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What Americans Don’t Know They Just Lost

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Why an Ultraconservative Supreme Court Means American Collapse Will Accelerate For Another Generation

There’s a lot of consternation, fury, anger, rage about the appointment of America’s latest Supreme Court justice. There probably should be. Should we ask if a person who has the appropriate temperament and character to be a Supreme Court justice? Of course we should — those are vital questions in a democracy.

Yet beneath that, or perhaps inside it, is a set of questions that I think Americans have long failed to ask themselves. And that’s because I think a lot of Americans don’t even understand them very well — and that, in turn, is thanks to myths of American exceptionalism, which teach that there is little to be learned from the rest of the world.

So what I mean by this phrase — “Americans don’t even know what they just lost” is this. Let’s look at why Europeans — Western European at least — live better lives, much better lives, on average, than the average American. They live longer lives, happier lives, richer lives — they are better off in every way which we can measure or imagine (unless you think not getting to carry a semi-automatic rifle to Starbucks means you’re not really free).

Let’s take those one by one. They live three to five years longer than Americans. And American life expectancy is falling by a year every year, while European life expectancies grow — so this gap, three to five years — where will it stop? My guess — and it’s based on countries who have collapsed into autocracy, like Russia, in ironically similar ways to America — is around a decade or so. Then there’s richer lives. In America middle income is flat — and it has been since the 70s. Hence, the middle class is shrinking, since costs have risen through the roof. But in Europe middle classes have grown, and incomes have risen. And when we look at life in Europe, it’s a much happier, gentler, saner exercise. Europeans aren’t shooting each other in schools, no opioid epidemic is ripping through their towns, there’s no skyrocketing suicide rate.

So there’s an epic, defining question here. These are regions of the world that we used to think of as peers — Western Europe and America. Both rich regions of the world, what we used to call “advanced economies” or “the developed world.” But something changed, and they ended up in very, very different places. They diverged sharply in fortunes, in sophistication, in prosperity, in their ability to provide genuinely good lives for people. People in Europe, after all, aren’t crowdfunding insulin. Why is that?

The fundamental reason is that in Europe, the essentials of modern-day life are rights — health care, education, retirement, childcare, safety nets, income. All these things are rights in most European countries. And they are constitutional rights because after World War II Western Europe rewrote its constitutions to make such things rights, and where they are not constitutional rights they are at least constitutional principles, which is to say that they’re established matters of law. The understanding — political, social, cultural, economic — the way of life, if you like, is that everybody should have these things.

This idea that the essentials of modern life shouldn’t be things we compete for, but cooperate towards, is what it means for a society to “modernize” — and the problem is that America never really has modernized. In fact, it has been deeply resistant to becoming modern — proud, in a strange and perverse way, that people have to compete viciously and perpetually for every single thing in life. Why?

Well, America has a very different attitude — one which has become a really weird and strange problem, that has led straight to its collapse. Its Constitution was written in a time when it was imagined but when people couldn’t even imagine the modern day essentials of life — much less imagine them as basic rights. if we go back to 1776 or 1787, and think about the founding fathers in that room, they were busy debating whether black people were human beings. “OK! Let’s make them three-fifths human beings!” If they couldn’t imagine people were people — then it should be ironically self-evident that they couldn’t imagine a world where healthcare — the kind we take for granted today, without thinking twice, like chemotherapy, antibiotics, insulin — were totally beyond the realm of human imagination in 1787.

Should these things be rights that everybody should have — healthcare, retirement, income, transport, public media, safety nets, etcetera? America’s founders didn’t write those things into a constitution quite reasonably because they couldn’t imagine them — and also, perhaps, because the less charitable interpretation is that they wouldn’t have given anything much to “people” anyways, given that they were too busy debating whether all people are human beings to begin with.

Fast forward two centuries. The problem is now that Americans don’t enjoy anything remotely close to the same rights as the rest of the rich world does. That is why their lives are so much more impoverished — not just financially poorer, but genuinely more deprived, whether of healthcare, happiness, savings, trust, or mobility. In that sense, American society is failing because its social operating system — its constitution — is badly obsolete. In the 21st century, people need healthcare and education to be rights a lot more than they need to be able to wield guns against bears and wolves — that is, if you wish to be a modern democracy, in which living standards rise, where people don’t lose faith in their institutions, and turn backwards, towards authoritarianism. But can they do anything about this epic problem, shortcoming, this fatal flaw?

Now that brings me back to the latest Supreme Court justice. What is really at stake here is that Americans need those things — the public goods which are basic rights in every other rich nation — to become rights at some point, if their standards of living are to ever, in truth, rise again. In fact, even poor nations, like Costa Rica and Rwanda, for example, are beginning to make public goods such as healthcare basic rights. Do you see how badly America is now lagging badly behind? That is the consequence of an approach, an attitude, of quite literally “constituting” a society. This is an approach which is both obsolete — yet also stuck, immovable. America’s constitution, its interpretation of it, today is like a haywire, crashing operating system — which no one is allowed to recode.

