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Power Structures

Why Are America’s Bad Ideas So Popular?

There’s building evidence that the U.S. creates legislation that is undeniably bad for most Americans. Yet the conservative superpower to convince the public otherwise has made harmful policy a benchmark of American governance.

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In late June, SCOTUS announced that they will hear Moore v. Harper, a case that will decide if state legislatures can simply ignore the courts and determine electoral boundaries, and the results of elections, on their own. Which is to say, this is the gravest threat to our democracy since January 6.  It would allow Trump’s 2020 plot to have gerrymandered swing-state legislatures overturn election results to succeed in 2024. 

In Laboratories of Autocracy, author David Pepper argues that the United States are testing grounds for tactics, techniques, policy, and law designed to subvert democracy and institute permanent single-party rule. These efforts have largely been successful, and the state of democracy only looks to get worse.

However, I would argue that the U.S. is also a petri dish for extremely stupid ideas with entirely predictable outcomes. Ideas like deciding to cut down on winter heating bills by starting a tire fire in your living room: Sure, it will probably make the house warmer, but will also render your dwelling permanently uninhabitable. Imagine a family so abysmally dumb that after they did this, they blame literally anything but the tire fire for why their house burnt down and the ashes smell like vulcanized rubber.

The U.S. is not merely starting a tire fire in the living room. It has decided to do a myriad of explosively stupid things, and then blame the results on anything but their own actions. It’s like deliberately giving yourself a meth addiction (to improve productivity), getting a thin blue line face tattoo (to show your patriotism), and then wondering why you can’t get a job. Let’s explore just a few of these bad ideas, and the entirely predictable results which conservatives deny have anything to do with doing something stupid enough that no one else in the world was foolish enough to try it.

Let’s start with the obvious one: guns. The U.S. decided to make guns cheaper and more readily available than anywhere else on Earth, while giving gun manufacturers broad immunity from lawsuits and banning federal research into the effects of guns on violence. Making guns a cheap political statement has caused a deliberate, highly profitable explosion in gun ownership: There are about 400 million privately owned guns in the U.S., of which at least 20 million are AR-15s. To put this in perspective, U.S. civilians own about half the firearms in circulation in the world. The 20 million AR-15s are more than all the personal firearms manufactured by the U.S. in World War II, by my calculations.

The consequences of this are obvious: This country has seven times more murders per capita than other high-income countries, and a gun-homicide rate 25.2 times higher than countries with similar per capita income. Over half of all gun deaths are suicides, leading to the U.S. also having the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. Guns are now the leading cause of death among children under the age of 18.

The cause and effect here is obvious, but the people who love guns (Republicans) will literally blame anything else: mental health issues, too many video games, or not enough Jesus in the classroom. Never mind that places like Japan and South Korea, who don’t suffer from an epidemic of gun violence or immerse themselves in gun culture, have lots of video games, struggle with public mental health issues, and don’t have Christian prayer in public schools either.

The entire world knows that “It’s the guns, stupid,” except us. We decided we’re going to take the libertarian dream of cheap guns everywhere for almost anyone to its illogical conclusion, while denying that the resulting problems have anything to do with guns.

Which brings me to the next example of “Fuck around and find out, American style”: police killings. In part, because gun violence is so common in the U.S. (gee, wonder why that happened), police officers have been given carte blanche to open fire any time they feel their life is in danger. The courts interpret this extremely broadly, such that virtually anything a suspect does is grounds for opening fire. If the police even think that the person who is fleeing might be violent, they can shoot without being held criminally liable. The police also have qualified immunity, which completely shields them from being sued in civil actions for wrongful death. Police have also received vast amounts of surplus gear from the military, which does nothing to actually reduce crime. When police do shoot someone, there’s rarely any legal consequence (only about 1% are prosecuted, and only a third of those end in convictions), but they do immediately get rewarded with two weeks of paid time off.

