Do we need another world war to save democracy?

Who’s to blame for most of us becoming poorer, while the fortunes of the super-rich grow to almost unimaginable heights? Why are Wal-Mart and the “dollar stores” losing profits while there is a growth of 4-6 percent for luxury goods in the US?

Since the early 1970s, income inequality in the United States has grown significantly. Australia and most OECD countries are on the same trajectory.  What has caused this growing disparity? Reaganism, Thatcherism, globalization – they, and many others,  have been blamed. But they are not the cause.

Thomas Piketty says that the capitalist system itself is the culprit. Piketty analyzed data from more than 20 countries from the 18th Century to the present and found that inequalities of wealth that inexorably increase is an inherent effect of our economic system. Returns on capital will always exceed the rate of economic growth, and this naturally results in a very few inheriting vast riches.

Nevertheless, between 1930 and 1970 this trajectory of inequality shrank. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and, as in the US and Europe, these were the years where not only America, but our countries too, felt like ‘lands of opportunity’.

What happened? Before 1930 inequality was very high, but then came the crash of 1929 and then World War II. These cataclysms disrupted inherited wealth. Between 1945 and 1975 the capitalist system rebooted. The thirty ‘glorious’ years were merely a pause in the process.

But what does inequality of wealth matter? When it combines with the representative democratic system, it results in the very few fabulously wealthy owning the agenda. It results, in fact, in  the death of democracy.

To win our democratic system back, do we have to wish for another World War?

animal mall

The US is hanging on to democracy by its fingernails

The US mid-term elections are almost here. Elections are important in a true representative democracy. I believe that democracy is the best political system we know of. I don’t want to live in a society ruled by a king or tyrant or even by just a select group – I want to know that my voice, and the voice of everyone else counts. The United States of America was founded on this principle.

Where there is democracy there is capitalism. Democracy is a reflection of the wishes of citizens, and since nearly every person (except for the few saints among us) wishes for more material wealth, our democratic will drives capitalism.

Concurrent with the election, there is growing public discourse about the power that money has over the outcomes of elections. There are groups such as Mayday that are trying to rival the influence of SuperPacs which are otherwise the province of the super-rich.

But it seems that it is the very nature of the capitalist economic system itself that will defeat democracy.

Thomas Piketty collected data from twenty countries, from as far back as the eighteenth century, and uncovered key economic and social patterns. He found that the return on investment for existing wealth is usually greater than the growth rate of the economy as a whole. In other words, the system causes the rich get a lot richer than everyone else, and to continue to do so.

Their wealth enables the super-rich to influence the political system to exert their own will. SuperPacs are the latest means. Meanwhile, the voice of ordinary people becomes a frail whisper.

Americans also believe in individual merit almost as much as representative democracy. But, while the first of the super-rich may get there by their own merit, eventually this group is made up of those who simply inherited wealth.

In other words, the US is hanging on to democracy by its fingernails. Indeed, some argue that it is already lost.

Can these forces be reversed? I will talk more about this in my next post.

Courtesy Adam Fagan
Courtesy Adam Fagan

How to create a demon

Answer this: Do you believe that impulse spending wastes your money? Now answer this: How often have you bought something on impulse in the last week? Last month?? Just one example (a rather lame one, I admit) that opinions do not equal behavior.

A much more serious issue for the social health of our communities is the mismatch between opinions that people say they have about others, and their behavior towards them. Towards Muslims, for example.

In Australia in the aftermath of 9/11, a number of politicians and public commentators announced that anything Muslim was ‘un-Australian’. Scholars wrote papers and books about the prejudice against Muslims expressed by politicians and the media. Now, in 2014, hate speech is again crawling out from under its rock, lured by the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) atrocities.

As usual, many media stories portray all Muslims as potential ISIS fiends. These created ‘demons’ sell papers, and win politicians votes, and so we hear a lot about them. Some of the stories are so way out that they are even funny, like the Australian Senator who said she would not allow anyone wearing a burqa into her office as a matter of security. When she posted this manifesto on social media she tried to support her point with an image of a woman in a burqa handling a gun. Unbeknownst to her, the woman in the picture was in fact an Afghan policewoman on duty in Kandahar. The media and politicians thrive on these created ogres.

