I've heard both EPA Chief Gina McCarthy and "The Newsroom's" Will McAvoy say that the United States used to be a lot tougher than it is now. "We have not shied away from difficult decisions," McCarthy told the American Meteorological Society in January. "We didn't scare so easy," said McAvoy in 2012.
Those sound like fine virtues, but I'm 28 years old, and I can't recall a time I ever felt like the United States wasn't scared of something. I already know the super patriots will castigate me based on the title of this piece alone.
That is because, gentle readers, the United States' biggest fear these days seems to be one idea.
Now, don't get ahead of me just yet. I know the United States has always been afraid of some ideas. The founding fathers had to eliminate an antislavery passage in the original Declaration of Independence because the idea of truly universal human rights was too seditious for history’s most seditious (free) men. Their descendants, the pioneers, nearly obliterated the continent’s native peoples because the idea of sharing it was simply untenable for them. Reconsidering our failed drug policy will require a heckuva lot more courage than our current policymakers can muster, because the idea that 50 percent of federal convicts are in prison and not rehab makes for mighty uncomfortable conversation.
So what one idea am I talking about? Well, the big idea. The big idea of what exactly we want the United States to be. The big idea involves talking about the United States, and discussing the United States, and admitting that the United States fell behind the rest of the developed world on pretty much any index we belong to a long time ago. According to one global report, we're 25th in math and science. According to another, we're 14th in reading. According to Legatum, we're 31st in safety and security, 21st in personal freedom.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the United States currently ranks 49th in how freely its press thinks it can express itself. That may have something to do with the fact that the current presidential administration has used the Espionage Act against more government employees than all previous administrations combined, or it may have something to do with the fact that - depending on which lawyer you talk to - the US military now has the power to detain and interrogate US citizens and deny them their constitutional rights.
That's an interesting idea.
Being able to talk about our own country without fear of reprisal from The Man is a key freedom, as far as freedoms go. Reprisal from internet commenters and angry relatives at social functions is guaranteed, but being sure that, no matter what you say, you have the right to say it and think about it, that's the kind of freedom that patriots like to remind you other patriots died for.
Unfortunately, there are not enough exercises in the true extent of that right today. There probably never have been. The last time Americans tested the full measure of that right was before they were actually United States citizens. They thought about the kind of government they had, they decided they had a better one in mind, and they acted on that idea.
I am not advocating anything as radical as revolution. I am simply expressing the idea that the United States is broken and these are three essential parts we need to fix.
1. The Wealth Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Shamefully Wide
If one takes the idea that the United States is the "greatest country in the world" as self-evident, then the state of our economic inequality is a nonpartisan issue. It doesn't matter if you think conservative or liberal methods will solve the crisis; the fact that there is a crisis is either grounds for rectification or for rethinking the United States creed.
And this is a crisis, make no mistake. I've already written about this issue at some length, but the nub of it is that the United States has the second-highest level of income inequality in the world, after Chile. The middle class is shrinking; there is less opportunity for intergenerational mobility; tax cuts to the wealthiest have not led to more job creation, and, while we're on the subject, as middle-class incomes have stagnated, incomes for the top 1% have increased. A lot.
Between 1979 and 2007, average incomes for the 1% increased 241 percent. In the same time period, middle-class incomes grew 19 percent.
The top 10 percent in this country earns an average income of $161,000 (a little less than the average salary of your Congressional representative) while the bottom 90 percent bring in a little under $30,000.
To top it off, approximately 400 United States citizens have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.
But that's a lot of numbers. What does it all mean? It means half of all Americans can't afford their own houses. It means that total student loan debt ($1 trillion) is worth more than Apple, Inc., the world's largest company by market capitalization. It means that the minimum wage in this country would be $21.72 per hour if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity since 1968.
Why does it matter if more Americans are struggling just to pay their bills? For one thing, it makes them less interested in what's going on in the rest of the country (we'll get to that in number 2), and the world (we'll get to that in number 3). For another thing, it underscores the fact that the average American has very little impact on how their country behaves.
A 2014 study by professors at Northwestern and Princeton Universities found that the United States' political system functioned more as an oligarchy than a democracy. "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy," the authors wrote, "while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."
A review of almost 1,800 policy issues between 1982 and 2002 found that policies supported by the wealthy became law 45 percent of the time. Laws they opposed had only an 18 percent chance of enactment.
According to the study, "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it."
Supreme Court rulings on Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC have only cemented this state of affairs.
So if, for instance, one or both of the Koch brothers really wanted to keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, despite the almost unanimous scientific consensus that it will eventually fry the oceans, short-circuit the weather and generally make life miserable for the rest of us, they can pretty much do just that. And if you find that hard to believe, I have a simple math problem for you.
During the 2014 midterm elections, fossil fuel interests donated a reported $721 million to political candidates (that does not count donations made by dark money groups like nonprofits and super-PACs). Count up how much money you donated to political candidates during the 2014 midterm elections, then divide that number by 721,000,000. That's how much of a percentage your vote matters.
2. Domestic Law Enforcement Is Becoming Increasingly Militarized
Since 1996, the Defense Department has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police. Apparently, to fight the war on drugs. You know: The war we've been fighting since 1971.
