He hears the silence howling;
catches angels as they fall
And the all-time winner
has got him by the balls:
He picks up Gideon’s Bible,
open at page one;
God stole the handle, and
the train won’t stop going…
No way to slow down.
Jethro Tull, from “Locomotive Breath”
Almost since the steam locomotive debuted in the USA with Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s “Tom Thumb”, the train has been a symbol of implacable and unstoppable power, while a “train wreck” has become synonymous with any initiative which ends in complete ruin and destruction. This is the impression Ian Anderson sought to create with “Locomotive Breath” – according to Wikipedia, “The song’s lyrics use the imagery of an impending and unavoidable train wreck as an allegorical portrayal of a man’s life falling apart”.
The USA’s foreign policy is a train wreck, and it can’t stop or even slow down on the careering, destructive course it has set itself. Far from cutting a wide swath in the world and increasing its influence, the United States is increasingly being left out of international decision-making and its influence, more and more, is unwelcome and unsolicited. How did we get here, from the time when ordinary people respected the government and journalists reported the news instead of making them up? Why did Americans think the way they did back then, and why do they think the way they do now?
But it’s not as simple as just passing judgment, or saying “Americans make bad foreign policy because they are idiots led by criminals”. Here to help us understand the legislative framework that holds America together, and the foreign policy which results from the choices left to Americans, is the commenter I know only as UCG. University of California Graduate? Uruguayan Cowboy Groupie? No way to know, although he is clearly from California. I recommend you check out the other fine and perceptive discussions on his blog – meanwhile, read on.
Surviving in the US
According to Indeed.com, the average salary in the US is $62,000. Since that’s on the high end of the spectrum, let’s go with that, even though the Sacramento Bee places the average salary at $51,190. And let’s take your average family, two parents, (both working,) and two kids. That’s $124,000. This seems like a lot of money, but it’s not.
First we have to subtract taxes and insurance fees which are essentially taxes paid to private corporations for providing the people with essential services. For instance let’s take health insurance. Even if you do not fall into one of the mandated categories for Obamacare, you either need to buy health insurance or risk being fleeced by the medical companies and hospitals, where a simple medical procedure can cost over $80,000. And that case is not unique. How is that not equivalent to a tax?
The reason that I use the combination of taxes and insurance is that these are services that should be provided by the government. Most industrialized countries have universal healthcare, so America’s health insurance is most definitely similar a tax. It’s just not called tax, because apparently, calling it a tax magically gives it cooties. Believe it or not, in the US, most Americans pay half of their income to cover their taxes and insurance fees. Keep in mind that America has a progressive income taxation system and a regressive insurance system, which keeps most Americans dutifully paying half of their incomes to the government and the insurance companies.
But I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so let’s start with the family that I introduced earlier, 2 adults, 2 kids and $124,000 in income. First there’s the federal income tax of 25 percent, over a third of which goes to the military, perhaps to bomb a country you never heard of. That’s $31,000. Then there’s the 6 percent social security tax, which amounts to $7,440. The 10 percent Californian state income tax is worth $12,400. The health insurance is going to cost another $22,000. Of course that number doesn’t include property taxes, sales taxes, other taxes, car insurance, home insurance, other insurances, etc, and that’s already $72,840. But hey, I said half, maybe they’ll get a tax rebate, so despite the tax and insurance burden clearly being more than half, let’s go with half. Now the family of four has a net income of $62,000.
The next two big items on the expenditure list are housing and food. People need a place to stay and a place to eat. However we’re talking about the middle class here, and they shouldn’t be living in Ghettoville, also known as Detroit. The median home price is $425,000. Presuming that they can get a decent rate, let’s say four percent, that their housing value does not decrease, (which usually isn’t the case in California, or at least wasn’t prior to economic crash, but hey, at least comedians got a good laugh out of Gore’s “locked box” speech, politician wants to do something good for the economy – hilarious!) and that they take out a 30 year housing mortgage, we’re looking at $24,000 in home payments. Of course there needs to be a fund for fixing the house, paying for utilities, etc. That can cost about $300 a month on average, so another $3,600.
