Monthly Archives: April 2021

Perversion of Myth in America

1.The Nature of Myth

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the distortion of the classical meaning of myth throughout prehistoric and historic times. We will start with the original meaning of myth.

Wikipedia defines myth as “a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in society, such as foundational tales as origin myths.” Examples of such myths include bible stories of the Jewish and Christian faith as well as stories from various religious and cultural traditions throughout the world. People over the millennia have clung to these stories to explain where we came from, why we are here and where we are headed. 

Although these were meant as teaching stories with lessons for those who listened to them and read them, many adherents have taken these stories literally and are offended by efforts to portray them as only stories.

In my reading about myth, I have found Joseph Campbell the most articulate writer on this topic. His thinking is best revealed in a book, The Power of Myth, consisting of a series of interviews with Campbell by Bill Moyers. It almost reads like a meditation on being human.

Myths such as we have considered so far are meant to provide a framework for thinking about humanity, our relationship with the universe, the divine and what human life is about. They were meant to serve as a guide for human living. The original myths were invented and developed by small bands of wandering people and differed widely from one group to another although they often had similar themes. As civilization developed myths became more widely shared by larger and larger groups of people.

All of these myths attempt to create a larger framework for the meaning of being human beyond the basics of being born, living and dying. As Campbell puts it, myths exist “to harmonize our lives with reality in a search for truth, meaning and significance.”

At times over the course of human history, competing myths became the source of conflict between peoples clinging to their own myths which led to persecution, crusades and even wars in the name of the myths people followed. These are deviations from the original purpose of myth. We will consider some of these deviations in the next post.

Review of Joseph Fussell’s book Unbridled Cowboy

I first learned of this book from my friend Bob Fussell who is the grandson of the author and editor of his grandfather’s memoir. Unbridled Cowboy is a book chronicling Joe Fussell’s life in the West from 1879 to 1957.

As a child I grew up with cowboy movies and TV shows depicting the Wild West. I wondered how true these stories were. In reading this book, I came to see that much of the Western and Cowboy lore was fairly accurate in portraying life in the Old West.

As Bob Fussell’s friend, I was curious to know Joe Fussell through his memoir about one chapter in the Fussell family history. I was curious to read a personal account of the times I knew only from my fantasies. I came to know Joe Fussell through his memoir and found that it enriched my understanding of one part of American Culture.

When I started the book I had no idea what kind of character to expect. I wondered how eloquent he would be with a very limited formal education. Bob, as editor, gave me a sense of what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised at Joe’s insight and clear perception of himself, those with whome he interacted and the culture in which he lived.

Joe realized that he was not a very easy child to have as a son or a pupil although he saw his parents and teachers as doing their best to prepare him for life. He managed to survive in both environments until age fourteen when he hopped a freight train in search of adventure.

For years, he never stayed long in any one place, laying the blame on his “itchy feet.” If there existed a label of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, I am quite sure he would have worn it. During his life he worked on ranches with horses and cattle, as an undercover agent for the Texas Rangers and in most aspects of the railroad business. He only slowed later due to considerations about his health problems and the needs of his wife and children.

A great variety of people happened into his life and became part of his adventures His interaction with those he met along the way and his itchy feet led him to experiences most people can only imagine. He was always intrigued by new adventures. He worked hard to be good at what he did, but never had ambitions to be wealthy, important or in charge of others although his wealth of experience made him appreciated for his work and awareness of what was need no matter where worked. He took the side of workers over management and was careful to advance the interest of coworkers whenever possible. When he was promoted to supervisory positions, he never lost sight of the needs of even the lowest worker.

I read this book hoping to understand part of our national heritage and was not disappointed. I was also glad to gain a better understanding of rugged individualism which I think of as the cowboy mentality. This pattern of life, to my mind, set the stage for the individualism and suspicion of government as infringing on freedom now becoming even more prominent in our culture. This pattern seems to be a major part of the current tension in our country.

Others who have read this book seem to agree with me about its value. I hope you will also find time to read about and understand this aspect of American culture. I should also mention that this book won the Will Rogers Award.