After September 11, police were provided federal grants and surplus military equipment that included, according to senior White House officials, "military-grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles."
Incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the senseless killing of Eric Garner in New York have put civilian-police relations at their lowest point in decades, but the police problem in the United States stretches beyond race and brutality. In this supposed "land of the free," police are becoming increasingly militarized, using a range of high-tech devices that zig-zag constitutional rights and, in some cases, adopting tactics that are straight out of the Gestapo handbook.
You may remember the Occupy Wall Street movement. Do you remember when the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund obtained over 100 pages of FBI documents that showed the agency had labeled the protesters "domestic terrorists?"
In 2011, the FBI set up a surveillance and infiltration operation that included the Department of Homeland Security, local police and the private security forces of Manhattan's major corporations. Counterterrorism forces were set up in cities across the country to preemptively combat the protesters. The FBI did all of this while explicitly noting the movement was organized on a basis of nonviolence.
Here in Los Angeles, the Occupy movement was simply crushed.
In Chicago, the police department has been using a West Side warehouse as an off-the-books interrogation compound. Allegedly, prisoners in this compound have been denied their constitutional rights, beaten and "disappeared" from official booking databases. That doesn't sound American; that doesn't even sound fascist. That is fascist.
In New York City, a new counterterrorism unit, the Strategic Response Group, will be riding in vehicles outfitted with riot gear and machine guns. "It will be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not," said Commissioner Bill Bratton. That includes "extra heavy protective gear" and "the long rifles and the machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances."
"These instances" may refer to the demonstrations that erupted in the city following the murder of Eric Garner by an NYPD cop. Garner, an unarmed black man, was choked to death while telling the officer he couldn't breathe.
Machine guns do not sound like the proper response to this simple journalist. The NYPD has already proven they're dangerous enough with their bare hands.
In Ferguson, police hit protesters with tear gas and live ammunition in response to being hit with water bottles.
And then of course there's the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) currently in the possession of the Saginaw, Michigan, sheriff department. An MRAP is a 37,850-lb. tank on wheels, and Saginaw is a town of 50,000 people.
In defense of the sheriff's department, Saginaw was ranked as the country's third most violent city in 2013. Even so, as comedian and host of "Last Week Tonight" John Oliver recently pointed out, "[U]nless you live in downtown Kabul, there is no practical need for anything like that in your town."
Unfortunately, the big guns and the big trucks are only the most visible signs of civilian repression. Most Americans are now aware of the fact that the National Security Agency has access to their personal data (though past the initial shock, the population seems to be just fine with this), but your local police force may have been doing this for years.
At least 50 US law enforcement agencies are actively using something called a Range-R radar, which can effectively see inside buildings. The police can and do use this device without a warrant. Police have also lied to courts about using "stingrays," devices that can pinpoint a phone's location and intercept calls and text messages - as well as information from nearby phones.
Ultimately, the bigger issue here is not that our police are mutating into paramilitary units, but that we, as citizens, are allowing this to occur in gradual, awful, apathetic increments. And these inches taken by the police, just like every inch taken by the USA PATRIOT Act, will not be returned without significant citizen outcry.
As Robert Parry writes, we are approaching a ghastly era "when silencing dissent isn't news."
3. Americans as a Whole Are Not Aware of What We're Doing "Out There"
In his book, The Sorrows of Empire, Professor Chalmers Johnson wrote that there are at least 725 United States military bases located outside the US. Since the war on terror, many more have been built, and many "exist under leaseholds, informal agreements, or disguises of various kinds." These bases range from an air base in the desert of Qatar to the al-Masirah Island naval air station in the Gulf of Oman to permanent garrisons in Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Since 1945, the United States has effectively colonized the Japanese island of Okinawa. At the time of Johnson's writing, there were 38 US bases spread across 20 percent of the island, as well as beaches, golf courses and other recreational facilities reserved exclusively for US military. As you can imagine, the Okinawans resent this.
The United States has spread itself across the globe, spread its weapons and its soldiers and its ships and jets and tanks into an international network that is as impressive in its scope as it is in its virtual obscurity. This is not a subject that is broached often in public discourse, and yet it has so much to do with how the US is perceived "out there." Claims that the US is trying to "police the world" often neglect to mention how easy it is for us to do. We have stations everywhere.
In 2012, the US spent more on its military than the defense budgets of China, Russia, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil and the UK combined. All of those countries are ostensibly our allies, so why we're spending all this money is a mystery. The enemies we face in the Middle East pay a pittance for their homemade materiel - when they aren't using ours.
President Obama's proposed budget for 2015 devoted 55 percent of discretionary spending to the military. The next largest chunk was education, at six percent. In 2014, 18 percent of the total budget ($615 billion) was sunk into defense and security-related international activities.
According to Harvard University, the US has already spent approximately $2 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that number is set to at least double and potentially triple in the years to come. The US taxpayers have spent an estimated $10.54 million on these wars every hour since 2001.
I do not raise these points to say that we do not deserve to be defended, but to simply say that - as with the country's growing inequality, as with its transgressive policing - the status quo is not sustainable.
The United States needs to have a serious conversation about the big idea: What we want the United States to be. Americans need to consider the fact that our system is broken, bloated and bleeding, and to not be afraid to confront it. We need to think.