Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Superlative Nation

My friend Kathy drives a bright red Toyota Camry. She looks like your average middle aged, middle class American woman. Kathy doesn’t scare easily; her response to her fear of flying was to earn her pilot’s license. She graduated top of her class.

Kathy’s bright red Toyota Camry is neat and clean inside and out. The large hammer with the worn wooden handle and solid iron head seems out of place on the floor of the passenger seat. Kathy was involved in a serious car accident some years ago that left her with a broken foot and a fear of being trapped in her car. The hammer and a strong flashlight are her responses to that fear. They seem reasonable once the story is known.

Given the events of January 7 in Tuscon AZ, the responses of our leaders to the understandable fears the shootings have generated cannot be considered as reasonable. In fact, the responses are almost laughable were they not suggested with the serious intention of precipitating action. At least two of our elected congressmen stated they intend to carry weapons when meeting constituents. Other elected officials have suggested that they carry arms while on the floor of the House of Representatives. As one congressman, more measured and wise in his response pointed out, “Congressmen have trouble controlling their tongues, I hate to think of them trying to control guns.” And now there is the suggestion that teachers and students be permitted to carry concealed weapons in class.

Guns, particularly handguns, are responsible for the majority of deaths by homicide, suicide and accidental shootings in the USA every year. A very small proportion of those deaths result from shotgun or rifle shootings, the kind of weapons that most hunters would have in their homes.

Americans own more guns per capita than any other nation on earth. America has the highest rate of death by deliberate or accidental shooting than other nation on earth. Most of those deaths, 16,907 in 2009, are by suicide. More than 10,000 are considered accidents that come about as the result of a gun being in the home. Americans are more likely to kill themselves using a gun or kill someone else, usually a family member, with a gun than any other nationality.

It’s a list of superlatives that should give Americans pause for thought and an even longer pause before taking action.

America is in love with superlatives, there is no such thing as too little hyperbole. Americans love to believe in the idea of being Number One! The biggest economy, the strongest military, the greatest possibility, the land of plenty and the land of the free – as if freedom was somehow invented in America, this young and often impudent nation. Sadly the positive superlatives cover a dark and rarely discussed reality that also bears the burden of being “the most.”

Here are some superlatives America owns that do not often find their way into the news or the public conscience. They are the kind of superlatives denied and ignored, for acceptance of their veracity would shame us all.

Americans use more of the world’s resources per capita than any other nation and produce the most trash while in the process of the fastest and greatest amount of consumption. America has slipped from the number one position of economic growth but Americans continue to consume products, mainly imported products, at an alarming rate. In the process, our number one export is now trash, usually shipped to China then sold back to us in numerous forms.

Americans spend more on health care than any other country. We are the fattest people in the developed world with a 30.6% obesity rate and yet we are more likely to die from malnutrition than in any other developed nation on earth. Our doctors earn more money than they do in other developed countries yet we have the highest infant mortality rate and premature death rate (death before the age of 64) and the lowest percentage of the population covered by public insurance. We spend more for less than any other developed nation – no wonder we get angry. No wonder the mentally ill are overlooked.

We have the greatest disparity between CEO and worker wages, the least number of vacation days, the highest poverty rate, and come in at 9th on the size of the middle class. The wealth of that middle class has fallen considerably since 2008. We have the highest percentage of families earning two paychecks, the highest credit card debt per capita, are 11th for household savings and are top of the income inequality index. The top corporate executives earn about $500 for every $1 the average worker earns. No wonder so many Americans are angry. No wonder so many Americans reach the bottom of the place where hope is held.

In what has been long considered the wealthiest nation on earth, we have the highest poverty rate of industrialized nations. More then 50 million people rely on food stamps in order to eat. On any given day, three million people are estimated to be homeless while an astonishing 25% of the world’s incarcerated population is in the United States. The design and building of massive prison complexes, is one of the few construction industries that continues to thrive in a poor economy.

America spends more money on defense weaponry and the military than all other developed nations combined.

In 2008 America spent 79.8 billion dollars on research and development – in the department of defense. The 2011 budget will contain some restraint due to the poor economy but research and development will get about $111 billion and 80 billion(72%) of that will still go to our most profligate industry after the creation of trash – the creation of weapons that kill people. Waging war costs money, money that was not always reported in our budget, money that is often hidden under misleading titles but the cost is real. This year we will spend somewhere between $114.8–$454.2 billion in interest incurred on debt in past wars.

Funding of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts is miniscule in comparison to arts budgets throughout Europe. Less than 1% of funding for the arts comes through government funding. A mere $124 million, with an “m”, is allocated for funding of the arts at the national level as well as for programs in all 50 states.

So far any investment, true investment, in developing and creating industries such as renewable energy and sustainable smart growth has been miniscule in comparison to the amount of money spent on the destruction of life. The availability of money and credit for the working and middle class over the past two years has amounted to zero by comparison to the amount of money given to Wall Street investment brokers and bankers for their super-sized bonuses. No wonder we lead the world in the consumption of anti-depressants.

The gap between the hyperbole and reality is an enormous chasm that threatens to swallow any real political solutions to the increased intensity and frequency of the problems that beset the majority of Americans. Political will, integrity, and imagination long ago disappeared over the edge of the chasm. In its place we have an arena covered in layers of bombastic rhetoric, demonization, ignorance, and superlative lies all of which serve to polarize a terrified populace grasping for something to believe in, something to save them. And this is where we begin to grasp at unrealistic and over-the-top solutions like carrying a gun to meet with constituents, like the insanely expensive and ineffective “Star Wars” program, like giving money to the rich while denying the poor basic life necessities. This is where our striving to be the best in some undefined category makes us very dangerous. Like the drowning man lunging at a would be rescuer, we are oblivious to the violence inherent in our increasing panic.

My friend Kathy is relieved that car technology has finally caught up with her fears. She has become increasingly aware that the big old hammer in her passenger seat would become a dangerous missile if she should ever be involved in another accident of the severity of the previous one. She says she is just about ready to remove it but for now, until she can buy a car that will allow her to escape in the event of an accident, she will keep it there as a kind of psychological safety blanket.

Would that we have the luxury of time to have some solution present itself. Would that we indulge in some courageous, honest, self-reflection that allows us to see beyond the veil of superlatives into the nature of the reality we have created. Then maybe, we might truly grow beyond our fears into a well defined best.