Review of Robert Reich’s Book The System

Review of The System written by Robert Reich

By Joseph Langen

A friend of mine had just finished reading this book and thought I might like it. I was reluctant to try it after having my brain assaulted by politics for many months. I decided to at least glance at it and immediately realized it was not a book I could afford to pass up. It promised an explanation of the mess our country is in. I could not ignore it.

Toward the beginning of the book, the author shares Beto O’Rourke’s observation that “Our current system favors those who can pay for access and outcomes.” An oligarch is one of a small number of wealthy and powerful people (usually men) and large corporations which control a country’s government for their own ends usually involving increased wealth and power. The oligarchs band together to control a country an then are known as an oligarchy controlling government “for, of, and by the oligarchs.” Reich describes our current American ruling class as an oligarchy. He sees our country as no longer a democracy in practice.

He sees wealth and power as intertwined within the same group of wealthy individuals and corporations which have largely taken over the direction of our country. Division between Democrat and Republican, left and right, or liberal and conservative have lost their importance and yielded to the struggle between oligarchy and democracy holding
our way of life in the balance. This struggle pits the few ultra-rich individuals, families and corporations against the great majority of the rest of us.

Reich describes three periods in our history when oligarchs held significant power. These include the founding fathers, all men and mostly wealthy landowners and slave owners, the years of the steel, oil, railroad and financial empires in the early twentieth century and our current state where a very few control most of the wealth and power while the rest of us maintain the status quo if we are lucky. Those in the middle and
at the bottom have gradually lost ground while the oligarchs have become obscenely wealthy and powerful.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase appears prominently throughout the book, mostly as an example of a major oligarch. Oligarchies do donate to charities and public organizations but do so based on their own priorities while they strongly resist government control of how they operate. Conservatives view those at the other end of the economic spectrum receiving money they did not earn as socialism. Yet the greatest example of giveaways is bailing out the wealthy and corporations in ways not accessible to the rest of us.

One example is blaming people of color and non-European countries for draining resources and pitting struggling whites against “others.” The reality is that the oligarchy is seizing the majority of wealth and power while the rest of us may struggle to make ends meet.

Despite this dismal state of affairs, Reich sees us as a society capable of reining in the oligarchy as has been done in the past when our populace has risen up and restored balance. He sees positive signs in upcoming generations and young more balanced thinkers are elected to public office. Yet the question remains how much we are willing to tolerate. Work to understand the problem and then you can start to see what you can contribute to restoring our democracy.

Is America Failing?

Just how much of a failed state is America?

Written by Umair Haque and published in Eudaimia

About a decade ago, I predicted that America was becoming a failed state. Sadly, I wasn’t wrong. Today Americans live in a modern-day dystopia — a place of mass shootings, medical bankruptcy, endemic poverty, one side of politics gone overtly fascist, and all that’s just for starters.

You’ll hear, at long last, in belated response, talk, finally, of “transformation.” Especially “structural transformation.” I bet, though, that most Americans have no idea what that big phrase means. They just know it sounds good…because it means…sweeping change…of some sort. But it means, or should mean, anyways, something more precise that that — and you need to start understanding it with ruthless precision and total clarity, if you really want to think well about America’s grim plight today.

I think that these days, amidst all this excited, casual talk of transformation, there is a severe lack of understanding about what structural change really is, what it means, what it consists of.

America needs three kinds of structural transformation: economic, social, and political. Let’s go through each one, and I’ll show what you what they mean, and how they’re linked, so that you really get what they are.

America’s a society which has failed economically. The average American has the lowest living standards in the rich world by a very, very long way — less life expectancy, money, happiness, trust, belonging. All these things have imploded in America precisely because life is a brutal, bitter battle for a tiny share of the basics of life, which are kept in artificial scarcity, precisely so that people have to compete endlessly for them.

