This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Gar Alperovitz’s recently released book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About The Next American Revolution. While fixing the economy is the most important issue to Americans, how to do so is still being hotly debated. Thus far, despite the urgency, Washington has been completely unsuccessful in working together to create jobs and reduce the deficit. Alperovitz, a political economist and historian, proposes an entirely new, pragmatic, step-by-step concrete approach to fixing the economy that would completely revolutionize our broken democratic-capitalist system.
You can purchase the book here.
How to Detect a System Problem Without Really Trying
People toss around the phrase It’s the system pretty loosely in everyday language. Usually they mean that things are sort of set up, by either design or accident, to run the way they run—and that the game is pretty well rigged so that those at the top (and their organizations) control the action. You can’t really buck the system: Too much power, too much red tape, too much bureaucracy—they’ll wear you down.
And so on.
That’s not a bad way to start thinking about the big system that defines the overarching contours of our national life—namely, the large corporate-dominated economic system and the heavily constrained political system that set the terms of reference for almost everything else.
I want to push a bit deeper, however. Here’s the essential point: A system problem—as opposed to your usual garden-variety political problem—is one that isn’t going to go away through politics as usual. It will require somehow changing the way things are rigged deeper down in the machinery of institutions, corporations, bureaucracy, and all the other elements of the system that produce the outcomes we experience.
A system problem is difficult. It runs deep.
Everyone knows we have problems in the United States: unemployment, poverty, environmental decay, global warming—to say nothing of whole cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and many others that have essentially been thrown away. If you are black or brown, your prospects are far worse. And wars keep happening, with little positive outcome and lots of dead American kids (to say nothing of dead Iraqis, Afghanis, and others). Civil liberties decay, day by day, year by year.
So much is obvious. Moreover, this wealthiest of all wealthy nations has been steadily falling behind many other nations of the world. Consider just a few wake-up-call facts from a long and dreary list: The United States now ranks lowest or close to lowest among advanced “affluent” nations in connection with inequality (21st out of 21), poverty (21st out of 21), life expectancy (21st out of 21), infant mortality (21st out of 21), mental health (18th out of 20), obesity (18th out of 18), public spending on social programs as a percentage of GDP (19th out of 21), maternity leave (21st out of 21), paid annual leave (20th out of 20), the “material well-being of children” (19th out of 21), and overall environmental performance (21st out of 21).
Add in low scores for student performance in math (17th out of 21), one of the highest school dropout rates (14th out of 16), the second-highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions (2nd out of 21), and the third-highest ecological footprint (3rd out of 20).
Also for the record: We have the worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index (21st out of 21), one of the highest rates of failing to ratify international agreements, the highest military spending as a portion of GDP (1st out of 21), and among the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP.1