Saturday, March 19, 2011

Broken States of America

I watched Capitalism: A Love Story, a documentary by Michael Moore last night and it got me thinking about the state of the country and all the things wrong with it.  And before you close out of this because I said the double-M-word, I take Michael Moore with a grain of salt.  He is, understandably quite polarizing, a mixture of intelligent and annoying, illuminating and irresponsible, integritous (fuck yeah made up words), and truth-bending.  So as a liberal I don't fawn all over Michael Moore and stand behind him the way some conservatives do with Rush, O'Reilly, or Beck.

I also don't claim to be an expert on any of the things I am bout to discuss, but like the rest of you, I have a vote (and unlike some of you, I use it.)  So expertise or not, I do have a say in what goes on in the country, if in a very limited manner.

Anyways, back to the movie.  I felt that a lot of Moore's message got lost in his vendetta against certain politicians (seriously, we all know Bush is an idiot by now).  Greedy Democrats are just as destructive as greedy Republicans and the common theme in that destruction is clear.  Greed.  It's how corporations can execute layoffs while raking in profits, and send executives to fancy meetings in the Caribbean while the company is going belly up.  It's how Enron, Adelphia, and several other companies have been buried in scandal.  It's how the wealthy throw sackfuls of cash at politicians so they can get their tax cuts and the cycle can continue.  The country feels more and more like a feudal state than a capitalist democracy.

But it's not like greed is the only deadly sin fracturing the country.  At times I feel the country is broken, and this is what's breaking it:

The Deadly Sins of America

A Culture of Greed
This is what spurred the entry, so it makes sense to get into it first.  The culture of America seems to be that more shit is always better, regardless of whether or not it's actually useful.  It's why SUVs continue to sell despite rising gas prices and the fact that maybe 10% of people actually use them practically.  It's why John McCain had how many houses?  I have trouble wrapping my mind around the concept because even as a broke twenty-something whose stuff can fit fairly easily into an 11x18 foot room, I still often feel like I have to much.  To me, being rich would be great, but all I really need is $80,000 to pay off my college and car loans, and then enough money for food, rent, internet, cable, and Sabres tickets and I'm the happiest guy in the world.

At some point ensuring your and your family's financial well being isn't enough and the need to accumulate more and more starts to burn.  I'm not sure why that's okay, why the top one percent is allowed to retain more wealth than everyone else in the country combined.  I ask the same question that everyone else does, "what the hell do you do with that much money?"  Does it just sit there in a vault (or in cyberspace) as nothing more than a trophy and testament to one's avarice?  I honestly don't know...or do I?

Monarchial Tendencies
Within the republic, there are certain of monarchail tendencies, and I've touched on these before.  There are a lot of positions people come by on talent and hard work alone, and good for them, but there are far too many that are bought by people with rich parents and underwhelming talent.  This answers the previous question of what one does with an excessive amount of money...they pass it down, and little Johnny Millionaire jr. has a huge head start into whatever career field he chooses over the rest of Americans whether he has the intelligence and work ethic or not.

Part of the problem is that this is extremely common in politics.  The wikipedia entry for American political families is so large it has to be organized alphabetically into several sub-pages.  For every Bill Clinton (born to a traveling salesman and a nurse) there are a hundred Bushes.  These guys can travel out into the American midwest all the want (location of the common man) and into the battleground states, and into their districts as representatives, but they grow up knowing nothing but wealth and ease and are thus the worst people you want in office deciding on legislation that impacts the lower to middle classes that make up the majority of the country.

Bullshitting is a Desired Skill
More people will accept some half-baked, horseshit answer than a simple and honest "I don't know, but not only am I going to learn, but I'm going to put people in place that are experts so I learn well, and it's done right."  Do you know what would happen if a politician said that?  They'd get crucified for their inexperience.  Every first time presidential candidate is inexperienced because they've never done the job before.  They might know what it entails, but until they're sitting in that chair they really have no idea.

Maybe this isn't a political or a cultural problem, but just simple human pride that has us shying away from admitting there is something we don't know, regardless of the situation, and even shyer about accepting it as an answer from someone above us, but it is a problem nonetheless.  So the next time Katie Couric asks you what newspapers you read, don't be honest, just say "all of 'em," and wink at the camera.

What we Base Our Vote On
Maybe this is where technology starts to be a bad thing.  Before television, people had to actually pay attention to the words of politicians, not how they were saying them.  Of course this made people overly dependent upon the various news outlets to give them factual and unbiased information.  But with people largely sticking to their side's station, maybe it isn't any different these days anyway.

It makes me both laugh and cry when I see a poll come out that says "More Americans would like to have a beer with George Bush than John Kerry," as if that should mean anything at all.  I wish the people that conduct these polls would go down to their local tavern, look around, and count how many of those people they'd like to have running the country.  Smart money is on none.

It's absurd how things like photos of John Kerry muffing a football, or George Bush photo-shopped to look like a monkey can turn public perception...or the middle name of a certain president.  People actually believe this shit matters when it comes to running the country.

