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Eureka: An air-conditioner side chat on American affairs
by Joseph Gatt
2018-08-25 08:52:23
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If you sit at a café and chat about the United States you're probably going to say something along the lines of “how could they have elected Donald Trump.” You might have stereotypes of Americans being cowboys, rash and verbose, perhaps a little bit racist, perhaps very racist, perhaps a little crazy.

Well, when it comes to Americans, we are special people indeed. When we get divorced, we can spend the entire evening talking about our divorce with friends and strangers. When we dislike someone, we usually tell them exactly why we dislike them.

Pamericans01_400resident Trump is not even the first president to have divided the news. Fox news was nasty with Obama, CNN was nasty with George W. Bush. Remember Fox News calling Obama a Communist and a terrorist. And CNN questioning George W. Bush and his intellectual capacity to defend the country? Clinton was a media muse, Fox news did not really exist back then, but CNN did not like Clinton either. George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon and all those before them were part of an era where television news was scripted and aimed for neutrality, but the press was divided over them as well. Nothing new here.

Then there is all the gossip. Obama spent a lot of time on golf courses, and a lot of the media pointed out that he was a lame duck in his second term, some even called for presidents only serving one term because Obama had become something of a lame duck in his second term. George W. Bush, contrary to his depiction in the media, was incredibly polite with his staff, had very few resignations, always greeted his staff personally, left generous tips, and he didn't read or watch the media, so he only had a vague idea about the media doubting his intellectual abilities.

There's a lot more gossip. Clinton was also criticized for being something of a lame duck in his second term, Carter used to leave the Oval Office lights on all night just so the media think that he's been working all night, when he was in his room sound asleep. Reagan had a problem with names and titles, hardly knew the names of any of his secretaries or congressmen, and even called his Vice-President Bush “Prime Minister Bush” several times, including on camera if I recall.

Point is Trump is nothing new. Lyndon Johnson was very aggressive with the media, Kennedy allegedly recorded every single conversation he had on the phone, Roosevelt had a secret pact with the media so they don't reveal that he was on a wheelchair or that he had mistresses, and Woodrow Wilson was brain dead the last couple of years of his presidency and his wife served as acting president, a very anti-constitutional move. We could go all the way back to Washington and Jefferson, but I'll leave it at that. The President of America is not America.

So in this chat, which I'll try to keep short, I'll debunk six myths that people tend to have about the United States of America. 

Half-truth number one: there were issues with unemployment during the great recession

On a macroeconomic level, yes, the recession hit hard. Fertilizer prices went way up and a lot of farms or ranches could no longer afford fertilizer, and were shutting down on losing a lot of income. Factories shut down one after the other. Of course the big names were saved by a bailout, but the smaller textile mills or steel or metal mills had to shut down. Industry was hit hard by Asian and European competition, by outsourcing, by heavy taxation, by increasing worker wages, and by a declining international demand because a lot of countries took protectionist measures. The service sector was also hit hard, partly because of growing competition, lackluster demand, too much reliance on the whole dot.com thing which doesn't really work, and failed service sector business ideas.

But at the microeconomic level, you would be, to use a phrase George W. Bush liked to use “misunderestimating” Americans. If the same recession had hit France or Germany or some Asian or African country, you would have something like 50% unemployment. Those were actual unemployment figures in countries like Spain. But in America, it was 10% unemployment, 25% underemployment at its worst. Today, unemployment is at around 3 to 4%. How do you explain that?

Americans love to work. They love looking for jobs. When they get laid off from the steel mill, they immediately try to get a job at a coffee shop or pizza delivery place, while screening job advertisements and networking their way to a job. They join every interest group and focus group they can to see if there's a job somewhere. They spend hours at a time screening job advertisements. They let the whole world know they are looking for a job. They talk to recruiters and headhunters to help them get a job. And they work at GAP, H&M, Wall Mart or Starbucks until they get a better job.

Have some people failed to get a job? Yes, quite a few of them failed to get a job. Some retrained and got certifications so they could change their trade. Others decided to work for the family business or a long-lost relative. Some took jobs at the dental clinics of their high-school buddies. And if they couldn't get a job, they advertised their resumes in career portals. They called the radio to say they were looking for a job. Some even created professional interest groups so people like them who couldn't get a job could use a common strategy to get a job. And when they did get a job, they often had plan B, plan C and plan D. That's how things work in the United States.

The United States has five advantages when it comes to the job market. First, it's an open job market. A lot of jobs are advertised. Second, it's an open society where people meet on a regular basis and discuss job trends. Third, salaries are negotiable. Fourth, job contracts are negotiable. Fifth, if you don't like the job you can quit, and if your boss doesn't like you he can fire you. This means it's an open, flexible job market where if you look hard enough you can find a job. That's why unemployment never went over 12%. Now the 25% underemployment was mostly people working at Wall Mart or Starbucks while looking for a better job. Very few people were stuck in that bracket, most people ended up finding better jobs.

Half-truth number two: American has a huge debt problem

True. Macroeconomically, Americans have a lot of debt. But the debt to equity ratio is nothing to be worried about. A lot of Americans do pay off their debt, and tend to be debt free after 20 to 25 years in the workforce.

Now with this whole college debt thing, the debt to equity ratio is indeed entering dangerous levels. That is the new generation of Americans couldn't repay their debt even if they sold everything they had. When the debt to equity ratio enters dangerous levels, something needs to be done about it.

