainly were not. While constantly attacking liberals as big spenders, the Reagan and Bush administrations added three trillion dollars to the national debt by drastically increasing military spending while cutting taxes for the rich. They could count; they saw the deficit increasing. They blamed the increases on liberal spending, but Reagan did not veto every spending bill. Moreover, Reagan’s own actions acounted for much of the deficit increase. Had financial responsibility and the lessening of spending been Reagan’s top priorities, he would not have allowed such an increase in the defiicit, simply by not cutting taxes and not pushing for a military buildup far beyond the Pentagon’s requests.

While the deficit was increasing, there was a vast shift of wealth away from the lower and middle classes toward the rich. Liberals, cyncally, saw this shift as Reagan and Bush making their friends and their political suporters rich. Certainly that was the effect. It is hardly new for the friends of supporters of politicians in power to get rich. This is usually seen as immorality and corruption, and with good reason. Many liberals saw Reagan that way.

But Ronald Reagan did not consider himself as immoral. Certainly he and his staff could tell that their policies were producing vast increases in the deficit, when they had come into office promising a balanced budget. Reagan was not forced to pursue deficit-increasing policies. Why did he do so?

I would like to suggest that he pursued deficit-increasing policies in the service of what he saw as overriding Moral goals: (1) Building up the military to protect America from the evil empire of Soviet communism. (2) Lowering Taxes for the rich, so that enterprise was rewarded not punished. Interestingly, for President Reagan as for any good conservative, these policies, however different on the surface, were instances of the same underlying principle: the Morality of Reward and Punishment.

What was evil in Soviet communism, for Reagan as for other conservatives, was not just totalitarianism. Certainly Soviet totalitarianism was evil, but the U.S. had supported capitalist totalitarian dictatorships willingly while overthrowing a democratically elected communist government in Chile. The main evil of communism for Reagan, as for most conservatives, was that it stifled free enterprise. Since communism did not allow for free markets (open to Western companies) or for financially rewarding entrepreneurship, it violated the basis of the Strict Father moral system: the Morality of Punishment and Reward.

Adding three trillion dollars to the deficit actually served a moral purpose for Ronald Reagan. It meant that, sooner or later, the deficit would force an elimination of social programs. He knew perfectly well that the military budget would never be seriously cut, and that a major increase in tax revenues to eliminate the deficit would never be agreed upon. In the long run, the staggering deficit would actually serve Strict Father morality – conservative morality – by forcing Congress to cut social programs. From the perspective of Strict Father morality, Ronald Reagan looks moral and smart, not immoral and dumb as many liberals believe.