Some FAQ's About American Society

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Why Are Both Political Parties Indistinguishable?

Possibility 1: You're a Shallow Thinker

You really don't see any difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry or Al Gore? You really didn't see any difference between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale or Jimmy Carter? You really thought Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were pretty much the same? Would Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern have been as politically able to open relations with China as Richard Nixon? Would the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War have run the same course if Barry Goldwater had been elected in 1964 instead of Lyndon Johnson? If you answer "yes" to any of the above, do us all a favor on election day and stay home.

Possibility 2: You Belong to the Lunatic Fringe

Leftists: buy a clue. We are not going to seize the wealth of the top 10% of the population and pass it out among everybody else. First, it wouldn't go all that far. Second, once it was spent, there would be no more. See Chile, 1974 for additional information, or take notes during Zimbabwe 2007-. We are not going to cure poverty by printing a million dollars for everybody. See Germany, 1923 for details. We are not going to disband the FBI, the CIA, the Armed Forces, or the police, and we are not going to open the prisons.

Rightists: get real. We are not going to pay off the national debt by selling poor people to be ground up for cat food. We are not going to divvy up the national parks for vacation homes, and even if we did, do you think you'd stand a chance of getting anything? We are not going to declare your particular cult (not denomination, cult) the State religion or round up the particular group you think are enemies of the State. We are not going to abolish taxes or go back to gold coins.

So if you wonder why none of those ideas ever get a fair hearing, it's because they already have, and they flunk the most elementary common sense tests. Occasionally somebody in Washington thinks of one of those ideas, but once the pink rabbits go away, the shakes stop and the hangover quiets down to a dull throb, they get over it.

There's a broad consensus about a lot of things in American society. We need paved roads and schools and some sort of plan so old people and the handicapped can survive. We need people to make sure foods are clean and airplanes don't collide and toxins don't get dumped in the rivers and radio stations don't try blasting each other off the air on the same frequency. Politics in America is played between the 30-yard lines. If you want to suit up and wait in the parking lot for someone to throw you a long pass, lotsa luck. There are a lot of dumb voters, but there are enough sensible ones to keep a lot of ideas where they belong - on the lunatic fringe.

I am never going to vote for the kind of candidate than many non-voters seem to want, and neither are any of the other voters I know, Democratic or Republican. So if you want a radical alternative to the candidates now running, you raise money, collect signatures and get them elected. It is not my job to fix your dissatisfaction with the system.

Why Are Republicans Now Spending Like Democrats?

Here's a theory. Imagine your Significant Other or Life Partner or Symbiotic Heterotroph has an incurable spending problem. All your efforts to take away the credit cards have failed. Merchants ignore you when you tell them not to let this person use credit. Lawyers and the courts tell you there's nothing you can do, but you're still liable for the debts. What do you do?

Answer: max out the credit cards on what you want. You get things that matter to you, and your partner can't spend any more.

Ever since Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930's, Republicans have fought a mostly losing battle to persuade Americans of the need for economy in government. Americans would dearly love to pay less taxes, but they love even more the idea of having somebody else pick up the tab for their big-ticket expenses. It all sounds very fair, that we're all in this together, and we pool our tax money to buy health care, prescription drugs, and so on. And it all sounds very rational that people want to pay less taxes. But if you pay 15% of your income in taxes, and you're getting more in benefits than you pay out because somebody else is paying 20% of a bigger income, the choice between cutting taxes or not is a no-brainer.

The obvious solution would be to limit the vote to the six or seven people not getting any government money. But that would take a constitutional amendment, to be voted on by legislators elected by the people who want benefits paid for out of other peoples' taxes.