After taxes, insurance and housing we’re left with $34,400 for the hardworking family of four, who probably need to eat. Presuming that they don’t end up eating junk food all of the time, the food would average out to be $60 a day for the family of four, one of the reasons being that the mom is working and thus cannot cook Monday through Friday. That’s $21,900. We’re left with $12,500. And I’m being generous, since I’m basing that sum on collegiate data.
I’m also guessing that the parents might need a way to get to work, probably a car. In California you can get two decent cars for $25,000, and pay it off with $250 a month or $3,000 a year. But you also need to pay for gas and car repairs. I don’t drive as much as I used to and I still spend about $100 a month on gas, and half of that on other repairs. Thus the car bill, for the parents, assuming that they work fairly close to home and that they are safe drivers, is $6,600. We’re left with $5,900.
The charges still left include emergency situations, school supplies, clothes, toiletries, stuff that families can do on the weekends, etc, etc, etc. That’s Middle America. This is why people in the US are having one kid instead of two: they cannot afford two. That’s why the mom has to work, instead of staying at home and raising her kids. What’s that mean? The kid’s raised by school, TV, the Internet, and video games. Speaking of schools, most schools are not doing too well and quite a few are failing miserably.
Please note what I did: I took the highest Middle America salary I could find, I’ve applied the expenses generously and I still ended up with a loss. That’s why close to half of Americans are in debt. Speaking of Americans being in debt, here’s what’s owed:
Total: $11.68 trillion in debt
$854.2 billion in credit card debt
$8.15 trillion in mortgages
$1,115.3 billion in student loans
Don’t worry, I don’t owe any debt; (scholarships FTW,) well, except for the house, but property values negate that. Needless to say, if someone’s living paycheck to paycheck and ends up being unemployed, welp, there goes the house, hope they like the apartments. Why don’t we just make our education free? Good question, but Washington says “nyet”; how are we supposed to afford good schools and have over 9,000 aircraft on carriers?
The problem that I mentioned earlier is that the kids are being raised practically without parents. The situation is not improving; it’s worsening. The working hours and vacation times of American workers are abysmal. Including driving to and from work, the average American works for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week and usually needs either Saturday or Sunday to get his or her house in order. How well can a parent raise a kid on one and a half days a week? Not very well, which is why Justin Bieber is the sensation icon amongst the younger generations and that’s a good thing. At least Bieber is not very violent. The problem with most Americans living paycheck to paycheck is that if someone slips up or loses his or her job, debt and devastation promptly follow. Fellow Californian Mark Ames wrote a brilliant book, From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine, that exposes the ugly truth of what happens when someone slips up.
The sad part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. California, as a state, has a great economy that’s amazingly diversified, one that’s based around the collegiate system. California has 282 colleges and universities for a population of less than 40 million people. This collegiate diversity is what drives California’s economy.
Who has not heard of Silicon Valley, of Hollywood, of Berkeley or Stanford, of USC or UCLA? It all started in 1960, when California launched the Master Plan.Tying the master plan to today’s America would get quite a few people to panic, especially with all of the revelations of governmental corruption, but in 1960 it was a genuine attempt to improve the economy of California, and it worked. The Master Plan created numerous tiers on which new colleges and universities would be founded and divided the universities into three groups: public, private and religious. The public universities were further subdivided into the University of California System, the California State University System and the Community College System. Berkeley serves as the flagship for this system in Northern California and UCLA serves as the flagship for this system in Southern California. Not to be outdone, Stanford and USC had to adapt to the success of Berkeley and UCLA, providing Californians with a superb education system.
Almost every major Silicon Valley company had its origins in students of the California Collegiate System. When two PhD students from Stanford met a PhD student from Berkeley, Google was born. Similarly, the Google of Hollywood would be Star Wars, which had its roots when a young George Lucas started experimenting with different camera techniques at a community college in Modesto, California. He continued his studies at USC and eventually produced the movie that changed history, Star Wars.
Star Wars and Google are mere examples of a greater theme of how the Master Plan drives California’s economy and helps out local communities. Can any of you imagine a wealthy American Institution bailing out a poor American Institution at its own expense, only to enable it to become independent, deriving no profit from it? Sounds like fiction, right? When the Compton Community College lost its credential, the El Camino Community College bailed it out and set it on a path to recovery. Currently it’s serving the Compton community as the El Camino College, Compton Center.
