Happy 4th! Enjoy Liberty and Prosperity While It Lasts

I love this country. I choke up when I sing the Star Spangled Banner and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I honor those who gave their lives to preserve and protect our freedoms. I revere this country as the greatest engine of wealth creation and prosperity in history. While other, smaller countries may have a higher GDP per capita or rank higher in surveys of happiness, they never fought a war to extinguish slavery, a war to liberate Spanish colonies, a war to end European monarchies, a war to demolish fascism, or a cold war to contain and defeat communism. For all our our flaws, America has been the greatest force for good the world has ever seen.

But I wonder if we are governable anymore. Can any society as big, sprawling, populous and diverse as the U.S., reflecting such widely divergent values, long stand as a single nation?

The founding fathers crafted a federal Constitution that gave co-sovereignty to the states and accommodated diverse populations. Unfortunately, in the nation’s original sin, the federal system of government sheltered an evil economic system, slavery, and then a system of segregation in Southern states that was almost as evil. In a long march over the 20th century, the “progressive” moment concentrated power in Washington, D.C., and systematically reduced the co-sovereign states to administrative units of the central government. The shift in power had the beneficial effect of extinguishing state-sanctioned Jim Crow laws but led the nation to its current impasse, in which cultural and political differences are no longer resolved at the state level, reflecting local values and priorities, but are increasingly imposed nationally in a unitary fashion.

The result is a winner-take-all political system that raises the stakes for everyone. As the stakes get bigger, the politics get nastier. Nasty politics breeds misery.

Here, according to the 2019 World Happiness Report, are the happiest countries in the world:

  1. Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Norway
  4. Iceland
  5. Netherlands
  6. Switzerland
  7. Sweden
  8. New Zealand
  9. Canada
  10. Austria

What do they have in common? First and foremost, they are democratic republics with market-based economies and strong welfare states. Second, they are prosperous (attributable to their market-based economies). And third — and least appreciated — they have small populations. (Canada, population 37 million, is the biggest of the bunch.) Their societies are, for the most part, homogeneous. Their people share the same values, and because they share the same values, they enjoy high levels of trust.

America is a democratic republic with a market-based economy and an extensive welfare state. We also have a prosperous economy, where even the poor enjoy access to material possessions — cars, air conditioners, living space, televisions, cell phones, apparel — that would be the envy of many other nations’ middle class. But we are a nation where values — call them red-state values and blue-state values — diverge dramatically by geography. In our winner-take-all system of governance, the winners impose their values nationally, the losers feel oppressed. Trust is disintegrating. It is now routine to call our political foes liars, racists, bigots and traitors.

The 2019 World Happiness report notes that happiness in the U.S. peaked around 1990 and has been falling in fits and spurts ever since. Noting that happiness has fallen most sharply among teenagers, the report speculates somewhat convincingly that the rise of digital media has led to physical inactivity, sleep deprivation, social isolation and a decline in happiness.

There may be something to that, but I think there is more. Based upon my personal observation, the surge in unhappiness among adults stems from politics. I have seen nothing in my lifetime to match either the belittling, misogynistic, damn-the-truth rhetoric of Donald Trump, or the smug, ridiculing, damn-the-truth hatred of Donald Trump. Some blame the polarization on gerrymandering, which pushes elected officials to the ideological extremes. Some blame social media for creating ideological echo chambers. Some blame geographic sorting, in which people migrate to locales hospitable to their values. There is something to those theories as well. But no explanation is complete without acknowledging the winner-take-all nature of politics of a sprawling and diverse nation of 330 million people.

Unless we can return power to states, local governments, civil society and the people themselves, I see no respite from the culture wars. Factoring in the federal government’s tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities, the massive national debt, and the refusal of both political parties to deal with fiscal reality, our society is heading for a brutal reckoning. The United States of America, the country I love so much, is becoming increasingly fractured, ungovernable and miserable. I see no way out.

Have a happy 4th of July!

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18 responses to “Happy 4th! Enjoy Liberty and Prosperity While It Lasts

  1. We are similar in many respects but diverge on others. A major part of our National identity: ” “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””

    “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

    So we welcomed diversity – the proverbial “melting pot”.

    Until now……. where too many of us play us against them on races and cultures…

    We ARE struggling – no question about it – but many of us still believe in the America in the above inscriptions – perhaps understanding that we were not there when the inscriptions were written – there were lots of folks who thought those inscriptions only applied to them not those “others”.

    We have this type of problem – worldwide – cultures and races in opposition to each other – worse than us – ethnic cleansing and genocide.

    We humans have such great potential but we are also world class dumb-asses at times…

    I remain an optimist – two steps forward, one step back – and though we have voices of hate and anger – hang on and work toward a better society for all us. I always give credit when someone says: “this is broke and here’s a better way” and no credit when they say: “this is broke and it’s their fault”.

