Is this America? James Gustave Speth on America the Possible, A Manifesto

What is one to make of one man’s, James Speth’s list below, one that purports to show how America is doing (not well) in some 14 significant areas compared with twenty other advanced democracies—the major country members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, and Canada.

In comparison with these other countries America now has, as we’re informed by Speth,
• the highest poverty rate;
• the greatest inequality of incomes;
• the lowest social mobility;
• the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
• the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
• the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet with the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
•the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
• the highest homicide rate;
• the largest prison population in absolute terms as well as per capita;
• the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
• the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
• the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
• the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
• the largest international arms sales.

Yet, other than the mention of income and gender inequality and our failing system of public education, in particular, the high numbers of students who drop out, or avoid altogether classes in STEM subjects, we hear little or nothing about these other failures from our leaders in Washington. Or rather, and what is worse, we hear few if any reasonable proposals to address and improve if not correct one or more of our failings.

Why is this? I think it’s because most of the items of Speth’s list concern relatively small segments of our population, not enough of the electorate to be of vital interest to our paid representatives— the population of our prisons, our children in poverty, high homicide rates,… or they are issues with little or no relevance to people’s daily lives — international arms sales, the country’s contributions to international development, even the protection of the environment, the country’s excessive and wasteful domestic water usage, levels of carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting global warming, and finally the excessive size, out of all proportion in respect to our real national defense needs, the defense budget.

What’s left on Speth’s list? Well there’s health care. But in general this subject is terribly overdone by the media. People are tired of hearing about it, and particularly of hearing that our representatives in Washington have no solution in view. For, although the politicians and the media are talking about it, no one has any answers, or at least no one in a leadership position and therefore with enough power to do something about it, wants to risk his or her political career by telling the truth about health care, or actually making realistic proposals that might improve an otherwise rapidly crumbling and too often costly and ineffectual system of care.

Not on the list at all and perhaps accounting for many of the failures mentioned, is our obvious worship of economic growth, something we share with all the OECD countries. This alone, an unreasonable, often irrational devotion to economic growth, may be, together along with the high levels of immigration of those from the underdeveloped world to the developed countries of the OECD, the single biggest obstacle to our addressing some of the real problems listed by Speth.

For, hasn’t our worship of growth become like our principal religion, and therefore something, in as much as we are believers, we don’t question? And furthermore aren’t those who rebel and resist our presence throughout the underdeveloped world, aren’t they rebelling against our religion of growth and consumption in the name of their own more traditional religions? And in fact haven’t we replaced, what for centuries was our benevolent, all caring God, with our a new harsh God of uncaring Growth?

For as we seek at all costs to grow our economy don’t we therefore (have to) put to the side (for when?) our very real problems of failing public schools, inadequate health care, the concentration of wealth in the few, the growing inequalities of income and opportunity among the many. Aren’t we putting to the side many if not most of the items on the list, while looking instead to the God of Growth, or what is the same thing, the creation of new businesses and new jobs, as being the best answer to what seems now to be our single greatest problem, that of high unemployment, or the scarcity, worldwide, of jobs paying living wages.

So Growth, what is it? Is it a God or just an obstacle to our doing anything about our problems, in short just a major headache? Well, I read in Robert Nelson’s The Secular Religions of Progress, that it’s not just me, but that “most economists regard economic growth as a main goal of the economic system, and seek to assess the desirability of public policies by the extent to which they are efficient or inefficient toward that end.”

Well, you may now be asking what’s wrong with growth? What’s wrong with it is that it cannot continue indefinitely. It has to end. Everything that grows, be it a child, a tree, a nation’s use of energy, an economy, the world’s population, has to reach an end, a point at which it can no longer grow. This is a mathematical certainty, a physical law.

Our job as a people, as nations of the world, is to recognize well before that point in time when growth has to end, well before the moment that the peoples of the earth have only a single square meter per capita of dry land on which to live. If we don’t bring our current levels of economic and population growth to an end right now we need at least to slow them down to a more manageable level. And who’s talking about that, and not being run out of Washington for doing so?

Perhaps it is uppermost in the thoughts of the Tea Partiers, and this may be one thing I might even say in their defense, that they are not trying by their words and actions to selfishly exclude others from what they enjoy, to keep, say, the beauties of Colorado for themselves, but rather if they would limit immigration they would do so in order to prevent, say, Boulder, with a current population of 100,000 people from becoming in just 70 years a Los Angeles of nearly 4 million people.  Because that’s what’s going to happen if Boulder’s annual population growth of 5% today continues for those 70 years, not a long time. If they are saying enough is enough we might understand that. We might begin to say the same thing ourselves.

In regard to just how quickly seemingly small growth rates can lead to unsustainable living conditions for everyone I would encourage you to listen to the late Al Bartlett, to his talk on UTube, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy which in a long lifetime he gave 1742 times to audiences in the United States and throughout the world. (How many who heard him were changed by what they heard? I was, that’s one.) Unfortunately the city fathers in his own home town of Boulder didn’t hear him, or didn’t understand him, because they went on extolling the benefits of a 5% growth rate of Boulder’s own population.

So were we to turn our attention to how fast we were growing, in every respect, and looking at the math (what Al Bartlett calls the arithmetic), and determining what those growth rates meant for the future, for our future, we might then begin to turn our attention to some of the real problems on Speth’s list, all the things, these and much else, that we have been sacrificing on the altar of our God of Growth.

This is not to say that some growth is not a good thing. I look at my own grandchildren and pray they don’t stop growing, and I look at our country’s history, that of the settling of the United States, its unbelievable growth during the past few hundred years, and feel great admiration for what our predecessors have accomplished, for all that we have because of what they have done.

My own grandchildren of course will have to recognize themselves the built in nature of the limits to their own growth. Our country, however, is still turned away from doing this, that is, recognizing the limits to its growth. And it may be that we haven’t yet reached the point when such recognition is necessary. But in so many respects we are demonstrably close to that point. Shouldn’t we be pulling on the reins, stopping the horses, and at least beginning to circle the wagons?

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