A college or university is very beneficial to the community, since it actually creates jobs, enables the college students to assist the poor through various internship programs, bonds the college students with the local population, thus creating the basis for strengthening the middle class, provides valuable education to the students, creates a service industry around the campus since the professors like to enjoy their lives, etc.
Currently there are 282 colleges/universities in California, with 135 private institutions and 147 public institutions. The vast majority of the public institutions are 112 community college campuses, enabling 2.6 million Californian students to receive a degree. Speaking of the benefits that they bring, students who earn a California Community College degree or certificate nearly double their earnings within three years.
The next tier of public education is formed by the Cal States. They have 23 campuses, almost 447,000 students, and 45,000 faculty and staff and are the largest, the most diverse and one of the most affordable university systems in the country. These are four year institutions that could go toe to toe with most of the colleges/universities found in other countries. The Cal States even have their own Marine Laboratories. The department of defense also runs two federal universities in California. The UC system led by the flagships of UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles has 10 campuses, more than 230,000 students and secures $7 in federal and private dollars for every $1 in research funding provided by the state of California.
In addition to providing fertile soil for Hollywood and Silicon Valley to grow and prosper, the Californian Collegiate System helped the development of property values. In 2008 Californian property management accounted for $309 billion. The entire GDP of Switzerland was $325 billion, Ukraine – $337 billion and Greece – $330 billion according to PPP figures from the World Bank. California’s GSP was $1,847 billion.
Said GSP, (Gross State Product,) was fully diversified. The housing/real estate/construction/utilities business made up about a quarter of the GSP. The government services, labor and trade made 12 percent of the GSP, apiece. 16 percent of the GSP was made by information services, with Silicon Valley as the flagship, 8 percent for arts and education, with Hollywood as the flagship, 7 percent spent on finances and the remaining 8 percent spent on other services. The collegiate system is what produced the Californian Diversification of the economy.
This model can be best demonstrated by UC Irvine. In 1965 the Irvine Company gave the UC System as much land as they needed, free of charge. Around said land they built housing complexes, shopping malls and similar structures. The students moved in, trailblazing for the city. Soon the city’s property values increased, which led to better schools, thus enriching the community. The Irvine Company made hundreds of millions in property values from their donation and the City of Irvine became a great place to live, enriching Orange County and the rest of California.
Why can’t other countries adopt California’s collegiate system? Instead of building Skolkovo, why not adopt the Master Plan and let Russians build Silikonovaya Dolina, which can later be renamed Skolkovo? It works, and realistically speaking, it is the only system in California that ensures the long term growth of California’s economy, in spite of the inefficiency faced by Californians that’s produced by the government. While California certainly needs Washington and should not secede, (leave that for Texas,) Californians should demand that the Federal Government be at least half as efficient as the State of California when it comes to financial management. What do I mean? According to the 2005 data, California paid $289.6 billion in taxes to Washington and received only $242 billion in Federal spending. A further $45.1 billion was allocated to defense spending. Out of the remaining $196.9 billion, roughly $96.8 billion was spent on Medicaid.
Here I’d like to take a look at America’s extremely inefficient healthcare system. According to the OECD data, the US towers over other countries at healthcare inefficiency, spending a whopping 17.7 percent of their GDP on healthcare. The average is around 10.2 percent, which is also what Japan spends, and the next biggest spender, the Netherlands, spends 11.9 percent.
There’s also the matter of quality of healthcare which in the US is more limited than in places such as Japan or the Netherlands. Thus inefficiency could account from anywhere between a third and half of America’s healthcare spending, and thus California’s spending. With all those figures in mind, let’s compute how much money California wasted in 2005.
In 2005 the GSP of California was $1,629 billion, and 7.5 percent of that is $122.2 billion. (17.7% – 10.2% = 7.5%) Add to this the $47.6 billion difference between the money that California sent to Washington and the money that California received from Washington, and the figure becomes $169.8 billion. If one was to factor in other differences, including military inefficiency, debt interest, social security mismanagement, etc, the figure would probably account anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of California’s economy. That’s between $244.4 billion and $325.8 billion, the latter being more than the GDP of Ukraine.
