an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘minimum wage

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt


Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!


Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

19: the USA – an anti-bonobo state?

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Of course it would be ridiculous to compare the complex, diverse collection of human apes – some 330 million of them – who call the USA home, to the few thousand bonobos who make their home in the forests of the Congo. So call me ridiculous.

Bonobos appear to be an egalitarian lot. They have fun together, sexually and otherwise, they share responsibilities, they look after each other’s kids, and they generally nip disagreements, which do occur, in the bud, either with sexual healing or with female group force. Unfortunately they don’t read, write or do much in the way of science, but you can’t have everything.

They don’t kill each other, which their close rellies the chimps occasionally do. And it’s the male chimps who tend to do this, just like male human apes. 

Now, Americans. They like to think they’re exceptional, many of them, but to an outsider like me they seem exceptional in only two respects – their religiosity and their jingoism, neither of which I have much time for. The nation’s foundational religiosity has been well dealt with by Sam Harris and many others, and the backlash to their writings, as well the more recent kowtowing by so-called evangelical Christians to the mendacious messianic misanthrope whose presidency has effectively destroyed the nation’s reputation for the foreseeable, indicates that they still have a lot of growing up to do. Their jingoism seems another form of infantilism, and I suspect they get it drummed into them from kindergarten on up. That’s why even their best cable news pundits and politicians carried on a ‘how has the mighty fallen’ narrative over the four years of the misanthrope’s reign, without seeming to realise that the problem wasn’t Trump but their massively flawed federal political (and legal) system. It’s also why they’ll never engage in the root and branch reform of that system, the failings of which Trump has done them the great favour of exposing.

However, in comparing Americans unfavourably to bonobos, it’s not their lack of modesty and self-awareness that I want to focus on, but their violence. The violence of the state, and states, towards individuals, the violence, or violent feelings, of individuals towards the state, the violence of partisanship, and ordinary violence between individuals. And of course the gun culture. 

Incarceration is a form of violence, let’s be blunt. The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has some 22% of the world’s prisoners, making the nation’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. It was up at nearly 25% twelve years ago, and declined slightly during the Obama administration, but no doubt has been rising again under Trump. State authorities have also played a role in rising or declining rates of course.

The nation tries to delude itself by calling their prisons correctional institutions, but very little in the way of formal correction is attempted. The tragedy is exacerbated by prison privatisation, which first occurred under Reagan in the eighties. A for-profit prison system, fairly obviously, benefits from a high prison population, and from skimping on counselling, training, facilities, and even basic needs, covering all of Maslow’s hierarchy. 

 As is well known, US prisons are top-heavy with those people designated as black (I’ve always been uncomfortable with black-white terminology). So much so that a 2004 study reported that ‘almost one-third of black men in their twenties are either on parole, on probation, or in prison’. So it would surely be correct to say that every person ‘of colour’ is touched by the prison system, either personally or via friends and family. I won’t go into the reasons why here, except to mention the obvious issues of poverty, disadvantage and endemic despair, exacerbated by the imbecilic war on drugs, but clearly imprisonment is itself violently punitive and rarely leads to human betterment. It appears to be a ‘sweeping under the carpet’ response to all these issues. People are free to do whatever they like, but if they make a nuisance of themselves in the street, and make the place look bad, best to put them out of the way for a while, until such time as they clean themselves up. But the sad fact is that very few if any of those incarcerated blacks have done anywhere near as much damage to the nation as has their outgoing President. 

As to a sense of violence towards the state, this is evidenced by paramilitary anti-government groups and the strange sense amongst a huge swathe of the population that if governments try to do anything interventional or ameliorative that in any way affects their lives they’re engaging in socialism, thus leaving the path open for white-collar crime (especially the gleefully celebrated crime of tax evasion), bank banditry and the like, and for real minimum wages to fall well below those of comparable countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Japan etc. And so, while their fellow-citizens are struggling in poorly paid jobs with inadequate conditions, people placard the streets screaming about their constitutional right to be protected from their Great Enemy, government in all its despicable forms. Ronald Reagan, who seems to have become a doyen of the moderate right, is now celebrated for saying that government is the problem, not the solution, surely one of the most imbecilic utterances of the pre-Trump era. 

So with this eschewing of government oversight and guidance, the USA has devolved into a war of all against all, with rights eclipsing responsibilities, and with parts of the country resembling the worst of so-called third world countries in terms of entrapment, suffering and despair. But of course it’s different for the rich, who protect their own. 

Finally I want to explore another form of violence, which relates to the US military. It’s amusing to note that there are arguments raging online about whether or not the US military is a socialist organisation, since it’s run and massively funded by by the federal government, with congress never delaying and rarely debating such unaudited funding. This is all fun to read since so many Americans become apoplectic when the word socialism comes up, but the fact remains that the Pentagon is, to most outsiders, something like a supermassive black hole sucking in funds that are never to be seen again. 

US military spending is estimated to be close to one trillion dollars over the 2020-21 year, with something like 85% described as discretionary spending, which means essentially that they can spend it any way they choose. Three attempts have been made in the past three years to audit the Pentagon, and they have all ended in failure, but it’s unclear whether the auditor or the Pentagon is the responsible party. Needless, to say, conducting such as audit would be a largely thankless task. Of course defenders of all this expenditure claim that vast sums of money are required to keep safe this exceptional beacon of liberty to the world. Yet much of US military personnel and materiel are deployed outside of the country, and the USA has never been under serious attack from any other nation since its foundation. The fact is that the US uses its military as has every other powerful military state in history, dating back to the Egyptians and before, and including the Romans, the Brits, the Germans and the Japanese, that’s to say, to enhance its power and influence in the world. And the US certainly is exceptional in its military. Its defence budget is ‘more….than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined’. 

Every powerful nation in history has fallen for the same fallacy, that their economic and military superiority somehow infers moral superiority. Might is right, essentially, and this translates to non-human ape societies too, as they all have their power hierarchies. Bonobos, however, less so than any of the others. In bonobo society, it seems, group power is used to stifle individual power-mongering, so that the group can get back as quickly as it can to the main purpose of their lives, surviving and thriving, exploring and foraging, looking out for each other and having fun. If we could have all this, in our more mind-expanded, scientific, with-knowledge-comes-responsibility sort of way, what a wonderful world this would be. 


Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2021 at 5:08 pm