The theory behind all of these decisions is that being a police officer is a dangerous job. In truth it’s not even in the top 10, and most police officers who die in the line of duty are killed by accidents or stupid stuff like accidentally shooting themselves or each other.  The belief by conservatives is that we, as a society, need to protect them so they can do their jobs; instead, we get useless cowards like the Uvalde police department who are terrified of armed suspects, and are trigger happy with people who are unarmed. Police in the U.S. kill about three times as many people per capita as anywhere else in the developed world. We are, however, on a par with violent or repressive nations like Mexico, Bangladesh, and Iran.

Death by libertarianism extends far past guns and police, though. It affects virtually every American who isn’t obscenely wealthy (more on that in a bit). Before 1973 the U.S. healthcare system was, by law, required to be non-profit. That changed when, in 1973, Richard Nixon signed the Health Maintenance Organization Act into law. The U.S. never really had national healthcare for children and working-age adults either. Medicare and Medicaid are only for the poorest and oldest among the public, and provide only partial coverage. Conservatives have successfully branded any attempt to make government-subsidized healthcare more readily available to the public as “godless communism.” The belief was that free market solutions will always be better than government efforts, because “capitalism good, government bad.”

Instead, we have the world’s highest healthcare costs and declining life expectancy that ranks  somewhere just ahead of Ecuador, but behind Colombia and the Maldives Islands. Life expectancy here has been declining since at least 2014, and is falling off a cliff after much of the country collectively decided COVID was “just the flu,” Granny needed to die for the stock market, and they were going to ignore the risks of “long COVID” during an ongoing pandemic. Medical bankruptcies are a uniquely American problem, and people die from rationing their insulin because it’s too expensive. It doesn’t have to be this way; in most developed countries insulin costs a tenth of what it does here.

This belief that the free market always produces the best results goes far beyond “just” healthcare. Since the Reagan administration, the U.S. has been testing the theory that “supply side” economics (a.k.a. trickle-down theory) will produce a rising tide that lifts all boats. Thus, the U.S. has gone on a 40-year binge of slashing taxes on the wealthy including corporate tax rates, top marginal rates, estate taxes, capital gains, and eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. If any of these conservative theories was correct, they certainly did enough over a long enough period of time to ensure that we’d see something trickle down.

Of course, giving all the money to the extremely wealthy didn’t result in poor and middle-class people being better off. The exact opposite happened: Social mobility has plummeted, while Millennials and Gen Z have a less than 50-50 chance of being better off than their parents. That percentage is declining. Despite the leaps and bounds in the country’s economic productivity and profit, the purchasing power of average wages in the U.S. has been stagnant since 1981. Studies show that tax cuts for the wealthy don’t produce economic growth, but they do increase wealth inequality and decrease social mobility.  The money has accreted at the top, with the top 1% hoovering up an additional $6.5 trillion dollars in wealth in 2021 alone. Trickle-down theory is obviously an abject failure, but it doesn’t stop Republicans, and even center-right Democrats like Joe Manchin, from opposing any efforts to make even minimal tax increases on the wealthy. Because taxes equal godless communism and people should just work harder, or something.

Speaking of the end of social mobility in the U.S., let’s talk about how we fund schools. In a sane world, taxes would be gathered and spread relatively equally among schools such that you get a good education even if you’re poor. This prevents a scenario where only the wealthy have access to a good education, and thus the to attend good colleges and universities.

Instead the U.S. funds schools mostly through property taxes. This distributes money to schools based on how much money the local area generates. You can see where this is about to go horribly wrong, yes?

Rich, highly segregated areas and towns generate lots of property taxes and have well-funded schools. Poorer, mostly minority areas have schools that receive a lot less funding, even if the two areas are adjacent to one another. While some states attempt to mitigate this with state funding, it still is nowhere near enough to bridge the gap. As a result, students in poor areas get a much worse education than students in richer areas. This adds another barrier to breaking the cycle of poverty, and adds to the abysmal (and sinking) level of social mobility seen in the U.S. To add insult to injury, it is a felony in the U.S. to try to get your children into a school district outside of where they live: Tanya McDowell went to prison for five years for trying to get her child into a better school.

