A Need to Shift to Social Determinants: We Can Not Afford Individualism

Social determinants are systematic social and economic conditions that influence a person’s health. They include income, housing, education, gender and race, and have a greater impact on individual and population health than biological and environmental conditions. Their impact can even be greater than that of the health care system itself. The consequences of poverty on health are well established and include lower life expectancy, higher disease burden, and poorer overall health. Research suggests that 15% of population health is determined by biology and genetics, 10% by physical environments, 25% by the actions of the health care system, with 50% being determined by our social and economic environment. Many people low on the socioeconomic scale are likely to carry a higher burden of just about any disease. The societal cost of poor health extends beyond the cost to the healthcare system: healthier people lose fewer days of work and contribute to overall economic productivity.

The level of spending for healthcare in the US is by far the highest in the developed world according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Even with all this money being spent on healthcare, the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 37th in healthcare systems, and The Commonwealth Fund placed the U.S. last among the top eleven industrialized countries in overall healthcare. Most other developed countries control costs, in part, by having the government play a stronger role in negotiating prices for healthcare. Their healthcare systems don’t require the high administrative costs that drive up pricing in the U.S. As the global overseers of their country’s systems, these governments have the ability to negotiate lower drug, medical equipment and hospital costs. They can influence the mix of treatments used and patients’ ability to go to specialists or seek more expensive treatments.

Income inequality creates disadvantage for particular segments of the society. Widening inequality also has significant implications for growth and macroeconomic stability, it can concentrate political and decision-making power in the hands of a few, lead to a suboptimal use of human resources, cause investment-reducing political and economic instability, and raise crisis risk.  Policies that focus on the poor and the middle class can mitigate inequality. Irrespective of the level of economic development, better access to education and health care and well-targeted social policies, while ensuring that labor market institutions do not excessively penalize the poor, can help raise the income share for the poor and the middle class. Income distribution matters – IMF findings suggest that raising the income share of the poor and ensuring that there is no hollowing-out of the middle class is good for growth through a number of interrelated economic, social, and political channels.1

The disparity between top earners and everyone else is staggering in nations such as the United States, where 10 per cent of people accounted for 80 per cent of income growth since 1975. The life expectancy gap between the affluent and the poor and working class in the US, for instance, now clocks in at 12.2 years. College-educated white men can expect to live to age 80, while counterparts without a high-school diploma die by age 67. White women with a college degree have a life expectancy of nearly 84, compared with uneducated women, who live to 73. And these disparities are widening. The lives of white, female high-school dropouts are now five years shorter than those of previous generations of women without a high-school degree, while white men without a high-school diploma live three years fewer than their counterparts did 18 years ago, according to a 2012 study from Health Affairs.

What will happen when new scientific discoveries extend potential human lifespan and intensify these inequities on a more massive scale?  “In just the last five years, there have been so many breakthroughs,” says the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair. There are now a number of compounds being tested in the lab that greatly slow down the ageing process and delay the onset of diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The consequence of the development of novel compounds that slow or even reverse ageing, is an ever-expanding longevity gap. The wealthy will experience an accelerated increase in life expectancy and health, and everyone else will go in the opposite direction, says S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher and professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “And as the technology advances, the gap will only grow.”2

Statistics Canada tracked mortality rates of 2.7 million Canadians aged 25 or older between 1991 and 2006. Out of this group, 426,979, or 16 per cent, had died by the end of the study period. Those who were in top 20 per cent for family income were most likely to still be alive after 15 1/2 years, and that probability shrank as one moved further down the income ladder. For men, those in the second-highest fifth of people for income were 12 per cent more likely to die during the study period than those in the richest category. There was a 21 per cent bigger chance of death for those in the third highest income group, 35 per cent for the fourth, and 67 per cent for the poorest group. It was a similar pattern for women. Those in the second-highest income group were seven per cent more likely to die than those in the top income group, 14 per cent more in the third group, 25 per cent more in the fourth, and 52 per cent more for the lowest income group.

This latest Canadian report said that if all income groups had mortality rates equal to those in the top category, there would have been 19 per cent fewer deaths among men and 17 per cent fewer among women, or the equivalent 40,000 fewer deaths annually if these proportions were applied to the whole country. It was found that the steepest differences in mortality rates among income groups were found when deaths were linked to risk-based behaviours such as smoking, alcohol consumption and drug use. For example, men in the lowest income group were more than five times as likely to die from an alcohol problem than those in the top income group. Women at the bottom of the income scale were more than four times as likely to die from an alcohol disorder than those at the top. “This is consistent with research indicating that, compared with people in higher socio-economic categories, those in lower socio-economic categories are more likely to engage in health-risk behaviours,” the report said.3

Individualism, a powerful philosophy and practice in North America, limits the public space for social movement activism. The challenge is not the amount of democracy rather it has to do with public policies that determine how the resources of the nation are to be distributed among the population. A primary component of individualism is individual responsibility – being accountable for one’s personal choices. It leads to placing the focus of responsibility for one’s health status within the motivations and behaviors of the individual rather than health status being a result of how a society organizes its distribution of a variety of resources. It fits perfectly with a declining welfare state and also influences responses to health inequities. Individualism creates barriers to the quality of social determinants of health outcomes. In the 21st century, liberty and self-determination, available to those who have sufficient financial resources and cultural capital, is out-of-reach for much of the population.

We need to move to stop social problems from being continually framed as individual ones rather that societal. There is a need to shift from the biomedical model that Nettleson calls the “holy trinity of risk”, of tobacco, diet and physical activity – the dominant lifestyle health paradigm – to social determinants of health perspective. Policy options that support the social determinants of health must reduce the incidence of poverty, reduce social exclusion, and restore and enhance social infrastructure. Policies to reduce the incidence of poverty include raising the minimum wage to a living wage, improving pay equity, restoring and improving income supports for those unable to gain employment. Policies to reduce social exclusion include ensuring families have sufficient income to provide their children with the means of attaining healthy development, assure access to educational, training and employment opportunities especially for the long-term unemployed, and create housing policies that provide enough affordable housing of a reasonable standard.

The high cost for health-care in the US is driving the debate for change. Consumers are paying more money in the form of higher premiums, deductibles and additional expenses. Forced to paying bills and having health coverage, many Americans are risking it and going without. The most difficult role is to develop the political will to support action to refocus agendas on the determinants of health. The quality of any number of social determinants of health within a jurisdiction is shaped by the political ideology of governing parties. The rich, via lobbyists and Byzantine tax arrangements, actively work to stop redistribution. The philosophy of individualism provides the support within the general population that keeps this system of privilege in place. However, the social determinants of health concept can help make the links between government policy, the market, and the health and well-being of citizens to surmount the barriers to change.

1 Era Dabla-Norris, Kalpana Kochhar, Frantisek Ricka, Nujin Suphaphiphat, and Evridiki Tsounta. (June 2015) Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective  https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2015/sdn1513.pdf

2Linda Marsa (02 July 2014) The Longevity Gap https://aeon.co/essays/will-new-drugs-mean-the-rich-live-to-120-and-the-poor-die-at-60

3 Derek Abma (18 July 2013) Poorer Canadians more likely to die younger, report claims https://o.canada.com/news/national/poorer-canadians-more-likely-to-die-younger-report-claims

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Cult of Personality Drives Increased Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Segregation across the American electorate along economic, political, and social lines contributes to the development of insular and isolated communities, each with its own narrative, worldview, and, increasingly, even “facts.” The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information. What is the importance or significance that individual citizens understand the debacle of policy or even a good grasp of all the facts?

Festinger first developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s to explain how members of a cult who were persuaded by their leader, that the earth was going to be destroyed on 21st December and that they alone were going to be rescued by aliens, actually increased their commitment to the cult when this did not happen. The dissonance of the thought of being so stupid was so great that instead they revised their beliefs to meet with obvious facts: that the aliens had, through their concern for the cult, saved the world instead. Eileen Barker, has written that, together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.

