We get what we pay for.

“Switzerland had the highest rate of return for empty wallets and Denmark for wallets with money in them. European countries overall, including Russia, got high marks for honesty.

“China had the lowest rate of return for empty wallets and Peru for wallets with money. I am disappointed that the United States is so far down on the list.”

I don’t feel disappointed about the US ranking. Or at least I don’t feel surprised. On many measures, the US often ranks around the middle. We are a middling country. Yes, above average, but middling. We lead the pack among the mediocre countries.

You see this with measures of culture of trust, democracy, freedom of press, health outcomes, education quality, etc. We tend to be far above the worst countries and well below the best (although specific US states often rank near the bottom in international comparisons). This has been the state of the nation for many decades now. It’s not exactly a new trend, this slipping down the international rankings.

But when older Americans were younger, the US was often the top ranking country in the world on numerous measures. Hence, the disappointment some Americans experience in remembering the country that once was. Sadly, that country hasn’t existed for a while now. We took American ‘greatness’ for granted and lost our sense of aspiration. Without the Soviet Union to compete against, Americans became morally and physically flabby.

Consider height. Americans used to be the tallest population on the planet. Now we share a ranking of 32nd with Israel, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, French Polynesia, Grenada, and Tonga. Height is one of those indicators of the general health of a society and correlates with such things as inequality (and, by the way, high inequality in turn correlates with worse outcomes even for the wealthy, compared to the wealthy in low inequality countries). Trust also falls as inequality rises.

Still, we Americans on average are taller than 82 other countries. So, not bad. But still a major drop compared to the past. We are a declining society in many ways, specifically relative to other countries that are advancing. It’s a sign of the times. It’s also unsurprising that the United States is declining as a global superpower as well. A government’s power is built on the health of the population and the success of the society.

Anyone who dismisses the public good is naive. This is why the most effective social democracies that massively invest the in the public good now lead the world in nearly every ranking. The United States has chosen the opposite path, shifting wealth to the top for short term gains for a minority of the population, not to mention wasting our resources on military adventurism and imperial expansionism. We get what we pay for.

A ranking of countries by civic honesty

Victims & Silence

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be.  When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’  So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system.  At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift.  In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”

Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Derrick Jensen is one of my favorite authors.  Even though he is quoting someone else here, this basic message runs through all of his writing.  There are few occupations more worthy than simply telling the truth, giving voice to the silence.  Jensen explains this brilliantly in his earlier book, A Language Older Than Words.  It was that book, more than any other, that helped me understand our culture. 

It’s depressing to consider how few people speak up about the atrocities of our society, but it’s understandable.  It’s easy to feel like a powerless victim when faced with such overwhelming suffering and destruction.  Even most victimizers were once victims and still see themselves that way.  We are a culture of victims.  But to refuse the collective agreement to be silenced, even if only for a moment, is to step outside of the role of victim.

Love of Truth: Discussing vs Arguing

It’s kind odd that I don’t like direct conflict but I enjoy debate.

I blame my parents.  Both my mom and dad taught me to idealize truth and honesty.  My dad gave me the debating skills to pick apart any argument and he taught me the love of wisdom.  My mom gave me an irritable disposition that leads me to being very upfront with my opinions.  Also, my mom gave me a non-intellectual interest in human nature.  Combined together, I have an equal ability to analyze both the argument and the person making the argument.  Furthermore, my mom gave me a stubborn streak that goes directly with an ability to obsessively think about something for endless hours.  To mix metaphors, when something gets caught in my craw I don’t let go until every stone is turned.

But I can’t entirely blame my parents.  The MBTI personality type that I am is INFP which is fairly different from my parents’ personalities.  INFPs are idealists to the extreme.  In a sense, I took too seriously the lessons my parents taught me.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I see every side to every argument, I could almost make a good zealot.  Sometimes when an INFP gets hold of an issue or idea that they consider of great value, they hold on like pitbulls.  We INFPs may look like fluffy teddy bears, but we often have sharp teeth.

