Yesterday I had a question from someone in Japan regarding America. He writes:
Greg Johnson, Thank you so much! I would like to know the shadow of the life of the people. Almost Japanese people think that all American people are so happy. I want to know the American truth in the every fields. Economically, American pride. Do you feel the American pride as an American people. In Japan, Japanese politics is not so good, I think. What do you think about the American political sistem. Thank you. ~ 稲葉卓夫[Source: Facebook, 稲葉卓夫, 4 Sep 2020]
I really appreciate this inquiry into life in America. I will try to address each question individually in the order presented.
The Shadows of American Life
When my plane landed on my first visit to India, the very first impression I had was riding on the trolly transporting passengers to the terminal. The Disney song “It’s a Small World” was playing through the speakers. I suppose it’s an appropriate song to welcome visitors from other countries. Part of the lyrics are: “There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone, though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide, it’s a small world after all.” [see music video]
Yet to me it was an example of how the U.S. has over the years developed a beloved reputation as a kind of Disneyland. Our influence is global. Disneyland and Hollywood have entertained the world and portrayed America as a kind of playground. Companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere on the planet.
There are many aspects of American life, food, entertainment, music, and culture that have resulted in people around the world having a love for America. There are also acts of benevolence through humanitarian efforts and the Peace Corps that have established the U.S. as a good global citizen. Our non-profit organizations help promote education, healthcare and agriculture around the world.
These and other examples are perhaps why many people around the world want to move to America, as conveyed by the song “America” by Neil Diamond. I’ve created a companion post to this article which includes that music video and the lyrics. [View]
On that trolly at the Delhi airport, I was struck with the realization that the United States has reached every corner of the world and mostly been embraced with positive sentiments. I suddenly felt a sense of obligation that is difficult to explain in just a few words, but I’ll try. The United States has become to many people like a kind of United Nations. It’s known as a neutral territory, where people from every nation, race, and religion live.
We can think of America as a big company. Every American citizen is an employee. The company has a PR (public relations) and marketing department. Promoting a positive image of America, Americans, and American life is a group effort between the State Department, the White House, Hollywood, Disneyland, and many large corporations.
As with any company, sometimes there’s a disconnect between the marketing department and the actual product or service. In other words, sometimes something is presented and sold with a lot of hype. It’s like how desktop computers are shown in advertising without any power cords. In advertising about automobiles, we don’t show oil spills. All negative aspects are removed.
When a person posts photos of themself (“Selfies”) on Instagram and other social media, they make an effort to show their life as beautiful, smart, wealthy, and perfect.
So, the marketing material for America is a little bit like that, and I would really hate to be the one to fully disclose and describe what is behind the curtain. I think it’s fair to say that the reality of America lies somewhere between the Disney representation of our country and the critical statements of Louis Farrakhan or Iranian protestors about America and American culture. America isn’t perfect, but it’s also not as horrible as some people say.
As an American, I feel an obligation to deliver on the good that America promises, just like an employee who works for a company that makes promises to potential customers. Especially if over decades positive sentiments have grown among people around the world.
When I was in college, I traveled to South America for a semester with a group of students. The program coordinator and guide took us to many cities in Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. He would first make sure that our tour bus went to the poorest parts of town. We went to city dumps to meet people who lived there. Even outside of the landfill areas, we saw neighborhoods where thousands of people lived in homes made from scrap metal and garbage. He said he wanted us to see the reality and not just what was shown in travel and tourism brochures.
There are some aspects of America that are not shown by Disney or in the tourism brochures. We have 12 million children living in poverty [source], rampant wildfires destroying over 1 million acres of land, pollution, crime, gangs, human trafficking, police violence, racially motivated crimes, drug problems, violent mobs setting cities on fire, armed marauding militia groups clashing with protestors, 30 million people with limited access to food [source], millions of people without homes, millions of people without jobs, government leaders intentionally trying to destroy the environment, some government leaders allowing violent gangs to control cities, other government leaders ordering militarized federal agents to crack down on protesters, public funds bailing out wealthy companies, massive cuts to education funding, closed factories leaving skeletal ghost cities, corporations looting public lands, and most recently about 180,000 people have died from COVID because of the inadequacy of our healthcare system and poor leadership. A few weeks ago we had a storm go through our state that left 300,000 people without electricity because of the frailty of our infrastructure. Roads and bridges are crumbling. Our country has reached and perhaps exceeded the number of people the land can sustain, so there is massive water scarcity and overdevelopment. In summary, it’s a hellscape amplified by a culture of entitlement, laziness, greed, ignorance, selfishness, narcism and incompetence — at least that describes part of America.
