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About America

How did "liberal" become a dirty word in America? It is derived from the Latin word "liber", which means free - so a liberal is someone who believes in freedom. Rather ironic that the Land of the Free no longer trusts such dangerous people.

But then there are a lot of ways in which America seems very strange to a foreigner. Most Americans get only two weeks paid holiday a year; the legal minimum in Europe is four weeks, and a lot of people get six. In America the rich get perhaps the best healthcare in the world, whilst the poor are pretty much left to die in the gutter; the other Western democracies generally make far more of an effort to look after their less advantaged citizens' health. America fought a long and bloody civil war over whether slavery should be legal (mostly), and the good guys eventually won - but then having won their point they pretty much lost interest, and allowed the southern states to practise something very like apartheid right up until the 1960s.

Sport is a kind of mirror of life, but in America it's a distorting mirror, because almost all American sports only recognise winners and losers, and if scores are tied at the end of a game you keep playing till they aren't. Then you shake hands, shower, get changed and move on to the next thing. In most non-US sports, there are three possible results to a sporting contest - win, lose or draw (tie), which is much more like real life. Is America "winning" or "losing" in Iraq right now? Yes, America deposed Saddam and won the actual war, but who is winning the peace? I'd have to say that Iraq's transformation into a peace-loving democracy isn't going too well so far, and America's leaders have little idea what to do about it. From their perspective they won the game hands down, but disconcertingly the opposition are refusing to leave the field and move on to the next thing.

Another peculiarity is the way America appoints its government, which to many foreigners seems strangely undemocratic. Only the President is elected; he then appoints whoever he sees fit to run all the government departments. These officials have usually not been elected to any office. They do have to be approved by Congress, but usually go through on the nod, and the electorate has no say in the matter.

In most other modern democracies, the Top Man and all his department heads have to be members of the legislature, and opposition politicians get to practice when they are out of government by "shadowing" the people in power - the opposition appoints a sort of government-in-waiting, with a specific spokesman covering each department of the government. This functions both as useful training and a competence test of the individuals concerned, and gives the electorate a better idea of what the opposition are likely to do if voted into power. In most systems you only get to be the adminstration by winning control of the legislature, so you don't get governmental "gridlock" like in the Clinton years, where the Administration comes from one party, but the legislature is controlled by their opponents, who regularly gum up the works by refusing to pass the national budget, causing massive disruption.

More often than not a new US President has almost no relevant experience, which often makes American governments seem naive and amateurish to the rest of the world, especially in the first couple of years of a President's first term. Often the new president will have been a state governor, which really isn't much like running the country at all: a governor doesn't have to deal with heads of state from completely different political traditions, with different ideas about how to do things, and doesn't get nukes or an army to play with (having nominal control of a National Guard battalion is emphatically not the same thing). Nor does he have to run an economy in any meaningful sense. Or the new president may perhaps have been a Senator instead, which does give him a bit more exposure to national and international issues, but not much experience of running a large governmental organisation.

Then there is political funding. To get elected to political office in America, you pretty much have to spend millions on TV advertising, so unless you are a multi-millionaire in your own right you have to solicit large donations from anyone prepared to pay. If you were trying to design a system to ensure that all your politicians would be corrupt, or at least morally compromised, that wouldn't be a bad way to start. Many Americans are sort of half-aware of this, which is why so many of them instinctively mistrust politicians and keep looking for a "regular guy", ie not a career politician, to vote for. Unfortunately it costs millions in advertising to market yourself as that regular guy, so you have to take at least some of the bribes, oops I mean "campaign contributions", and listen to the "advice" of those making them, and if ever you were that regular guy, you won't be by the time you get into office...

This probably explains why the 76% of Americans who reportedly think free healthcare for all would be a good thing have had so little success finding politicians to vote such a system into existence. It would have to be paid for by taxes of course, ie mostly by the rich and the corporations - who are the ones making the campaign contributions. They of course have little incentive to support it, because they already have excellent healthcare for themselves, and don't see why they should have to pay for anybody else's. Essentially it's a moral issue, and unfortunately morality and large wads of cash rarely make good bedfellows.

Please don't get the idea from all this that I hate America, or think it is inferior to other countries. In many respects it is an admirable society. Its citizens have built an economy that has made them the most powerful nation in the world, and mostly they try to use that power to be a force for good, if somewhat hamfistedly at times. But it would be so much better if they would address the bugs in the system, particularly the way they allow money to dominate their politics.


Copyright © Jon Storm 2006