During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. This self-esteem movement has had a significant impact – in order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. This person demands automatic and full compliance with his/her expectations. The cult of self-esteem that was created in schools provides a pool of individuals in the 21st century who view the world from an emotional rather than a rational perspective, supporting extreme individualism and allowing personal feelings to overcome the distinction between right and wrong. This person is addicted to the attention of others for admiration, applause and admiration. Behind this façade they only care about appearances.

The culture of extreme individualism ushered in narcissism that influences decision-making and accountability today. With narcissism, such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. Following three decades of the cult of self-esteem, individuals in the financial services industry, with self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement, leveraged the market and plunged the world into economic chaos. This is an example of the ugly side of individualism. They lack respect for authority, and habitually lie to people. It is impossible to distinguish pathological narcissists from self-confident, self-promoting, highly individualistic individuals. Earon Davis observes, “A society that creates” [a milieu for extreme individualism, and the worship of wealth], “can self-destruct, especially through false choices, “logic” and “reason” that are distorted and empowered by cognitive dissonance.”

Populism is a political discourse that imagines a struggle between a good and virtuous “people” and a nefarious establishment. Populists’ successes can be attributed to cults of personality: the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny. For instance, they’re not about likeability. Leaders with cults of personality are usually aggressive. They keep audiences on edge with their outbursts and unpredictability. They create a bond that goes beyond agreeing with ideas and policies: people simply want a part of this person. And like Putin and Berlusconi, Trump’s appeal is less intellectual than emotional. No matter if few of his political ideas are original.

All three of these men have mastered the double appeal that is essential to cults of personality. They advertise their wealth and glamour, but connect with people as populists, using language full of earthy sayings, insults, coarse and broad humor (often directed at adversaries), and slogans (called “Putinisms” in Russia). Part of the international elite, they are also quintessentially of their own countries. That is one reason they are much more loved at home than abroad. Trump does not have the ability to muzzle all the media, like Putin (although he does his best to intimidate journalists who oppose him). And he does not own television networks, like Berlusconi. However, Trump has a mutual understanding with Fox News that helps him set agendas and influence the news cycle like no other elected Republican – all the while maintaining a large grass roots following.

Trump instinctively understands how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers – his in-group in many ways – as the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent. With the help of Fox News and Trump’s reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public addicted already primed to receive it with religious fervor.1

The media creates cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension, which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The cult of individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because our personal identity is very important. We see ourselves as stable self-contained beings. However, advertising that we may be missing something, or not fitting in creates anxiety. Television tends to feed an information diet (of self-approval) similar to consuming too much sugar inducing short-term euphoria and happiness while distracting from reality. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us to in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.

Donald Trump, the president we meet in the media every hour of every day, blots out much of the rest of the world and much of what’s meaningful in it. Such largely unexamined, never-ending coverage of his doings represents a triumph of the first order both for him (no matter how he rails against the media) and for an American cult of personality that will take us who knows where (but nowhere good). After all, his greatest skill – the one he’s spent a lifetime perfecting – is undoubtedly his unerring instinct for just how to attract the camera under more or less any circumstances. The result of the cognitive dissonance he creates is a picture of the world that’s deceptive in the extreme. It is necessary to come to terms with the fact cognitive dissonance is a feature of humans that predisposes us to self-delusion, bias and blindness to our errors and biases.

It is important that individual citizens have a grasp of facts as politicians use the mass media in order to increase their popularity. We can give up the struggle for truth and adopt the feel-good illusions that trap us in a matrix of lies and deceit. However, these illusions are dangerous. Some of that dissonance can be a good thing, but too much (or too much unresolved tension) means we’re constantly at conflict with ourselves. And that tension and conflict can make us feel stressed, irritated, and unhappy if we let them fester for too long. Take the time to pause and think through your situation and your feelings. It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception.

1 Alexander Hurst (13 Dec 2018) Escape From the Trump Cult https://newrepublic.com/article/152638/escape-trump-cult

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The State of Denial and the Politics of Climate Change Planning

Neoliberalism is often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress. Neoliberals have developed a whole spectrum of responses to global warming. This includes a short-term plan, a medium-term plan and a long-term plan. The consequence of this approach is to leave the problem to be solved, ultimately not by the state, but rather by the market. The short-term plan is denialism; the medium-term involves carbon credits and the gymnastics of divestment from fossil fuel; the long-term plan incorporates geo-engineering combinations of renewables, energy efficiency and natural gas providing cleaner energy. Each component of the neoliberal response is firmly grounded in neoliberal economic doctrine, and as such, has its own special function to perform. The purpose of climate science denial has been to quash all immediate impulse to respond to perceived crisis and buy time for commercial interests to construct some other eventual market solution to global warming.

The short-term plan emerged in the 1990s. Fearing strong state regulation that would be needed to address global warming, Big Oil and neoliberal think-tanks joined forces to peddle disinformation on the science of climate change. The template to follow was the good job that think-tanks did in denying the link between second hand smoke and lung cancer – that was fully funded by big tobacco companies – and adopt this model to create denial, doubt, confusion. Over time, as people began to see through these basic lies over climate change, these think-tanks largely backed off trying to convince people climate change was a hoax, rather focused on falsehoods such as anthropogenic climate change is natural, inconsequential (or beneficial), and/or too expensive to fix anyway. The Big Oil think-tanks created an echo chamber loud enough to command equal time in the mainstream media, to promote ineffective market responses to climate change that they control.

The medium term, or second phase, promoted market-based ‘solutions’ to placate demands on industry to act, but are designed to impose no barriers on fossil fuel extraction. In 2005, six major oil companies wrote an open letter saying they would be able to take faster action on climate change if there was a stronger – eventually global carbon pricing framework in place. However, a strict analysis of a carbon tax on each tonne of emissions from fossil fuel (to ensure minimal negative economic effect) is it is too low – carbon pricing and carbon credits are doomed to failure. This can be considered soft denial – the deliberate slowing of change to sustain a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose cost will be paid by others. The consequence of the soft denial menu of market-based solutions that are obviously not powerful enough is failure to create the kinds of changes that would get us on the way to climate stabilization.

The neoliberal world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. Denial is cheap and easy to propagate and draw attention away from appropriate responses from the truth. The end game of a policy of denial is to connect with working class people who are concerned about jobs and whether they will be able to pay the mortgage.

We also need to look beyond the energy sector for climate solutions – only 60 to 65 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from burning fossil fuels. That means the other 35 to 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from other activities, which presents enormous opportunities for alternative climate actions. Most of non-energy emissions stem from land use (especially deforestation in the tropics), agricultural practices (especially the release of methane from cattle production and rice fields, and the release of nitrous oxide from heavily fertilized fields), emissions from landfills and wastewater, and some exotic industrial and chemical processes. Another potentially important greenhouse warming agent (and an immediate health concern) is “black carbon,” or soot, which comes mainly from burning dirty biomass fuels in developing countries. Thus, changes by just a few corporations, nonprofits and countries can make a huge difference in these emissions.

In 1988, human-induced climate change was officially recognized through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since this time, the fossil fuel industry has doubled its contribution to global warming by emitting as much greenhouse gas in 28 years as in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution. Since 1988, more than half of global industrial GHGs (global greenhouses gas) can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers. Fossil fuels are the largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91% of global industrial GHGs in 2015, and about 70% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. If the trend in fossil fuel extraction continues over the next 28 years as it has over the previous 28, then global average temperatures would be on course to rise around 4ºC above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

The divestment-from-fossil-fuel movement has seen enormous growth from just $52 billion four years ago to over $6 trillion today. Despite this strong signal from the divestment movement, we know that oil and gas cannot just be switched off. Our modern lives would collapse into chaos and the hopes of hundreds of million people around the world who still don’t have access to modern energy would be dashed. Even phasing out coal seems to be a tedious undertaking – hundreds of new coal-fired power plants are currently under planning or construction in Southeast Asia alone and countries such as Germany that are leading on the renewable energy front still rely on coal to generate power. Shining a light on this question is clouded by several factors: a lack of transparency about oil and gas-related emissions, an absence of coherent measurement methodologies (Carnegie Oil Climate Index) and uneven progress of regulatory efforts and voluntary transparency initiatives aimed at measuring emissions.

