American Exceptionalism #1: The Government Shutdown

Some of our foreign friends may be wondering what this “government shutdown” in America is all about.  After all, even many Americans do not have a clue.  So, here is a primer on one of the stranger practices of the US government.

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown occurs when Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) fails to authorize money for the operation of the federal government or fails to overcome the President’s veto of a funding bill.  This situation is virtually unique to the United States, with its separation of powers.  It simply cannot happen in a parliamentary system, and in most countries with a presidential system the executive is strong enough to keep the government going.  Only “essential” services are maintained, which of course includes the active core of all the military, security and intelligence agencies – and Congress.  While hundreds of thousands of federal employees are left with no paychecks, and the American people, especially those of lower income, are left without all those “nonessential” services, which include such things as food inspectors and virtually every program serving the poor, the Congressmen, who are responsible for this fiasco and individually well off, continue to receive their pay.

Why does a government shutdown happen?

Basically, a shutdown occurs because the politicians in Congress are more interested in their own agendas than the welfare of the country, and holding the government hostage is viewed as an excellent mechanism for getting one’s own way.  Part of the game of course is to insure that the other party receives the blame from an outraged electorate.  In this case it is the Republican extremists who represent the Tea Party and its obsession with resisting Obamacare at all costs, and apparently that includes national suicide.

What is the Tea Party?

The Tea Party is a collection of anti-government extremists, who are at the least ignorant and in many cases actually stupid.  They feel that the only legitimate functions of the federal government are external and internal security and preventing the people from engaging in fun activities, like sex.  They oppose any credible health care system because of the inherent “socialism,” a concept that most of them would be hard pressed to explain accurately.  These fanatics have no interest in the opinions of the American people.  Their latest leader is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and while he is not the stupidest person in Congress (that would be Rep. Michele Bachmann, though the competition is fierce), for the moment he is certainly the biggest buffoon.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party stalwart

Tea Party stalwart

Why is that these minority extremists have such power?

I really have no idea.  You will have to ask John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, who seemingly fears for his job more than the fate of the republic.

Why are these self-interested airheads reelected to Congress?

They are in office, like most of Congress, because of more than a century of gerrymandering voting districts, that is, reshaping congressional districts to contain a majority of voters of one party or the other, thus guaranteeing reelection.  This results in the American equivalent of a rotten borough and tenure for life; in the eighties there was more turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.  Second, they typically have wealthy patrons who, for whatever strange reasons – usually payback in the form of political favors – fund the candidate’s campaign.  Finally, there is the shallowness of the American voter, who apparently votes for the person who bombards him with the most ads.

That there are only two, and apparently permanent, parties aids and abets this corruption, since there is little difference between the two when it comes to self-interest and contempt for the people.  There is of course an ideological divide, but that only matters when it comes to secondary interests, such as governing the country.  In the areas that really matter – rewarding your contributors, feathering your own next, guaranteeing reelection – there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Instead of the lists of government approved candidates traditionally provided in dictatorships Americans essentially get lists of candidates approved by either of the two parties.

Who gets hurt during a government shutdown?

This is easy: the people, especially those in the lower income groups.  The American economy is injured, and the global economy also takes a shot, which seems unfair insomuch as a handful of jerks in the United States can negatively impact people who never had the (somewhat dubious) privilege of voting for them.  Well, this is the story of civilization, and throughout history most of humanity has been at the mercy of incompetent and/or malicious elites.  The difference now is because of the global economy and America’s staggering economic and military power, the bozos in the US government can potentially screw up the lives of everyone on the planet.  That’s power.

Why is this allowed to happen?

See all of the above.  The government shutdown may be seen as another manifestation of America’s new “exceptionalism,” which is pretty much all negative.

What will happen next?

If the pattern holds true, growing popular outrage will compel the responsible party, in this case the Republicans, to reign in their extremist minority, but only after squandering hundreds of millions of tax dollars and causing needless suffering for a lot of people.  Then they move on to refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and Americans and the rest of humanity enjoy the excitement of possible return to a global recession.

What will happen in the longer run?

