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Sunday, December 06, 2015



When I was young and thought I was going to hell along with the rest of the world unless I worried about it, I survived by making a list of my worries. I found that micro fears (personal worries, such as cancer) paled before my many macro horrors (eg: nuclear fallout).

Yet, even in a really bad year for macro trouble (e.g., 1968) my imagination faltered after listing so many ills, resorting to minimal angst about things like UFO's. There may not be any more items on the macro list today than there were in 1968 but they seem worse because so many of these problems appear to be intractable.

Even in the depressing ‘’60’s” when assassinations, wars, crime, racial strife, were rampant, there was still a sense that we “shall” eventually “overcome” the problems. Today we are justified if we are far more pessimistic.  So many of today’s problems have passed the event horizon: the point of no return. They are too complicated to be solved. 

Here are some examples — not necessarily in order of importance or insolubility: 

The boomer generation scourge. The most entitled and largest generation in American history is about to use up all the remaining resources that they haven't yet sopped up. By continuing to live, they (we) endanger the prosperity of our children and grandchildren, who reasonably believe that they will be denied the chance for prosperity because of us. 

Climate change: Some scientists suggest that climate change has reached the tipping point and that the earth’s ecology is beyond repair. In the U.S. one of our two major political parties (the one that currently – and for the foreseeable future – controls the Congress, and almost all of its presidential candidates, deny that it is a problem at all. The influence of wealthy anti-environmentalists is too powerful to be overcome. Even if we were willing to sacrifice in order to solve this problem, emerging nations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere would not. Thus, a solution is hopeless.

Gun violence in the U.S. The will does not exist to reduce or even limit the amount and type of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of almost anyone living in this country. The Supreme Court’s decision broadly interpreting the Second Amendment and the power of the NRA mean that any meaningful limit on weaponry is impossible. The federal government is handcuffed and state laws are ineffectual as long as neighboring states don’t care.

Use of excessive force by local police officers. Perhaps related to the availability of weapons almost as much as profiling that inevitably involves race- and ethnic-based stereotypes, patrol officers in local departments fear the public they serve. Fear breeds contempt; authoritarianism breeds arrogance and anger on both sides. The institutional norm of militaristic unity leads to the code of silence among brothers in arms (and this usually crosses race and gender lines within the department). Coupled with inherent pro-police bias by prosecutors, judges (usually former prosecutors), legislators (also frequently former prosecutors) and city officials, there is little hope of serious reform. Increasing militancy by racial minorities who feel victimized by police brutality and political impotence will encourage a violent reaction (probably more serious than the Black Power / separatist movement of the 60’s).

Permanent underclass that is underemployed, uneducated, hopelessly mired in poverty. Urban and suburban police (the borderline in our megacities is blurred) are dealing with communities (ghettos) in which all the common ills are rampant and by now, have existed for decades. Schools in these areas have been poor for generations. This is particularly true in a sizeable percentage of the African American population, unable to assimilate into the mainstream of middle class culture. The concept of “upward mobility” that has been a myth of American exceptionalism doesn’t apply to the permanent underclass.  

Permanent homelessness. When I returned from a trip around the world in July 1975, I saw for the first time men sleeping in cartons on the streets of downtown L.A. I had been in Calcutta a few months before and saw similar things. Today it is so common a sight on our streets that we ignore it. Public and private charities provide minimal life support and our mental health care and drug rehabilitation systems have failed to solve the problem.

Incompetence in our major institutions: education; health care; criminal and civil justice; religion; government services (veterans, taxes, licenses, etc.). I lump these all together because it all seems that, like the organs of a dying body, all of these systems are beyond reclamation. The beginning of the end for these institutions happened with the so-called taxpayer’s revolt at the start of the 1970’s in California. Conservative radicals used the initiative process (that had been a progressive instrument intended to override official corruption in the early part of the century) to defund state and local governments. Proposition 13 reduced property taxes that were the main source of funding for state and local government. That was its intent; and it worked. The trend is now permanent. The public demands lower taxes but more and better government services. Science fantasy.  

Economic decline: loss of high paying unionized manufacturing jobs that built the middle class. We will never get these jobs back from overseas, no matter how much demagogic politicians moan about it. Outsourcing assembly line work is needed for the multi-national corporate bottom line. Low paying service jobs in health care, food, retail, and other such industries are going to be the backbone of US employment from now on. The transition to “green” and “high tech” related employment is promised but very uncertain. Globalization is generally good for Asians and Africans who strive to join the developed nations, but the transition is going to be painful for all societies.  