In response to the disparity between the private sector’s current emissions trajectory and the trajectory required by internationally-agreed-upon targets, CDP, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) formed the Science Based Targets Initiative to increase the level of ambition of emission reduction targets in the corporate sector. One of the science-based target methods developed was the Sectorial Decarbonization Approach or SDA. SDA is a scientifically-informed method for companies to set GHG reduction targets necessary to stay within a 2ºC temperature rise above preindustrial levels. The Sectoral Decarbonization Approach (SDA) was developed by the Initiative by building on existing approaches: It allocates a carbon budget to companies based on their contribution to the economy. Under this model SDA allocates the 2ºC carbon budget to different sectors. This method takes into account inherent difference among sectors, such as mitigation potential and how fast each sector can grow relative to economic and population growth.

We need to embed a concern with climate change into people’s everyday lives, while recognizing the formidable problems involved in doing so: Indirect means may sometimes be the best way. For instance, the public may be more responsive to a drive for energy efficiency or renewable resources than to warnings about the dangers of climate change. Don’t wrangle too much about targets. What matters at this point is the how of climate change policy. Plan ahead, but remember that the short term is the key to the long term. Target-setting can be an excuse for inaction rather than the reverse. Don’t place too much faith in carbon markets. Set up detailed risk assessment procedures, stretching into the long term, since the implications of climate change policy are complex. We must create a positive model of a low carbon future and moreover – one that connects with ordinary everyday life in the present.

Antony Gibbons observes, “[S]ince the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life… many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late.” Planning is not a word with a particularly pleasant connotation, since it conjures up images of state intervention on one hand and ineptness on the other. The longer we delay emission reduction, the more robust and disruptive policy reactions will be once societies are forced to face the implications of global warming. The politics of climate change to cope with global warming requires a long-term perspective be introduced. Climate change politics is all about risk and how to manage it! Addressing climate change means significant cost measures for the developed world; we can no longer equate progress with economic growth.1

1 Antony Giddens. The Politics of Climate Change. http://www.gci.org.uk/Documents/Anthony-Giddens-Politics-of-Climate-Change-Polity-2009.pdf

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Toward a Successful Society: a New Model of Democracy

Democracy is a political system of competition for power. Functional democracy is a form of democracy that functions in the interest of the people. In a democracy the people are sovereign – they are the highest form of political authority. Democracy requires the participation of citizens in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests. Voting in elections is another civic duty of all citizens. In a democracy every citizen has certain basic rights that the state cannot take away from them. People should question the decisions of the government, but not reject government authority. The measure of a successful society is the happiness of its people. Once the voters understand the extent of economic inequality in today’s system, they will possess the knowledge to recognize the need for change.

Cleisthenes of Athens, (born c. 570 bce – died c. 508), was a statesman regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy who introduced important changes into the Athenian constitution. He worked to make Athens a full democracy by balancing the power of the rich and poor. His changes allowed all citizens to submit laws for debate and passage. Cleisthenes refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state. He tried to break up the power of the clans. Through reforms to the Athenian constitution, he sought to create another notion, the notion of belonging to your polis and not to the aristocratic family of your neighbor. Cleisthenes’ idea was to break up the established centers of power, the ones that coalesced around wealth.

The Enlightenment writers were concerned about the inequality of the existing system and introduced questioning and critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition, and challenge the blind faith in institutions. The philosophers wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. Voltaire criticized the class system of the time – a rigid class system based on inherited positions of nobility and wealth – as being a system exclusively dominated by elite who possess all the financial, political and social power. For the Renaissance thinkers, the goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom and happiness. The Internet was acclaimed as leading to a new age of ‘enlightenment’ through easy communication and universal access to information. Instead, observers see the emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment of many echo chambers, where groups amplify each other’s biases.

Globalization is driven by the desire of corporations to pursue economic liberalization. In this system countries primarily compete for the world’s investment capital. This means capital moves to locations where it will find the best conditions for return. This activity increases the opportunities for commercialization or introduction of a commodity into the free market for mass consumption. The process of corporate expansion across borders creates rapid change in many communities with subsequent negative consequences for workers. The fact that there is little international regulation has dire consequences for the safety of the people and the environment. Multinational corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population for much of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The new corporate values of globalization normalize through a doublespeak, selling commercialization and free market choices as democracy.

Neoliberal capitalism applies to all sectors of society. Their system claims the common good depends entirely on the uncontrolled egoism of the individual, and especially on the prosperity of the corporation, hence freedom for corporations consists of freedom from responsibility and commitment to society. The maximization of profit must occur in the shortest time to ensure shareholder value. The primacy of politics over economics has been lost. Corporations, the largest institution of the 21st century, now dictate policies. Nation states have reverted to virtual feudalism. Neoliberal reform is decided above the heads of citizens and implemented behind their backs, appears as irrevocable reality. Once citizens become aware of consequences, those responsible for the changes are long gone and there is no way to rectify anything – protest and resistance are too late on the scene.

A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. In a 1900 article Alfredo Pareto commented on the radical movements at the turn of the century, warned that rather than restoring democracy and promoting social welfare, they were just seeking to replace one elite with another elite, the privileges and structures of power remaining intact. From Pareto’s point of view – socialism, libertarianism – all ideologies are smoke screens foisted by ‘leaders’ who really only aspire to enjoy the privilege and power of governing. He suggested class struggle is eternal, and recognized the predictions of economics fail to correspond to reality. However, democracy remains the best human weapon so far invented for guarding against the ‘illusion of certainty’ and breaking up truth-camouflaged monopolies of power, and create a successful society.

Facebook and Google’s personalization tools drive us to become ever more partisan by showing us only the news and information with which we already agreed. The algorithms feed each of us information that supports views we already have, and creates the conditions for us to be more susceptible to falsehoods. The Internet is not a tool for transparency, it actually combines your biases with data manipulation, and you get the opposite result of the new enlightenment that was supposed to come with the digital age. Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age has created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the Internet means they may know ever less about the world around them. Public opinion is now manipulative, and, more rarely, still critical.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. Neoliberalism casts inequality as virtuous – as everyone gets what he or she deserves. It is up to us to make ourselves better, we are told, and the system simply supplies us with the appropriate tools to use – tasks to undertake and ladders to climb so that we may realize our potential. Precarious workers in this era of insecurity go from job to job, depending on the availability and demand. With no job security and few benefits, the precarious worker now views his development and subsequent success or failure as his own responsibility. The existing neoliberal globalization creates an increasing economic gap between the wealthy and the rest of society, as well as a shrinking middle class.

Being born in rich countries like Canada and the US with increasing GDP growth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness if it comes with more risk and uncertainty. The etiology of stress is increasing income inequality and wage stagnation for the working class as well as the long-term deterioration in employment opportunities that have led to intergenerational decline in economic security. Under neoliberal subjectivity of human capital, happiness has become a prior condition to pursue the fulfillment of those social and economic needs that are no longer guaranteed, as well as increasing the odds of achieving valuable outcomes in the labor sphere. With the widening income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society, income matters to happiness as it affects the ability of how to live one’s life. Individuals, as creative beings, must reject the concept of human capital that limits their goals of freedom and happiness.

