Bad and Good Things About the USA

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I have lived in the USA for over 40 years now and I have been a US citizen (a legal immigrant for once) for 15 years. I have also lived and worked in many other countries and I have had an opportunity to compare the US social and political system with those of other countries, mainly those of Germany, Colombia, Italy, Sweden, and France. Today, I would like to point out several things about the US system that I consider to be bad and pernicious and a few aspects of this country that I consider uniquely excellent and great.

First my pet peeves.

The earmarking or rider system of US legislation, a.k.a. “pork-barrel”

This system permits Congress to pass laws, which have hidden provisions that have nothing to do with the central theme or topic of the act. The so-called Obama Care Act is such a law. Remember, when Nancy Pelosi told the American people that in order to learn what was in the law they would have to wait until the law was passed? Most Congresspersons did not know, what all was in this law and passed it more or less blindly. Should not a bill pass after it was read, understood, and approved by all involved? The $787 billion so-called “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” is another example for a massive number of heterogenic projects all stuffed into a law of over 2000 pages. This law contained e.g. $3.4 million for a tunnel under highway 27 in Florida that was to allow wildlife – mainly turtles – to cross the highway safely.

Another outrageous earmark or rider of the ‘Stimulus” bill was $15,000 for Florida Atlantic University to study how alcohol affects the motoric system of drunken mice (Surprise! The mice behaved just like drunken humans). The “Big Dig” in Boston was the most expensive earmark in the history of transportation legislation. An above-ground highway to Boston’s Logan airport was to be moved underground to improve traffic flow. The project did improve traffic flow but at a cost of $14 billion (14,000,000,000)! There is also the “Teapot” earmark for the “Teapot Museum” in Sparta, North Carolina. It was secured by Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr to provide $500,000 for this tiny museum, which closed in 2010. And then there is the most famous of all earmarks: the “Bridge to Nowhere”. The bridge was to connect Gravina Island in Alaska with the mainland and provide a shorter trip to the Ketchikan Airport – for the 50 people who lived on the island. The cost was $190 million. Almost 4 million per inhabitant.

Earmarks are mostly in support of local projects, which allow a local elected congressperson to present him/herself as the champion of local interests. This is why earmarking has also another name: pork-barrel legislation. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, spoke directly against federally funded local projects. “[I]t will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.” Jefferson understood that earmarks and coercion would go hand in hand.

The theory is that such projects further local economic growth. Harvard University conducted an extensive study of how earmarks impact states. The researchers expected to find that earmarks drive economic growth but found the opposite. “It was an enormous surprise, at least to us, to learn that the average firm in the … state did not benefit at all from the unanticipated increase in spending,” said Joshua Coval, one of the study’s authors. The study found that as earmarks increase, capital investment and expenditures by private businesses decrease, by up to 15%. In other words, federal pork-barrel legislation crowds out private investment and slows job growth. In other words: earmarks are not only antidemocratic in that they are mostly hidden in a much larger legal text, but they are also counterproductive.

In Switzerland they have a law, which stipulates that the content of any law must be consistent with its topic or title and must deal with this topic alone and nothing else that is not directly related to the central topic of the law. It is called the principle of “Uniformity of Subject Matter” (USM). In Section 2.2 of this law it says:

The principle of USM demands that a single bill may only deal with one single subject matter or that several subject matters may only be dealt with in one and the same bill if an inner subject-matter connection exists between them.” (Emphasis in the original text)

This way, by reading the title of the law, a citizen or legislator will know with what it deals and with what not. Earmarking is making a joke out of democracy. I move to create such a law for the USA, as well – and it won’t have more than 200 pages. Any seconds?

The Cost of Litigation

Lawyers are over-represented in our legislative bodies. According to the Congressional Research Service, 170 members of the House and 60 Senators are lawyers. Out of a total of 435 U.S. Representatives and 100 Senators (535 total in Congress), lawyers comprise the biggest voting block of one type, making up 43% of Congress. 60% of the U.S. Senate are lawyers. 37.2% of the House of Representatives are lawyers. In 2020, the US population was 331,002,651 and 1,330,000 of them were lawyers, i.e. 0.4%. This means that lawyers are 150 times over-represented in the Senate and 93 times in the House. Small wonder we are a litigious nation. Those many lawyers in our legislative have turned law-making into a market development tool for the legal profession.