  2. I do not believe in the happiness factor, much less the World Happiness Report. If world happiness is our goal, we are doomed to failure. Still, in truth, I recall a long conversation with a Swede on how unhappy his nation was. Have you ever met a happy Swede, a happy Dutchman, a happy Icelander, a happy Austrian, a happy New Zealander or Norwegian, or the happy Swiss. I have not, not really at all. No, these are dower people, my friends. For happiness, go to Italy, or Greece.

    So what about Thomas Jefferson’s Pursuit of Happiness, what’s it all about? Tom’s likely definition of “happiness” bore no relation whatever to our modern day definition of the term.

    Once we toss onto the trash pile of history the false Idol of Happiness as we define it, I can agree with much of what Jim Bacon says, although naming racism for what it is, is not a problem, it gets us on the road to solutions instead. And, on the whole, I am far more optimistic than I read Jim to be on this July 4th. And I am got going to jump on the anti-Trump bandwagon.

    No, America has been in these nasty times and places before, many, many, times before. We simply need our fellow citizens to stand up, and meet and deal with one another person to person, instead to throwing stuff over barricades while hiding behind them.

    Here are two books I recommend, where history and philosophy provide guides from the past to help us gain a more stable and meaningful future.

    The Plundering Time, Maryland and the English Civil War, 1645-1646 by Timothy B. Riordan.

    Jan Smuts – Memoirs of the Boer War, 1994
    Smuts, J.C. (1927). Holism and evolution

    • I had dinner with a Norwegian couple the other day — friends of my brother-in-law. They struck me as very happy, healthy, well-adjusted people. But that impression is anecdotal, I will concede.

      • Well, I suspect those happy Norwegian’s you met, were happy because they were in America, and I betcha the sun was shining too that day. Another factor is how different cultures take polls. Stoic, and deeply reserved cultures are going to report their “feelings” very differently than say Italians. The influence of human culture on personality and emotion, and their expression, is a fascinating and endlessly complex subject. A World Happiness Report is, how should we say it – by and large total B/S.

  3. Any country on that list not have a third-party payer, government sponsored health system? Just asking. Of course we do, too – just not universal.

    Plenty of happiness in this country, just turn off the idiot boxes (including the hand held ones) and ignore the screaming politicians. This country still offers the greatest level of opportunity in the world, the greatest reason for optimism. And there is plenty of unhappiness in other places – not all rich, not all healthy, not all educated to their potential. Don’t let their PR fool you, and as Jim notes you don’t see France, U.K., Italy, on that silly list. All such lists are silly. People are people everywhere – a useful insight from a childhood spent in part overseas.

    The challenges are real, Jim, but your despair misplaced. Lift a couple of pints and watch some fireworks.

  4. The first thing I do after reading about a report or survey is look at who put it together. https://worldhappiness.report Well, not much info there, but scroll down and we see: “The report is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network in partnership with the Ernesto Illy Foundation. The World Happiness Report was written by a group of independent experts acting in their personal capacities. Any views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency or program of the United Nations.”

    Do we really expect them to say anything good about the United States?

    In Chapter 2, Fig. 2.2, they talk about “The Americas.” For them, this shows an upper line consisting of North America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand “which has fallen more than 0.4 points! This leads to a discussion of Happiness Inequality.

    This is where I abandon reading this report and go off to cook a hot dog, pour a glass of hard cider and listen to music that celebrates being American!

  5. Switzerland, for example, does not tax capital gains. Maybe there are lots of investors there who are happy because they don’t pay capital gains taxes. Neither do residents of Hong Kong, Belize, New Zealand, Malaysia, Belgium, Monaco, Cayman Islands and Singapore.

  6. TooManyTaxes, you make a profound point -“Switzerland, for example, does not tax capital gains. Maybe there are lots of investors there who are happy because they don’t pay capital gains taxes.”

    This was a central argument made by the Swede about “how unhappy his nation was.” His key point here was “the government steals our lives by taking most all that we earn, turning us into dependents. Our inability to find and command our own future robs us of our right to be, and become, the person who we really are. This robs us of the joy, excitement and satisfaction of living truly our own lives. It’s very depressing, living here in Sweden.”

    • A caveat to that statement is that it was made in 1990s. I’ve read that efforts have been made since then to alleviate the heavy hand of socialism in Sweden, but cultures are hard to move in all cases.

  7. Thank you, JB, for a nice tribute to the Day and an on-target attribution of the “surge in unhappiness” among the adults I know best.

    The dour Baltic countries may not strike all of us as radiating exuberant joy — they gave us Lake Wobegon country after all — but they have a sense of life balance, and an acceptance of diversity even if they have little of it. Their government is intrusive socially yet they don’t pay that much more for it than we do — and they pay less than we for health care that is universal in coverage.