By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. However, Galbraith remained optimistic about the ability of government to improve the lot of the less fortunate. “Let there be a coalition of the concerned,” he urged. “The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system.”1 We need a new model of democratic governance to address the violence of neoliberalism and the happiness gap. It is necessary to challenge the monolithic power of corporations supported by an ideology serving the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in order to create a successful society. It is necessary to return to laws based on equality of persons rather than laws of the market.

1 Holcomb B. Noble and Douglas Martin (1 May 2006) John Kenneth Galbraith, Iconoclastic Economist and Diplomat, Dies at 97. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/01/obituaries/us/john-kenneth-galbraith-iconoclastic-economist-and-diplomat.html

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Building a Community of Leaders and a Real Fourth Estate

In Europe, going back to medieval times, the people who participated in the political life of a country were generally divided into three classes or estates. The Fourth Estate is a societal power, force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized as such. ‘Fourth Estate’ most commonly refers to the news media, journalism or ‘the press’. H. G. Wells was very dissatisfied with the quality of history textbooks at the end of World War I, and so, between 1918 and 1919, produced a 1324-page work which was published in serial softcover form in 1919 – titled The Outline of History.  Wells noted, “The Trade Unionist tried to make the best for himself of the existing capitalism and the existing conditions of employment; the socialist proposed to change the system.” Wells observes the trade unions (p. 977) went on to become a real Fourth Estate in the country.

The term ‘Fourth Estate’ makes implicit reference to the earlier historical division of the Three Estates of the Realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” came to prominence during the nineteenth century. In 1837 Robert Carlyle referred to “A Fourth Estate of Noble Editors” in The French Revolution: A History, and in On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) stated that “Burke said there were Three Estates in parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” In the US the term fourth estate is used to place the press along side the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. In this case the fourth estate refers to the watchdog role of the press, one that is important to a functioning democracy.

In 1799 and 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars the Combination Acts were passed by the Pitt government. The laws forbade societies or amalgamations of persons for the purpose of political reform, and made interference with commerce and trade illegal. The Combination Acts were passed for fear of industrial unrest and prevent industry from being held to ransom in time of war. The landed gentry, who controlled Parliament, did not understand industrial society, and harsh legislation was their way of maintaining law and order. Under these conditions workers in many industries found themselves intolerably squeezed. It became necessary for workers to make agreements – illegal though they were – against games of underselling. These agreements had to be made and maintained by secret societies or clubs – established for other reasons, to mask the wage-protecting combination. The fact these associations were illegal disposed them to violence directed against traitors and those who would not join.

In 1824 the Trade Union Act passed with the goal of relieving this tension by conceding the right of workers to form combinations for “collective bargaining.” This allowed unions to develop with a large measure of freedom; the 1871 Trade Union Act secured the legal status of trade unions. As a result of this legislation no trade union could be regarded as criminal because “in restraint of trade”; trade union funds were protected. Although trade unions were pleased with this Act, they were less happy with the Criminal Law Amendment Act passed the same day that made picketing illegal. The first great phase of the struggle was over with the removal of the primary legal disabilities under which the trade unions had previously struggled for existence. They had won recognition from society, and were now to start on a long campaign for freedom of action to attain their objects.

The Industrial Revolution was a time when national labor unions began to form in the United States. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was a founder and one of the leaders of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions (FOTLU) that was established in 1881.  FOTLU worked for compulsory school attendance laws, regulation of child labor, the eight-hour day, safe and sanitary working conditions, and work-place democracy. FOTLU evolved into the American Federation of Labor (AFL) lead from 1886 to 1924 by Gompers. Most of the work associated with the unions consisted of testifying before Congress and State Legislatures on labor laws, rallying the troops at labor rallies, and negotiating strike settlements. Gompers was well known and respected for his integrity, his generosity, and his willingness to stand up to power. He stressed cooperation by labor and management to obtain management concessions. Under his leadership the AFL grew from a few struggling labor unions to the dominant organ in the US and Canadian labor movement.

The fact of the matter is that democracy requires informed citizens. No governing body can be expected to operate well without knowledge of the issues on which it is to rule, and rule by the people entails that the people should be informed. In a representative democracy, the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and voters. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current trends in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy. Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill informed about the actions or activities of officials and institutions.

Liberal theorists have long argued that the existence of an unfettered and independent press within each nation is essential in the process of democratization, by contributing towards the right of freedom of expression, thought and conscience, strengthening the responsiveness and accountability of governments to all citizens, and providing a platform for political expression for a multiplicity of groups and interests. This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society. In our modern world, the interest of “the nation” is no more than the collective interest of those who wield political and economic power. Today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class. When a newspaper claims to speak to and for the nation – that is, to and for the people – but instead appears to speak for the government, it abandons any claim it may have had to independence of thought and action.

The mainstream media – no longer the fourth estate – supports the neoliberal project that has reduced everything to markets, undermined regulations, stagnated wages, introduced risk, precarity and uncertainty, and brought about major economic crisis. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told. The American Legislative Exchange Council supported by the Koch brothers develops model bills supporting the rubric ‘right to work’ touted as giving workers freedom not to join unions. While it is based on individual rights of non-union members to enjoy benefits of union representation, its primary purpose is to weaken unions.

Only 10.3% of American workers belong to unions today, approximately half as many as in 1983. That’s a level not seen since the 1930s, just before the passage of the labor law that was supposed to protect workers’ right to organize.  Unions are important because they help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions – basically quality of life for workers. Unions continue to work to establish laws improving job conditions for their members through legislation at the national, state and local level. The legitimacy of the neoliberal state is not to be found in bureaucratic monopolization of knowledge (as per Weber’s theory of the modern state), but on the contrary in the empty formalism – or even ignorance – of its experts. Those that come to occupy elite policy-making positions have toolkits and methodologies with which to analyse a problem, but no substantive knowledge of how it works or what caused it.1

The actual individuals – the economic elite – who control the decision-making undermine other associations, like unions, under the rhetoric of personal freedom. The economic elite remove decision-making out of hands of the working class and rely on the politicians they own and the media they control to provide explanations of reductions in social programs. Unions once again must become agents of change. A recent poll obtained from nearly 3000 respondents show that 48 per cent – nearly half of the non-unionized workers – would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. It is necessary to unionize more than the industrial workers. This change process includes two prongs to address the value gap – introduce the living wage, and support the formation of unions. Labor unions emerged as the most powerful and organized political force during the 1960s – they must become the new fourth estate.

William Davies (Sept 2016) The Neoliberal State: Power Against Politics http://research.gold.ac.uk/23094/1/The_Neoliberal_State_Power_against_polit.pdf

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Paradox of Social Action Analysis of the Unexpected Revisited

Neoliberalism, a policy model that advocates the control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector, has been a dominant ideology since the 1980s. Economic growth is the main purpose of the neoliberal agenda; it is becoming more and more clear that advocates of that agenda need to pay attention to the distributional effects. There is a paradox – these polices of minimal regulation and austerity are associated with inequality and this distributional effect now impacts economic growth – the very thing the neoliberal agenda is intent to booster. In order to deal with this economic damage, it is becoming obvious that policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they already are. Friedrich Nietzsche is one thinker who sought in the early modern era to expose proponents of the Enlightenment’s ideals of rationality and progress as “sly defenders of their prejudices which they christen[ed] ‘truths’.”