Political polarization; voter apathy; electoral control by the wealthy. At the turn of the 19th century, federal state and local governments were controlled by the moneyed classes and used mostly for their own benefit. Corruption was normal. Progressive reforms swung the pendulum to some degree. Unions became a voting bloc that, along with the second generation of immigrant families that came of voting age in the 1930’s, made the system work. Americans are rarely energized enough to vote in high numbers by comparison to other democracies. Most are apathetic, confused, cynical, detached from the process. Each major party generally has about 40% of the vote; the remaining 10% who call themselves “independent” sway one way or the other for complex unpredictable reasons, often relating to momentary concerns. They are easily manipulated by the news, prejudices, or transitory emotions. A few wealthy contributors can manipulate elections by focusing on these few swing voters in a few swing states.  

Drug crime. As long as there is a demand, the supply will continue in this very profitable trade. Legalization of marijuana may change the economics relating to that drug, but there will be others. Illegality will always be part of the lure. So, methamphetamines, opiates, and recreational drugs such as ecstasy and whatever pharma can conceive will surely continue to thrive.

Fanatical radicalism; turning to terror as a tactic by the powerless for political or religious purpose; willingness to kill and commit suicide for a cause. Some people have always been attracted to these powerful self-destructive and murderous ideas. Combined with the increased availability of weaponry, there is no reason to expect this will abate.

Israel / Palestinians. This is on the list because it is the oldest of the deadly feuds that threaten world peace. As long as Islam resents the very existence of a Jewish nation on this “holy land” and as long as Israel distrusts any treaty with a neighboring Palestinian state as a threat to its existence, this sore spot will continue to be explosive. It provides a stimulus to pan-Islamic militancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court. You can blame the mess of our foreign policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf to the Presidents Bush. And you can also blame them for the mess that four appointees to the Supreme Court have made of the constitution. Of all the far reaching mistakes, these appointments may have the most devastating impact. Election financing, reproductive rights, voting rights act limits, second amendment ruling, capital punishment . . . just the start of the damage. 

Reapportionment: In 2010, Republicans took advantage of low voter turnout during mid-term elections to win majorities in state legislatures and governorships even in previous “blue” states such as Wisconsin. The Republican legislators gerrymandered congressional districts so as to assure continuing majorities in congress and state legislatures at least until 2020 when the next reapportionment will occur. Once in control of state governments, Republicans rolled back progress on funding for poverty, health care, education, reproductive rights, unions, environment, etc. They also passed voter registration laws to further repress the Democratic Party vote in the future. 

Religion is here to stay. Some who argue that the greatest source of evil in the world is “religion” have a point, but it is irrelevant. Whether as some suggest, we are hard-wired to seek spiritual guidance, it is clear humans are drawn to religious faith and many are strongly influenced by faith, even when contrary to evidence. Many will prefer religious teaching to scientific proof. Thus, evolution, climate change, gender, family, and sexual issues are all subject to religious tests for many and will always be.

 A free press will not save us. Jefferson’s dictum was that democracy would work IF driven by an educated and informed electorate. We have depended on news media to inform us. They have failed. Corporate infotainment in commercial media is pervasive, permanent, and irretrievably flawed. The old saw, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is revealing. Anecdotal emphasis on violent, highly emotionally charged events instills fear. A crime spree in Atlanta causes people in Los Angeles to buy guns and vote to toughen laws. Sound bites replace analysis, politicians and experts need to give instant, short, meaningless answers to complex questions.

Social media is an unreliable savior. More people today get their news thru their portable devices than from print or traditional broadcast media. The argument in its favor is that it is broader, less corporate dependent, and freer. Others counter that reporting is notoriously unreliable. Vetting of reporting for accuracy is spotty. There are no accepted standards for fact checking, no limits relating to taste, sensationalism, gossip, or bias. Still, the future belongs to social media and there is no likelihood that it will go away. The threatened suppression by governments of this source will not defeat it; it is too pervasive now.

Privacy is a diminishing reality. Governments will continue to monitor telecommunications on the basis of national security and crime suppression. Corporations will come under increasing pressure from governments to cooperate by turning over customer records. The battle between encryption and decryption is permanent. Cyber crime and cyber terrorism will increase in importance and be a part of life for the foreseeable future.

This depressing list is probably incomplete. But what all of the examples have in common is a sense that we have lost the ability to make progressive meaningful change at least for the foreseeable future.

As to the micro worries . . . it turns out that we were right to put cancer at the top of the list. In fact, we could have ended the list right there. Yet, now at this stage of life, my personal worries are too ordinary, numerous and omni-present to be reduced to any list. 

Maybe it is nature’s trick to occupy our minds with impossible conundrums while it destroys us from the inside. Clever.