That bizarre social contract — or lack of one, more accurately — represents a completely failed economy, structurally. When we think about the “structure” of an economy, we mean the composition of it, what percent of what kinds of investment or consumption makes it up — just like the structure, say, of a glacier, or forest, composed of different kinds of ice or trees.

America ended up a failed state because it tried a bizarre experiment that any sensible mind would have said — and plenty — did was doomed to fail. It tried to cut public investment to the bone, and then beyond that. “Big government” was deemed the enemy — of everything, from “the family” to virtue to prosperity.

The result was that America ended up with a totally unique economic structure — it invested the lowest possible socially in public goods. Americans call that “government spending,” but of course to put money into things like healthcare and retirement isn’t throwing it away, it’s investing it. Every other rich country’s economic structure looks like this: about half public investment, and half private. The private investment takes care of the luxuries — and the public investment the necessities.

In places like Europe and Canada, this economic structure has led to the world’s most sophisticated and advanced social contract, which define what a modern society is. Investing half of the economy in public goods, over decades, led to things like high speed rail and cutting edge healthcare and universal higher education and childcare and parental leave and decent working weeks. America ended up with gaping, massive deficits of all these things, never developing them, precisely because its economic structure was totally different.

Instead of splitting the economy 50/50 — you can think of that as, say, 50% capitalism and 50% socialism if you like — America went all in on predatory capitalism. It said the “free market” was going to provide everything — so society didn’t need to invest in anything. As a result, its economic structure ended up being just 20% public, and 80% private.

Even that official figure understates the problem. America’s defense spending is easily something like 5% of GDP — which means that just an astonishingly tiny 15% of America’s economy is invested in the things that people need, whether education, retirement or healthcare. When you understand that, it’s not so hard to see why Americans don’t have all those things, which are considered basic human rights in Europe and Canada — society doesn’t invest almost anything in them. Just 15 cents of every dollar are put back in basic public goods in America, whereas in Europe and Canada, it’s half of every dollar or euro.

Now let’s come to back to this big phrase — “economic structural transformation.” What does it mean? It means that America’s economy needs to change totally radically structurally — the 15 cents of every dollar that are invested in basics like retirement, healthcare, education, and so on, need to rise dramatically, to 50. The composition of America’s economy needs total, sweeping change, from a tiny, tiny 15 percent public investment, which can’t provide people with much of anything, and has resulted in America being a dystopian failed state where people just die without healthcare or stay in debt their whole lives for an education, to more than triple that — 50 percent.

That’s change on the level that, say, the Soviet economy needed — which is the only parallel, really, in modern history, for how big this problem really is. That’s how much of a failed state America is, economically — it’s public investment needs to triple.

Now, you might think to yourself, a little miffed, “But that’s what Biden and the Dems are doing!!” You’d be wrong. I don’t say this to be mean or negative or a jerk, but so you really understand the stakes here. Economic structural transformation doesn’t mean what the Dems are doing. They’re planning a set of short-term fixes, spending increases that last seven or eight years. That’s what the New Deal was. And that’s not enough. Because it’s not a permanent change.

Yes, it’s better than nothing. But a temporary fix is not structural change. Structural change is just what it sounds like — a permanent transformation to the composition of the economy. It isn’t a temporary boost here and there. America’s problems are at Soviet levels now, they’ve been allowed to fester so long. Think about it this way. If America’s level of public investment had grown just one percent a year since 1976, it would be like Canada or Europe today. It wouldn’t be a failed state — but a modern society where people had generous levels of healthcare, retirement, education, income, and so on. But that never happened. Even that level of minor change was too much.

The difference between temporary fixes and real permanent change is everything, for a society. Added up over time, even tiny amounts like 1% a year make huge, huge differences in outcomes — in this case, America could have been like Canada or Europe, but ended up a failed state, because it wouldn’t even invest that much permanently in itself, its people, its future.

That brings me to the second kind of structural change that America needs — and you need to understand clearly and well. Social structural change. What do we mean by a society’s “structures”? Generally, things like: how many people are working class, how many middle class, and how many rich. The thinking goes like this: a society needs a stable middle class to be and stay a modern democracy. If a middle class begins to vanish — then political chaos is sure to follow social structural collapse.

