Sunday, February 20, 2022

Return to Zombie America

image from Umair Haque's article
on the American Collapse
Outstanding article "Why We are Underestimating American Collapse" by Umair Haque in Eudaimonia  looks at some of the human costs such as the epidemic of school shootings, the "opioid epidemic," the declining life expectancy of rural, white Americans.

This all fits in with what I've started calling  "zombie America." Zombies are variously referred to as the "undead" and the "walking dead," phrases that I think can be applied to American economy, politics and society at large. The nation is still lurching and weaving about, animated but no longer truly alive, dead (or dying) on the inside but because still animated, so that many observers still imagine it to have life.

Not like science fiction: the decline of America

 I began reading science fiction when I was nine, and it remains even today sixty-two years later still my favorite flavor of fiction, but science fiction has taught us all to expect the end of civilization to come abruptly, dramatically and unmistakably. This has made us collectively blind to the real world slow, drip-drip erosion of our society. 

A good example of what I'm talking about is the novel (and now HBO series) Station Eleven, a story of an apocalyptic pandemic and its aftermath. The novel published in 2014, shows the disease a deadly "flu" killing something like 90 percent of the people infected, and its impact in disrupting society occurs within days. People die in the streets, in their cars, everywhere all at once, and almost instantly modern society as we know it is gone.  Some time in the last month or so, I ran across someone (on Twitter or in an interview) using Station Eleven as the rubric against which our real world COVID pandemic should be marked as not very serious. I wish I'd written it down, saved the Tweet or bookmarked the interview because it epitomizes the way we've ingrained science fiction as the arbitrator of what is and what is not the end of the world.

Make no mistake about it, we are already in the midst of the fall and decline of the great American democratic, post-industrial society. It has been going on for some time now, at least two decades, but probably longer than that. Let me make it clear, I am NOT a MAGA, I am not talking about trying to recover some fake golden age of the past. I see as good and positive trends the exact things that MAGA people hate: increasing diversity, greater political, social and economic power for women and people of color, increasing openness to alternatives to rigid gender boundaries and the celebration of all kinds of sexual orientations. I applaud marriage equality and support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

However, even if the MAGA crowd is wrong about what ails our society and who or what is responsible, they are on to something when they express anxiety about the decline of America. Extreme inequality in wealth, political power, and social opportunities are fundamentally distorting and destroying our society. A very small class of people benefit hugely, others benefit slightly and the vast majority find themselves living on the edge with little voice and less influence. 

The COVID pandemic did not cause any of this, but it exacerbates all the existing problems, continues tiny piece by tiny piece to help tear away at the fabric of society. The pandemic which has killed less than one percent of our population has nonetheless shredded our health care system, scratches at our supply lines, and creates a huge new class of disabled persons, and is far from over in terms of its impacts, regardless of our intentions to just "live with it." 

Monday, September 28, 2020

This Election Is Like No Other

There have been many signs that this election of 2020 is different from any election in my lifetime. Certainly there have been plenty of pundits in newspapers and on cable news shows telling us all that this is different, that people's vote matters more this year than ever before. 

But now I have irrefutable evidence that this is so, because my friend Debby made a political post on Facebook. While it is true that all she did was share an opinion piece by Dan Rather that outlined why "This is a battle for American democracy as we've known it," this is the first time in twelve years on Facebook that I've ever seen Debby make any kind of political post. In fact, in the more than 40 years that we've been friends I don't think I've ever heard Debby say anything political ever. Debby's Facebook page is almost exclusively dedicated to her family (parents, siblings, husband, adult children, grandchildren, dogs, cats, hamsters, etc.) and to her favorite cause: getting parents to read to their children. And I love her for this. You don't know someone as well as I've known Debby for forty years and not be pretty sure about their values and where they might fall on the political spectrum. But this is the first time I've ever seen her take a stand, clearly alienates her from some of the other friends on her "friends list". 

The thing is that Debby's not my only long time friend to suddenly emerge this September after a life time of keeping their political views quiet and become vocal about the dangers of a second term for Donald Trump. I live (as does Debby) in a geographic region considered "Trump country" and over the past month I've been surprised at how many of my previously quiet friends have started speaking out, and courageously (and courteously) standing up to their many friends and family members about this election. This vocal turn by a growing number of my previously "apolitical" friends, declaring that this election is different, that this current president is a threat to the America that they hold dear, tells me far more than any mass media pundit or celebrity that this really is an election like no other. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The United States Postal Service as a Symbol of the Nation

In 1985 scientist and science fiction writer David Brin published a post-apocalyptic novel entitled The Postman. If you are not a reader of science fiction you might be more likely to remember the movie directed and starred in by Kevin Costner in 1997. During the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown back in April, when Trump first started making noises about undermining the U. S. Postal Service, I decided to re-read the book. 