When surveys ask the public if they hold the same opinions,  the majority agree.  Opinions, however, are not predictors of behavior. During the post 9/11 rise in public anti-Muslim sentiment, many Australians rallied to help and support their Muslim neighbors. I was fascinated by this dissonance between opinion and behavior, and studied this phenomenon for my PhD thesis. I found that, almost without exception, when Australians met Muslims face to face, they greeted them with warmth and hospitality, and welcomed them as neighbors.

Although I now live in the US, I know that Australians are currently living out the same paradox. While many politicians demonize them, Welcome to Australia and many other citizen groups are opening their hearts and homes to the ‘security risks’.   One man recently conducted an experiment in Australian streets where he accosted actors dressed as Muslims and told them to ‘go back to where they came from’ and called them terrorists. Every single person who passed by stopped and interfered. (I would love to hear from Americans about initiatives like this here.)

As long as calling on ‘demons’ enables media and politicians to win followers and make money, the decent instincts of ordinary citizens are ignored in public discourse.


Will someone please reset my brain’s GPS?

There are many things that I have had to learn since moving to the US.

How to drive on the wrong side of the road. That light switches are on when they are up – clearly a violation of natural law.  That if I say ‘process’ the correct way, my students don’t understand what I am talking about. That I must put my rubbish into a can, not a bin, and call it ‘trash’ as I do so.

One thing that I seem completely unable to learn is direction. Ask me where north is, and I will inevitably point south. To me, the sun seems quite mistaken. It appears to rise in the west and set in the east. And don’t let’s talk about how mixed up Google Maps is!

As a consequence, I get lost very easily. I have to find places by remembering street names, something I rarely had to do in Australia. I have also learned that Yankee buildings have very inadequate signage which is exacerbated by the ludicrous American system of naming what is quite clearly the ground floor as the first floor.

I have been lost on the college campus where I work. Often. I have walked many unnecessary miles because I exited the wrong end of a building. I once became so lost in the central college building that I could not even find my way out.  When I could not even follow the verbal directions I was given I had to swallow my pride and ask to be escorted out

This week the Cumberland Times-News announced that the 2014 Noble prize for Physiology had gone to researchers who uncovered the nerve cells that make up the brain’s positioning system. They located the nerve cells that were activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at another place.

Lucky rats. No-one has moved them from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere, I bet. Nor do they have to deal with unhelpful signage.

Finding the relevant nerve cells is all well and good, but I will award my own prize to the person who can reset my brain’s positioning system. Or perhaps you could put a piece of cheese out for me?

lab rat

Aussie bank will repay customers’ fees- American banks just raise them

The Cumberland Times-News last Sunday carried a story titled ‘Bank fees for ATMs, overdrafts, hit new record highs’. Yes, Aussies, Americans still hand over millions of dollars a day to their banks for nothing more than a ledger entry.

Earlier this year, the Bank of America charged me a $30 fee for being $2 overdrawn for one day. I was overdrawn because Bank of America had put some cash I had transferred into the wrong account.

I was not only resentful, but also amazed that US banks are still doing such things.

“Late payment fees … banks charge customers are extravagant, exorbitant and unconscionable.”

That’s not just my opinion, but what Justice Michele Gordon of the High Court of Australia said earlier this year. In Australia’s largest ever class action, 38,000 customers won their case against the ANZ bank, which is now liable to repay them the tens of millions of dollars that it has charged in overdraft fees. (Other Australian banks had previously reduced or eliminated the fees.)

You could say that the ANZ bank will now be forced to pay  ‘dishonorable’ fees.

Come on, Yanks, don’t sit there and take it!

bank fees

Joel Osteen – teaching the new age

Joel Osteen is a very successful preacher here in the US. I have listened to some of his ‘messages’ and it is clear that people enjoy themselves in his church, and feel inspired by what he says.