What did America’s failure to become a modern economy — remember, investing just 15 cents of every dollar in itself, versus 50 cents or euros in Canada or Europe — mean socially? It meant that the middle class imploded. When I say imploded, I’m not kidding. America’s middle class was, in the 1960s and 70s, the envy of the world. It was stable, prosperous, and so assured that people simply took being part of it for granted. But by 2010, something dark and disturbing had happened: the middle class had crossed a fatal threshold. For the first time in American history, it had become a minority.

That should never happen in any society. For a middle class to implode like that — become a minority in the span of less than one human lifetime — is a measure of catastrophe on, again, a Soviet level. And yet in America, this development went almost unseen. But it was felt, in the pain and suffering of millions of average households — who found themselves in sudden, rapid, freefall.

American life was starting to become unliveable. The dream had died. Why? Remember America’s experiment? We’re going to invest 15 cents of every dollar — not 50, like Europe and Canada — because the free market will provide everything? The free market was to give Americans all that Europeans and Canadians received as basic human rights from their public institutions — healthcare, retirement, childcare, education, an income, and so on. But the free market did, well, what it was always going to do. Huge monopolies were built — that charged Americans eye-watering prices for the basics of life.

These prices were — and are — so insane that if you tell, say, Canadians and Europeans about them, they simply can’t process it. And yet they’re true. Americans do have to pay, say, half the average income for insulin, or the price of a house for an operation, or give their life savings away to educate a kid or deal with an emergency.

The result is that the average America grew suddenly, massively poorer. Poor in real terms, in hard terms, that economics statistics failed to capture well. The average American was now a debtor. Life consisted of a series of unpayable debts. “Lunch debt” became “student debt” became “medical debt” became a “reverse mortgage” to pay it all off — and at the end of a life, you were left with nothing, so who could retire?

The structure of American society was becoming remarkably Soviet. It now consisted of one giant underclass — even if middle class Americans kept up appearances, desperately, driving themselves into more debt — and a tiny number of super-rich and their lieutenants. Bezos and Zuck and Musk walked away with hundreds of billions — enough to pay off almost the entire student debt, while the average person couldn’t make ends meet.

America’s social structure had collapsed — from the one of a healthy society, a broad middle, a small, shrinking number of poor, and a small number of rich, and almost no super-rich, to something resembling a feudal society: a caste of super-rich effectively owned the average person, with debt, who was now poor, and beneath that average person lay a stratum of even more distressed people exploited to the bone.

That social structure — feudal, not modern — is severely unhealthy for a society. It’s like your bones turning brittle. Because, remember, the theory goes like this: when social structures collapse, political chaos follows. Usually the political chaos of fascism. People who are downwardly mobile don’t often have progressive revolutions — they lash out in despair and rage at those even more powerless than them, punching downwards. Bang! Fascism is born. That’s what happened in America from almost the precise moment its middle class became a minority in 2010 — fascist currents surged, and by 2016, Trump was President. The theory was right — social structural collapse doeslead to political ruin.

Now let’s come back to Biden and the Dems. Do they have a plan — a serious one — to restore America to a healthy social structure again? Yes, they have this spending plan and that one — but as we’ve discussed, they’re temporary fixes.

For America to be a modern society, it needs to be anchored in a stable, secure middle class. And that, in turn, needs the first kind of transformation we discussed: economic structural transformation. Invest more than 15 cents of every dollar in basic like healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so on — triple it to around 50 cents or euros, like Canada or Europe do — and then you get a stable, secure middle class again, just like Canada and Europe have. With that stability and security come trust, community, friendship, and warmth again — because people aren’t living lives of brutal competition, and the despair, loneliness, panic, and rage constantly living by a thread produces.

Do you see how these two forms of structural transformation are linked? Good. Now you know what this big phrase really means. How close are the Dems to it? Are they getting there? Will they? Now that you know — you tell me.

April 2021