Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The United States of Excess

Last night at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs talk I heard one of the most engaging, yet disturbing, speakers I've ever seen. Robert Paarlberg, author of The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism, talked about what he discovered when he tried to answer the question "Why does the U.S. consume so much more food and fuel than European countries?" Americans produce twice the amount of CO2 emissions as European countries, and everyone knows how much fatter we are.

Professor Paarlberg announced that it comes down to three major differences between us and them: our resources, our culture and our political system. He explained that our fossil fuel industries are twice as big and twice as politically influential as those of any European country. We simply have lots and lots of natural coal, oil and gas in our land, which led us to create a society that guzzles fuel as if it's limitless. He pointed out that European countries built their roads and transportation infrastructure with the expectation that fuel costs would be high. We built our transportation infrastructure, including sprawling populated areas and gleaming highways, with the expectation that fuel costs would be low. And so they have been. 

The main cultural difference between the U.S. and Europe is that we hate government influence (I'm speaking broadly here. I don't hate it). Given a choice between complete personal freedom and making sure no one is living in a state of need, the majority of us pick the former. Most Europeans polled with such a question pick the latter. Because of the American concept that allowing the government to actually take care of its citizens is a "nanny state," we resist any attempt to regulate our fuel consumption, food consumption or any of the ways we're killing ourselves and each other. Professor Paarlberg mentioned briefly the effect of religion on obesity rates: while some religions have restrictions on dancing, drinking, sex, etc. no religion has ever banned eating. I remember him mentioning that some of the lowest American obesity rates are among Mormons. Some of the highest are among Protestants.

But the part that disturbed me most was what he said about the American political system. He started by pointing out the seven major characteristics of our system, which include things like checks and balances, the strong focus on the first amendment, having two major political parties, etc. He said the political system of Germany shares four of these characteristics, the UK shares one (having two parties) and all the rest of Europe shares none. None. If our political system, which our founding fathers planned and created from scratch, is so great, then why has no one else on the planet copied it? Even before our Congress became as polarized as it's gotten in the new millennium, bills would get so easily bogged down in committee that it's been said that "the Senate is where popular ideas go to die." As disgusted as Americans have become with our do-nothing congress, our culture prefers a government that can't get anything done to a government that can act with expediency. The president can veto, Congress can veto and even if they manage to pass a law, anyone can challenge it legally, which can end up in another decision for the Supreme Court. No wonder our courts are so log-jammed and the Supreme Court so busy. We've created a mess.

Mr. Paarlberg went on to say that our political system gives veto power not only to the Congress and president, but to any group with enough influence, such as fossil fuel groups. Those groups not only influence elections and legislation, but how the U.S. Department of Energy spends its research dollars. So basically early Americans inadvertently created a system that allows big money to control the political process and our lives, all because they wanted to make sure we'd never again be exploited by a tyrant like King George III. 

Now I knew all this, but I'd never had it so clearly spelled out for me. I had naively been thinking that through gradual change, we could eventually enjoy things like universal health care, a true safety net for the poor, a truly living minimum wage, support for the retired so old people would never have to resort to eating pet food, etc. But Professor Paarlberg compared us to Denmark, a place that has those kinds of benefits for its citizens, and showed how the U.S. will never, ever even vaguely approach such a state. Denmark has four times the population density as the U.S. They pay 20% higher fuel taxes and 70% more for food. The cost of a Big Mac in Denmark is 61% higher than in the U.S. (today a Big Mac costs a little under US$6, so I guess in Denmark it would cost a little over US$9, without the fries). The higher cost of food is mostly because of the increased cost of fuel and labor in Denmark: people can actually live on the minimum wage there and don't have to work more than one job.

Americans would never tolerate 20% higher fuel taxes. Our whole infrastructure depends on fuel prices staying low forever. We think it's our right to consume so much. Likewise, we rebel against any government attempt to limit our habits that cause obesity. And the idea of the poor being taken care of actually clashes with our core American belief that you work for what you deserve, and if you don't have it, that means you didn't work hard enough for it. We despise the idea of people getting something for nothing, which dovetails with our historic exploitation of the poor and our conflation of race with class. We think poor people (by which we often mean people of color) shouldn't get "handouts" and we've created a system where the poorest people will never be able to work their way out of poverty.

(Please see this article for an excellent explanation of how slavery formed the basis for today's American racism and poverty. The history is in the first several paragraphs.)

Professor Paarlberg went on to say that because the U.S. can't change its relationship to fossil fuels or food, we'll do the next best thing, although it's a far distant next best thing: we'll adapt to the conditions that have resulted. We'll have bigger caskets, revolving doors and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Our standard office chairs used to be designed to support up to 300 pounds (136 kg); now they're rated up to 600 pounds. We'll develop more drugs and surgical procedures to help the obese and sick live longer. We'll restructure our coastal areas so they won't be destroyed by rising sea levels and invest in geo-engineering so we can handle the increase in climate temperatures. But what we won't do is save the environment or improve our health. Those strategies would be cheaper and easier, but we won't do them because we're Americans.

By the way, he also mentioned that while we thought American obesity rates were flatlining, they aren't. The percentage of Americans who were obese in 2004 was 34%. Today it's 38%. Just another fun fact.

Early Americans created a government that would never be able to govern any better than its citizens would allow, and now its citizens are dominated by big business and institutionalized racism. We've empowered a whole other taskmaster and are just as powerless against it as the pilgrims felt against their homeland. Those pilgrims came to North America because they wanted freedom from what they saw as England's oppression of their way of life. But we have nowhere to go. We built this beast and now we're imprisoned in it and not even Bernie Sanders can get us where those of us who aren't rich need to go. So why bother? Why agitate? Why vote? Why get up in the morning?


Andria Anderson said...

Insightful observations by the good author. But the answer for me to "Why get up in the morning?" is fueled by these observations - 1)It is no longer acceptable to beat your child. 2) It is no longer acceptable to beat your wife 3)Designated drivers are standard assignations 3) More people have health coverage now than 8 years ago. I could go on but those are improvements that I personally have experienced.

The US is a "teenager" country. We're not very old. Our inexperience shows. Will it change? It has no choice; change happens to everything. Would I be happier in Denmark? Possibly - and it makes sense that more Americans are emigrating than ever before.

It will be very interesting to observe if the propaganda taught to us at an early age (America is the best country on earth, with the best government) can be overcome to the point of revamping our constitution. The constitution is SO venerated now. But, as I said, change happens - and it will be very interesting.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

I'd call us a toddler country. I don't think we even act like teenagers yet. But I appreciate your optimism, Andria. Thank you. It's true the incremental change is still change. But I don't see how we'll ever serve all our people. A FEW states are phasing in a $15 minimum wage to take effect by 2018, but $15 isn't enough to live on now and by 2018 it'll be pathetically inadequate. So nothing will really change. Ever.

Crystal said...

I believe we'll change only when we're absolutely forced to - gas at $5.00/gal was starting to make us think about it...so we'll have to wait, unfortunately. There is no self-regulation here. Not that it won't happen, but it won't come from an intrinsic desire.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Crystal, yes, we'll change, but only in ways that don't challenge our selfish, gluttonous habits. And such changes will only benefit the U.S., not the rest of the planet.