The RAND Corporation, the Cold War think-tank established by the US government, was a main actor on the theoretical battlefield between the US and the Soviet Union. Their rational choice framework provided the theoretical empowerment of Western liberal democracy with a limited state. This was part of governmental efforts in the US after World War II to create new ideas, proving the validity and superiority of liberal democracy in a world where socialist planning was admired also by Western intellectuals and societies. They developed the efficient market hypothesis – the market should be left to itself, allowing company managers to maximize shareholder value for the sake of the whole economy. It’s not surprising that Francis Fukuyama, who was also a member of RAND Corporation, made the political statement in 1989 that the liberal democracy with its neoliberal economic system is the best and final one in our history.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) explained to his enthusiastic supporter Antony Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and the writers, with reasoned arguments. It will be their influence on society that will prevail and the politicians will follow.” To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around “the philosophy of freedom.” The conscious strategy of this global think-tank network was to take the idea of individual freedom and minimal government mainstream. Now commentators of seeming independent think-tanks represented very similar ideas without informing the general public that in terms of ideologies, it is not free to choose. The freedom promoted was never social and political freedom, rather freedom of capital owners from the state.

Laissez-faire promoted the notion of market and state operating according to different logics – the heart of the liberal version of freedom. On the other hand, neoliberalism abandons the vision of market and state as independent and ontologically distinct entities. Neoliberalism is an economic system that needs a strong state, even at the expense of constraining democracy – rebuffing challenges to austerity and minimal government – to maintain a system of thought and applied political strategy. The state is a central instrument for the advancement of the neoliberal agenda. However, the communication of the 1970s is that society is a theoretical descendant of the classical school, which was clearly false. This paradox didn’t prevent the Hayekian thought collective to become an ideology. They declared that the main objective was to change the way people think: the main goal of society wasn’t to develop scientific theories – many schools of thought were represented in society – but to save and promote the values they believe in.1

The neoliberal strategy was soon achieving successful upward redistribution. The 1980s marked the start of the declining wage shares in developed countries. There occurred a paradox: real-wage productivity gap resulting in a previously unseen phenomena, the stagnating of the incomes of the middle class. At the same time, as a result of tax decreases inspired by the neoliberal project, the income of the top 10% started to increase dramatically in the UK and the US – the homeland of the neoliberal counter-revolution. Max Weber (1864-1920) saw class as an important aspect of the distribution of power in society. He observed, “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be able to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” In the second decade of the 20th century Weber identified that the focus is on the market as the source of inequalities in life chances.

It is mainly the extraordinary power of corporations that is to blame for bringing about the post-democratic position. The maxim TINA – there is no alternative – creates a situation that borders on extortion because the hand of the legislature as the representative of the community is in effect forced by the economic elite. The need to operate swiftly in rescue operations during times of emergency means that legislative oversight in such processes is practically non-existent. Neoliberalism is not exclusively concerned with economic but rather with political economy – replete with views on the state and democracy as well. This is reflected by the restriction on democracy through various forms of non-majority institutions and decision-making procedures – while replacing democratic procedures with market coordination citing normative as well as functional reasons for this preference. The more we know about how neoliberalism operates, the better we will be able to resist it.

Hayek argued that government control of our economic lives amounted to totalitarianism: “The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialist promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time the necessity and the power of choice, it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right choice, inevitably carries the risk and responsibility of that right.” Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights: for the neoliberal it is about the freedom of the market and the elites who control those markets. When asking searching questions of yourself, realize that freedom resides not in the brain, but in the traditions of critical thought and skeptical reason. Today we realize that true freedom is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

By the late 1990s, the rational pursuit of self-interest by top managers led them to do whatever it took to keep stock prices rising even in the shortest of runs, an objective that required ever-rising reported earnings. Financial asset prices in the late 1990s were driven by fraudulent information interpreted irrationally in a kind of mirror image of a neoclassical “efficient” financial markets model. Severe conflicts of interest deeply embedded in the financial system allowed wide-spread fraud to take place. There is a sense that we are now living through events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place: barely two decades into the new millennium, barely 40 years since the end of the Cold War and barely 50 years since the triumph of neoliberalism – that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.2

In his writings Max Weber made multiple references to unintended and paradoxical results that occur in history that have an important role in explaining what is occurring, that can be applied to the regimes of austerity and minimal government that drive economic decisions in play today. In Economy and Society, Weber notes that, “by a peculiar paradox asceticism resulted in the contradictory situation – namely it was its rationally ascetic character that led to accumulation of wealth (that it had previously rejected).” In Politics as a Vocation, Weber observes that the end product of political action “regularly stands in completely inadequate and often in paradoxical relation to its original meaning.” He goes on to point out that anyone who wants to be involved in politics has to understand ‘ethical paradoxes’, and the person who fails to realize that good may come from evil, and evil may come from good, is a ‘political infant’.

The basic paradox is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent that it undermines that very wealth production it relied on. A second paradox is in how neoliberal capitalism creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability. Free market fundamentalists and neoliberals are in total denial of the paradox. Weber described the essential paradox of social action analysis of the unexpected, which flags the need to establish inquiries into unanticipated and unintended consequences of social action, and only then move to social intervention. Knowledge about social paradoxes needs to be part of all curricula. The key to resolving paradox is collaboration, and that means letting go of control and letting a purpose and not a plan guide your way. Failure to acknowledge these social paradoxes in some way will result in reproducing errors and fictions that keep the political discourse gridlocked.

1 Dániel Oláh.  If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. http://evonomics.com/look-behind-neoliberal-economist-youll-discover-rich-economic-theories-serve-big-business/

2 James R. Crotty.  February, 2005. The Neoliberal Paradox: The Impact of Destructive Product Market Competition and Impatient Finance on Nonfinancial Corporations in the Neoliberal Era. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23693624_The_Neoliberal_Paradox_ The_Impact_of_Destructive_Product_Market_Competition_and_Impatient_Finance_on_ Nonfinancial_Corporations_in_the_Neoliberal_Era

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Recession Hurts While Austerity Kills Dreams and People

Since 2008 trickle-down economics has been kept alive by the austerity delusion – combined inordinate fear with buoyant optimism – of the rich, the bankers, the mainstream economists and the media rather than reality. It has been a decade since the Great Recession and the socio-economic gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. The reality is the neoliberal model can only deliver: austerity, stagnation, and increased economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society. When it grows it creates asset bubbles and market collapses, and then with every boom and bust cycle destroys more of the post-war safety nets. Following the shock of the recent financial crisis, which caused public debt to balloon, much of Europe has been pursuing austerity. The results of the experiment are now in, and they are equally consistent: austerity doesn’t work. Austerity programs are implemented with little regard for human costs.

What economists generally mean by austerity is a reduction in the “structural deficit” of the government, that is, ignoring the effects of the economic cycle. The automatic stabilizers of the economy mean that the deficit rises and falls as the economy contracts and expands. In a period of economic growth, tax revenues will rise and spending on unemployment benefits will fall; the cyclical deficit will decline (or a surplus will rise) even if the government does nothing at all to change policy. Every country running significant budget deficits – as nearly all were in the aftermath of the financial crisis – was deemed at imminent risk of becoming another Greece unless it immediately began cutting spending and raising taxes. Concerns that imposing such austerity in already depressed economies would deepen their depression and delay recovery were airily dismissed; fiscal probity, we were assured, would inspire business-boosting confidence, and all would be well.

The 2008 financial crisis was primarily caused by deregulation in the financial industry that permitted banks to engage in hedge fund trading with derivatives. Increasing opaqueness and complexity of derivatives created a market panic in 2007. Banks realized they couldn’t price the product or assets they were still holding. Iceland’s banks acquisition of British, Danish and Norwegian banks led to increased lending in 2007 to foreign partners likely at the same time other banks were reducing their exposure. This occurred as the liquidity crisis in international financial markets began. Because of high risk exposure Icelandic banks were shut out of European debt securities market; they turned to American collateralized debt obligations – a particular kind of derivative. The European sovereign debt crisis which started in 2008 with the collapse of Iceland’s banking system spread primarily to Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain in 2009. The debt crisis led to a loss of confidence in European businesses and economies – the largest economy in the world. That created the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.