My intellectual side is partly a genuine aspect of my identity and is partly learned behavior.  I have an inner sense of self that is sensitive and non-rational to an extreme.  I live more by imagination than by thought, but it’s thought that I often use to relate to the world.  Right or wrong, I tend to use my intellect to justify my existence.  I just want the world to make sense.  And because of this I’m hard on myself (and everyone else) for failing to make perfect sense.  It’s kinda sad, but it’s my life and that is just the way it is.

So, when I’m in an irritable mood or when a value of mine is challenged, I can be a tireless debating opponent.  However, I’m usually only aggressive to people who deserve it.  I call them like I see them.  If someone is being mean-spirited or if someone is flaunting their ignorance, then I’ve been known to clearly point it out to them.  As I see it, either discuss intelligently and politely or don’t say anything at all.  If you have nothing relevant to add but still feel you must throw in your baseless opinion, then I will tear your view apart until you either shut up or start crying like a little sissy girl.  But as long as your comments are minimally relevant and rational, I’m perfectly fine with disagreement.  In fact, I love disagreement of the intelligent variety because it means I can learn something new.  And when learning something new I’m in a very good mood.

I realize I should be nicer than I am sometimes.  But the fact of the matter is that I’ve always valued honesty above almost everything else.  I worship at the altar of truth.  And if you get in the way of my ideal of truth, I can’t be held responsible for my behavior.  Let me just say sorry in advance.  If you ever catch me in an irritable and defensive mood, just let me vent and afterwards I’ll quite likely be one of the most warm and understanding people you’ve ever met.  As long as you’re willing to be honest and considerate with me, I’ll do the same for you.  So, be open and upfront in how you express yourself and I’ll do my best to understand your view.  Talk straight with me and don’t play psychological games.  There is no point to it.  You’re wasting my time and your own.

If all you want to do is argue, I’ll sometimes concede to that way of relating… until I become too emotioanlly drained (which can take a long time as my obsessive persistence usually lasts longer than that of most people).  If you want conflict, I can be a worthy debate opponent.  Sadly, though, it seems to me that those who seek conflict the most are the very people who aren’t talented debaters.  Be argumentative if you must but at least be interesting rather than simply annoying.  In particular, I’d rather not deal with the condescending snarkiness of know-it-all intellectual wannabes.

I should add that what I love most in life is seeking and sharing knowledge.  When I get obsessed with some idea or topic, I can spend enormous amounts of time doing nothing but research. I dig deep to find every interesting connection and every significant detail.

If I don’t know something, I admit it.  But I’m not content to simply admit my ignorance.  If it’s important enough to voice an opinion about, then it’s important enough to inform myself about.  If you ever find yourself debating me, don’t pretend to know what you don’t actually know.  I will check every fact you claim and I will look up precise definitions.  I don’t care if you have a college degree and are an expert in your field, don’t try to bullshit me.

Most importantly, don’t present opinions as facts (and the same goes for beliefs).  That is just plain wrong in my book.  Opinions are fine.  I have plenty of my own.  Just be humble enough to admit that it’s just an opinion.  If you lie to me about a fact or simply talk ignorantly, I will throw it back in your face and will publicly humiliate you with glee.  Or if you try to hide your true intentions behind facts and logic, I’ll pick at them like scabs until your motives start to show.  Don’t mess with the truth and I won’t mess with you.

All that said, I’m a pretty easygoing guy.  You have to be trying hard to get me rattled.  Basically, I really really do enjoy a good discussion and I’d rather have a friendly exchange than a heated argument.  I get excited about exploring new possibilities and I’m happy as can be when I meet someone who knows something I don’t.  As I see it, the quest for truth is an endless quest because truth is a mystery best understood in terms of questions rather than conclusions.  If like me you are a lover of truth, then we shall get along like best pals.