The key idea of The Postman is that the United States Postal Service is more than simply a service to deliver mail and packages, it is a powerful symbol of our united nation. So much so that in a fragmented post-apocalyptic world,  men wearing the uniform of the USPS and carrying mail from community to community can be enough to jump start the economic, social and political unification of a country. 

The U. S. Postal Service provides enormous practical benefit to Americans regardless of their economic or social standing. In fact the lower your economic and social status is the more you may benefit from the USPS. Every address and community, no matter how small or rural must be served by the USPS.  If you don't get home delivery and can't afford a post office box you can still get your mail general delivery at your local post office. We may not be big senders of cards and letters in this age of digital communications, but we still do business by mail, pay bills by mail, get checks by mail, get medications by mail. 

However, the real point here is that far above and beyond the practical benefits of the U. S. Postal Service is the symbolic role it plays in our sense of all being citizens in one nation.  There are several examples that highlight this. One is the degree to which Americans have mythologized the Pony Express, a service that lasted a mere 18 months (April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861), that tied the eastern United States to the relatively new state of California.  For something that lasted such a very short time, the Pony Express lives in the American psyche as the epitome of nationhood - physically linking states together across a wilderness. Another is the beloved Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street in which the U. S. Postal Service delivers bags and bags of mail addressed to Santa Claus to Kris Kringle in the court room. If the mighty U. S. Postal service, an official government agency  could recognize Kris Kringle as Santa Claus, then that was enough for the judge. 

All those people salivating with dollar signs in their eyes, over the prospect of carving up the business of the Post Office and distributing it to for-profit corporations, miss this very important fact about the U. S. Postal Service. It is far more than a set of services, it is part of the fabric of America, and it is a symbol of our national unity. 

If we lose the United States Postal Service we lose our national soul. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Trump Really Wants is to "Militarize" the Border

For the past three years, liberals and other opponents of Trump, have been ridiculing the idea of the border wall as an unnecessary, nonsensical, boondoggle. This ridicule has increased in the last month as "The Wall" has become the basis for government shutdown (currently in its 24 day - January 15, 2019). There has been a proliferation of memes and cartoons about ladders and stairs, as opponents try to point out the senselessness of a physical border, especially out in barren, desert and deserted areas of the border, when human ingenuity is easily capable of circumventing any humanly designed barrier. Opponents tried to show that it was a pointless exercise.

Turns out we, the opponents of the wall, were the ones that just weren't getting the point. We didn't get that Trump and his supporters never were talking about a physical barrier sitting out in the open by itself. They were always talking about a defended border, a "militarized" border, a border with guard towers, spotlights, and machine guns. A border where those who attempted to cross the barrier would be shot.

How in the f*k did I not grasp this before? This isn't about a wall, the wall is just the the first, necessary step, the place for soldiers to stand, a place for the machine gun turrets. He and his supporters want a 2-thousand mile "Berlin Wall" or Korean DMZ.

That's what it has always been about, a militarized border, with guard towers and search lights, and automatic weapons, where soldiers patrol,  and shoot to kill anyone who dares cross the line.

This wall is not just a pointless, ineffectual waste of money, its the first step in turning our country into an armed camp.

We must say "No!" to this, because if we give in, it will never stop.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

My Reaction to President Trump's Address to the Nation

 Last night, January 8, 2019, my husband and I sat down in my living room to watch President Donald J. Trump address the nation from the Oval Office. We watched the address and the brief Democratic Party reply, then turned off the TV and went to bed. 

Over the years, I have found it difficult if not impossible to sit down and watch any president make an Oval Office address. It does not matter whether the President was one I voted for and supported or one that I voted against, despised and loathed (Nixon and Reagan come to mind). My usual preference is to read the transcripts of presidential speeches after the fact rather than watch them live.  However, this time it felt essential to see and hear President Trump while he was speaking.

This morning I awoke to find that I felt more positive and optimistic about the future of our government and country than I have in quite sometime, and that Trump's speech was the primary cause of my change in feeling. After spending much of the day reading through media reactions and the reactions of both the liberals and conservatives (Trump haters and Trump supporters) in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it would appear that my reaction to the President's speech is atypical.

Let me be clear: Trump's performance last night did nothing to dissuade me from the belief that he is the worst president of my life time. His address contained multiple factual errors (lies), and substituted anecdotes for data and did nothing to convince me that $5 billion dollars (or any amount of money) for a new physical barrier ("the wall") was a good idea. Nor did he convince me that there was a crisis on our southern border, other than a humanitarian one created by his administration. Every bit of data and research that I have seen suggests otherwise. [For a nice review of such research see this article by fellow sociologist Dudley L. Poston Jr. professor sociology and demography at Texas A&M University in College Station.]

