The Crumbling Plutocracy Votes

Lawrence Lessig bemoans the influence of the wealthy on American politics:

Here's what we must come to see: America has lost the capacity to govern. On a wide range of critical issues -- from global warming to tax reform, from effective financial regulation to real health-care change, from the deficit to defense spending -- we have lost the capacity to do anything other than suffer through a miserable status quo. If there is a ship of state, its rudder has been lost. We are drifting. We can't change course. And eventually, and with absolute certainty, in waters such as these, a drifting ship will sink.

...[B]ecause of the way we fund the campaigns that determine our elections, we give the tiniest fraction of America the power to veto any meaningful policy change. Not just change on the left but also change on the right. Because of the structure of influence that we have allowed to develop, the tiniest fraction of the one percent have the effective power to block reform desired by the 99-plus percent.

Yet by "the tiniest fraction of the one percent" I don't necessarily mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest. That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming legislation. But the key is that under the system we've allowed to evolve, a tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don't like.

A tiny number of Americans -- .26 percent -- give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent -- 196 Americans -- have given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don't exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable.

I, for one, call it plutocracy. For more America-bashing made in the USA, visit Post-masculine for 10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America. Some are pretty standard, others more original. An example:

The problem with the US is that everyone thinks they are of talent and advantage. As John Steinbeck famously said, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s this culture of self-delusion that allows America to continue to innovate and churn out new industry more than anyone else in the world. But this shared delusion also unfortunately keeps perpetuating large social inequalities and the quality of life for the average citizen lower than most other developed countries. It’s the price we pay to maintain our growth and economic dominance.

In my Guide to Wealth, I defined being wealthy as, “Having the freedom to maximize one’s life experiences.” In those terms, despite the average American having more material wealth than citizens of most other countries (more cars, bigger houses, nicer televisions), their overall quality of life suffers in my opinion. American people on average work more hours with less vacation, spend more time commuting every day, and are saddled with over $10,000 of debt. That’s a lot of time spent working and buying crap and little time or disposable income for relationships, activities or new experiences.


Taking German Chauvinists Down a Peg

FINAL UPDATE: OK, I've inserted a few more links and done a bit of editing, so I'll leave this as the final version.

Let me reiterate one critical point: the purpose of this list is not some sort of a scorecard for an asinine whose-country-is-best locker room contest. Many of the stereotypes of America listed in the left-hand column have more than a grain of truth, and there are plenty of counter-arguments to mitigate the criticisms of Germany. This is not meant to be an even-handed scholarly analysis. It is just a handy cheat sheet to use when a certain (blessedly rare) kind of pompous, overbearing German launches into an anti-American tirade. In my experience, these episodes have become much less frequent since George W. Bush left office. But nevertheless, you never know when you'll get cornered at a party with one of these people, and this list can help the hapless Yank move from defense to offense.

UPDATE 12 April: Since a few commenters have implied I'm making these criticisms up or don't know what I'm talking about (which I do), I've decided to go through the list, revising a bit and adding links to back up my points. Still an ongoing process...

By popular demand, here's the list I mentioned in a recent post. As noted, the list is largely not of defenses to these stereotypical shortcomings of American society (many of which I find accurate). Rather, they are lists of similar/comparable shortcomings in German society. If I can't think of a comparable fault, I just say Touche.

The point of this informal, highly unserious list is just to provoke reflection and provide talking-points to wrong-foot German chauvinists, not make anybody feel bad. I haven't provided links to proof of the German shortcomings, but I'm pretty sure they're accurate, and proof is available if you know where to look.