In 2009, Greece’s budget deficit exceeded 15 percent of its gross domestic product. Fear of default widened the 10-year bond spread and ultimately led to the collapse of Greece’s bond market. Many believed this would shut down Greece’s ability to finance further debt repayments. Since February 2015, the various European authorities and private investors have loaned Greece 294.7 billion euros – the biggest financial rescue of a bankrupt country in history. Greece has only repaid 41.6 billion euros. EU imposed measures required Greece to improve how it managed its public finances. It had to modernize its financial statistics and reporting. It lowered trade barriers, increasing exports. It has scheduled debt payments through 2059. The crisis triggered the eurozone debt crisis, creating fears that it would spread into a global financial crisis. Concern spread over the fate of other heavily indebted EU members. All this from a country whose economic output is no bigger than the State of Connecticut.1

In return for the loan, the EU required Greece to adopt austerity measures. These reforms were intended to strengthen the Greek government and financial structures. They did that, but they also mired Greece in a recession that didn’t end until 2017. Some argue that the legal grounds upon which the “troika,” composed by the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF, has pursued (the harsh macroeconomic adjustment plans imposed on Greece) are shaky, claiming they infringe upon Greece’s sovereignty and interfere in the internal affairs of an independent EU nation-state. In 2015 there was speculation that Greece might leave the EU. In January 2018 Greek lawmakers approved new measures demanded by international creditors, including cuts to benefits for large families and restrictions on trade unions, creating the basis for additional bailout funding. Now Greece has been freed from the shackles of international supervision, with no sign the debt will ever be paid off.

Brexit is an abbreviation for “British exit,” referring to the UK’s decision in a June 23, 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. The two main reasons people voted Leave were ‘immigration’ and ‘sovereignty’, whereas the main reason people voted Remain was ‘the economy’. Brexit was a vote against the fact the EU, as it deprives individual nations of the power to make many decisions. The EU failed to address the economic problems that had been developing since 2008, for example, 20% unemployment in southern Europe, and the problems in Greece. Voters thought politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals had lost their right to control the system. Brexit feeds into the new nationalism – a bitter populist rejection of the status quo that the global elites have imposed on the system since the Cold War, as more and more lower-income voters have decided – understandingly – is unfair.

There were unintended consequences of American authorities ignoring the madness developing in the housing market, and on Wall Street, where bankers were slicing and dicing millions of garbage-quality housing loans and selling them on to investors in the form of mortgage-backed securities. Austerity is backed by the belief that too much state spending preceded it – supported by the belief the economy should be free from intervention of any kind, and that austerity is a natural policy initiative during periods of crisis. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco study made an obvious point: the Great Recession costs people a lot, “the size of the loss … represents a lifetime present-value income loss of about $70,000 for every American.” This is the consequence of loss of economic growth over the past decade.2

Statistics Canada reports that differences in health outcomes are primarily due to the material living circumstances and the associated psycho-social stresses associated with not being well off as the wealthiest 20 per cent of Canadians: “Income influences health most directly through access to material resources such as better-quality food and shelter.” What are the diseases that austerity affects? These men and women respectively are 67 per cent and 53 percent more likely to die from heart disease, 46 per cent and and 30 per cent more likely to die from cancer, 249 per cent and 264 per cent more likely to die from diabetes, 231 per cent and 211 per cent more likely to die from respiratory disease and 88 per cent and 83 per cent more likely to die from injuries than their wealthy counterparts.3

The US federal debt currently stands at about $15 trillion, or 78% of the size of economy. If current trends continue, it will roughly equal the size of the economy within a decade, the budget office said. The last time the debt burden hit that level was just after World War II. The impact of the tax cut comes on top of a preexisting problem – the spiraling price of providing subsidized healthcare and Social Security for the huge baby boom generation as it moves into retirement. Rising consumer debt creates problems for the middle class as income disruptions from job loss are often a precipitating factor leading to heightened use of unsecured credit, particularly job loss resulting in unemployment of relatively long duration. A negative net association of consumer debt on mental health, reflects the fact once occurred, for whatever reason, debt can become stressful and create concerns about repayment and about compromised future opportunities.4

Statistics Canada documents that Canadian men in the lowest 20 per cent of income distribution are 67 per cent more likely to die in any given year than the wealthiest 20 per cent. For women the figure is 52 per cent more likely. This high price is the consequence of the neoliberal project or hegemony of deregulation and austerity. We must embrace democracy, because the working class, in particular, understands democratic activism to be the most effective tool they have to attack extreme inequality and maintain a check on the power of elites. If citizens only play a passive role, then the real politics are shaped in private by interaction between elected officials and economic elites – elites who are not interested in the welfare of the classes beneath them. We must acknowledge what the data tells us: there is a causal link between the strength of a community’s health, and its social protection system.

1 Kimberley Amadeo. (04 Nov 2018) Greek Debt Crisis Explained https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-the-greece-debt-crisis-3305525

2 Erick Sherman (20 Aug 2018) The Great Recession Didn’t Cost Everyone $70,000: The Wealthy More Than Recovered https://www.forbes.com/sites/eriksherman/2018/08/20/the-great-recession-didnt-cost-everyone-70000-the-wealthy-more-than-recovered/#54371f9c34e6

3 Dennis Raphael (8 Oct 2018) Social Murder and the Doug Ford government. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2018/10/08/social-murder-and-the-doug-ford-government.html

Evan Halper. (26 June 2018) Trump tax cuts carry a big price tag: Huge debt and risk of another financial crisis, budget office warns. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-tax-cuts-debt-20180626-story.html

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Today’s Metanarrative Hides an Assault on Truth and Reality

More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the ‘grand narratives,’ or a metanarrative which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth”, which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths” – always plural, frequently personalized, inevitably relativized. The typical postmodern trait of breaking down hierarchies could be seen as getting its most essential fuel from various social hierarchies around the world. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation. For philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the postmodern condition was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives”; that is, a loss of faith in science and other emancipatory projects within modernity, such as Marxism. Post-truth politics is part of the critique of ideology that goes together with “shattering of belief” associated with postmodern thought and action.

Globalization can be said to be the great narrative of our age – at least, for as long as we keep on talking about it. Globalization, like any other cultural trend, is self-perpetuating primarily when it is an active force in the minds of the general population – which it is at the moment, whether we realize it or not. Like any good metanarrative, the globalization metanarrative begins to explain life. And when it explains life, it creates behavior, and when it creates behavior, it causes itself to become true. In the neoliberal version of globalization with competition as the defining characteristic of human relations, the market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers – creating a more efficient system than ever could be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impedes this process, such as significant tax regulation, trade union activity, or state provision, is considered counter-productive.

By the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, a network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending them against democracy. Hayek’s writing rejects such notions of political freedom, universal rights, human equality and distribution of wealth – democracy has no absolute value, in fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take. In the updated version the progress of society depends on the liberty of these ‘economic elite’ to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limits to the rents they can charge.

Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity, such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonized. The modernist canon itself is revealed as patriarchal and racist, dominated by white heterosexual men. As a result, one of the most common themes addressed within postmodernism relates to cultural identity.  Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era of today’s metanarrative.

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and into the new century, there was optimistic talk of a “new economy”, driven by the expansion of technology and the Internet. It was seemingly based on a whole generation of “symbolic analysts” – Robert Reich’s term for “the workers who make up the creative and knowledge economies” – happily living on thin air. It opened up many new opportunities for controlling information flow. So-called “spin doctors” took center stage; it was government by PR – and the Iraq War was a prime example. Facts, apparently, took a back seat. Meanwhile, in the hands of bureaucrats, what was left of the truth – “as evidence based” – was soon recognized by the wider population as a tool for use in social engineering, and largely discredited as a result. This opened the door to gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.1

Gaslighting is typically a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others. Their point is to disorient and destabilize people. They want to harness people’s self-doubts, ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically, destroy their capacity for making judgements, in order to drive them durably into submission. When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power. When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.

