America’s Sorry State Is No Accident

Powerful interests have worked hard — and won much — promoting misinformation and ignorance.

By Mitchell Anderson 22 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee columns here.

America is a mess. The world’s sole superpower seems cleaved by race, income disparity and social divisions. Worse, a disturbing number of Americans subscribe to beliefs that are ill-informed, insane or just plain wrong. That the prospect of President Donald Trump is no longer a satirical plot line on The Simpsons is a testament to just how far gone our southern neighbour has become.

Perhaps this sorry situation is actually a credit to the United States. After all, Canadians are no more inherently virtuous or intelligent than our American cousins. Believing otherwise would amount to being somehow racist towards the vast American melting pot.

The only plausible explanation for such aberrant American public opinion is that people in the U.S. are exposed to a vastly different worldview. A misinformation campaign of a scale enormous enough to account for the enfeebled U.S. zeitgeist speaks to how much some special interests gain in investing in and promoting such systemic ignorance.

Only 45 per cent of Americans believe that global warming is “a very serious problem,” a level of climate indifference that plunges to 20 per cent among Republicans. Compare that level of concern to 86 per cent per cent in Brazil, or the global median of 54 per cent. Since the U.S. is leading the global economic conga line, such outliers in public opinion are particularly troubling, and suspiciously intentional.

Politics is the art of the possible and, sadly, democracy doesn’t care if voters know what they are talking about. If only 41 per cent of Americans believe that most scientists agree there is evidence of climate change, chances are that bold public policy to limit carbon emissions will remain gridlocked no matter who gets elected. In case anyone cares, 97 per cent of climatologists agree that humans are affecting the climate.

On a completely unrelated note, the fossil fuel industry is the world’s largest industrial sector, worth more than $3 trillion in America alone. Secretive donors reportedly shoveled $125 million towards climate misinformation efforts over three years through a constellation of right-wing think tanks.

Odious? No doubt. But also a shrewd investment given that the fossil fuel sector is 24,000 times more valuable than the dark money spent protecting it from expensive public policy.

Guns and race are other peculiar outliers of U.S. public opinion. More than 60 per cent of white Americans believe the right to own guns is more important than the need to control them. Strangely, that number drops to 30 per cent for blacks and Hispanics. You would think America already has a glut of guns — about 300 million at last count. However, U.S. gun sales still top 10 million firearms each year worth more than $13 billion.

Why do people buy ever more guns? Sixty per cent of gun owners report personal safety as the main motivation. Fear — particularly among white people — seems good for the gun business.

So are mass shootings. The day after the Orlando massacre in June, stock prices for Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger both jumped by more than six per cent.

Why does America still lack meaningful gun control? Because vested interests have made the National Rifle Association the most feared lobby on Capitol Hill. Several CEOs of the largest U.S. gun manufacturers have had the dubious honour of donning the NRA Golden Ring of Freedom jacket, provided in exchange for a $1-million tax-deductible donation.

A daily diet of racial fear-mongering on U.S. cable networks doesn’t hurt gun sales either, or help heal historic wounds that make American more enfeebled. As opportunistic demagoguery takes root in America, we should remember the prescient words of Eleanor Roosevelt — “Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.”

I have often wondered why the U.S. still tolerates a health care system that is the most wildly expensive in the world yet delivers such lousy outcomes. The richest country on the planet ranks about fifty-seventh in the world in infant mortality and thirty-sixth in life expectancy, reports the World Health Organization. It gets even more embarrassing at the state level. If Mississippi were a country, more children would perish in infancy than in Botswana.

In spite of so-called Obamacare, more than 40 million Americans still lack any health insurance.

Why does this persist? Because the U.S. population has somehow been convinced it wants it that way. Obamacare has actually been reasonably successful, proving coverage to 20 million people who were previously uninsured. But more and more, facts just don’t matter.

Almost half of Americans dislike the program, a number that rises to more than 80 per cent for Republicans. Congress voted more than 60 times to defund, cancel or delay Obamacare, making this modest effort to insure the uninsured into a high profile political piñata.

Let’s assume for a moment that money does matter. The U.S. spends some $3 trillion per year on health care, more per capita than anywhere else.

Let’s also assume that humans around the world are somehow medically similar — implausible I know, but let’s press on. How much money would be left on the table if the U.S. delivered health care as efficiently as Finland, which has an infant mortality rate less than half that in America?

Finland spends about $3,500 per capita on health care, compared to about $9,500 in the U.S. — a difference of $6,000 for each of the 324 million Americans. Doing the math, America would have a cool $2 trillion in extra walking-around money every year while achieving vastly better health care outcomes if it just copied Finland.

So who gets that extra $2 trillion now? Perhaps the same people who spent $4.2 billion on health care lobbying between 1998 and 2010 — more than any other sector except finance, which shelled out a similar pile of money to hector elected officials. Since 64 per cent of U.S. health care is paid for by the taxpayer, such savings would mean various levels of government would have an additional $1.2 trillion to spend on improved programs, paying down debt or providing tax breaks.

America is a magnificent but increasingly failed experiment. If you want your heart broken, read this poignant essay in The Guardian.

The country that gave the world Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Aretha Franklin is becoming fatally poisoned by ignorance, intentionally administered to make this mighty nation divided, desperate and fearful. That America has attracted such decades-long mischief-making by various vested interests is a testament to its remarkable intrinsic worth. Only by recognizing the cause of this ailment can there be a cure.  [Tyee]

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