We will reelect most of these people or be presented with others like them, and the game will go on.  Coincidentally, as I was finishing this I heard house Speaker Boehner proclaim with appropriate indignation “This is not a damn game!”  Well, certainly not for all the ordinary people who are being hurt, but for Boehner and his political colleagues it sure is, and they will play it over and over.

"This isn't some damn game!"

“This isn’t some damn game!”

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Hey, Vlad! We ARE Exceptional

(This piece was posted a bit more than a year ago, but given the recent comments of General Secretary Putin about American exceptionalism, it seems a good time to repost (slightly updated), especially since I needed to be out of town this last week.  The statistics remain essentially the same.)

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most recent tyrant, has in a piece in the New York Times questioned America’s claim to be “exceptional,” except perhaps in the area of being a global busybody, which has of course been entirely unexceptional behavior on the part of major powers, including Russia.  That Putin should be lecturing another nation concerning its behavior and play the part of the peacemaker and champion of free speech is of course a wonderful study in irony, brought on to a great degree by the current administration.  And he is dead wrong on the exceptionalism issue.

most buff Russian dictator ever

most buff Russian dictator ever

“American exceptionalism” has been a phrase dear to the hearts of all politicians but most especially Republicans, who, however, never bother to specify exactly what it means.  Presumably they are thinking of the America of the 19th century, when we were the only serious power with a fully functioning democracy and without any traditional class distinctions.  Ours was the society that rewarded hard work and cleverness and afforded the individual the greatest opportunity to improve his condition, regardless of his background.  Of course it was also a society that accepted a high level of individual violence and lagged behind western Europe in abolishing slavery and establishing mechanisms of social welfare, but it was nevertheless exceptional, as Tocqueville recognized.

perceptive Frenchman

perceptive Frenchman

But this is the now the 21st century and virtually all the industrial democracies display the characteristics that once made us exceptional.  Yet one can still speak, as the conservatives do, about an American exceptionalism.  The problem is that we are now exceptional in ways that one might be reluctant to brag about.

We are of course still the richest nation on earth, but we now lead the industrial democracies in income inequality, that is, our rich-poor gap is wider and becoming more so.  In roughly the last 30 years the income of the top 1% has increased by 275%, that of the next 19% by only 62%, the next 60% by 40% and the bottom 20% by a mere 18%.  We are #50 in income distribution, with 30.5% of all income going to the top 10%; Russia is the only European country below us in this category.

But we sure know what to do with all that wealth.  We are #1 in spending ($4271 per capita per year), #1 in military expenditure (but only #3 in military personnel), #1 in energy use (equivalent of 8.35 tons of oil per capita per year), #2 in coal use (1.06 million short tons per year; China edges us out, whereas #3 India uses only .339 million), #1 in carbon dioxide emissions (5.7 million metric tons per year – this is probably changing), but alas, only #2 in biggest environmental footprint (the UAE is #1).

We are #1 in per capita health care expenditure ($6096) and #1 in health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP (15.4%).  Yet, for all that money we are #44 in doctors per 1000 people (2.67; little commie Cuba is #2 with 6.4), #14 in nurses and midwives per 1000 people (9.8), #77 in hospital beds per 1000 people (3.1) and #1 in obesity (30.6% of the population) but only #49 in life expectancy (78.37 years).  And this is a health care system that does not include some 30 million citizens, unlike the total population coverage present in every other industrialized democracy.  Sure, we have the best health care system in world, as conservatives like to say – if you can afford it.

We are #37 in percentage of GDP spent on education (5.7%), but that is of course a big number in dollars.  Still, we are #12 in years of adult schooling and #18 in math literacy.  On the other hand, we are #1 in teen pregnancy (22% of all 20 year old women), so they are doing something in school.

