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After a family member returned from Korea, he marveled at the Koreans' public realm. They have wonderful parks, concerts and art exhibits, all free, and low-cost, effective, usable bus and train transit. He asked me why Americans are content with their comparatively meager public amenities. The following is my answer to the question "Why do Americans have low expectations about their public spaces and places?"

Besides the observation that Koreans remember what it's like to be poor (and so provide amenities to all so that the poor can enjoy), the simple answer is the American population is content with less because of American's exposure to pervasive propaganda.

The narrative by which Americans guide their lives is carefully shaped by the media which is dominated by a wealthy oligarchy. Modest expectations are part of that narrative, and no one must mention the wealthy committed crimes to get or stay ahead.

Consistent with this narrative, the Obama administration prosecuted none of the war crimes of Bush/Cheney. In fact, Obama promoted those who supervised torture and prosecuted whistleblowers.

The Obama regime was similarly sympathetic to big Wall Street criminals in the largest political and financial scandal in US history: the subprime/derivatives meltdown (now called the "Global Financial Crisis" or "GFC"). Instead of prosecutions, the administration settled for fines that amounted to dimes on the dollar of the banksters' loot, paid without even an admission of guilt--which makes civil cases from those injured harder to prosecute, too.

As someone who spent nearly a decade on a Sacramento County planning committee, pervasive systemic resistance to popular projects is true even in local politics. As currently configured, our system of local governance presents many daunting obstacles to anyone foolish enough to want to participate, or just to call "bullshit" on schemes that drain public coffers, but provide ample rewards to the speculators.

Generally, we're told to ignore systemic problems and concentrate on individual responsibility. Said Margaret Thatcher "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and people..." something roughly equivalent to saying "You have no body, only cells, and organs." No intelligent public policy is possible if you're told to just ignore the possibility that the public realm guided by such policy exists.

Incidentally, if you wonder how Ms. Thatcher became popular at all, it's because she privatized the UK's counsel (public) housing, letting occupants purchase their homes at a steep discount. This bribe given the public was enormously popular, but resulted in the housing shortages and unaffordability the UK experiences now. Meanwhile, childhood poverty tripled, and what remained of Britain's manufacturing exited to cheaper labor locations overseas after Thatcher was through with her modification of the system of government programs.

To exemplify what systemic problems look like, imagine I throw nine bones out my back door, then release ten dogs to retrieve a bone. No matter how responsible, well-trained, etc. those dogs are, one's going to come up short. Individual dogs have no impact on this problem.

All the big problems--climate, unemployment, crime, health care, immigration, poverty, homelessness, etc. are largely systemic. And we don't have a shortage of resources to address them either. For example, I've read that for half of what the US sent Ukraine in weapons the US could cure its homelessness epidemic. I've also read that the number of vacant homes in San Francisco is five times its homeless population.

Meanwhile, the lies and propaganda keep the public distracted. As Will Rogers said, "If it weren't for lies, there wouldn't be any politics." If you want to bypass the propaganda, the only way I know to do it is with blogs (like this one). You can collect and monitor blogs with RSS feed readers (I use theoldreader.com).

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The whole Ukraine narrative is perhaps the most recent example of these distortions. You might remember a Tweet another family member forwarded saying 13 Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island said "f_ck you" to the Russians asking them to surrender, so the Russians killed them. That was a lie...even the Ukrainians admitted that. The truth is the first casualty of war.

In recent history, even supposedly reliable sources like the NY Times lied us into the Iraq invasion. Now, mainstream press editorials say Putin invaded, completely unprovoked. (Here's the actual story)

Anyway, besides making the public fearful and compliant, not to mention willing to be a constant source of military-industrial funds, "labor discipline" is a motive for keeping the public realm impoverished, and poverty persecuted.  The labor discipline message is "You had better take whatever crappy job is offered, or you'll suffer the indignities of poverty, perhaps even homelessness or starvation, and if you're extra ornery, we'll put you in a cage." Locally, 60-80% of the prisoners in Sacramento's County jail are not convicted of anything except being unable to afford bail. Nationally, the U.S. incarcerates at five times the world per-capita average.

Poor people get the public realm, and an impoverished public realm makes for harsher labor discipline. In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves. It's all sticks, precious few carrots.

This is also the motivation for the attacks on social safety nets (again, no shortage of resources). Incidentally, there's good evidence that better welfare leads to lower crime, but somehow all that money and then some goes to cops.

So...it's depressing, but emotion may not be the best response. For example, now you can write to congress to ask them not to continue to send weapons to Ukraine here.

This trend stems from a campaign whose beginning might be 1971, when Lewis Powell wrote his famous memo for Republicans, strategizing how to gain power.

Some excerpts:

  • Convince Americans that taxes aren’t “the cost of a civil society” but, instead, a “burden” that they were unfairly bearing. Once Republicans were elected on that tax-cut platform, they’d massively cut the taxes of the morbidly rich while throwing a small bone to the average person.
  • Convince Americans that regulations that protect consumers and the environment are also “burdens” from an out-of-control “nanny state,” even though such regulations save lives and benefit Americans far more than they cost.
  • Convince Americans that unions aren’t “democracy in the workplace” that protect workers’ rights but, instead, an elaborate scam to raid workers’ paychecks to the benefit of “corrupt union bosses.”
The Powell Memo

The Powell Memo