There’s another part of America that most people are unfamiliar with: people creating community supported agriculture in small-scale urban farms, a resurgence of permaculture, people of different faiths joining together to dance [source], massive regions of land being restored by regenerative practices [example], interfaith groups promoting cooperation among people of different faiths, states ensuring access to higher education for everyone [example], employee owned companies where workers are not exploited to maximize profits but share in company profits, member owned banks are giving people greater control over their money, goats are being used to prevent wildfires [example], there is a shift toward using renewable green energy sources [example], and walkable intentional sustainable communities are being built. In summary, it’s a wonderful world of people working collaboratively to build a sustainable, equitable, fair, just, democratic, inclusive, and peaceful world where everyone can achieve their dreams.
I think among all of the challenges America faces, debt is probably the greatest of them all. Our current national debt is 26 trillion dollars. This is today’s AP headline regarding the economy: “US debt will soon exceed size of entire economy.” That means every American owes an average of $80,000 toward our national debt on the day they are born. That amount is increasing every second [View] because no effort is being made to pay off that debt. Instead of spending less and earning more, our nation simply continues taking out loans to support our lifestyle. It’s like someone who keeps applying for credit cards to support an extravagant lifestyle that isn’t sustainable. So, of course, someone with $80,000 of debt is going to appear to be very well off. They will have a nice car and a nice home, but they don’t actually own those things. I think this is a problem.
Interest rates are down. This is supposed to help the poor or new homeowners buy a home, but instead, home sellers are raising the selling price of homes. So the savings intended to help poor or new home buyers is being taken by some sellers. [Learn More]
Happiness in America
Depending on where you live in America, and what your upbringing has given you access to, America can be a very enjoyable place to live. Some people grow up with numerous confidence-building experiences reinforced by good parenting. They have access to quality education. As they reach adulthood, they have the freedom that independence and self-sufficiency provides. Those given too much help growing up can become hindered later in life and become unable to be self-sufficient. The balance is important.
There are millions of people who have repeated confidence eroding experiences growing up. They don’t have access to quality education. When they reach adulthood, life is difficult. There are millions of Americans who work for minimum wage, partly because their skills and experiences have limited value to employers. Immigrants are at a disadvantage, even those who are here legally. There can be language barriers, cultural differences, and prejudices that limit access. Millions of Americans with a criminal record will be paid less and have limited employment and residence options. So, these millions of working poor end up serving and enriching the lives of those who were born into privilege and opportunity.
It’s important to recognize that part of what makes America a happy place is the ability to earn good money, have wealth, and then have a lot of work done for you at a very low cost: house cleaning, cooking, landscaping, painting, deliveries, and menial tasks. Food is cheap because the migrant crop workers are paid very little. If you’re a lawyer who earns $500 per hour, then what you earn in a few hours might pay for an entire year of lawn mowing and snow removal. That’s the powerful leveraging possible. Now, instead of mowing your own lawn, you can take a two-week vacation. You could have an entire home filled with household servants and butlers while you sit by the pool enjoying a martini.
At some point your conscience might start nagging you. You might begin to question the disparity of wealth that exists. Why do some people enjoy life and others suffer? How did you end up being among the fortunate? Why isn’t there more equity? So, having money and comfort isn’t sufficient to guarantee happiness. Most people will want to ensure happiness for others before they feel content. There’s a recurring theme of “The Two Americas” which is a focus of populists like Bernie Sanders who point out the extreme disparities between wealthy America and the working poor in America. These disparities are perplexing and unsettling for most people.
There’s a certain world view that is adopted by the well-off, and that is to believe that life is a roll-of-the-dice and if we end up being wealthy, then we’ve won the game of life. Those who are less fortunate were destined to live such a life. “It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is,” is what some people tell themselves.
The other mindset is that people who make-it-big are entrepreneurs who work 70 hours a week, and from much effort, risk, and sacrifice, they build wealth. Such people believe they’ve earned what they have and deserve what they have.
Regardless of what view a person holds, there will still be an empathetic and compassionate pain that people feel when they see others suffering. So, ultimately happiness is a collective experience. Part of the American experience is finding happiness while helping others find happiness.