Yet with the appointment of kind of an ultra-conservative Supreme Court — one that’s completely off the charts for the rest of the world — one dominated by what in American terms are called “originalists”, no change to the Constitution can ever happen. No reinterpretation of it — “hey, would the founders have given everyone insulin if it had been around, or were they really so stupid and mean that they would have let Americans die for a lack of basic medicine?” — can, either. Americans have to adhere 100% to the principles of hundreds of years ago, which couldn’t imagine the world of today — and making it’s essentials affordable, accessible, and available to all. The great public goods the rest of the rich world — and even much of the poor one — has learned to endow people with will never become rights because now a Supreme Court that’s so conservative it’s off the charts will be stacked against exactly that.

Let’s imagine a concrete example. Say that in the next election, Americans managed to elect the good guys. They get people into the Senate and the Congress who want to give everybody healthcare. Medicare for all! A case goes before the Supreme Court — let’s say it’s some hedge fund who owns a pharma company that’s hiked the price of a lifesaving drug up by 5000%, and doesn’t believe anyone should have the right to have it without paying more or less their entire life savings. What do you think such a Supreme Court will decide? It will overturn public healthcare in a flash.

So, grimly, dismally, and gruesomely, what this appointment really means is that for the next generation — maybe for the rest of their adult lifetimes — Americans will be stuck in the trap that has caused their society to collapse around them. Boom! That is the trap of declining living standards fueling authoritarianism and extremism. Because what we know is that when nations get poorer, when people get poorer, when they lose trust and faith in their systems and institutions. They turn away from democracy — the real thing, the exercise of equality, freedom, and justice — and turn towards authoritarianism. They seek the safety and the strength and the sense of belonging that fascism offers. That’s already begun to happen in America, because people live perpetually poised at the razor’s edge of ruin. “How am I going to afford all this stuff? Healthcare, a mortgage, education, my medicines? Maybe the authoritarians give me a better chance of having all that than the guys who are really interested in democracy.”

Then there is the question of status in America’s caste society — a remnant of its history of abuse. “How am I going to maintain my tribal status in society, as someone who demands respect, as someone above others, all those dirty immigrants and foreigners and Jews? Maybe the fascists will give it to me — the democratic ones only take it away from me.” In other words, the American goes on making the fatal choice to stand above others — even if it means society implodes — rather than standing beside them, so it can grow. That is the trap this Supreme Court will be most happy to keep Americans in, so they can go on imagining all that freedom consists of.

The vicious cycle of impoverishment and authoritarianism that has made America collapse is likely to continue and pick up pace now, because with the appointment of a Supreme Court now which is heavily tilted away from ever letting people enjoy the same basic rights that they enjoy in the rest of the rich world, American living standards are going to continue to plummet. Remember our three dimensions? Western Europeans are happier, they’re richer than Americans, and they live longer than Americans? Americans aren’t going to have the right to healthcare, they’re not going to have the right to retirement and income and childcare, they’re not going to have the right to any public goods, really, in the same way that Europeans, and now even poor countries, do. But those rights are the very things which insulate Europeans from exploitation, from being paid far less than they are worth, which allow them to live middle-class lives doing humble and decent work — while the American middle class has shrunk, having been preyed on for decades now.

So those three trends of decline in America — falling life expectancy, falling incomes, falling happiness — are likely to continue, in fact to accelerate, with a Supreme Court that is reflexively, ideologically, absolutely against giving people basic public goods as constitutional rights or constitutional principles. Such a court will go on upholding this idea that America has a social operating system written hundreds of years ago can never be altered or changed or interpreted so as to be brought into line with the needs of a truly modern economy, the needs of a modern society.

That is why I say Americans don’t even know what they just lost. It’s not just a matter of white supremacy and patriarchy and so forth — which are very true — underlying these power structures. Yet the meaning of these things is the issue that falling American living standards are fueling a vicious cycle of authoritarianism that cycle is likely to accelerate now because Americans won’t enjoy the same rights as the rest of the rich world. So the question, as it is so often, is deeper that Americans often think it is. Do we elect the good guys? Will that be enough?

Americans need to understand that the fundamental fabric of their society is torn and frayed in the key ways that we’re discussing now. The rights that they enjoy are out-of-date or obsolete or incomplete — their society is not constituted for modernity or prosperity anymore. The rights they enjoy are not adequate to power further gains, especially lasting ones, in living standards. If you understand that much — and again, I don’t say this in a partisan way, just in a way of gentle observation, I don’t say it in a way to condemn anyone, just to make a simple point of comparison — if you understand that much, then, perhaps, we’re making progress.

October 2018

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