The nature of our legal and legislative environment makes for much money flowing into the pocket of attorneys and out of the pockets of litigants. The American legal system predominantly provides that each litigating party must carry its own legal expenses regardless of whether it loses or wins the lawsuit. This is an open invitation to frivolous litigation and it permits a financially stronger party to sue a financially weaker party into poverty and oblivion, even if the complaint has little or no value. The richer or financially more potent party can simply continue suing the poorer or financially weaker party until the latter runs out of resources. The weaker party may win the lawsuit. But it makes no difference. You are vindicated but you are broke. A legal system that leaves a citizen with the choice between succumbing to unjustified or freely invented complaints or defending against them and end up destitute, can hardly be called “just”.

That this is the ongoing practice in America is all the more astounding, as most European countries do not apply this approach. In Germany and most other EU countries, the losing party will end up having to pay the winning party’s legal expenses in civil litigation. The same applies to criminal lawsuits. If you have been accused of a crime by a public prosecutor and the verdict is that you are found innocent or that there is insufficient evidence that you are guilty, the government will have to pay all of your reasonable legal expenses. It is easy to see how this provision puts a damper on both civil and criminal frivolous lawsuits. I believe that a provision that the losing party in civil and criminal suit must reimburse the winning party for all its reasonable and verified legal expenses, is just common sense. I therefore move that we should all work toward passing legislation that makes it mandatory that the losing party must carry the legal cost of the winning party. Such a law would be a big contribution to the much talked about “social justice”. Any seconds?

Phone and power lines above ground

After WWII, the Germans looked at their cities that had been pulverized by Allied bombs and wondered if there was any way to build them back better. One thing the German civil engineers realized immediately was that all power and communication lines should be underground. Their neighbors, the Dutch, the French, the Austrians, also looked at their cities, which had been pulverized by the Germans, and came to the same conclusion. This is why, today, when you travel in Western Europe, you hardly ever see any telephone poles or cables in the air. In the process of rebuilding their countries, all of the European nations decided to move their power and communication lines underground. Compared to Western Europe, the USA looks more like India or Pakistan. There are between 160 and 180 million telephone poles (dead trees!) in the USA – nearly one per each two citizens.

Above: Typical telephone pole in India.

On right: Typical telephone pole in the USA.

I tried to find a telephone pole in Germany but failed. Duh. It’s all underground!

Why is it better to have all your power and communication lines underground rather than above ground?

  1. High winds often make trees fall on the power and communication lines. The result is a power and/or Internet outage that can last hours or days and costs much money to repair. We must also take the disruption of countless businesses into the equation and the resulting losses of revenue and taxes.
  2. In the winter, ice can make trees break and fall on the lines and again the result are power outages and communication breakdowns that take much time and cause much cost to repair.
  3. Telephone poles and transformers get often hit by lightning and cause fires in addition to power and communication breakdowns.
  4. Long power outages under extreme weather conditions can cost human lives.
  5. Above ground lines are easy to attack and destroy for terrorists. That makes this also a matter of national security.
  6. The cost of putting all those lines in the ground once is probably considerable, but the repeated combined repair cost and business damages that result from above ground lines are probably much higher.
  7. Removing these 180 million poles and dangling cables will probably be a significant cosmetic improvement of our natural landscape and of our cities and towns.
  8. Abandoning above-ground wiring would save the lives of millions of trees or allow us to use them for construction etc.

I therefore move to replace all telephone and power poles in the country with underground wiring asap. Any seconds?

And now the upsides.

The American Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The American Constitution is unique in that it stipulates that all rights of the citizens are rights bestowed upon us by God or Nature and not privileges granted to us by the government. I know of no other constitution that does that. This makes it theoretically impossible for the government to infringe or revoke our rights. Theoretically! Unfortunately, our governments have infringed on our God or Nature given rights many times and deeply so. Just think of the Second Amendment. It says in the strongest legal lingo “…shall not be infringed.” and yet how many infringements have they committed? Start counting.