The lion’s share of the waste lies in healthcare spending, which is what Obamacare was supposed to fix. Sadly, despite having the support of the majority of the American Public, Obamacare became a hostage to the two-party system and utterly failed to meet its goal. Although the quality of healthcare increased under Obamacare, so did the price tag, and the corresponding waste.
The problem with the two-party system is that every single issue gets viewed through a bipolar lens in American politics, often leading to hilarious results. In 2012 the CEO of Chick-Fil-A (CFA) made a comment about Gay Rights, saying that Traditional Marriage FTW, Gay Rights, meh, not really important, or something along those lines. The Democrats exploded with anti-CFA rhetoric. If you went to eat in CFA, you just love oppressing Gay Rights. The Republicans lobbied in favor of CFA, saying that if you love CFA, you love Traditional Marriage Values. It turns out that the CFA made record revenues.
The Democrats entered panic mode and the Republicans started with the celebrations and cheers of joy. I had a slightly different hypothesis, so I went to CFA, purely for research purposes. There I found absolutely phenomenal service, second to none when it comes to service at a fast food place, which made me wonder: was the whole CFA event over Gay Rights, or was it just people supporting their favorite fast food joint? I’m leaning towards the latter, but that’s not even an option under the two-party system.
With that anecdotal evidence in mind, let’s consider Obamacare. Due to the “quality” of American healthcare service, or rather complete lack thereof, (you can watch the movie, Sicko, which demonstrates this point rather well,) Obamacare had wide ranging support amongst all spectrums of the population. Obama was elected to reforms the inefficiency of the American healthcare system, (not to expand it,) which would, in turn, help the US economy recover faster. The smart play for any party would be to side with the majority of voters and roll through a massive healthcare reform package. That might have happened.
Due to the two-party system, both parties have a big tent ideology, where they vie for support of various groups of voters, even if said voters have nothing in common with one another. For instance the labor union leaders who despise illegal immigration and the Latino voters, who love it, are both parts of the Democratic Party. Similarly, the Family Values group and the Libertarians are both members of the Republican Party, even though they have very little in common. John Kerry is a lot closer to George Bush than he is to Barack Obama, and Chuck Hagel is a lot closer to Obama than he is to Bush, despite party affiliation. Thus, because of this “Big Tent” ideology, the party affiliation does not show the actual support or opposition to the party platform.
As a result of these divisions, the healthcare lobby made devastating precision strikes against Obamacare. The first to hit were the Blue Dogs, members of Obama’s very own political party stabbing him in the back. This energized the Republican Party to take effective measures against Obamacare, knowing full well that if Obama’s healthcare policy went down in flames, backstabbed by his own party, the Democrats could be devastated in the midterm elections.
Obama and the rest of the Democrats had an out. They should have kicked the Blue Dogs out of the Democratic Party and supported Obamacare with everything they had. Putin had no trouble purging United Russia when the need arrived, but for some reason Obama bailed out. Seriously, what can one say about a group calling themselves, voluntarily, the “Blue Dogs” whose sole purpose is to serve the corporations over their constituents when it comes to healthcare in America? What should one call them? Corporate Courtesans?
Obama’s failure to effectively challenge the Blue Dogs and the blowback from the Bailout Failures enabled the Republicans to take control of the House of Representatives. The chances of Americans getting quality healthcare that could compete with European efficiency, were defeated with one swift blow. And yet the blows just kept on piling on, blow after blow, until Obamacare became a shadow of its former self and Obama’s legacy, forever tarred.
Currently the Republicans are facing a similar problem on the issues of illegal immigration. When they’re naturalized, former illegal immigrants tend to overwhelmingly support the Democrats. Furthermore the issue of illegal immigration is an issue that could allow the Republicans to crush the Democrats, if they adopt a strong policy on it, since most Americans do not favor illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is also a drain on the social safety net. In 2010, illegal immigration cost Californians $1.25 billion in unpaid medical bills.