The digital merging and melding of text, sound and image, the advent of cheap copying and the growing ease of networked information spreading across vast distances in real time are powerful drivers of post-truth decadence. The present-day political irruption of populism is fuelled by the institutional decay of electoral democracy, combined with growing public dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and “politics. Reinforced by the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the growing influence of cross-border corporate power, worsening social inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections, the decadence is proving to be a lavish gift to leaders, parties and governments peddling the mantra of “the sovereign people”. Among the strangest and most puzzling features of the post-truth phenomenon is the way it attracts people into voluntary servitude because it raises their hopes and expectations of betterment.2

Lyotard’s postmodern condition represents a break with both the foundational philosophies of the Enlightenment and a crisis of its major secular ideologies – classical liberalism and traditional Marxism. Lyotard uses the notion of metanarrative to designate the way a set of practices and institutions are legitimated. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. The increasing economic inequality created by neoliberalism is responsible for the rise of populism and emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment. We face torrents of gaslighting: false or at least distorted tweets, video clips, and blog posts. We also observe the formation of many echo chambers, groups that reinforce those groups’ chosen visions, selecting what to accept as true, and amplifying each other’s biases.

Rising inequality has become the defining challenge of the century; it has profound implications for the health and resilience of democracies everywhere. Inequality – and the fears of social decline and exclusion it generates – feeds social polarization and the shrinking of a vital moderate center. Inequality is usually associated to an unequal distribution of resources and, therefore, it is related to the gap between the rich and the poor. It also relates to an unequal access to opportunities or benefits from economic activity. In the best-case scenario, this unequal distribution is associated to talent or effort; but, in most cases, it is the result of institutional structures that create social barriers based on: sex, age, ethnicity, social status, among other variables that define individuals’ initial conditions. Inequality can lead to social tensions, discrimination, poverty traps, erosion of social capital, regional imbalances, and an unfair access to justice. It also prevents people from obtaining fair benefits from economic activities.

It is time to reject the metanarrative of neoliberal globalization – postmodern thought and action is part of the process to address social inequality and social injustice. What the mainstream media have really supported is the neoliberal project that has reduced everything to markets, undermined regulation, stagnated wages, introduced risk, precarity and uncertainty, and brought about major economic crises. In all of this the mainstream media has been a significant enabler in the shift from the social democratic advances of the post-war period to the establishment of a corporate-financial oligarchy in which democracy in any real sense is meaningless. In this setting the media have not been the purveyors of truth. This assault on reality is the fraud used to support a specific formation of power. Neoliberalism is no longer a ‘truth’ and must be relegated to the trash heap of history along with classical liberalism and traditional Marxism.

1 Andrew Calcut. (18 Nov 2016) The surprising origins of ‘post-truth’ – and how it was spawned by the liberal left. http://theconversation.com/the-surprising-origins-of-post-truth-and-how-it-was-spawned-by-the-liberal-left

2 John Keane. (22 March 2018) Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth  

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Seeking Happiness Seems to be Part of System Justification

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities – neoliberalism favors certain personality traits and penalizes others. Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people in search of happiness fail – feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system. A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal.1

Dr. Robert Holden writes, “‘Destination Addiction’ is a major block to success. People who suffer from Destination Addiction believe that success is a destination. They are addicted to the idea that the future is where success is, happiness is. It is a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is somewhere else. We suffer, literally, from the pursuit of happiness. We are always on the run, on the move, and on the go. Our goal is not to enjoy the day, it is to get through the day. We have always to get to somewhere else first before we can relax and before we can savor the moment. But we never get there. There is no point of arrival. We are permanently dissatisfied. The feeling of success is continually deferred. We live in hot pursuit of some extraordinary bliss we have no idea how to find”.

Holden then goes on to list some of the symptoms of destination addiction: “Whatever you are doing, you are always thinking about what comes next. You cannot afford to stop because you always have to be somewhere else. You are always in a hurry even when you don’t need to be. You don’t like your job but it has good prospects for the future. You never commit fully to anything in case something better comes along. You hope the next big success will finally make you happy. You always think you should be further ahead of where you are now.” Rather than being caught up in the progress, we should try to live for the moment. Happiness is not a destination, it is a choice we make. To find happiness with the life you have and to achieve the goals important to you, you must confront the limitations of the system.2

More than half of US workers are unhappy with their jobs. The frustration you experience by not living the life you imagined is created by the resentment that the outcome of an event is less than you imagined it would be. Expectations are an illusion – they add useless pressure to everyone. Life is not perfect – removing expectations will let you appreciate your life as it is. Most will identify we can’t change something if we don’t recognize there is something to change. In order to learn to accept reality we must become aware of the source of negativity. Some propose that rhetoric around self-care is nothing more than a neoliberal trap. Studies reveal that adherence to neoliberal values of self-enhancement – power and achievement – predicts the motivation to gain social approval; this motivation, in turn, favors the adoption of context specific competitive performance-approach goals, which predicts the condoning of cheating.

Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. Neoliberalism has turned us into competitive individuals. In such a system everyone has to make those choices that turn his life into a professional success or personal happiness; moreover, these choices depend solely on his or her personal efforts. This creates a binary system of winners and losers. As humans are social animals this is a formula for unhappiness. The construction and perpetuation of stereotypes such as abusers of the welfare state, social scroungers, social hammock, is creating strong prejudices in people’s thinking. These ideas are purposely marginalizing the unemployed, the homeless, asylum-seekers, etc. and diverting suspicion from the real culprits.

The word “globalization” rings in most people’s ears as a signal of our advancement, the recognition of our limitless ability to create and have – beyond measure – anything we want. In the culture of today, where the digital age beckons us into the virtual world of tomorrow and an overstimulated frenzy to keep up, it has become me against me. Neoliberalist policies limit government regulation and allow business owners and investors to run their businesses in a manner that maximizes profit for themselves and their stakeholders, with no regard to their workers.  Neoliberalism increases income inequality by rewarding those who are already wealthy, while providing fewer nets for poorer populations to fall back on. A person born into wealth may find it easier to receive a college education, access a wealthier network, and consequently land a higher paying job. In contrast, individuals from low income communities cannot access those same opportunities nor advance their socioeconomic status.

As a result of the perceived connection between self-esteem and societal/educational ‘problems’, low self-esteem has been viewed as characteristic of ‘at risk’ individuals, particularly adolescents. Furthermore, those identified as low in self-esteem are often encouraged to participate in special programs aimed at improving their self-esteem (usually to enhance achievement or employability). Because marginalized groups are disproportionately represented in statistics relating to truancy, delinquency, suicide, abuse and under achievement, and are therefore assumed to be ‘at risk’, low self-esteem tends to be automatically associated with marginalized ethnic/cultural groups, the unemployed, and those from lower socioeconomic groups.  It would also appear that if the individual fails to achieve the desirable level of self-esteem at the end of the program, rather than perceiving the ‘problem’ as societal, or questioning the program itself, it is typically the already marginalized individual who is blamed.

Is it possible, then, that self-esteem is being used to maintain marginalization, by creating group differences which uphold inequalities? So, while it is possible for certain individuals to perceive themselves as ‘successful’ or ‘intelligent’, it may not be possible for others. The system can pathologize whole groups of individuals by applying the label ‘low self-esteem’ to certain (groups) of individuals, assuming homogeneity among members of the group. Consequently, the inequalities of power which the system claims to be addressing are in fact being maintained.3 “For youth disadvantaged by our social and economic system, believing it is fair can have long-term negative ramifications across a range of outcomes,” observes Erin Godfrey, assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author. Godfrey’s study finds traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally leads to success show a decline in self-esteem during their middle school years.

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] manage it,” said Godfrey. But for those marginalized by the system – economically, racially, ethnically – believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.4 Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept – that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions – social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others.