American failing German Failing
Americans are hostile to science because they reject evolution / global warming About 2/3 of Germans (g) believe in homeopathy; Germans have a widespread, exaggerated fear of certain technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified food.
The American criminal justice system discriminates against minorities because they're overrepresented in prison Judged by that metric, so does Germany (g). The typical response of the German chauvinist to this uncomfortable fact is the overrepresenation of minorities in German prisons shows their bad character and failure to integrate into society, while the predominance of blacks in American prisons shows exclusively the racism of the US justice system. I always find this amusing.
Americans are fat Touche! Yet Germans are catching up fast (g).
Americans eat garbage fast food / have no idea about quality, freshness, etc. Touche! Yet German cuisine isn't up to much, and ordinary Germans seem to like US fast food as much as ordinary Americans do. Perhaps even more, given that they pay much higher prices for it (g).
Americans worship money and are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous Many rich Americans earned their fortunes, while many rich Germans simply inherited theirs, and haven't done a thing to contribute to society in decades, except perhaps open an art gallery. Germans may not be quite as openly money-obsessed as Americans, but easily make up for it by their lust for  titles, nobility, and social status.
The American education system privileges the rich and well-educated So does the German system (g). The German system also quasi-forcibly shunts (g) most students off into non-university education tracks quite early, and it's difficult to overcome this decision.
Americans are racist; America is a racist society Racist attitudes are at least as widespread in Germany (g) if not more so. Germany had to be prodded repeatedly by the EU to pass a law banning racial discrimination among private actors, and only did so in 2006, after a loud debate, and had to take 'anti-discrimination' out of the law's title to get it passed. The law continues to permit many forms of discrimination and has been criticized as toothless (g). Germany was criticized by the UN as late as 2011 for ongoing discrimination against non-Germans. Many Germans believe it's OK for private business owners and landlords to discriminate, while such practices have been made illegal and stigmatized by society in the US since the 1960s. You won't hear an American say anything about a black person that Germans haven't said about Turks -- most recently in a book written by a prominent German politician which became one of the bestselling non-fiction books in German history (g). Also, 1933-1945.
Americans don't love nature or the environment Wrong. Americans were creating national parks and raising environmental awareness long before Germans were. Americans burn about as much fossil fuel per capita as Canadians do, for basically the same reason -- big countries, lots of space to cover.
Americans are obsessed by the military/easily led into war without considering the consequences Touche, at least since 1945.
Americans file too many lawsuits Surprise! Germans file almost twice as many lawsuits as Americans do per capita, and are the most litigious society in Europe, perhaps in the entire world.
Americans file crazy lawsuits like the hot coffee lawsuit Germans file lawsuits over ludicrously trivial matters, such as €1500 for the fact that a hotel room had only two single beds instead of a double bed (g) or because an employee was called by the informal 'du' instead of the formal 'Sie' (g). And besides, what's so bad about litigiousness? Most of the world's population desperately yearns to live in a country in which the powerful can be called to account and disputes can be reliably settled without violence.
The fact that large numbers of Americans don't have health insurance is scandalous Touche. 
Americans are uneducated and lack knowledge of history & the outside world A much higher percentage of Americans has college degrees than Germans. Embarrassingly, German universities punch well below their weight in international comparisons (in part because cheating is rampant among German university students), while American schools regularly top almost every ranking. Plus, Americans are far ahead of Germans in understanding & using the Internet, an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Who created Wikipedia?
Americans often vote for foolish/unqualified politicians Germans have no direct control over the leadership of their political parties, and have much less control over policy than American voters, leading to widespread alienation and lack of enthusiasm (g).
Giant corporations control Congress Lobbying is just as widespread in Germany and the EU, and 85% of laws passed by the German Bundestag originate in Brussels. Further, the situation on lobbying and campaign donations in Germany is much more non-transparent than in the US.
There are dangerous ghettos in American cities filled with disaffected, outcast populations Germany, like all modern nations, has neighborhoods and cities which are concentrations of the poor and minorities. In German, they're called Soziale Brennpunkte (g), roughly translatable as 'socially-deprived hot spots.' There are many of them all around Germany. In Gelsenkirchen, for example, 21.5% of the population lives from government assistance (g). Not to mention no-go areas where far-right and neo-Nazi groups predominate. The only difference is that Germans tend to stack their poor on top of each other in run-down housing projects, while in the US they tend to live on the ground next to one another. And in America, they have more guns.
America is a violent society Ever notice how giant police cordons are required to keep German soccer fans from beating each other to a pulp? More statistically, the overall crime rate in Germany is almost twice that of the United States, according to one study, although that probably overstates the matter due to different ways of counting crime. Nevertheless, overall rates of violent crime in Europe and the US are comparable and Europe has higher property crime rates. Murder rates are higher in the US, mainly because of guns. In Germany as elsewhere, your likelihood of encountering violence is overwhelmingly dependent on where you live and who's in your social network.
Many American workers work for pitifully low wages with no job security The US has a national minimum wage, which Germany so far lacks. And Germany is rapidly catching up with the US in creating an easily-exploitable, low-wage workforce (g) with minimal job security. Since 2000, median German wages have actually declined, whereas American wages have merely stagnated.
Americans have a sexual double standard that combines prudishness with porn Touche.
Americans discriminate against Muslims since 9/11 Germans were doing it long before 9/11 and haven't stopped. American Muslims are much better integrated into American society than German Muslims are; a comprehensive 2007 study (pdf) described American Muslims as 'largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.' -- a state of affairs Germany can only dream of.
American television shows lots of garbage So does German television. Ever seen a 2-hour-long Volksmusik program? The best American television drama and comedy (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community) beats comparable German fare hands-down in terms of realism, freshness, quality of writing, universal appeal, and even social criticism.
Americans watch too much television Touche! Yet once again, Germans, who watch 4 hours 2 minutes per day (g) aren't all that far behind.
American news media are too tame and superficial Germany lacks a culture of aggressive, oppositional investigative reporting and passed its equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act about 30 years after America did. Lots of German papers are full of pompous opinion pieces and court stenography of the rich and powerful. Plus, Germany has Bild, an influential (g) tabloid full of T&A, nationalism, reactionary platitudes, scandal-mongering, and crappy reporting (g). Nothing quite like Bild exists in the U.S.
Americans are superficially cheerful and fake Germans are superficially cold, reserved and rude. And sometimes not just superficially.
Americans lack a culture of literature and reading The percentage of people who genuinely read quality literature is tiny in all societies, and many German 'literary' novels have to be heavily subsidized, sell 200-300 copies maximum, and are so derivative, navel-gazingly self-indulgent or dully Germany-specific that they attract zero interest in other countries. The same is true of most German art-house movies as well.
American society is too car-dependent and lacks good public transportation.


