How dare they accede democratic rights to all Americans!

There are some things in the US that make even a little old lady like me say ‘WTF’!

I was moved to expletives last Tuesday when a Republican senator for the state of Georgia complained about the new voting arrangements in DeKalb County that will allow citizens to vote on Sundays. At a shopping mall, at that!

The senator said he’d rather have “more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.” (‘Greater increase’? Oh, be still my English teacher’s soul!)

This will, of course, allow people to vote who otherwise could not, because voting days here in the US are on Tuesdays. Yes, Tuesdays, my Aussie friends. A day when many working people would have difficulty getting to a booth.

The senator said that he was “investigating if there is any way to stop this action” which he called “an effort to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple.”

Legislators in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina have also tried to reduce or eliminate early voting on weekends, citing budgetary concerns.

Yep, voting on days when people are not at work probably will increase the ballot count. If Americans are not careful, they may have enfranchisement of all citizens.


Bulletproof school uniforms, anyone?

Last Friday the US saw another fatal school shooting, this time in Washington State.

Hundreds of students and teachers have lost their lives in the US, which since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 has experienced more than 30 separate incidents of school shootings. In the same period the rest of the world combined experienced 14 school shootings .

School shootings are so common here that you can buy bulletproof backpacks and desks.

In Australia in 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre of 35 people, the federal government introduced new gun control laws. Civilians have to a genuine reason to own firearms, and semi-automatic rifles and pump action/self-loading shotguns are banned. Australians must have firearms license and a buyers permit to legally purchase a firearm, and before the license is issued a minimum 28 day “cooling off” period is enforced. Since then two people have been shot dead in a public place, at Monash University in 2002.

In 2010  a man killed 16 children at Dunblane Primary School in the UK. The government imposed a ban of all private ownership of guns in the country following the incident with the exception of .22 caliber single-shot weapons.

In the US gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment.


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