By Paul Buchheit, AlterNet
Posted on December 4, 2007
Throughout history, some of the most respected defenders of liberty felt that patriotism implies thoughtfulness over blind acceptance of the norm. Socrates, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. all encouraged active efforts to improve one's country by adhering to the highest standards of behavior, by government and by the citizens themselves.
There is certainly room for improvement in America. Here is a Top 5 list of candidates for thoughtfulness over blind acceptance.
1. How we spend our money
The United States is responsible for almost half of the world's annual military expenditures of over $1 trillion, yet President Bush approved another record increase in the U.S. defense budget for 2008. The total estimated cost of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts is now $811 billion, much more than the $518 billion spent on the Vietnam War. Congressional Democrats estimate that the average American family of four has contributed over $20,000 to the war in the Middle East.
As 40 percent of each American citizen's tax bill -- about $5,000 a year -- goes for military equipment that protects us from Cold War enemies, we spend only one-tenth of 1 percent of our GDP on infrastructure (in 2005), compared to 9 percent for China. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave D to D- grades to our drinking water, navigable waterways and energy power grids. Every time our power structures go out or our roads and bridges crumble, the money needed to fix them is being spent in Iraq, or on unstable allies in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
2. What we give to the world
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, nearly half of the guns sold to developing countries in 2005 came from the United States.
In 2003, 20 of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms sales in the developing world were declared undemocratic or human rights abusers by the U.S. State Department's own Human Rights Report.
The United States sold weapons to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts in 2003. We armed both sides in conflicts between India and Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, Greece and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Peru and Ecuador, China and Taiwan, and Israel and the rest of the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, the United States provided arms to protect the monarchy from other Saudis who were also armed by the United States.
3. The people we ignore
As we fight for freedom in the Middle East, people in Nigeria live with 24-hour gas flaring and air and water pollution caused by our own oil companies, while angry young men roam the streets with guns because they can't find jobs. Ten-year-olds in India get whipped as they work without pay in textile factories making our clothes. Children in the Congo work 12-hour days digging tin oxide out of dusty, toxic mines for pennies a day so that we can have our cell phones.
A young Congolese boy named Muhanga Kawaya tells us what children have to endure to dig out minerals for our cell phones. There are many reasons for this, but one primary reason is the multinational companies who ignore human rights laws.
"In the hole you have to crawl and squeeze and suck in your belly to make it through. The next danger is the huge rocks above; often they bury us and once they move, it's instant death. Then there's the darkness. And there's no air. Once you get down more than 200 feet, the air flow stops altogether. It's up to you to figure out how to breathe. As you crawl through the tiny hole, using your arms and fingers to scratch, there's not enough space to dig properly and you get badly grazed all over. And then, when you do finally come back out with the cassiterite, the soldiers are waiting to grab it at gunpoint. Which means you have nothing to buy food with."
4. Our lifestyles
We Americans have 5 percent of the world's population but use 25 percent of the world's oil. The average American home has increased from 1,000 square feet to 2,400 square feet since 1950, even though the average family size has steadily decreased. Ten thousand new hosquare feet or more. Our big vehicles average less miles per gallon than 20 years ago, yet we're driving 24 percent more miles than in 1980. We use as much gas idling in traffic as the annual output of Equatorial Guinea, the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
The "ecological footprint" measures the amount of land and water needed by a human to support his or her consumption and waste. The average person in the world has an ecological footprint of 5.5 acres. Except for the 3 million people living in the United Arab Republic, the United States has the highest ecological footprint in the world, with each of 300 million people requiring almost 25 acres.
If everyone in the world consumed at the U.S. rate, we would need five planet earths to sustain us.
5. The growing income disparity
According to numerous recent studies, income and net worth have actually been dropping for all but the top 10 percent of American households since the 1970s. An average two-income family today has less disposable income than one-income families had 30 years ago, largely because of escalating home mortgage, healthcare, and child care costs.
Some oil company and military defense executives made up to $100 million in 2006. Some hedge fund managers made over a billion dollars in 2006. An individual who worked for 50 years, making $50,000 a year, would realize total lifetime earnings approximately equal to one day's work for a hedge fund manager.
Taxes make it worse. When social security and sales taxes, transportation fees, and utility charges are included, the typical wage earner pays about a 40 percent overall tax. The hedge fund manager pays a 15 percent tax. In addition, every taxpayer contributes about $500 a year to the tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans.
So what can we do?
Recent (2007) polls by BBC World Service and the Pew Research Center show how the global view of U.S. involvement has continued to deteriorate. Opinions of the United States have soured not only in Middle Eastern countries but also among traditional allies such as Germany, France and Britain. Perhaps, most disturbingly, polls are beginning to indicate that anti-Americanism is being directed not only at the U.S. government but increasingly at the American people.
We need to make changes. But what can we do? Find a presidential candidate who has the guts to stand up to the military and the arms exporters; who will ensure that multinational companies respect human rights laws; and who will cancel the tax cuts and capital gains breaks for the wealthy. And while we're complaining about government, we need to take a good look at our own unceasing demand for the consumer goods and comforts that make us many times better off than the great majority of people in the world.
Paul Buchheit is a professor with the Chicago City Colleges, co-founder of Global Initiative Chicago (GIChicago.org), and the founder of fightingpoverty.org. He is the editor and main contributor to the forthcoming book American Wars: Illusions and Realities