Incidentally, most Republicans like to think of the US as a “Christian” nation, even though most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian.  Well, as the teen pregnancy indicates, some of us are not engaged in very Christian behavior.  Further, we also have the #1 divorce rate (4.95 per 1000 people) and #1 incarceration rate (715 per 1000 people; #2 Russia has 584).  In 2007 we were #7 in executions (42), up in the top ten with such enlightened countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Considering our firearm policies, we were only a disappointing #4 in homicides with guns, but we are certainly #1 in civilian firearms (94.3 guns per 100 people; Serbia is #2 with only 58.2 – and this is the Balkans!)  Hardly surprising, we are #1 in motor vehicle deaths (15.5 per 1000 people); the death toll from 9/11 in fact represents a slow month on America’s highways.

But I suspect most Americans are completely unaware of our new exceptionalism.  They are too busy: we are after all #1 in TV viewing (28 hours per week).

(The statistics are mostly from the last decade and from the UN via nationmaster.com.)

#1

#1

#1

#1

#1

#1

We Bad: American Exceptionalism

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase dear to the hearts of all politicians but most especially Republicans, who, however, never bother to specify exactly what it means.  Presumably they are thinking of the America of the 19th century, when we were the only serious power with a fully functioning democracy and without any traditional class distinctions.  Ours was the society that rewarded hard work and cleverness and afforded the individual the greatest opportunity to improve his condition, regardless of his background.  Of course it was also a society that accepted a high level of individual violence and lagged behind western Europe in abolishing slavery and establishing mechanisms of social welfare, but it was nevertheless exceptional, as Tocqueville recognized.

But this is the now the 21st century and virtually all the industrial democracies display the characteristics that once made us exceptional.  Yet one can still speak, as the conservatives do, about an American exceptionalism.  The problem is that we are now exceptional in ways that one might be reluctant to brag about.

We are of course still the richest nation on earth, but we now lead the industrial democracies in income inequality, that is, our rich-poor gap is wider and becoming more so.  In roughly the last 30 years the income of the top 1% has increased by 275%, that of the next 19% by only 62%, the next 60% by 40% and the bottom 20% by a mere 18%.  We are #50 in income distribution, with 30.5% of all income going to the top 10%; Russia is the only European country below us in this category.

But we sure know what to do with all that wealth.  We are #1 in spending ($4271 per capita per year), #1 in military expenditure (but only #3 in military personnel), #1 in energy use (equivalent of 8.35 tons of oil per capita per year), #2 in coal use (1.06 million short tons per year; China edges us out, whereas #3 India uses only .339 million), #1 in carbon dioxide emissions (5.7 million metric tons per year), but alas, only #2 in biggest environmental footprint (the UAE is #1).

We are #1 in per capita health care expenditure ($6096) and #1 in health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP (15.4%).  Yet, for all that money we are #44 in doctors per 1000 people (2.67; little commie Cuba is #2 with 6.4), #14 in nurses and midwives per 1000 people (9.8), #77 in hospital beds per 1000 people (3.1) and #1 in obesity (30.6% of the population) but only #49 in life expectancy (78.37 years).  And this is a health care system that does not include some 30 million citizens, unlike the total population coverage present in every other industrialized democracy.  Sure, we have the best health care system in world, as conservatives like to say – if you can afford it.

We are #37 in percentage of GDP spent on education (5.7%), but that is of course a big number in dollars.  Still, we are #12 in years of adult schooling and #18 in math literacy.  On the other hand, we are #1 in teen pregnancy (22% of all 20 year old women), so they are doing something in school.

Incidentally, most Republicans like to think of the US as a “Christian” nation, even though most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian.  Well, as the teen pregnancy indicates, some of us are not engaged in very Christian behavior.  Further, we also have the #1 divorce rate (4.95 per 1000 people) and #1 incarceration rate (715 per 1000 people; #2 Russia has 584).  In 2007 we were #7 in executions (42), up in the top ten with such enlightened countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Considering our firearm policies, we were only a disappointing #4 in homicides with guns.  On the other hand, we are #1 in motor vehicle deaths (15.5 per 1000 people); the death toll from 9/11 in fact represents a slow month on America’s highways.

But I suspect most Americans are completely unaware of our new exceptionalism.  They are too busy: we are after all #1 in TV viewing (28 hours per week).

(The statistics are mostly from the last decade and from the UN via nationmaster.com.)