So why is this still going on? Because it provides votes to the Democrats and Republican corporate interests are very much in support of labor that’s dirt cheap and expendable. Who’s more likely to fight for worker rights, an educated citizen or an uneducated illegal immigrant? The Republican Party could lose America to the Democrats if there’s no reform on illegal immigration, but in part because of the two-party system, in part because of corporate interests, there’s little to no movement when it comes to illegal immigration. Ann Coulter wrote a column on an inner party revolt on this issue, after being one of the few people saying that Cantor’s loss was possible but the mass media is much more concerned about her idiotic statements when it comes to soccer.
It’s easy to fix the problem of illegal immigration – simply pass a law that says that anyone who provides employment to illegal immigrants will be heavily fined. Problem solved. Instead there are people who profit off of hiring illegal immigrants and then demand that Americans cover the retirement funds of those illegal immigrants. Maybe they should cover the expenses of the workers who bring them profits on their own and take actual financial responsibility for their actions? Just a thought.
Interestingly enough, California’s direct democracy can be used to counter the corporatists when it comes to illegal immigration, by passing the law mentioned above. Generally speaking, direct democracy has been awesome for California with the people doing a much better job legislating for the state than the legislators, despite the ever present patrician-plebian attitude. For instance, when the Terminator and Moonbeam, (Governors Scwartznegger and Brown,) saw a proposition or two that they didn’t like, they deliberately failed to enforce those propositions. Their parties suffered voter backlash as a result.
The most recent major proposition election was in 2012, with Californians achieving remarkable results, including:
- Stopping the powerful prison lobby’s expansion
- Maintaining the balance of power in politics
- Funding higher education
- Stopping gerrymandering in its tracks
- Closing tax loopholes
- Demanding that sexual predators register before using online services, although this was later overturned by the courts, thanks to the ACLU’s dutiful protection of the rights of sex offenders. According to the ACLU, when a registered sex offender is unable to participate in online political discussions without revealing his status as a registered sex offender, this amounts to an unconstitutional burden on the free speech and association rights of the sex offender.
Despite that and governors occasionally not doing their jobs, the California proposition process remains a powerful symbol of freedom of choice in California. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the Californians’ ability to stop the prison lobby in its tracks.
Ironically, the prison lobby had an initial boost when Californians approved the three strikes proposition. But at this time the prison lobby was not yet ready to utilize the Californian boost and ended up overextending themselves, making their activities too large to hide amongst irrelevancy, and thus not subject to help from voter apathy.
In 2012 the Californians had enough of the prison lobby and passed Proposition 36, which limited the incarceration possibilities of nonviolent offenders. The prison lobby failed to respond, enabling activists all over the United State to launch assaults against them. Make no mistake, incarceration is still a problem in the US, but it’s not increasing as rapidly as it would have, had the California Proposition process not been a huge road bump in their path.
Additionally, California has a precarious balance of power: the unions check the corporations, the college students check the lobbyists, (I’m talking about both undergraduate and graduate students,) the term limits keep the politicians in check, the two major parties try to keep each other in check and the minor parties make sure that the big ones don’t get too cocky. This is a carefully crafted system of checks and balances.
There were not one but two propositions on the ballot funding education, Proposition 30, which Jerry Brown dubbed “Jerry Brown’s Proposition,” (even though the idea was put forth by students and teachers, not necessarily politicians,) and Proposition 38, Prop 30’s not very intelligent cousin. Proposition 30 has a long and proud history, initially proposed by the college students, and eventually promoted by the Democratic Party, when the Democrats realized that Californians were solidly supporting the proposition. It passed with flying colors, after another $121 million was spent on it by both sides.
At this point you might be wondering what the people in Sacramento are doing. Believe me, I’m also wondering about that. Anyway, Proposition 39 was written to close some of the corporate tax loopholes. It was primarily supported by a hedge fund manager, Thomas Steyer, dubbed California’s Hedge Fund King. Even the hedge fund managers understand that corporate leeching is bad! Needless to say, the proposition easily passed.
As you’ve no doubt realized, I can go on and on about propositions, so I’ll just go over one more, Proposition 40. Californians became very tired of gerrymandering and voted to create a special committee that would divide the districts in a fair and equitable manner, taking city and county lines into account, giving them preferential treatment over political boundaries.