UPDATE in response to Marcellina's comment:

Americans are uncultured and don't provide enough state support to museums, symphonies, etc. America's flexible, multi-source model of cultural funding actually brings its own kinds of vibrant results. Germany's top-down system of cultural subsidies has been often criticized as elitist, wasteful and redundant (g). It also gives dictatorial power to self-indulgent directors and smug, insular, out-of-touch cultural bureaucrats, who routinely interfere deeply with artists' expression. Anyone who's ever been to one of the countless plays and operas defaced by gratuitously offensive / nonsensical / tediously didactic productions will wonder whether Germany's problem is actually too much arts funding with too little accountability.

UPDATE 2: Oh, and one other thing:

American beer and coffee are undrinkable Note how I had to leave wine out of this one to even make it a fair fight. Everywhere there's a Starbucks, and that's everywhere except maybe nuclear missile silos, you can get a cup of coffee brewed with reverse-osmosis-purified water and expertly-roasted, freshly-ground, 100% Arabica beans. Germany's beers, while consistently tasty, are also boring, predictable, uniform, and old-fashioned, when they're not sickening beer-cola swill. This is a product of German brewers' adherence to a pointless 500-year-old law that cripples their ability to innovate. Germany had to resort to naked protectionism (g) to try to protect its beers from the glorious diversity of foreign beer, and even so, the German beer industry is withering. By contrast, the average American grocery store on any streetcorner stocks a much wider selection of beer from all over the world than all but the most exclusive German luxury shopping stores.

