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Jeff Blum
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Nations, like individuals, languish when they only have uncritical lovers or unloving critics.

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The first systemic failure America has suffered is groupthink.

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But the paradox here is that the belief that American society allows every idea to be challenged has led Americans to assume that every idea is challenged. They have failed to notice when their minds have been enveloped in groupthink. Again, failure occurs when you do not conceive of failure.

The second systemic failure has been the erosion of the notion of individual responsibility. Here, too, an illusion is at work. Because they so firmly believe that their society rests on a culture of individual responsibility—rather than a culture of entitlement, like the social welfare states of Europe—Americans cannot see how their individual actions have undermined, rather than strengthened, their society.

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The third systemic failure of American society is its failure to see how the abuse of American power has created many of the problems the United States now confronts abroad.

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Why aren’t Americans aware of this? The reason is that virtually all analysis by American intellectuals rests on the assumption that problems come from outside America and America provides only solutions. Yet the rest of the world can see clearly that American power has created many of the world’s major problems. American thinkers and policymakers cannot see this because they are engaged in an incestuous, self-referential, and self-congratulatory discourse. They have lost the ability to listen to other voices on the planet because they cannot conceive of the possibility that they are not already listening.

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In democracies, the role of government is to serve the public interest. Americans believe that they have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The reality is more complex. It looks more like a government “of the people, by special-interest groups, and for special-interest groups.” In the theory of democracy, corrupt and ineffective politicians are thrown out by elections. Yet the fact that more than 90 percent of incumbents who seek reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives are re-elected provides a clear warning that all is not well. […] “it’s not a stretch to say that most voters no longer choose their representatives; instead, representatives choose their voters.”

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When the stimulus packages of the Chinese and U.S. governments emerged at about the same time, I scanned American publications in search of attempts to compare the two measures. I could not find any. This confirmed my suspicion that American intellectuals and policy-makers could not even conceive of the possibility that the Chinese effort may be smarter or better designed than the American one.

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This ideal of equal opportunity is a useful national myth. But when the gap between myth and reality becomes too wide, the myth cannot be sustained. […] “a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada, or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances.”

Behind these statistics are some harsh realities. Nearly one in five American children lives in poverty, and more than one in 13 lives in extreme poverty. African-American babies are more than twice as likely as white or Latino babies to die before reaching their first birthday. People in more than half a million households experience hunger.

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More dangerously, many of those who have grown wealthy in the past few decades have added little of real economic value to society. Instead, […] their behavior demonstrates a remarkable decline of American values and, more important, the deterioration of the implicit social contract between the wealthy and the rest of society. It would be fatal for America if the wealthy classes were to lose the trust and confidence of the broader American body politic. But many of America’s wealthy cannot even conceive of this possibility.

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Hitherto, Americans have been champions of globalization because they have believed that their own economy, the most competitive in the world, would naturally triumph as countries lowered their trade and tariff barriers. This belief has been an important force driving the world trading system toward greater openness.

Today, in a sign of great danger for the United States and for the world, the American people are losing confidence in their ability to compete…

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Paul Krugman […] showed which way the wind was blowing when he wrote, “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that growing U.S. trade with Third World countries reduces the real wages of many and perhaps most workers in this country. And that reality makes the politics of trade very difficult.”

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Every problem has a solution. This has always been the optimistic American view. It is just as true in bad times as in good times. But painful problems do not often have painless solutions. This is equally true of the current economic crisis. To deal with it, American leaders must add an important word when they speak the truth to the American people. The word is sacrifice. There can be no solution to America’s problems without sacrifice.

One paradox of the human condition is that the most logical point at which to undertake painful reform is in good times. The pain will be less then. But virtually no society, and especially no democratic society, can administer significant pain in good times. It takes a crisis to make change possible. Hence, there is a lot of wisdom in the principle, “never waste a crisis.”

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As Amartya Sen […] said recently, “Once an economy is in the grip of pessimism, you cannot change it just by changing the objective circumstance, because the lack of confidence in people makes the economy almost unrescuable. You have to address the confidence thing.
https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/spring-2009-decline-or-renewal/can-america-fail/
Can America Fail?
Can America Fail?
wilsonquarterly.com
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Minding the Gender Gap
Minding the Gender Gap
strategy-business.com
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I use my Kindle not just for books but also to read longform articles (via the excellent Push to Kindle browser addon). On my current device I have 732 read articles and 571 to-read articles. I have various good sources for these types of articles - obviously too many to keep up with. One of them is the annual rundown of great articles by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. He always lists an eclectic mix that invariably includes sources I was previously unfamiliar with. If you want to add to your backlog of good reading material, check it out (and read the previous years' lists as well if you haven't already done so).
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/slightly-more-than-100-fantastic-articles/567574/
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Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty.

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Thatcher was a philosophical conservative for whom the ideas of Hayek and Friedman were paramount: capitalism was practically superior to the alternatives, but that was intimately tied to the fact that it was morally better.

