Sunday, December 30, 2018

MIA: Context

With Western-led programs focusing on eliminating plastic bags and plastic straws as well as opioid overdoses, one wonders if we need a program to bring back context and common sense.

By way of example, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017. It's unclear whether this number includes ~45,000 annual suicides, but there were also 17,250 homicides, meaning 2.5x as many Americans died by suicide as homicide. Though seemingly large, these numbers, standing alone, lack context.

66% of America's population--or about 216 million people--is between 15-64. The math is simple enough for a 6th grader: only 0.061% of America's prime-aged population are/were involved in drug overdoses, suicides, and homicides.

The bigger problem? 1% (2.2 million) of America's population between 15 and 64 years old is in jail/prison. An additional 2.1% (4.7 million) are on probation or parole.

Abnormally high incarceration rates are the result of the American military's tendency to transfer its processes (supply chain logistics) and approaches (safety through deterrence) to the civilian sector. In this case, despite knowing Kissinger's deterrence model failed in Vietnam and thereafter (9/11), the U.S. government has decided to use the same approach against domestic criminals:

Discussing Sioux Falls, South Dakota's current economy, Mr. Fallows describes the city's choice of institutions a long time ago: "Would it prefer to be the home of the state university? Or the state penitentiary? ... the penitentiary offered steadier work for locals, so that is what they took." (From Our Towns (2018))

The federal government is able to pursue illogical ideas for reasons any Keynesian economist can understand: an approach backed by unlimited printing of money will seem to succeed even as it fails because it lowers the unemployment rate. Moreover, if the U.S. government admits its approach has failed, it cannot receive any return on its spending through the export and sale of its model to foreign allies, who are obligated to purchase a certain level of weapons and consulting every year to maintain the integrity of the U.S.-led military alliance.

Aside from incarceration rates (a severe problem) and opiods (not a severe problem), "an estimated 1/6 adults in America is on some form of psychiatric medication (a statistic that doesn't even include the use of sleeping pills, or pain pills, or the off-the-label use of other medications for psychological purposes)." [Jamieson Webster, The New York Review (November 2018)]

Oh, those plastic straws I mentioned earlier? According to, "Plastic pollution in the ocean is a real problem, but only about 1 percent of it comes from the U.S. Of that 1 percent, only a tiny fraction comes from plastic straws."

One wonders why larger countries, given their dominance over both physical and digital platforms, have become so intellectually flaccid. I do not have a definitive answer. I only know, as an outspoken person who tends to support the underdog, that I prefer my governments to have grander visions than the elimination of plastic.

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

Bonus: I recently browsed through O'Brien's book (titled Keating) about a brilliant Aussie PM, Paul Keating. The depth and breadth of his accomplishments are remarkable.
He advanced Aboriginal property rights, became a catalyst for APEC cooperation (despite Malaysia's desire for an Asian-led, Asian-exclusive coalition), and helped lower a 10% unemployment rate. Other than the U.K.'s Gordon Brown and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, it's difficult to find another Western politician who accomplished so much. (I will count Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as an Eastern politician, given his less than favorable view of the British.)

Australia's small population certainly assists its ability to successfully implement ideas, but the question remains: how can we reverse the increasing irrelevance of politicians in larger, less homogeneous countries, where legal complexity and debt-backed trade agreements render the individual citizen less and less important?

From National Geographic (2019)

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