    What strikes me is how this country is divided not just between blue states and red, but between the urban areas and the hinterlands. Our young people don’t want to stay left behind in rural America — which to so many seems marked by lack of economic opportunity, disparaging of education and “the elites,” intolerant of diversity, unwilling to question flagrant hypocrisy in religion and politics, preoccupied with widespread drug addiction and poverty, unhappy as hell. The “urban lifestyle” is about more than sidewalks — I say it’s about upward mobility, hope for the future, valuing the pleasures of the arts, surrounding oneself with people you can talk to without forfeiting your brain. If that makes you “one of the damned elites” to your country cousin, so be it.

    How to bridge this divide? Some of it is generational and time will erode the differences outside our urban zones. I fear a lot of it is locational and those bright, energetic young people who move to the cities will not return, except perhaps as “come heres” to rustic vacation enclaves and McMansions on the Sea. The daring few who bring their urban attitudes and business practices back to the farm to raise their families will have their work cut out for them in those Red-community supervisors’ and school board meetings.

    We are a resilient nation, but, these days, large numbers of us are refusing to talk to one another — let alone, work together. Thank you again, Steve and Don and Dick, and especially Jim, for providing this safe space where we can talk to one another, with real disagreements tempered by civility, a sense of history, and an openness to alternatives. You still value, here, the ability to think and talk rationally.

    • And let us thank Donald Trump and the US Military and those who live in the heartland of America, including Kansas, for providing Acbar with the safe space he so much needs and assumes will be afforded to him by his warm balanced dialogue, and his own kind, gentle words, and good intentions.

  8. They did one helluva job liberating those airports from the redcoats during the revolution.

  9. It’s a concern. Our divisiveness is more than divisiveness now. I am not optmistic with the trajectory USA is heading, but I do see possbility that we could snap out if it someday. But it will not be easy.

  10. It’s kinda unbelievable that there was just a discussion about happiness in America without any mention of healthcare stresses (I can’t afford my aging parents and my asthmatic child) , massive personal debt (school loans, medical bills, housing costs), the opioid crisis, mass incarceration or gun violence. On the subject of politics, we don’t even get to select our representatives anymore (two out of the last three Presidents weren’t elected by the people, I’m not bitter about that personally , it is what it is).

    The USA is pretty great (amazing geography, the best spirts, pretty good wine, delightful weather and we are the art and culture capital of the world). But there’s increasing downward pressure on most of the population. Eliminating capital gains taxes won’t do much to elevate the mood. Restoring power to the states would probably just make the mood worse. States have a pretty poor track record of promoting liberty for all.

    • The United States has never elected a president based on popular vote. To do so would be unconstitutional. Keep in mind that had the Democrats nominated anyone not the totally unlikeable and crooked Hillary Clinton, they probably would have won the 2016 election. The Democrats actually nominated someone less likable than Donald Trump. I might have changed my vote from Gary Johnson.

  11. The fact that a for-profit entity that is seeking private rewards has been allowed to take the best part of the property/business my family has nurtured for over a century, with no consideration of our use of our property, our safety,or our goals, and our system supports that huge business run by people who have so much that they don’t understand the situations of most of us, tells me that our country is not what I always believed. Today no one has a reason to work hard to build anything in our economy because the big just gobble up the little folks and the powerful build even more power on our backs. The rules are made by and for those with the most. Whether you talk about the ability to meet goals you set for yourself, happiness, ability to financially make ends meet, concern for fairness, or other measures, the USA does not currently live up to the standards set when the country was founded. Those not directly harmed don’t care what happens to others and tell us to just suck it up and accept our plight. It does not matter how hard you work. A big company can take what generations built in the blink of an eye, undermining everything you have. It’s hard to celebrate a country that does this.

  12. Consider reading: Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream by Carol Graham. She is a senior researcher at Gallop. She puts the happiness surveys in context. One endorser of her work said: “With Happiness for All?, Carol Graham takes the study of the new inequality one step deeper. She tells what it means from the perspective of those who suffer from it, as she explores, from many different angles, how it affects Americans’ sense of well-being, and their place within the American dream. This is a very important book, on the deepest social problem facing the United States today.”—George Akerlof, Nobel Laureate in Economics

  13. I’m very aware of the electoral college, thus my “it is what it is”. Not to veer too far off course, but obviously the person who won the popular vote is more likable than the one who didn’t.

    Political gerrymandering (recently endorsed by the SCOTUS – who’s majority was set by the man not elected to office) and the allocation of seats in the Senate ensure that we aren’t represented by who we choose. The R’s control the Senate by a pretty large margin although the D’s represent millions of more Americans (state size matters) than they do. When the R’s controlled the House they represented millions fewer Americans than the D’s. So what if it’s in the Constitution? The constitution is making a lot of people unhappy lately. Disenfranchisement isn’t fun.

    I’m a pretty happy American though. As long as we keep pumping out good music, good books, good art and good beer I’ll be proud.

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