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Essential Insanity

Walk with me a while and imagine you are mad. Crazy. Insane. It’s an interesting sort of insanity–you see the world as something other than it is. You are dead convinced that people are out to get you, but these people have almost no means to harm you and fear your retaliation greatly, because you’re a powerful person and they are weak.

You believe that you are hale and hearty; but in fact you’re ghastly, obese and ill. You think you’re rich, but in fact you’re poor. You think you have the best doctor around, but in fact your doctor is worse than almost every other doctor and charges 50% more than them. You think you’re tough, and you certainly haven’t let the fact that two ninety pound weaklings seem to be able to stand up to you get in the way of that.

You think that you have the most advanced technological toys, that what you have is the best, and once you did, but these days everyone else seems to have more advanced stuff.

The illness goes deeper though, a deep decay in your brain. The parts of your brain that make most of the decisions for your body think everything is wonderful. They seem only able to take in sensations from the taste buds these days, and for the last thirty years you’ve been on a rich diet. So they think everything’s great. Your once lean body, packed with muscles, has been replaced by a flaccid one, paunchy and fat, but somehow the key parts of your brain don’t know that. They don’t feel your sore back, they don’t hear the broken down breathing and they don’t see the gut hanging over your belt.

The you I’m referring to, as I’m sure many have¬† figured out by now, is the US. For years I’ve been writing for the US and observing it carefully, and I’ve found it one of the most interesting problems I’ve encountered in my life. Because America and Americans are very unpredictable. Now, of course, the first thing I thought was "it’s me," and in a sense, that’s true.

Yet, here’s the thing, I have a very good record of predicting what will happen in Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq. And when I get it wrong, I can look back and easily figure out why. Yet I’ve never visited any of those countries and really, know very little about them. On the other hand I grew up imbibing American media, know American history well, have visited America a number of times and spent 8 years in jobs that required me to deal with multiple Americans daily.

Odd. Very odd. And something I’ve discussed with other foreign observers of American society and politics.

The first clue to what was wrong came around the time of the Iraq war. It was obvious, dead obvious, to everyone outside of the US and to US citizens who were spending a lot of time parsing news, that the war was a joke and that Saddam had no nukes and was no threat to the US. Most Americans, however, didn’t get that. The reason, of course, was propaganda.

Fair enough. Every country whips its citizens into war hysteria with propaganda. But what was truly remarkable wasn’t that, it was that somehow the majority of Americans, over 70%, thought that Iraq was behind 9/11. Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing.

Remarkable. Americans went along with going to war with Iraq then because they thought Iraq had attacked them and had nukes and could attack them again. A complete propaganda tissue of lies. But if you believe it all, well of course Iraq needed to be attacked.

What looked to the rest of the world as crazy was entirely logical. It was, however, still insane. If I see a tentacled monster from the fourth dimension attack me and I respond by grabbing a knife and slashing apart my next door neighbour who’s waving at me, well, I had a logical, coherent reason for what I did, but I still murdered him, and I’m still insane.

This is the first type of insanity in the US and it runs deep. I often feel like I spend more time correcting outright lies, outright propaganda, than anything else. Just this week I had to explain to a left wing blogger (who should know better) that single payer health insurance is cheaper and gives better results than private insurance system. Now in the US this is somehow still in doubt, but that’s insane–this isn’t in question, every other western nation that has single payer insurance spends about 1/3 less than the US and has as good health metrics or better either in most or all categories. This isn’t something that’s up in the air; this isn’t something that is unsettled. This is a bloody FACT.

Americans think they are the most technologically advanced society in the world, yet the US does not have the fastest broadband, the fastest trains, the best cellphones, the most advanced consumer electronics (go to Japan and you’ll see what I mean) or the most advanced green energy technology.

In the primary season Ron Paul was repeatedly cut out of media coverage and John Edwards was hardly covered. The majority of Americans thought that Edwards was running as the most right wing of the Democratic candidates. Huckabee was constantly called a populist when his signature tax program would gut the middle class and slap the poor onto a fiscal rack.

And when all is said and done, politicians are still running on slashing taxes and having that make up for itself, while the US runs a balance of payments higher than any other country post World War II has ever done without going into an economic crash.

That’s one type of insanity–thinking the world is something that it isn’t.