Corporations Rule Everything
The only thing that does matter is money, more specifically the money of big corporations with a vested interest in how things are run in this country.  It's no secret that Citibank made it rain on Barack Obama in an attempt to sneak through the financial crisis without behind held accountable for some abysmal business practices.

And it's not just politics that they have they have their hands so deep in that it might as well be a pornstar's asshole.  You can't read a scientific study these days without it having been paid for by somebody with a vested interest.  It's the reason why things like Global Warming are so hotly debated, you can't make heads or tails of what's being put out, and the sinister forces at work behind it.  Every side is manipulating the data because they're being paid to.

Institutions that Believe Less Knowledge is Better
So much of what we do these days is based upon keeping people dumber or promoting misinformation.  Like say John McCain attempting to pander to women by selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate despite the fact that his voting record on women's rights is worse than abysmal.  The second McCain chose her, he was trying to prey on the stupidity of women because no woman in their right mind would vote for a McCain - Palin ticket.

And then there's sex education.  Don't get me started on sex education.  (You can read earlier blog entries that touch on the subject if you like.)  The gist of it is that even though a majority of Americans are in favor of comprehensive sex education which includes discussing birth control, a majority of schools push either abstinence only sex-ed or abstinence favored sex-ed.  It is ridiculous how there are people that think children are better off dumber and more ignorant.

Over-Sentimentality and Resistance to Change
Everything looks better in the rear view mirror, so politicians and people alike want to "bring us back" to some idealized concept that never really existed.  Each generation is generally better off than the one that preceded it, despite fogey's adamant rambling to the contraty.  People get smarter and the quality of life goes up as time passes.  We learn more every day, and new technologies spring up all over the place to make our lives easier...if we use them.

That's where the second part comes in.  Progress is only good if you adapt to it and use it.  I think we've all been in that situation at work where better technology is available, but unused because of the old dinosaur that refuses to adapt.  It could be electronic time sheets, laser levels, using a laptop to complete fieldwork rather than doing it by hand and transferring it over later.  At my last job, I completed some 120 manhole inspections and around 400 sewer lateral inspections over the course of about two weeks total, along with a municipal employee.  If my company had sprung for a laptop and better GPS equipment, I probably not only could have done it in half the time, but eliminated the need to transfer the data back to a computer when I got back to the office.  I made $22.50 an hour so if I saved five days of field time, plus a day or two of transfer time, plus thirty miles a day of milage, that would have been about $1,375 saved on that particular project, plus the amount of time I could have spent doing something else which would have more than paid for a just one job.

Greed Part II
That's the other thing about corporate greed.  I know the United States isn't the worst country in terms of worker benefits, but it's far from being the best.  Countries like Japan and France offer more vacation time, and I know France has better healthcare.

What annoys me the most is that things in this day and age run so much easier, and faster, and yet employees are driven harder than ever.  I got criticized for leaving too early from my last job (early - definition - 10-15 mninutes after my hours ended), which I would have been fine with if I wasn't getting work done.  But this was a week or two into working there, before I had a full plate.  I was basically told to stay late when I didn't have anything to do...which is stupid.

I think with any industry like mine, there is a balance.  Sometimes you end up working for free, others you end up being paid to do nothing and it typically evens out.  Not the case at my former employer where the norm was to work extra hours for no pay.  Fuck that.  Probably the worst was when I had made dinner reservations with my then girlfriend in Albany.  I had the necessary okays to leave a couple hours early so that I could make it to her school three hours away at a reasonable hour.  I ended up staying three hours later than I planned to get some things done, but a half hour before I was set to leave, my boss asked me to cover for another employee later that day.  I know he had way more notice than that, but I think he was hoping to pressure me into covering.  I told him no (because I have integrity and I follow through with my promises) and received a "discussion" about my dedication for my troubles.  (The first project I was given a decent amount of responsibility for, I put in probably a hundred extra hours at no cost, including outdoor work in seven degree weather in December on the lake, and three shifts from 10pm to 8am, PLUS driving out there on my own time to check things out.  I have plenty of dedication, I just don't put up with scumbag tactics and bullshit.)

Changes Don't Benefit Those in Charge so they Never Happen
Of course this all goes back to the initial problem.  Things don't change because we've put people in power that have no reason to change them because they're not personally impacted by things that affect the middle class.  One of the best examples of this is voter reform.  Voter reform will never happen except in extremely minor ways because the current system heavily favors the two major parties over all others.  They're so worried about losing their grip, they won't even help get their opponent's "vote-splitter" (Greens for Dems and Libertarians for Repubs) on the ballot to enhance their own cause.

Likewise the rich and corrupt have their hands in virtually everything, so it's a safe bet that they'll for the most part stay rich and corrupt while the middle class continues to get screwed.  This started to happen the second politics became a rich man's game, and those that could effectively represent the will of most of the people started to dwindle in numbers.  There are a lot of problems that require even more fixes, but eliminating corporate interests in science and politics would go a long way to making everything more credible and honest.

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