The Trouble With America: Flawed Government, Failed Society

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There is no best way to live because there is so much variation in how people want to live. Therefore, there is no best society, only multiple variations on a handful of themes as dictated by our nature.

Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report

For example, utopias are especially vulnerable when a social theory based on collective ownership, communal work, authoritarian rule, and a command-and-control economy collides with our natural-born desire for autonomy, individual freedom, and choice. Moreover, the natural differences in ability, interests, and preferences within any group of people leads to inequalities of outcomes and imperfect living and working conditions that utopias committed to equality of outcome cannot tolerate. As one of the original citizens of Robert Owen's 19th-century New Harmony community in Indiana explained it:.

We had tried every conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in miniature. We had enacted the French Revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. Most of these 19th-century utopian experiments were relatively harmless because, without large numbers of members, they lacked political and economic power. But add those factors, and utopian dreamers can turn into dystopian murderers.

The problem with utopias

From homicide to genocide, the murder of others in the name of some religious or ideological belief accounts for the high body counts in history's conflicts, from the Crusades, Inquisition, witch crazes, and religious wars of centuries gone to the religious cults, world wars, pogroms, and genocides of the past century. We can see that calculus behind the utopian logic in the now famous "trolley problem" in which most people say they would be willing to kill one person in order to save five.

Here's the set-up: You are standing next to a fork in a railroad line with a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five workers on the track. If you pull the switch, it will divert the trolley down a side track where it will kill one worker. If you do nothing, the trolley kills the five. What would you do? Most people say that they would pull the switch. If even people in Western enlightened countries today agree that it is morally permissible to kill one person to save five, imagine how easy it is to convince people living in autocratic states with utopian aspirations to kill 1, to save 5,, or to exterminate 1,, so that 5,, might prosper.

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By John M. Ackerman February 23, , AM. View Comments.

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Trending 1. Blast From the Past. Iran Is Already Losing. The West Has a Resentment Epidemic. Still, if you wanted to write an indictment of statistics as an instrument of authoritarian states, and if you had a great deal of other evidence to support that indictment—including other stories and, ideally, numbers—why yes, Gini would be an excellent character to introduce in Chapter 1.

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Because stories contain one kind of truth and numbers another, many writers mix and match, telling representative stories and backing them up with aggregate data. He tells stories about kids but presents data about the economy. There used to be battle cries. No more kings! Down with fat cats! Damn the moneycrats! Fraser longs for the passion and force with which Americans of earlier generations attacked aggregated power.

Think of the way Frederick Douglass wrote about slavery, Ida B. Wells wrote about lynching, Ida Tarbell wrote about Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair wrote about the meatpacking industry, and Louis Brandeis wrote about the money trust.

Account Options

To chronicle the rise of acquiescence, Fraser examines two differences between the long nineteenth century and today. In the first Gilded Age, everyone from reporters to politicians apparently felt comfortable painting plutocrats as villains; in the second, this is, somehow, forbidden. Why not blame the Congress that deregulated it? Why not blame the system itself?

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He proposes changes in four realms: family structure, parenting, school, and community. His policy recommendations include expanding the earned-income tax credit and protecting existing anti-poverty programs; implementing more generous parental leaves, better child-care programs, and state-funded preschool; equalizing the funding of public schools, providing more community-based neighborhood schools, and increasing support for vocational high-school programs and for community colleges; ending pay-to-play extracurricular activities in public schools and developing mentorship programs that tie schools to communities and community organizations.

All of these ideas are admirable, many are excellent, none are new, and, at least at the federal level, few are achievable. The American political imagination has become as narrow as the gap between rich and poor is wide. Much of the book is a discussion of specific proposals. Atkinson thinks that the division between inequality of outcome and inequality of opportunity is largely false. He believes that tackling inequality of outcome is a very good way to tackle inequality of opportunity.

If you help a grownup get a job, her kids will have a better chance of climbing out of poverty, too. Above all, he disagrees with the widespread assumption that technological progress and globalization are responsible for growing inequality. That assumption, he argues, is wrong and also dangerous, because it encourages the belief that growing inequality is inevitable.

20b. Jeffersonian Ideology

Atkinson points out that neither globalization nor rapid technological advance is new and there are, therefore, lessons to be learned from history. Those lessons do not involve nostalgia. Atkinson is actually an optimistic sort, and he spends time appreciating rising standards of living, worldwide. But he is interested in responsible parties, and in demanding government action.

Robert Putnam finds that heartbreaking.

The Poverty Clinic

Steve Fraser wishes people were angrier about it. Anthony Atkinson thinks something can be done. It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J.

Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy.

The roots of America's democracy problem

Nor is it easily subject to the distortions of nostalgia. But it does lend itself very well to comparative analysis. Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision.

A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three.

go Only the United States has four.