The result was a more fair and equitable election system in California, and Proposition 40, which passed by a 72% to 28% margin, ensures that they stay that way. California also has a law where the top two candidates from the primaries advance to the general election, irrespective of party affiliation. I’ve yet to see the political earthquake that the mass media has been predicting as part of our challenge to the two-party system.
How does all of this translate to America’s foreign policy? Most Americans are not very well informed about foreign policy, because the middle class is barely making ends meet, the lower class needs to cut off vital necessities of life just to pay the bills, and the upper class is more focused on the economy, immigration reform and Obamacare than anything else. It’s not that foreign policy is somewhere between Justin Bieber and the LA Clippers for most Americans; it’s that Americans have issues that have to be dealt with, issues that are causing direct harm to the United States, unlike Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which has thus far only caused harm for those in the vicinity of “hot air”.
Add to this the inability to raise a younger generation, since in quite a few families both parents are working, the constant claims about how America is losing ground worldwide, how the more productive sectors of the economy are being overcome with administrative costs, the gridlock of the two-party system, the parties rupturing from within and you have a country in chaos.
Americans are genuinely good people who work hard to make ends meet and love winners. However, because of the two-party system, the party whose president is not in office makes it incumbent upon themselves to make the president look bad, highlighting his every failure, making him look weak, making him look like a loser. Syria provides the best case in point for this: after denying Obama the vote to intervene, Republicans went on talk shows to claim about how weak Obama was. If Putin hadn’t thrown him that lifeline, Republicans would’ve had even more to hit Obama with during the 2014 midterm elections. BTW, this tactic is not just limited to Republicans, since Kerry tried doing the exact same thing to Bush.
Obama needs a foreign policy success to fight the Republicans on immigration and he’s betting on Ukraine. However, that’s not a very good bet, since no one really controls Ukraine and there’s, realistically speaking, not much that Russia can do to disarm the DonBass Republic. Much like his failed attempt to ride the Arab Spring, riding the Orange Revolution 2.0 is not working out.
Americans are getting tired of hearing bad news from all fronts. Americans need a success somewhere, anywhere. Most Americans are smart enough to understand that success on the Home Front is easier than success abroad, (it’s much easier to vote for a single Proposition fixing illegal immigration than it is to untangle the affairs of Ukraine,) and thus the isolation movement is regaining strength in the US and there’s not much that Washington can do to stop the shift, short of scoring a major victory, which is not going to happen. Washington’s approach to foreign policy produces very interesting results.
From the article: “As Americans grow increasing averse to expensive and risky actions overseas, so has President Obama.” Recently, Jon Stewart has taken to an isolationist streak as well, which is certainly indicative of a major shift in America’s opinion. Additionally, “Dissatisfaction with President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy has shot up among both Republicans and Democrats.”
As the article points out, the problem that’s facing America’s foreign policy planners is “the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes. A policy output is, say, the decision to send military advisers into Iraq, or the decision to rule out the use of combat troops there. A policy outcome is what actually happens on the ground — in the case of Iraq, a worsening sectarian war. The thing about American foreign policy is that even the best foreign policy outputs do not necessarily translate into the best outcome, because the United States, for all its superpowery-ness, is not actually an omnipotent deity.”
The problem is that the US government presented America as the World Leader, the nation whose opinion the World trembles for, while failing to properly conduct foreign policy and failing to adapt to a Multipolar World. The result is, ironically the same as the result in Ukraine. The government promised the people something that it cannot provide. This should be very familiar to most Americans, since America’s foreign policy is polling like Obamacare, and the isolationist sentiment is growing.
The American public’s message to the government is simple: “fix your problems at home, first, and then you can go adventuring abroad once again,” or to put it in simpler terms: “finish your homework before you can go out and play!”
In the case of California, it’d be creating a genuine Universal Healthcare, not Obamacare, stopping illegal immigration in its tracks, creating administrative reforms for the collegiate system and reviving the economy through innovation. Americans, just like everyone else, want a comfortable life for their friends and families. The American Dream is to have a house, a spouse, at least two kids, and a dog or cat, while having the ability to go on weekend excursions. It’s NOT to come back victorious from a foreign entanglement, going “yeah baby, we just helped Ukraine’s Oligarchs stay in power!”