We’re Far From Number One

These days, in the aftermath of the “former guy’s” administration, Americans seem intent upon tearing the country apart. It has become impossible to ignore the reality that approximately a third of our fellow Americans are–excuse the language–bat-shit crazy, and that the people they vote for range from self-interested panderers (Indiana’s Todd Young just announced he will run again) to delusional fellow-travelers.

On the other hand, the rest of us are (slowly and reluctantly) coming to terms with realities we have previously ignored or downplayed. It is no longer possible to evade recognition of the extent to which racism has infected our politics and dictated our policies, for example. And our naive belief in “American exceptionalism” turns out to be our very own version of The Emperor Has No Clothes.

Last September’s release of the Social Progress Index reported that– out of 163 countries– the United States, Brazil and Hungary were the only ones in which people were worse off than when the index began measuring such things in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

As Nicholas Kristof noted in the New York Times,  the United States, despite our immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranked a sad 28th — having slipped from a not-exactly-impressive 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.

The Social Progress Index finds that Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A majority of countries have lower homicide rates, and most other advanced countries have lower traffic fatality rates and better sanitation and internet access.

We lag in sharing political power equally among all citizens, and we rank a shameful number 100 in discrimination against minorities. (Note: that isn’t 100th in eradicating discrimination; that’s a rank of 100 among the most discriminatory.)

And those metrics were before COVID.  Since social scientists tell us that inclusive, tolerant and better educated societies are better able to manage pandemics, that doesn’t bode well for upcoming rankings. Kristof concludes by saying

We Americans like to say “We’re No. 1.” But the new data suggest that we should be chanting, “We’re No. 28! And dropping!”

Let’s wake up, for we are no longer the country we think we are.

Permit me a quibble: I’ve been reading a lot of American history lately, and it has become painfully clear that we never were the country so many of us (me included!) thought we were.

From Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths, to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to Isabel Wilkerson’s searing Caste, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us,  these unadorned, un-falsified, meticulously documented accounts explain–as McGhee puts it–“why we can’t have nice things.”

Thanks to America’s long history of tribalism and “zero sum” thinking (if “those people” get X then that must mean I will lose X), we can’t even have the public goods that other countries take for granted, let alone a social infrastructure that supports and values all  citizens.

A full third of America wants to keep it that way. To them, that was the American “greatness” they wanted the former guy to restore.

The rest of us have our work cut out for us.


Fending Off The Elephant

Sometimes, if a threat doesn’t exist, you just have to invent it. Case in point: antifa, which stands for “anti-fascist.”

According to reputable sources, antifa refers to a point of view, not a formal group of any kind–there doesn’t appear to be an anti-fascist counterpart to Boogaloo Bois, or other far-right organizations, and no one identified as antifa has been arrested during the protests. (One Twitter account claiming to be antifa turned out to be run by white supremacists, and a report from rightwing extremist Cassandra Fairbanks alleging an assault by antifa also turned out to be bogus.)

But reality hasn’t kept race-baiting extremists from trying to manipulate public fears.  The inconvenient fact that there is no “there” there hasn’t stopped Trump and his merry band of propagandists from warning about the dire threat antifa poses to the American Way of Life. 

Nicholas Kristof recently reported on credulous responses to that “threat” in small towns around America, including Coquille, Oregon.

Coquille is a sleepy logging community of 3,800 people, almost all of them white. It is miles and miles from nowhere. Portland is 250 miles to the north. San Francisco is 500 miles to the south.

But Fox News is in a frenzy about rioters and looters, and President Trump warns about the anti-fascist movement known as antifa. So early this month as a small group of local residents planned a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protest in Coquille, word raced around that three busloads of antifa activists were headed to Coquille to bust up the town.

The sheriff and his deputies donned bulletproof vests, prepared their MRAP armored vehicle and took up positions to fight off the invasion. Almost 200 local people, some shouldering rifles and others holding flags, gathered to protect their town (overshadowing the handful of people who had come to wave Black Lives Matter signs).

As Kristof goes on to report, Coquille was one of a number of small towns where deluded “patriots” armed themselves and prepared to fight the invaders. When the hordes of antifa toughs failed to materialize, the armed “patriot defenders” mostly refused to believe they’d been duped; several took to Facebook to boast that antifa had been repelled by their show of force.

The delusional response reminds me of that old joke about the guy who was constantly doing something weird (I’ve forgotten what), and was asked why he kept doing it. He replied that he was keeping the elephants away. When the questioner expressed skepticism, he pointed out that there weren’t any elephants in the room, so clearly whatever it was that he was doing, worked. (I’m not a good joke-teller in person, either.)

The antifa threat may be fanciful, but the Neo-Nazis and “race warriors” are all too real–and Trump’s “dog whistles” have become far louder and so thinly veiled that even notoriously cowardly FaceBook removed the most recent example.

In its online salvo against antifa and “far-left mobs,” President Trump’s reelection campaign displayed a marking the Nazis once used to designate political prisoners in concentration camps….

In response to queries from The Washington Post, Facebook on Thursday afternoon deactivated the ads that included the inverted red triangle.

The red symbol appeared in Facebook ads run by Trump and Vice President Pence, as well as the “Team Trump” page. It was featured alongside text warning of “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” and asking users to sign a petition about antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists whom the Trump administration has sought to link to recent violence, despite arrest records that show their involvement is trivial.

When the triangle first appeared on the official Trump site, my son sent me a screen-shot, together with a photograph he’d taken last year when he took his children to Dachau. The photo was of a placard showing the different colored triangles the Nazis had used to identify different types of prisoners: Jews, gays, etc.

As if the triangle wasn’t explicit enough, the campaign placed exactly 88 ads using the symbol–88 is a white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler.” 

Deborah E. Lipstadt, a leading American scholar of the Holocaust, compared inclusion of the symbol to the campaign’s initial decision to hold a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth. (Trump delayed the rally by a day following an outcry, but the message had already reached its intended audience– as had the triangle.)

Antifa may not be a genuine threat to public peace, or even a real organization. But as America prepares for a general election,  the Trumpers are proving to be right about one thing: anyone opposed to them is antifa.

The elephant in the room is the elephant.


It’s Going to Hurt

A rising tide lifts all yachts.

So says Nicholas Kristof, in a recent NYTimes column discussing the best-selling albeit not-so-well-read book on Inequality by Thomas Piketty. In recognition of the fact that few of those who’ve purchased Piketty’s tome have had the time or background to wade through 685 pages of graphs and charts, Kristof proposes to boil the subject down to five main points( a “Cliff Notes” version which should allow you to sound very erudite the next time you discuss economics at a cocktail party). They include the following four:

  • Inequality has significantly increased in the U.S.
  • The disparity is mostly not due to the hidden hand of the market, but to its corruption–to game-playing, manipulation, successful lobbying for “special” treatment and the like.
  • The rich aren’t necessarily happy, despite their greater wealth, because so many of them are caught up in a never-ending cycle of “can you top this?”
  • Progressives need to talk more about restoring genuine opportunity and less about plutocracy.

Hard to argue with any of these, but it is Kristof’s final point that is–at least in my view–the most important: inequality of this magnitude is profoundly socially destabilizing. As Kristof explains:

 Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paper from the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

We are on our way to destroying the most beloved American myth: the belief that with grit and talent, anyone can be successful, can “make it.” That promise, more than any other, has brought immigrants to our shores, given poor parents fortitude because “the kids will be better off than we are,” and encouraged millions of poor and middle-class workers to submerge envy of the “haves” and substitute a belief that with just a bit more effort, they too can join the privileged class.

When that myth explodes, when that promise is no longer plausible, look out. It will get ugly.