The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us. Society is becoming more divided because wealthy and powerful figures are promoting the notion of meritocracy while failing to address inequality. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise happiness. In effect, the transition from organized capitalism to neoliberal hegemony is part of system justification and meritocracy – the great delusion that ingrains inequality. We need to open wide conversations on institutional discrimination and other systems of oppression. This includes those involuntarily socially marginalized, who remain outside ‘the major area of capitalist productive and reproductive activity.’ However, marginalized people are not responsible for ending their own oppression. It more important for the apologists for neoliberal prejudiced views to step out of their echo chambers and see the marginalized as humans than it is for the oppressed to humanize oppressors.

1 Paul Verhaeghe (29 September 2014) Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethics-personality-psychopathicsthic

2 Mark D. Griffiths (20 July 2016) The Search For Happiness. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-excess/201607/the-search-happiness

3 Sonja J. Ellis (1998) Is Self-Esteem Political? www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrry/SE.htm

4 Melinda D. Anderson (27 July 2017) Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/internalizing-the-myth-of-meritocracy/535035/

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Maintaining the Illusion of Prosperity is Critical to the Economy

The illusion that the standard of living has not dropped during a period of wage stagnation is because of non-mortgage forms of debt. The financial crisis of 2008 was in part the result of a consumer that had exhausted their ability to use more debt to maintain their lifestyle. But we need to ask ourselves: is the current boom built on sound foundations? In other words, do we have sharp increases in productivity or real wage growth? In the US, household spending now accounts for almost 70% of economic growth, about 10% more than it did in 1971. (Household spending in the U.S. is also approximately 10-15% higher than most other developed nations.) The low unemployment rate as a measure of prosperity is an illusion – the quality of jobs is deteriorating. The illusion of wealth has become a way of life for Americans. Individuals are not as rich as they like to tell themselves they are.

For many groups of Americans, the prosperity of the 1920s was a cruel illusion, because on the surface, there appeared to be economic prosperity. Modern advertising pushed consumers to buy more products that they could not afford. Even during the most prosperous years of the Roaring Twenties, most families lived below what contemporaries defined as the poverty line. In 1929, economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year – the income necessary for basic necessities – and over 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually. Even before the onset of the Depression, business investment had begun to decline. Residential construction boomed between 1924 and 1927, but in 1929 housing starts fell to less than half the 1924 level. A major reason for the depressed housing market was the 1924 immigration law that had restricted foreign immigration.

In 1910, a farmer’s income was 40 percent of a city worker’s. By 1930, it had sagged to just 30 percent. The decline in farm income reverberated throughout the economy. Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements, tractors, automobiles, furniture, and appliances. Millions of farmers defaulted on their debts, placing tremendous pressure on the banking system. Between 1920 and 1929, more than 5,000 of the country’s 30,000 banks failed. A poor distribution of income compounded the country’s economic problems. During the 1920s, there was a pronounced shift in wealth and income toward the very rich. Between 1919 and 1929, the share of income received by the wealthiest one percent of Americans rose from 12 percent to 19 percent, while the share received by the richest five percent jumped from 24 percent to 34 percent. Over the same period, the poorest 93 percent of the non-farm population actually saw its disposable income fall.

During the instability in Europe, America had managed to establish itself as the new power in international exports, far exceeding France and Britain. An immense feeling of ‘nationalism’ in the United States led to embargos on immigration and imports. Republican tariff policies damaged the economy by depressing foreign trade. Anxious to protect American industries from foreign competitors, Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 and the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, raising tariff rates to unprecedented levels. American tariffs stifled international trade, making it difficult for European nations to pay off their debts. In addition, the reluctance of the USA to import goods resulted in many countries being unable to repay the loans that they had accrued during the First World War. In reality, the US had broken the international economic moral of trade being a two-way street. As foreign economies foundered, those countries imposed trade barriers of their own, choking off U.S. exports. By 1933, international trade had plunged 30 percent.1

In the short run, the economy and voters benefit from deficit spending. It drives economic growth. The federal government pays for defense equipment, health care, and building construction. It contracts with private firms who then hire new employees. They spend their government-subsidized wages on gasoline, groceries, and new clothes. That boosts the economy. The same effect occurs with the employees the federal government hires directly. As part of the components of GDP, government spending takes a huge chunk, most of which is allocated to military expenditure. “Booming economic growth has not been sufficient to lower the budget deficit – in fact, the deficit and Treasury borrowing are headed sharply higher, and virtually no one in Washington seems to care,” Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments notes recently.2

Every president borrows from the Social Security Trust Fund. The Fund took in more revenue than it needed through payroll taxes leveraged on baby boomers. Ideally, this money should have been invested to be available when the boomers retire. Instead, the Fund was “loaned” to the government to finance increased spending. This interest-free loan helped keep Treasury Bond interest rates low, allowing more debt financing. Over the next 20 years, the Social Security Trust Fund won’t have enough to cover the retirement benefits promised to baby boomers. That could mean higher taxes once the high U.S. debt rules out further loans from other countries. Congress is more likely to curtail benefits than raise taxes. That would primarily affect retirees younger than 70. It might also hit those who are high income and not as dependent on Social Security payments to fund their retirement.

The first rate hike this year occurred at the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) March meeting, when it raised the federal funds rate for the first time in 2018. Then in June, FOMC unanimously voted to increase the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 1.75% to 2%. The criteria used by the FED in the past: inflation rose when unemployment was below 4%. So they think they need to raise unemployment above 4% in order to prevent inflation taking off, even though there is no sign of inflation. If people are not working as much as they want to, because the jobs are not available, then there is slack in the labor market. This too would place downwards pressure on wages, preventing inflation taking off. In today’s fluid job markets rife with casual, part-time and temporary jobs, exists the illusion of unemployment – a measure of labor market tightness that is hopelessly inadequate.

When it comes to stocks and the economy, the illusion of knowledge can be disastrous. Many complicated situations tempt investors to believe they know the answers. But the reality is that the moving parts are too intricate. And the outcomes are anything but certain. If enough corporations re-shore production and supply chains, the U.S. labor market might tighten enough for wages to rise. But this rather assumes that raising barriers to trade has no other economic impact. If President Trump implements all his announced trade barriers, the growth rate of the American economy will fall, even without retaliation from trade partners. And if other countries raise trade barriers in response, re-shored manufacturers will find their export markets drying up. In September the FOMC increases the fed funds rate 25 basis points to a range 2 percent to 2.25 percent. This uncertainty creates increased turmoil in the stock market – the stock market just had its biggest December loss since the Great Depression.

Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. Accountability is the key requirement of good governance. Accountability is about obligation to answer for one’s actions. In addition to being responsible for one’s actions, one may be required to explain them to others. Processes and institutions must produce results that meet needs while making best use of resources. Equity and inclusiveness requires all men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. The well-being of the community depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society.

Maintaining the illusion of prosperity, though, is critical to the economy as it is, because its foundation is built on consumption, fraud, credit and debt. The banking system itself has been engineered from the top down to create unlimited wealth for a few at the top, leaving the workers, those individuals who pay 28% on their credit card, at the bottom. However, true prosperity is connected to wellness. True prosperity is a vibrant environment and an abundance of health, happiness, love, and relationships. However, as more people come to perceive material goods as the form of self-identification in this culture, we slip farther and farther away from the experience of true prosperity. Everyone must have the freedom and opportunity to reach real happiness. Until we restore the primacy of politics (management of the state) over commerce, and address the disparity between the rich and the rest of society, true prosperity remains out of the reach of most individuals.

1 Why It Happened. 2016 http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3432

2 Jeff Cox. (2 Aug 2018) The Trump administration is headed for a gigantic debt headache https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/02/the-trump-administration-is-headed-for-a-gigantic-debt-headache.htm

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