In addition to getting thrust into craptacular schools, the poor are also effectively disenfranchised. The U.S. has collectively decided through Citizens United that unlimited money in politics is a good, market-driven solution, because it supports free speech and corporations are people too. The predictable result is that U.S. elections are among the most expensive in the world; candidates spent over $14 billion on the 2020 election, the vast majority of which came from large donations outside the means of the general public. This is far higher than the rest of the world, where far stricter laws govern campaign spending. Much of the spending is via unaccountable Political Action Committees (PACs), whose donors are murky (particularly if they claim to be non-profits or churches, like the Family Research Council does) with true motivations often hidden from the public. The less obvious result is that politicians simply do not care what their constituents think unless they have lots of money to give to their campaigns. We’ve known about this since 2014, when Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page produced a paper that showed there’s no correlation between public support for bills and whether they pass. However, there IS a statistically significant correlation between what rich people think about a bill, and whether it passes.

It’s also entirely deliberate. As billionaire GOP mega-donor Peter Thiel noted in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

Speaking of freedom, there is the matter of civil rights going backward rapidly post Dobbs. This one is a two-fer: It combines the rampantly idiotic ideas that human rights should be left up to states and majority opinion, and that everything will work out just great if you sprinkle some conservative Christian fairy dust on it. We’ve been down this road before: Slavery existed because we left it up to the states where only the whites could vote to decide if Black people were human, and they founded their own religion (Southern Baptists) to tell themselves that God and Jesus teach that slavery is not only natural order of things, but good for everyone. Then, after the Civil War, southern states ruled by white evangelical protestants did the exact same thing with segregation and Jim Crow.

And here we are today. Somehow we’re still collectively okay with the idea that gerrymandered legislatures in Southern states, where only white votes actually impact the outcome of the elections for State House and Senate, get to dictate civil rights. They’re still justifying it with their white evangelical Christian belief system, the same belief system that not only signed off on slavery and Jim Crow, but endorsed it. At they same time, they’re passing laws to prevent women from leaving the state or accessing information on abortion, much like the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. One hundred and fifty five years after the Civil War, and 58 years after the Civil Rights Act, we’re still letting white Southern evangelicals decide who counts as a human (hint: it’s not women), and justify their answers with, “Because our version of Jesus says so.”

The consequences of this are only beginning to be felt, but are blindingly obvious. The already sky-high infant and maternal mortality rates in the South are going to rise. So will child abuse and abandonment as people who never wanted to be parents attempt to raise children. Poverty and hunger will rise, as poor people who would otherwise have had abortions attempt to raise children they cannot afford. The foster care system will have to absorb children that are minorities and special needs that cannot be easily placed in states that refuse to adequately fund social services, risking a repeat Romanian orphanage scenario. If even half of these consequences come true, it’s still a catastrophe and a tragedy.

It’s also 100% predictable. It’s like this country has decided to put Hannibal Lecter in charge of making dinner, knowing full well the entrée will involve cannibalism. The U.S. is basically what happens when libertarians and religious zealots make their own version of Jackass, but fully expect their belief systems will prevent the country from eating a face full of pavement.

The worst part though? Every time their ideas crash and burn, we the public end up paying the price. The result is the same: The people pushing these insipid ideas tell us we just didn’t really try hard enough, and it will really start working if we buy into it more. More guns. More privatization. More tax breaks for the rich. More Jesus. More states’ rights and more mixing religion and politics.

In this way, it’s little different from late-stage Soviet Communism. Everyone but those at the top who benefit from the system can see that it is broken, corrupt, unfixable, and harmful. No one but the elites have a say in how the country is run, and the way they run it is either to enrich themselves, or to push an ideology hardly anyone believes in anymore. Many Soviet elites refused to believe the system was failing, because that would impinge on their deeply held belief that Communism was the perfect ideology. Others refused to accept truths about human nature. Most espoused the idea that it would work if the public just tried harder and believed more, and that any failing in the system was a consequence of the public not being good enough for the system, and not the other way around.

Modern American conservatism is much like this. They’re on the verge of creating the single-party state they’ve desired since the Gingrich revolution. They’ve already implemented many of the ideologically based “reforms” that they want, and their culture war goals are within years of being realized. Except, the system is already broken and failing with increasing rapidity. They can only blame the public for so long, before they metaphorically drive us off a cliff, and the entire system comes apart from the bottom.   

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