Is college debt good debt for the country? Well if you don't learn a skill or two, you will be stuck working for Wall Mart or Starbucks the rest of your life. A lot of colleges teach kids a lot of trades. But kids should be taught financial common sense. If you want to be a teacher making 30,000 dollars a year, there's no point going to a college and paying a 60,000 dollar-a-year tuition. 5,000 dollar-a-year tuitions are more than enough. If you want to work at Silicon Valley, then 60,000 year tuition could be worth it, because colleges are expensive but you'll have all the technology you need to learn your trade, when at a 5,000 dollar college you might not even have a computer lab. So when good old Bernie Sanders says he's going to start tuition-free colleges, don't expect those high-tech labs to go with the colleges. Expect librarians to still be using flash cards because their computer no longer works and there are no funds to fix it.

Half-truth number three: America is no longer a free nation

Airport security has become tight, border control tight, American embassies have more protection than they ever had, and security around government buildings is tight. There are stories of people who got arrested because they had the wrong passport or because they visited the wrong websites.

But the truth of the matter is freedom of speech is protected (save some vague technical exceptions), freedom of religion is guaranteed, freedom of assembly is guaranteed and encouraged, freedom to demonstrate is guaranteed, freedom to like or dislike the nation is guaranteed, the right to a fair trial tends to be guaranteed, consumer choices are free, and most basic freedoms are highly enforced. In America, I could, today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, write an op-ed titled “Trump is a moron” (I think he's great, but hypothetically). Now if I went to France and wrote an op-ed saying “Macron est un connard” (again, hypothetically) I think I'd be in trouble. So in a way, America, yes, is still a free nation, and I hope will always be.

Half-truth number four: America no longer wants to be involved in world affairs

In 1945, there was something about the consequences of war. That is people, world nations realized that wars didn't just cost soldiers lives, but that they also caused great economic damage, famines, starvation and that they took countries back a century or two in terms of progress.

Now one mistake the US did was to think they could teach the science of free government to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. It failed just like the United Nations tutorship council did. Just to give you an idea, on December 12, 2014, I had a meeting with highly educated American researchers (all with a Masters degree or PhD) to organize a research center. I wanted the structure of the research center to be simple but deep, two pages long but explain the complexities of the research center. I kept simplifying and simplifying, but they didn't understand a thing. I wanted the research center to have a president (me) and four vice-presidents until we had enough members to elect a president. The president would then appoint a secretary general who would appoint any positions he deemed necessary in consultation with the president, and the president would formally represent the organization while the secretary general would work on administrative and budget issues. The secretary general would issue working reports that he would submit, and would need approval of the president and of a group of sages, made up of former presidents. The research center would have two years to gather enough members so the first elections were held. I thought I was being simple. The PhDs did not understand, but I think they made no effort to understand. They wanted the positions because it looked good on their resume, not because they wanted to be active in a political organization.

The exact same thing happened with Afghanistan and Iraq. You had people run for elections because it looked good on their resume. But the US is still playing a key role in places like Korea and the Middle East, military budgets have gone up, and the sanctions until we negotiate scheme is not working that bad.

The US now knows all too well that regime change means regimes that run because their titles look good on their resumes. So the US is not seeking regime change in Iran or North Korea, it is seeking security deals in exchange for lifting sanctions and resuming trade.

Half-truth number five: America is a divided nation

Indeed there are people out there who say “if you voted Trump, don't talk to me.” But those people are becoming more and more rare, I've met some of them, and some of those I met who talk like that are somewhat mentally unstable.

Remember when 10 years ago on Facebook you had this huge group called “I bet I can find 1 million people who hate Bush.” Some it's the same crowd of mostly younger liberal men and older liberal women who wouldn't talk to anyone who voted Bush, and who wouldn't talk to anyone who voted Trump. Nothing new under the sun. American has always had people who wouldn't talk to people who voted Obama, people who wouldn't talk to people who voted Clinton, and people who wouldn't talk to people who voted Nixon or Carter.

Finally, half-truth number six: America is no longer a great nation

There's a video that went viral on YouTube where a guy explains why America is no longer a great nation. While America does not lack its lot of weirdos, overall, America is a great place to live. Of course something could be done about poverty, something could be done about healthcare and perhaps something could be done about the racial divide and about anti-intellectualism.

Let me be a little bit politically incorrect here. I know there are racial tensions and I'd like to see minorities go up the ranks. So let me say something that would make American minorities proud of who they are. It's a lot easier being African-American than African. It's a lot easier being Hispanic-American than living in any Latin American country. It's a lot easier being Asian American than living in Asian countries. It's a lot easier being – stick any label  - in America than anywhere else. It's a lot easier being an intellectual in America than anywhere else. Maybe it's easier being sick in France or Sweden, but let me also tell you that French and Swedish doctors tend to be brash and rude, something very few American doctors are. And, believe it or not, being poor in America is in some ways easier. In Europe, you're stuck with your welfare check for the rest of your life if you don't get a job by the time you're thirty. In the US, well, a lot of companies hire people over thirty, so you're rarely stuck with poverty. Drugs are everywhere around the world, crime is everywhere, but America tends to be tough on drugs and crime.

To sum up: save technology, most things have not really changed for the last 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years in America. You can still walk into a pub and chat with random people, it's still the easiest country in the world to make friends, it's still a great country if you like chatting and telling stories. One thing that has changed is technology, but I won't stereotype Americans on that either. America is one of those rare countries where a lot of people will drop their phones to hear you tell your story. 

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