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Americans No Longer Invest In Their Future

By Mike Thurau, Columnist

September 17, 2010
"BG Views" -- -- "What's the matter with America?

The very question is regarded as offensive or incoherent in many circles, but I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find someone who hasn't asked themselves this question in their heart of hearts at least once. For those of us who keep their ear very close to the ground when it comes to the permutations and vagaries of American culture and politics this is a question that we ask ourselves constantly.

I'm not asking what is the matter with America in terms of the economy or political process (although ample examples can be found).

For starters, why do we have the worlds largest prison population and the world's highest rate of incarceration? Why is a baby born in Puerto Rico more likely to survive into adulthood? Why does 10 percent of the population control nearly 80 percent of the wealth while 3.5 million people are homeless every year? Or, why are students in former Soviet prison states like the Czech Republic and Latvia consistently scoring better on achievement tests than American public schools despite the billions of dollars we invest in education?

These are all problems that you wouldn't expect the richest country in the world to have, yet they are all very real, however numbers and statistics aren't what interest me. After all, raw data doesn't explain what its cause is, it merely measures a phenomenon. The sources behind these phenomenon are likely much more difficult to uncover than the numbers quantifying their effects, however I think a good place to try and look for the roots of our political and social realities is what is going on in our culture.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'd like to talk about the highest rated television show for viewers between the ages of 18 and 30 ... "Jersey Shore." Three-quarters of the top rated television shows right now are all in the reality genre with "Jersey Shore" sitting on top. What's interesting is that the same TiVo surveys show that reality TV is the most likely genre for viewers to mark as "overdone".

If so many people feel that reality TV is overdone, then why does it draw such huge ratings? I propose that it is for the same reason that we are the fattest nation on Earth with one of the greatest obsessions with slimness. It is the reason that the majority of Americans regard themselves as middle or upper class, but the top two income quintiles comprise only 6 percent of the population while the bottom two comprise 57 percent. We talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, we have simply stopped putting our money where our mouth is.

No amount of money is going to improve the test scores of a student who refuses to learn and doesn't care if he's ignorant. And just because we profess to being sick of mind numbing reality TV, it doesn't mean that we are going to turn off the tube.

This failure to match words and actions is both personal and social. It is personal because at the end of the day we are the ultimate masters of our own lives, and social because the culture of hype without content and choice without commitment is all around us.

When the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed on 9/11 and the nation was gripped in collective trauma what did President Bush ask us for? He asked us for our "continued participation and confidence in the American economy" and to "continue praying for the victims of terror and their families, for those in uniform and for our great country."

Both of these things require virtually no effort. Praying and shopping are both passive activities and they are exactly the kind of thing that we Americans can be counted upon to engage in. Right now, our national debt is at a number so high that it was previously only used in discussions on space travel and subatomic particles, 13 X 10^12.

You would think that with a problem this huge, Americans would be willing to sacrifice a small portion of their own incomes to avoid the long term catastrophe that so much debt carries. This is not the case.

Not only is it political suicide to suggest a moderate tax increase across the board, but Obama's decision to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire is frequently described as "controversial" or the efforts of congress to regulate the financial industry as "class war."

If mustering the political will to tax our corporate masters is too much to ask, then we deserve what is coming to us. Furthermore, we complain about the overextension of federal authority but we wish it had the power to prevent the construction of a mosque.

Public service and sacrifice are highly regarded among most Americans when your talking about volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating to the construction of a new playground.

However, when you're talking about the government, such sentiments are received with either boredom or hostility. It is possible that the American people have stopped regarding their political leaders as an extension of their collective will and started regarding them as agents of an alien agenda or as distant parent figures.

Perhaps the feeling is mutual. But the results of this view of the democratic process is an abdication of social responsibility and an electorate that is docile at best and reactionary at worst.

Can we survive as a nation of passive consumers guided to and fro by the moneyed interests that make our lifestyles possible? Sure. Vastly unequal societies have managed to perpetuate themselves for far longer than the United States has existed in the past. But a better question is; is such a society worth perpetuating?

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