¡Ay Madre de Dios! ¡Que Lastima!

Via Chateau Heartiste, a joyfully non-PC blog which brings the merciless insights of evolutionary psychology to bear on the dating landscape in advanced capitalist societies in the Global North, comes this priceless anecdote, from a Village Voice article about guys who dig morbidly obese women:

“There aren’t many fat girls in Spain,” reports Charlotte, who spent six months as an exchange student there in 2006. Back then, she weighed 425 [that's a dainty193 kilos - ed.], and she claims that the department organizers at her Northeastern women’s college tried to dissuade her from going abroad because she was “too big.” She balked and went anyway, though she admits European daily life was far more taxing: The public bathrooms were “itty-bitty,” the online clothes retailers she frequents didn’t service Spain (Lane Bryant’s sizes are too small for her), and walking was the primary method of transportation. “Anytime I would walk down the street, people would stare at me like I was a circus sideshow. Here, people kind of like glance out of their eyes, but there people would stop and stare as I walked by.”

One time in Spain, an old woman spotted Charlotte in public, stopped abruptly, and crossed herself. “Like I was Satan.”

Here you have a nice anecdote that helps explain why urban density and car-dependency have helped made America the fattest country on earth. I have to admit, the old woman crossing herself made me laugh. I can't imagine how Charlotte made it. It gets to be 35+ degrees in Spain in the summer, day after day, and air-conditioning is often hard to find. As David Letterman once said, 'Think of the chafing'!

The Coming Student-Loan Crash

Malcolm Harris has a fine article about the impending student loan debt crisis in America:

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.


[T]he rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly? “Because they can” answers this question for home-sellers out to get the biggest return on their investments, or for-profits out to grab as much Pell Grant money as possible, but it seems an awfully cynical answer when it comes to nonprofit education.

First, where the money hasn’t gone: instruction. As Marc Bousquet, a leading researcher into the changing structures of higher education, wrote in How The University Works (2008):

If you’re enrolled in four college classes right now, you have a pretty good chance that one of the four will be taught by someone who has earned a doctorate and whose teaching, scholarship, and service to the profession has undergone the intensive peer scrutiny associated with the tenure system. In your other three classes, however, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it; was hired by a manager, not professional peers; may never publish in the field she is teaching; got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because she was willing to work for wages around the official poverty line (often under the delusion that she could ‘work her way into’ a tenurable position); and does not plan to be working at your institution three years from now.

This is not an improvement; fewer than forty years ago, when the explosive growth in tuition began, these proportions were reversed. Highly represented among the new precarious teachers are graduate students; with so much available debt, universities can force graduate student workers to scrape by on sub-minimum-wage, making them a great source of cheap instructional labor. Fewer tenure-track jobs mean that recent PhDs, overwhelmed with debt,  have no choice but to accept insecure adjunct positions with wages kept down by the new crop of graduate student-workers. Rather than producing a better-trained, more professional teaching corps, increased tuition and debt have enabled the opposite.


Homeowners who found themselves with negative equity (owing more on their houses than the houses were worth) could always walk away. Students aren’t as lucky: graduates can’t ditch their degrees, even if they borrowed more money than their accredited labor power can command on the market. Americans overwhelmed with normal consumer debt (like credit card debt) have the option of bankruptcy, and although it’s an arduous and credit-score-killing process, not having ready access to thousands in pre-approved cash is not always such a bad thing.  But students don’t have that option either. Before 2005, students could use bankruptcy to escape education loans that weren’t provided directly by the federal government, but the facetiously named “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act” extended non-dischargeability to all education loans, even credit cards used to pay school bills.

Today, student debt is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits. When a borrower defaults and the guaranty agency collects from the federal government, the agency gets a cut of whatever it’s able to recover from then on (even though they have already been compensated for the losses), giving agencies a financial incentive to dog former students to the grave.