It’s important to mention that many people in American find happiness in simplicity and minimalism. They may not have riches or material wealth, but they find an inner peace through simple living, yoga, meditation, drinking tea, vegan foods, hiking in nature, music, and other practices.
Pride in America is often depicted through an appreciation for our military and patriotism reflected in songs and a respect for the flag. The song “God Bless The USA” is a perfect depiction of this kind of patriotic pride in America. I’ve created a companion post to this article which includes that music video and the lyrics. [View]
At its pinnacle, pride in America is usually an amalgam of the American flag, militarism, sacrifice, religion, and a sense of the country itself serving the purpose of God. This blend of military, religion, and patriotism can be seen in a video of U.S. Marines singing “Days of Elijah.” I’ve created a companion post to this article which includes that music video and the lyrics. [View]
However, there are other kinds of American Pride. Among “blue collar workers” or skilled laborers, there can be a sense of pride over work. The same is true among small business owners. People in manufacturing from small-scale artisans to factories have a pride in American-made products. Companies using “domestic-based” call centers for support have a pride in helping create American jobs.
Among those working in the public interest, there can be a kind of pride based on measured positive impacts in the world. American philanthropists like Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and others give billions to non-profits focused on improving life for everyone on the planet.
Part of the heritage, history, and foundation of America is the coming together of people from all nations. Not only as immigrants who built this nation, but also as present-day partners around the world who help promote a vision of Democracy, freedom, and liberty. So, the transcendence of American pride is beyond nationalism. It’s the collective global community of those who believe in American ideals — ideals forged out of the hopes and dreams of people from around the world. So, American pride is really global pride.
All Americans are responsible for making America a country to be proud of. We can’t individually separate ourselves and disavow America, burning the flag, protesting, and proclaiming how horrible America is because America is what we collectively make it. We are America. We’re all responsible for the good and bad in our country, and the positive or negative influence of our country on the planet and world community. People sometimes protest the government, and usually that is because the government is sometimes serving special interests and wealthy individuals rather than the people. That is a sign of a broken democracy.
The American Political System
The political system in America is based on two political parties, so elections are a 50/50 outcome. For this reason, most businesses, organizations, and institutions will donate to both parties and ensure a presence in both parties. This buys access and favors from politicians on both sides. Special interest groups typically have conservative and liberal representations of their goals influencing both parties. For example, there will be conservative and liberal Black leaders who have influence and hold positions in both parties. Examples include Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Barack Obama. The LGBT community has strong representation among conservatives and liberals in both parties. So, no party has a monopoly on any identity group. Evangelicals and religious leaders are evenly distributed across the two parties.
Many sub-parties exist in America within the existing two primary parties. So, Libertarians and Tea Party members will typically take positions within the Republican party and utilize the funding and infrastructure of the party. Environmental groups typically have a strong presence in the Democratic party, rather than joining the Green Party. These nuances shape the messaging of each party. As a result of the environmentalist influence in the Democratic party, oil companies and industries that want limited environmental regulations will provide greater support to the Republican party.
The political system in America is based upon having a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” which will allow people to be self-governing. Although there are about 350 million people in the United States, the governance of the country is a pyramid with a few wealthy families at the top, then factions and loyalties trickling down from there. Unlike competing organized crime families or drug cartels that run some countries, the wealthy families in America general get along and don’t harm each other.
Most individuals in America do not have the same access and influence as the Walton Family, Koch Family, George Soros, or the dozens of celebrities and performers that have special access and influence. The top tier of billionaires and second-level tier of millionaires represent a relatively small club, like a country club. The rest of us are caddies and greenskeepers. We enjoy the nice country club, but we don’t have controlling interest or ownership in it.
So, the United States political system in practice is sort of an oligarchy. Citizens don’t individually have significant political influence. However, they can ‘vote’ with their spending by aligning with companies that share their values. Then those companies will influence government and policies.
In America, there is great opportunity to do good in the world, and great opportunity for entrepreneurs to create a livelihood and career path suited to their skills and interests. The freedom, independence, and opportunities in America yield a diversity of creative innovations. At its best, the free market and capitalism create an economic ecosystem that rewards hard work and provides many business and career opportunities. There are many beautiful coastal areas, lakes, rivers, parks, trails, and green spaces in urban and rural areas in America. America’s diversity and acceptance of people from all walks of life is a strength and enhances freedom — not just freedoms that are legally guaranteed, but cultural freedom that gives people the ability to be themselves without persecution.