Americans have shown at the polls and in their personal lives they are not willing to exercise fiscal restraint. So beginning with Reagan and Star Wars, Republicans maxed out government spending on things that appealed to Republicans. They spend on the military, on pork in Republican districts, and so on. When Bush, junior, proposed a national health plan, to the fury of some hard-core conservatives, the reason was simple. The electorate had made it abundantly clear that they lacked the political will to oppose it. There were just not enough people willing to say no to win on that issue. So the Bush choice was to create a plan that was somewhat favorable to insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and the medical profession, and get to stay in office where they can nominate Federal judges and shape policy. The alternative was to be ideologically pure. Then they lose the election, get a more expensive and invasive system when the opposition takes over, plus all the other policy baggage the opposition will bring along with them. You pick battles you can win.

Why Don't Politicians Ever Tell The Truth?

They do. Every election there are politicians that defy conventional wisdom and tell the plain truth. And every Wednesday after Election Day the papers have a name for them: defeated.

Americans don't want politicians to tell the truth. They want politicians to tell them that their particular fantasies are the truth. The ultimate in rash political promises was Jimmy Carter promising (allegedly) to release all information the Government had on UFO's. That was tantamount to promising to produce evidence of extraterrestrials, because no UFO believer would ever have accepted that there were no UFO's, regardless of how truthful the Government was being.

Americans do not want to hear that the lunatic fringe owns the debate over teaching evolution. They also don't want to hear that the lunatic fringe totally controls the debate over nuclear power, or risk in general. They don't want to hear that we are running out of cheap oil, or that you can't have services without taxes. They want to be told that the earth is 10,000 years old, that nuclear power is not an option, that it is possible to live in a totally risk-free world, that they can continue to drive gas guzzling cars forever and they can pay lower taxes by cutting other people's services. That's what most people mean by politicians telling the truth.

Here we see it in action: Max Bergmann in the Huffington Post, July 10, 2008:

This is the week that should have effectively ended John McCain's efforts to become the next president of the United States. But you wouldn't know it if you watched any of the mainstream media outlets or followed political reporting in the major newspapers.

During this past week: McCain called the most important entitlement program in the U.S. a disgrace, his top economic adviser called the American people whiners,

McCain is dead right on both counts: Social Security is a disgrace. Not the concept, but the fact that it's not properly funded. If the program were pay as you go, that is, if the trust fund wasn't constantly plundered for other purposes, we wouldn't be worried about the program going bankrupt and current payers wouldn't be worried about whether or not they will ever see benefits.

As for whiners: waaaah. Your wind farm is going to drag my property values down. I took out an outrageous mortgage on an overpriced house and I want my debt canceled. I can't afford to fill my SUV, even though I had 35 years advance warning that oil price spikes could happen. Baby Boomers (and I am one) are the whiniest, most self-centered generation in American history.

Tell the truth, and get bashed for it. By a blog site that otherwise complains about dishonesty in politics. What an incentive.

Why Are We Facing an Epidemic of Obesity?

To some extent, it may be partly an epidemic of definitions. When you plug in the numbers for Arnold Schwarzenegger, as someone once did, and get "obese," it's obvious there's a problem with definition. When we see statistics claiming our diet years ago was much healthier, at a time when cholesterol levels in the 300's were regarded as normal, it's obvious there's a definition problem. So partly it's an epidemic of faulty and ideologically driven definitions: McDonald's = Corporation = Big and Successful Corporation = Evil = Unhealthy. Low Cholesterol = Eating at Healthy Restaurants = Slap to Big Corporations = Saving the Whooping Crane.

Of course, Americans don't exactly have acutely scientific ideas about nutrition. Remember the Reagan Administration trying to pass off catsup as a vegetable? Well, I just got back from shopping at a supermarket where they had bags of Easter jelly beans - in the fruit section. And, yes, given the other topics I address on these pages, I am absolutely certain there are people out there who can be convinced that jelly beans are fruit. One of the most famous April Fool pranks ever was a BBC news clip about the spaghetti harvest in Italy, showing women picking spaghetti off trees, and people called in asking if it was possible to buy spaghetti trees (there is such a thing as a spaghetti squash, and it makes a tolerably good facsimile of spaghetti). So yes, absolutely, there will be people who believe jelly beans are fruit and grow on trees.