The second most amazing fact about our Republic is that its very founders distrusted human integrity and ability to wield power with moral fortitude so much that, in spite of all the precautions and provision of the Constitution, they deemed it necessary to write a Bill of Rights that defines in greater detail what the government may do and what not, making it clear that they considered the Constitution insufficient protection against power-hungry politicians and ideologues and their lust for tyranny. The entire combination of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights makes a loud statement: We, the founding fathers of this Republic, distrust the political leaders that will come after us so much, that we need to lay down clearly and unequivocally that we want to protect THE PEOPLE from their own government and that the latter is there to serve the former and not vice versa. No other constitution that I have read makes this unmisunderstandable statement of distrust in government and removes the rights of the people from the grace of government to the grace of God. This alone should make every freedom lover a believer.

The constitutional Right to Insurrection

The Declaration of Independence, which may rightfully be considered the first-born twin of the Constitution, says this:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.(Emphasis by me)

In modern English this means: The People have unchangeable rights given to them by God. Government over them is only legitimate, if the governing protect these rights. If the people arrive at the conclusion that the government no longer protects their God-given rights, then the People have the right to alter or abolish the government and to institute some other form of government, which they see as better suited to protect those rights.

Bingo. If this does not amount to a constitutional right of insurrection, my name be Knipperdollinck. And I know of no other constitution that enshrines a right to insurrection.

The unbreakable spirit of the American people

I come from a nation that likes ideologies and trusts government. The Germans are so fascinated by the absolute nature of the essential that they even have a term and concept for the very core, heart, or nature of a matter. It’s the term “Wesen”, which is probably best translated with ‘essence’. The adjective is ‘wesentlich’ meaning ‘essentially’. This is pure Platonism. The Wesen of something is that which it is essentially, i.e. once you strip everything accidental from it, which is that which is not necessary for it to have, in order to be what it is. This boils down to something like Plato’s ideas. It is where the German tendency comes from to think everything through to its last and basic principles and hence their propensity toward systematic philosophical analysis and ideology. Or consider the English concept for all that exists – ‘reality’ – and the German one ‘Wirklichkeit’. Reality comes from the Latin term ‘res’ = ‘thing’ or ‘object’. For the English-thinking person then, reality is the sum of all things that exist. The principled and deep-thinking German’s concept of reality is based on the concept of ‘Wirkung’ = ‘effect’. The concept of ‘Wirklichkeit’ implies the notion of the totality of all effects and their necessary causes in the universe, because there is no effect without cause. The advantage of this concept is that it is dynamic, while ‘reality’ is a static concept. Its disadvantage is that, while it may be helpful to the scientist in his effort to understand the universe, it is of little practical use and consequence. This kind of mindset keeps the German focused on essential principles and ideological correctness, but it also makes him somewhat clumsy when dealing with practical real-life problems.

Here is what I have learned from Americans: That it is often more important to find a quick pragmatic solution to a problem than to endlessly ponder its ideological ins and outs. That practical capabilities are as important as or perhaps more important than academic knowledge or a principled philosophical approach. That tenacity, perseverance, and cost-efficient-mindedness are just as important or more important than perfection and that a humble can-do attitude combined with the actual ability to do what needs to be done, weighs much heavier than high-strung sophistication. I never met so many seemingly average people in my life who have not studied even half as long as I did, dwarfing my dual Ph.D. with their stunning practical knowledge and capabilities. It is because of these people that America is even there, and it is because of them that this country went through so many crises that were just as bad as or worse than our current one and each time came back stronger and more vitalized. I think I have shed quite a bit of my German ideology-orientation over the past 40 years, but I am still learning how to be a true American. Maybe, through the process of my own conversion, I can help my fellow Americans to understand that they all have a unique greatness and that they all – and to hell with color – are a bunch of pretty unique and great people – namely Americans. And I am proud to be one of them.

Let’s keep distrusting the government and preserving our constitution and our God-given rights while making our nation incrementally better in a pragmatic and un-ideological way – by putting those lines underground, prohibiting earmarking, and making the loser in court pay for the expenses of the winner. I hope y’all agree.

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