The Clueless Continent, Continued

And speaking of American ignorance, here's another consequence of the American media's preference for screaming matches about hot-button issues -- in this case, the perennial "why are we helping Ghana instead of Grandma" debate, as the article puts it:

In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget — 10 times the current level.

Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since.\

Stupid, American Style

The price of gasoline is pretty high in the United States right now. Not in international comparison, where it's still ludicrously cheap, but in comparison to what Americans -- who've let a completely car-dependent culture arise around them despite repeated oil shocks -- think they should be paying.

This fact, unfortunately, could have world-historical importance. American voters, ignorant and fickle creatures that they are, might well vote for any Republican to punish Obama for 'not doing enough' about U.S. gasoline prices, which of course are largely beyond his control. As Dave Weigel puts it:

Speaker of the House John Boehner made a prediction Monday about Barack Obama's re-election bid. "If gas prices are $5 or $6, he certainly isn't going to win." It might be the least disputable thing a politician has ever said. Well, yes: If people have to keep paying more and more to fill their cars up, the president could lose re-election—even to one of the current batch of Republicans. There's evidence, circumstantial but graphically compelling, that the president's current poll numbers are a function of the price of gas.

Now, most mainstream American journalists, like most Americans, have grown up in a political culture where the smarts of the 'common man' are universally assumed. The 22nd-tiredest political cliche in the United States is 'my opponent is underestimating the intelligence of the American people, who will see right through his craven pandering/blatant scare-mongering...' So Weigel calmly assesses the chance that gasoline prices alone will drive the next American election without ever once stopping to say to himself, or his readers: "Many of my countrymen are such fools that they will change control of the White House to a party with a different foreign policy and different spending priorities and different social values based solely on the price of one consumer good whose price the President cannot even control. God, how depressing. I should drop whatever I'm doing right now and dedicate my life to trying to improve the political judgment of my fellow Americans."

But that's clearly not the mission the American press corps has given itself. Here's a remarkable press statement from Obama yesterday (h/t Ed Philp) , in which he expains his decision to release his own birth certificate to defuse the moronic, years-long non-controversy over whether he was born in the United States:

Even Obama, who never flies off the handle, can't resist several digs at the press corps for giving 'birthers', as the morons are known, two long, pointless, wasted years of attention.

The truth is that the American journalistic lanscape -- especially when it comes to TV, the only source of news for most Americans -- is dominated by carnival barkers. Most of the news providers are for-profit companies, competing against one another for ratings. They will broadcast whatever attracts eyeballs, not whatever edifies -- yes, edifies* -- viewers. And that means stories that feature exciting controversies about emotionally-laden themes. As a result, the political judgment of those lost souls who get their news from TV becomes ever more adolescent. They're trained to focus on meaningless personality traits, ginned-up pseudo-conflicts, or vacuous horse-race bullshitting about who's got the better 'ground game'. Whatever ability they may have had to carefully balance competing policy priorities shrivels up and blows away.

And so, for the past few years, there have been thousands of U.S. television hours spent on the question of whether Obama was born in the U.S., usually in the form of idiots pontificating about the issue in ignorance, or 'debates' in which people yell at each other. These hours could have been devoted to America's two, ongoing, pointless, expensive wars, or strategies for containing health care costs, or analyses of the Arab uprisings, or even a good old-fashioned doughty, earnest documentary about water rights. But all those things would have cost a lot more money than inviting a couple of blowhards into the television studio and/or would have required finding people who actually knew what they were talking about. So they weren't done. Instead, the completely irrelevant non-controversy of Obama's 'real' place of birth was kept alive.

Since the press wouldn't police itself, Obama finally had to take action, and his frustration is visible. But even if this pointless distractions is largely put to rest, another one will surely follow, and the press corps will surely give it attention as long as it boosts ratings. As James Fallows said, "This is not a great day for the press."

* Sure, edify has all sorts of tea-cozy, church-basement-lecture overtones of stuffy didactic earnestness, but we elitists need to proudly reclaim it. I'm so old that I remember when there were some American intellectuals and officials who, quaintly enough, actually thought television might actually one day help improve people's judgment, and were disgusted at what it was doing instead:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

That was back in 1961.