What last night's speech did do was convince me that:

  • Someone with substantial influence over Trump cares about the continuance of government functionality at some level. That this person or persons does not want a shutdown to continue for "months or years" and certainly does not want the entire system to lose legitimacy and break down. 
  • Someone with substantial influence over Trump understands the negative consequences of a shutdown even if Trump does not.
  • This person has enough influence over Trump to get him to do something he hates doing: reading an entire speech from a teleprompter without even a single deviation. 
  • Trump is mentally competent enough to follow these instructions and to coherently read, without stumbling, someone else's writing using a vocabulary substantially larger than he himself uses on a daily basis for 8 to 10 minutes, even though he clearly disliked doing it. 

These are not small things. Especially since I had become convinced in recent weeks that Trump's utter disregard for the functions of government and consequences of shutdown would lead us to the complete disintegration of order and the rule of law within the next year.

Moreover, in his speech, before he said anything at all about a physical barrier or wall, he laid claim to issues that have long been supported by Democratic law-makers, many of which were already included in legislation passed by one body or another but not enacted:
"The proposal from homeland security includes cutting edge technology for detecting drugs, weapons, illegal contraband and many other things. We have requested more agents, immigration judges to process the sharp rise of unlawful migration fueled by our very strong economy. Our plan also contains an urgent request for humanitarian assistance and medical support." (
By laying claim to these proposals, Trump's address laid the ground work among his base (who aren't going to any pay attention to Democratic claims that these were their ideas in the first place), to claim that he wrested these concessions from the Democrats in any compromise that might be reached, even if he is not able to get all the funding he desires for a wall. 

This had given me some small hope for negotiations today, however, latest reports suggest that Trump is still stuck on the $5.7 billion for a while and nothing else matters to him. So today's meeting ended abruptly with Trump walking out on Schumer and Pelosi.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Selective attention to fact

Political bias and perception often are based on our selective attention to factual information rather to actual "fake news." Today (August 11, 2018) I noticed that several of my right-leaning friends on Facebook were sharing the first of the two stories below, while my left-leaning friends were sharing the second story. Both stories are accurate and factual, both were reported in more than one media source although here I chose to use two stories from one source. There was little bias in the mainstream media, only factual reporting on data reported by government agencies responsible for tracking economic trends. The first story pre-dates the second by 10 days because of differences in the release of data by different government agencies.

Headline: U.S. Workers Get Biggest Pay Increase in Nearly a Decade.
Basic information: Employment cost index, which measures wages and benefits, grew 2.8% in the 12 months to last month June 30, 2018. Reported on July 31, 2018.
Headline: Rising U.S. Consumer Prices Are Eroding Wage Gains.
Basic information: Inflation is at 2.9% over the past 12 months ending June 30, 2018, a gain that was last exceeded in late 2011. Reported August 10, 2018.

Both articles share important pieces of information: 1) wage increases were higher in the last year than in the previous decade and 2) those wage increases were more than offset by increases inflation that was higher than in the previous decade - so people's standards of living did not increase.

Sociology courses can be an important vehicle for educating people about data sources, how to access them directly, what information those sources include and do not include, and how to evaluate them.

For example, the Employment Cost Index reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics looks at what employers have to pay in both cash wages and in benefits costs.  It is entirely possible (and has happened quite a few times), that much of the increase in the Employment Cost Index comes from employers having to pay more for benefits such as health insurance or retirement payments, than because they are putting more cash in employees pockets through wages. That was not the case in the year ending in June 2018 - both direct wages and employers costs for benefits increased by 2.8%. But this distinction between the cost to employers and the wages received by employees is important for people looking at this type of data to understand and look at how the data source breaks down the Employment Cost Index into its component parts.

Another lesson to learn about data sources is that many types of data including both the Employment Cost Index and the Consumer Price Index (the measure of inflation also provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) lump together information from millions of sources into a single index number.  With the Employment Cost Index wage and benefit, data is collected from thousands of employers covering millions of workers, and is an average of all the data collected. That means that some workers may have had wage increase far exceeding 2.8% and other workers had no wage increase or may have even taken wage cuts. A rise of 2.9% in the consumer price index does not mean that everyone across the nation saw all of their costs rise by 2.9%.  Some costs (such as higher education tuition and books) rose by more than 2.9%, other costs rose very little and even some products (such as some electronics) may have come down in cost. Moreover, prices for many things (such as rent and mortgage) vary considerably from one geographic area to another. Some elements of the consumer price index like food prices affect everyone, but others like prices of automobiles only affect those who are purchasing an auto.

Helping people understand the data that affects their lives is an important role sociology can and should play.