America the vulnerable

Sam Smith

What if Americans treated their cars and homes the way they do their politics, economics and foreign policy? In which case you might hear them say something like, “My home is a result of American exceptionalism and therefore it won’t burn down, so I don’t need any insurance.”

Insurance is based on vulnerability, and we have learned to pay cash money to cover that vulnerability. Our politics, economics, and foreign policy, on the other hand, are covered to an extraordinary degree only by our pride, presumption and fantasies, encouraged by hustlers and con artists in public office and the public media.

Some years ago, I addressed this issue from the point of view of another subculture that, like insurance agents, puts considerable importance on vulnerability- namely poker players. My suggested principles in dealing with environmental issues included;

1. Figure the stakes as well as the odds.

2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations – especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium – it is the latter odds that are important.

3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don’t have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time – or with the economy or with the environment – that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

5. Don’t let anyone – in industry, government, or the media – define an “acceptable level of risk” for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can’t stand the pain, don’t attempt the gain.

Yet these days, when we face a situation like the Ukraine, the Great Recession, or educating our children, such reasonable caution gets dumped in the can, and proposed solutions are typically rated on the basis of who brags about them, how much money they have to do so, and how comfortable they will make us feel if it all turns out like they say it will.

Imagine taking a good chunk of your savings to Las Vegas along with some advisors as unskilled or unsuccessful with poker as Arne Duncan, Bill Gates or Michele Rhee are with educating your kids? Or with some neo-liberal pals who had already lost at the table as many times as they had with their advice concerning Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan?

America at present is extremely vulnerable. Its economy has been downgraded, off-shored and  deposited in the pockets of the few. There is a stunning lack of intelligent or ethical leadership among its elite. Privatization is damaging everything from public spaces to public schools. We have never had so many incompetent frauds seriously trying to get to the White House.  Academia increasingly serves the corporate rather than the mind. Our choices are driven by propaganda rather than by common sense. Our cultural soul is just another commodity to be misleading hawked.

Much of this is the result of having taken risks we should have avoided and now is no time to be taking more of them, whether it be doing our macho thing in Russia’s back yard or teaching our children that life is just an endless multiple choice test.

America has done terrible damage to itself in recent decades. The answer lies not in increasing the risks we take but in figuring out ways to reduce our vulnerability for the ones we have already taken and creating more solid ground upon which to move into the future.

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