Still, there's no escaping the data that Americans are a lot heavier than they used to be. We - I - eat too much and don't exercise enough. The fact that I avoir a few more dupois than I should is my fault. Not society's, not my parents, not McDonald's - mine.

It's been widely observed that portions are a whole lot larger than they once were. And therein lies an overlooked factor that has nothing to do with food or nutrition or exercise. Instead it's about economics and perception. If you do the math, it costs far less to cook at home than to go out, and if you work from scratch it's cheaper yet (in terms of money, not time). A restaurant, be it McDonald's or Chez Snobberie, has to buy the food, have people prepare it, serve it, mop the floors, wash the dishes, shoo away the roaches, buy liability insurance, pay rent on the property, pay taxes, hire an accountant, paint the place occasionally, and replace broken glasses and worn-out furnishings. The actual cost of the food is only a small part of the real cost of eating out.

And Americans are geniuses when it comes to denying the real costs of things. We figure, since the restaurant is already there and has to do all those things anyway, when we come in, we should only have to pay for the food. The staff is there whether we come in or not, and the only cost we add to their operations is the food (and some immediate costs of preparations and serving), so why should we pay for anything else? So if costs go up, what's a simple and relatively inexpensive way to mollify the customers? Serve bigger portions.

What Really Happened on 9-11?

Conspiracy lovers rejoice. What brought down the World Trade Center and killed 3,000 people on 9-11 was not hijacked airplanes. It was not nineteen Islamic hijackers.

It was risk aversion.

The passengers on the flights that crashed into the twin towers and the Pentagon sat tight because that's what you were supposed to do during a hijacking. Resist, and somebody might get hurt. The passengers on Flight 93 finally resisted and prevented their flight from hitting the Capitol or the White House, but by then it was too late. The hijackers were too firmly in command for the passengers to regain control of the flight and save their own lives.

What if, instead of sitting tight, every single hijacker, ever, had been resisted? What if a lot had been killed with their own weapons? Hijacking would be a much riskier enterprise. We might have had a few Flight 93's, but then again we may not have had a 9-11. What if, on 9-11, the passengers on every flight had attacked the hijackers as soon as they pulled weapons? Box cutters can produce nasty injuries, but not nearly as bad as slamming a plane into something at full throttle.

What if the kids at Columbine High School, instead of running or hiding, had jumped the shooters? There have been a number of potential mass killings prevented when someone attacked the assailant instead of running away; these incidents don't get the headlines, but they do happen. The most shameful incident at Columbine happened when a wounded teacher bled to death while students frantically tried to get help. There were police on the scene and they stood there waiting for backup while someone died. They cared more about doing it by the book, saving their own skins, and not getting reprimanded than they did about doing what they are paid to do - take risks.

By the way, isn't it time police stopped pretending they're the only people who ever get hurt on the job? Many more construction workers (1278 in 2004), truckers (520), and farm workers (320) die on the job each year than policemen (138 - nearly 2/3 in accidents), but they don't get honor guards and someone playing bagpipes at their funerals.

Risk aversion pervades and perverts American society at every turn. The film The Constant Gardener is a wonderfully acted suspense tale revolving around clinical trials of drugs in Africa. The strong insinuation is that greedy corporations are killing helpless Third World patients for profit. At least in this film the villains, refreshingly, are European rather than American. But the drug in question was intended to combat an anticipated onslaught of drug-resistant tuberculosis. And it's not like the drug company was randomly injecting turpentine or bleach into people's veins on the off chance that something might work. The drugs had already been through an extensive development process. So who was really killing Africans here - the drug companies that were trying to prevent a future pandemic, or wealthy, cowardly Westerners, who want advanced medicine but don't want to pay for it or assume the risks of testing it? Oh, and let's not forget that if someone took the drug without ill effect (as most would have) they'd have a good chance of being immune to tuberculosis.


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Created 5 April 2006;  Last Update 15 December, 2011

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