Spray-On Christianity

And now, just in time for Christmas, a post on religion!

Let me expand a bit on the last post. The priceless quote came from an unnamed fellow soldier of the interviewee, Josh Stieber, a disillusioned American soldier who eventually claimed conscientious objector status rather than continue to serve in Iraq. Stieber's response to his friend's comment about Jesus was pretty appropriate: if being arrested, tortured, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns, and then crucified is not being 'punked', then nothing is. The notion of Jesus as behaloed Rambo, resentfully taking a beating but then returning with some sort of blessed bazooka, is as blasphemous as it is ludicrous.

Yet I have no doubt that Stieber's friend genuinely believed that Jesus was into the occasional ass-kicking. It's just one of the more amusing instances of a general phenomenon: Huge numbers of Americans who consider themselves Christians will happily convince themselves that their faith permits -- or encourages -- whatever it's in their interest to do at any given moment. Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, was renowned for his aggressively public religiosity. Nor is he alone: here's the website for the Real Estate Prayer Breakfast: "At Real Estate Prayer Breakfast, we lead people in the real estate community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered." By joining the Host Committee, you agree to "[f]ill your seats with individuals from the real estate community that do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

I have no beef with Christians, or real estate agents for that matter. But what's eerily amusing about all this mixing of Christ and capitalism is the unstated presumption that real estate brokers in suburban Houston are at the very epicenter of God's concern -- perhaps even of his Plan for the World. The realtors go to their prayer breakfast, secure in the belief that their God is smiling down approvingly on their listings, and no doubt many of them will say a quick prayer of thanksgiving after closing a major deal. The notion that God might actually disapprove of their line of work or -- even worse -- not give a damn about it has never crossed their minds. Of course, all of those troubling Bible verses about selling your possessions have long been smoothed over by generations of pro-free-market exegesis, a form of gob-smackingly shameless special pleading known informally as the 'prosperity gospel.'

Over at Slate, Shankar Vedantam has an interesting theory about American spray-on Christianity:

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists...

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it's like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They'll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

If you ask Americans whether they went to church last Sunday, many of them will say yes. But if you ask them how they actually used their time last Sunday, without specifically mentioning church, the number who "went to church" drops by half:

[A recent study] found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.

Or, to put it another way, Europeans are honest about whether they go to church or not, while Americans are hypocrites. The two phenomena are intertwined: Americans ostentatiously trumpet their claimed Christianity because they think it helps them be seen as 'good' people. Similarly, they feel no shame in spreading this comforting, all-purpose balm of diffuse righteousness over every single part of their lives, no matter how mundane or questionable.

I can't think of any better way to close this post than to quote H.L. Mencken on the U.S., where I'll be sojourning over the next few weeks:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

Scientists in the Basement

ahh, the traditional 4th of july bonfire! such memories...

One of GJ's many invaluable roving informants sent me this book, 'America Through the Back Door'. It's a 1952 East German translation of a book by one N. Vassiliev, who claims to have spent three years in America in the late 1940s. According to the jacket blurb, he promises to show us the "backwardness of the social organization in 'God's own land'", including the desperate farmers who "don't own a single blade of grass on their farms", the misery in the slums, and the "scientists living in basements" (?). Stay tuned for a review an excerpts sometime in the next few weeks!

Does anyone happen to have any more information about this book or its author? (The author's name is 'N. Wassiljew' in the German transliteration, the German translation is by Marga Bork). I'd love to get some background, if any exists.

@executioner: 2 Kewl 2 C Killer Croak LIVE!

Take Americans' tendency to catastrophically tasteless overshares, multiply it by new technology permitting them to inflict said overshares in real-time, and add in a self-aggrandizing elected official capitalizing on the publicity generated by an execution, and you get death, tweeted live:

"A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct [US Supreme Court], & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice".

At least he didn't use any emoticons.