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In recent decades, elites seem to have moved from defending capitalism on moral grounds to defending it on the grounds of realism. They say: this is just the way the world works. This is the reality of modern markets. We have to have a competitive economy. We are competing with China, we are competing with India, we have hungry rivals and we have to be realistic about how hard we have to work, how well we can pay ourselves, how lavish we can afford our welfare states to be, and face facts about what’s going to happen to the jobs that are currently done by a local workforce but could be outsourced to a cheaper international one. These are not moral justifications. The ethical defence of capitalism is an important thing to have inadvertently conceded. The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’

I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.

This sense of a system gone wrong has led to political crises all across the developed world.

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Sociology would have been a better social science than economics for understanding the last ten years. Three dominos fell. The initial event was economic. The meaning of it was experienced in ways best interpreted by sociology. The consequences were acted out through politics. From a sociological point of view, the crisis exacerbated faultlines running through contemporary societies, faultlines of city and country, old and young, cosmopolitan and nationalist, insider and outsider. As a direct result we have seen a sharp rise in populism across the developed world and a marked collapse in support for established parties, in particular those of the centre-left.

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In conclusion, it’s all doom and gloom. But wait! From another perspective, the story of the last ten years has been one of huge success. At the time of the crash, 19 per cent of the world’s population were living in what the UN defines as absolute poverty, meaning on less than $1.90 a day. Today, that number is below 9 per cent. In other words, the number of people living in absolute poverty has more than halved, while rich-world living standards have flatlined or declined. A defender of capitalism could point to that statistic and say it provides a full answer to the question of whether capitalism can still make moral claims. The last decade has seen hundreds of millions of people raised out of absolute poverty, continuing the global improvement for the very poor which, both as a proportion and as an absolute number, is an unprecedented economic achievement.

The economist who has done more in this field than anyone else, Branko Milanović at Harvard, has a wonderful graph that illustrates the point about the relative outcomes for life in the developing and developed world. The graph is the centrepiece of his brilliant book Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation. It’s called the ‘elephant curve’ because it looks like an elephant, going up from left to right like the elephant’s back, then sloping down as it gets towards its face, then going sharply upwards again when it reaches the end of its trunk. Most of the people between points A and B are the working classes and middle classes of the developed world. In other words, the global poor have been getting consistently better off over the last decades whereas the previous global middle class, most of whom are in the developed world, have seen relative decline. The elite at the top have of course been doing better than ever.
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n13/john-lanchester/after-the-fall
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The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie once observed that there are “two Americas” — one at home and one abroad. The first is the America of Hollywood, work-in-progress democracy, civil rights movements and Ellis Island. The second is the America of coups and occupations, military dictators and CIA plots, economic meddling and contempt for foreign cultures. The rest of the world knows both Americas. But as Shamsie has written, Americans don’t seem aware of the second one at all.

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The rest of the world doesn’t figure much in U.S. lesson plans. A majority of states have phased out international geography from their middle school and high school curriculums; according to the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 2014, three-quarters of eighth-graders place “below proficient” in the subject. [...] few learn about the complexities of our relationships with so many other nations, especially the diplomatic, military and economic entanglements of the Cold War.

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Holding onto an image of ourselves as freedom-loving individualists who determined our own fates and championed the same for others, Americans didn’t have any idea how far we’d strayed from this ideal in the eyes of the rest of the world.

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Americans were taught to view the United States as simply the ideal modern nation — the shining city on a hill, as Ronald Reagan put it (echoing the early Puritans who settled in Massachusetts), that all foreign countries should aspire to emulate. Even if the United States “made mistakes” abroad, Americans were people with uniquely good intentions who wanted to help foreigners along to a better, freer life.

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Many Americans have long accepted this idea of our superiority and goodness as if it were a self-evident truth, not postwar propaganda created to justify imperial intervention. Without these beliefs, who would Americans be? That ours is the most successful and evolved country in the world is the basis of most Americans’ sense of reality.

The 21st century has brought devastating challenges to this worldview: the Sept. 11 attacks and the catastrophic occupations in the Middle East; the financial crisis and the end of the belief that endless progress was possible for many. It has been a painful period for Americans. But the rest of the world has long suffered the destructive consequences of the United States’ fantasies.

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Are ordinary people responsible for their governments’ foreign policy? It’s hard to blame the millions of Americans living in poverty, who have been just as victimized by the injustices of the 20th century as those abroad. But many other average Americans with dangerously naive ideas about themselves and their country grow up to become teachers, foreign correspondents, presidents.

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[Trump is] the crudest manifestation of some very American traits: recklessness, nationalism, contempt for history, an inability (if not utter disinclination) to inhabit a foreigner’s experience. [...] Trump may contradict everything many of us believe about ourselves, but the first question we might ask is whether what we believe is true.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/trump-is-making-americans-see-the-us-the-way-the-rest-of-the-world-already-did/2017/09/08/50f7c5ac-8ce8-11e7-84c0-02cc069f2c37_story.html
washingtonpost
washingtonpost
washingtonpost.com
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