Osteen claims to be preaching the Bible – indeed, every one of his speeches begins with him asking the audience to hold up their Bibles and say ‘This is my Bible. I am what it says I am and I can do what is says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God’.

He sprinkles examples from the Bible in his ‘messages’.  For example, to illustrate that God will  answer any prayer he gives the example of the aging Sarai becoming a mother. This story, Joel tells us, means that God will give every infertile couple a baby if only they believe and ask. He never gives the larger context of these examples.

His main message is that all Christians are meant to have material happiness.

Joel tells us that if you have a low-paying job, Jesus wants you to have your own business (a profitable one), if you live in a poor apartment, Jesus wants you to have a luxurious house, if you have a health problem Jesus wants you to be rid of it. All you have to do is believe and ask.

Joel exhorts us to put what we want into words and believe those words. “Now all through the day this should be playing in our mind. I am powerful. I am strong. I am well able.” You know what this is? It is the affirmation movement reborn, the belief that a positive mental attitude supported by affirmations will achieve success in anything.

The messages are all about ‘you’. He is teaching self-actualization, like Werner Erhard (EST) and Tony Robbins.

There is plenty in the Bible to inspire, and many inspirational speakers use its passages. Joel claims to be teaching the Bible and Christianity, however.

This is not Christianity.

This is not Christianity

Just like Cinderella, our town is an unappreciated beauty

‘You don’t know how lucky you are’. That’s how I titled a piece that the Cumberland Times News recently picked up and published. I know that many of you would not have seen it, so here it is – a story of an unappreciated beauty.

I can tell where you are from soon after I meet you.  No, I am not expert in American accents – and yes, you do all have an accent, believe it or not! If you are taken aback, even shocked, by my choice to move to Cumberland, it’s odds on that you were born in the area and have never lived elsewhere. On the other hand, people who have relocated to Cumberland from other towns and states or who have returned from other places are not surprised. They agree with me that choosing Cumberland is a no-brainer. It is simply a great place to live.

Sure, cities offer more entertainment than Cumberland. Long lists of dazzling shows – but when I lived in a city I didn’t take up the offers.  I go out much more here because it is so easy. Going out in cities means negotiating heavy traffic, facing parking problems and expense, and long lines. As well, the amount, quality, and diversity of cultural events in Cumberland is amazing, from Dell Fest to the baroque music festival, to jazz and rap and rock in the downtown – and accessible. I never miss a gallery opening if I am in town, whereas they were too much trouble in my Australian city home.

What about Cumberland’s infrastructure – for example, roads? Australia’s roads were planned and built for motorized traffic, while Cumberland’s streets grew up quirky. Just one example-what’s with that crazy little triangle of Park St, National Highway, and N Centre St I must navigate to get to downtown? In the city where I used to live such a peculiar and inconvenient arrangement would have been the ‘cussing corner’. Not here – rushing is unnecessary, and I have time to delight in the eccentricity. As well, Cumberland streets are often very narrow which means that one side of traffic often has to pull over. Not only is this not a hassle, but it gives Cumberlanders’ Southern charm a chance to show in a friendly wave. Drivers are so kind and patient that I am often waved through with a friendly smile – even when I don’t have right of way.

I am currently in the downtown of an Australian city, and all I see are skyscrapers and dirt and traffic and crowds. There is beautiful countryside around here, but seeing it means a long trek. In Cumberland, whenever I am on the I68 (at least once every day) I see the beautiful city and its spires cradled in the magnificent Appalachian Mountains. A couple of minutes from home and I am in the tranquil haven of Constitution Park, and the breathtaking Rocky Gap Park is only a few miles away. Cumberlanders can enjoy these places without fighting through crowds choking them and the roads leading to them.

Far from the anonymous bustle of big cities, in Cumberland I feel that I am surrounded by friends. Wherever I go people smile, say hello, have an impromptu chat, and offer help – I can never check my tire pressure without someone stopping by and asking if I need assistance. (Perhaps it’s just because I look like a doddery old lady but I don’t really think so!)

So, native Cumberlanders, thanks for sharing your great town and county with interlopers like me. You don’t know how lucky you are.