The second is worse, in a sense. When Diamond wrote his book on why societies collapse he came to the conclusion that it occurred when elites weren’t experiencing the same things as the majority of the society–when they were isolated from the problems and challenges the society was facing.

For 30 years ordinary Americans haven’t had a raise. And despite all the lies, Americans are beginning to get that.

But for the people in charge the last thirty years have been absolutely wonderful. Seriously, things haven’t been this good since the 1890’s and the 1920’s. Everyone they know–their families, their mistresses and toyboys, their friends–is doing well. Wall Street paid even larger bonuses for 2007, the year they ran the ship into the shore, than they did in 2006 when their bonuses equalled the raises of 80 million Americans. Multiple CEOs walked away from companies they had bankrupted with golden parachutes in excess of 50 million. And if you can find a Senator who isn’t a millionaire (except maybe Bernie Sanders) you let me know.

Life has been great. The fact that America is physically unhealthy, falling behind technologically, hemorrhaging good jobs and that ordinary Americans are in debt up to their eyebrows, haven’t seen a raise in 30 years and live in mortal fear of getting ill–because even if they have insurance it doesn’t cover the necessary care–means nothing to the decision making part of America because it hasn’t experienced it. America’s elites are doing fine, thanks. All they can taste, or remember is the caviar and champagne they swill to celebrate how wonderful they are and how much they deserve all the money federal policy has given them.

This is the second insanity of the US–that the decision making apparatus in the US is disconnected from the results of their decisions. They make sure they get paid, that they’re wealthy, and let the rest of society go to hell. In the end, of course, most of them will find that the money isn’t theirs, and that what they’ve stolen is worth very little if the US has a real financial crisis.

The third insanity is simpler: it’s the wealth effect. At the end of World War II the US had about half the world’s economy. Admittedly that’s because Europe had been bombed into oblivion, but even when Europe rebuilt the US was still far, far ahead. The US was insanely rich and powerful. See, when you’re rich you can do stupid and unproductive things for a long time. There are plenty of examples of this but the two most obvious ones are the US military and the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs hasn’t reduced the number of junkies or drugs on the street in any noticeable way. It has increased the US’s prison population to the highest per capita level in the world, however. It has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It has gutted civil liberties (the war on terror is just the war on drugs on crack, after all). And after 30 years does anyone seriously say "wait, this doesn’t work, it costs billions of dollars and it makes us a society of prisons?" Of course not, if anything people compete to be "tough on crime." What’s the definition of insanity, again? Doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results?

Then there’s the US military. It costs, oh, about as much as everyone else in the world’s military combined. It seems to be at best in a stalemate and probably losing two wars against a bunch of rabble whose total budgets probably wouldn’t equal a tenth of one percent of a US appropriations bill. And it is justified as "defending" America even though there is no nation in the entire world which could invade the US if the US had one tenth the military.

But the US could (not can, they are now unaffordable, but could) afford to have a big shiny military and lots of prisons, so it does. Lots of people get rich off of both of them, lots of rural whites get to lock up uban blacks and lots of communities that wouldn’t exist otherwise get to survive courtesy of the unneeded military bases and prisons which should never have been built.

Insane–believing things that aren’t true.

Insane–decision makers are cut off from the consequences of their decisions and in fact are getting reverse feedback, as things get worse for most Americans and as America gets weaker and poorer, they are the richest they’ve ever been.

Insane–so rich that no one will stop doing things that clearly don’t work and are harmful, because people are making money off the insanity.

All of this is what makes predicting the US so surreal. It’s not just about knowing what the facts are and then thinking "ok, how would people respond to that?" You have to know what the facts are, what the population thinks the facts are, what the elites think the facts are, who’s making money off of it, and then ask yourself if these facts are having any real effect on the elites and if that effect is enough to outweigh the money they’re making off of failure (how many of them have children serving in Iraq? Right, not urgent to fix.)

And then you have to go back to the facts and ask yourself "what effect will these have even if they’re being ignored." Facts are ugly things, they tend not to go away.

All of which makes the US damn near impenetrable, often enough even to Americans.

But here’s what I do know–you can get away with being nuts as long as enough people are benefiting from you being insane. When the credit cards are all maxed out, when the relatives have stolen even the furniture, suddenly all the enablers go away and the kneebreakers or the men in white pay you a visit. At that point you can live in the real world, or you can go to the asylum.

I wonder which way the US will go?

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at