American Noir

<> on September 10, 2013 in New York City.

America’s Truth Is Scarier Than Hollywood’s Fiction

The other night we watched Pulp Fiction for maybe the fourth time. Halfway through the film I was jolted. It occurred to me suddenly that Americans today live inside a frightening, dystopian noir movie that makes Pulp Fiction pale by comparison. Director Quentin Tarentino tried to portray aspects of that condition in his film but, compared to the real-life, day-to-day realities that Americans face, his film looks like pretty tame stuff, more like a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy than a historically horrific cinematic experience. Just substitute John/Samuel for Rock/Doris. In Tarantino’s film there are half a dozen assassinations that made cinema history for their casual cruelty, but they’re like a walk in the park compared to normal American life over the past half century or so.

I suspect that you’re going to accuse me of exaggerating. Of course, I’m exaggerating. I need to get your attention. So just stick with me a bit more and I’ll prove to you that everyday life in America is far more horrific than Hollywood’s best/worst cine noir, better than Frankenstein, better than zombies, better than snuff. Have you ever seen a snuff film? Can you imagine a movie with 58,000 snuffees whose names were later etched on a monument 258 feet long in Washington DC? And those were just the American victims. There were many more–like millions–among the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Between American-inflicted “collateral damage;” the carpet bombing of great swaths of Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian territory; and the assassination of thousands of suspected Viet Cong collaborators carried out by the CIA under Operation Phoenix; Messrs. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger and McNamara, brewed up a movie that Messrs. Tarantino, Jackson and Travolta could never dream of.

And it’s not over yet. Vietnam veterans are still committing suicides attributible to their Vietnam experiences, but their statistics get swallowed up by those of more-recent war-related American military suicides, currently occurring at around 20 per day. According to  (June 29, 2018):

The 20-a-day rate has been relatively consistent since 2008. By that estimate, more than 58,000 veterans and troops have taken their own lives since 2008. Add roughly 20,000 more suicides for the three years prior to that, when the daily suicide rate was 19 a day (in 2007) and about 18 (in 2005 and 2006). Numbers for 2016, 2017 and 2018 are yet to be tallied. If they hold to 20 a day, by the end of this year the total number of suicides among veterans and troops will be more than 100,000 since 2005.

These lurid realities, I think you’ll agree, go far beyond the horrors of a couple of pretentious, Bible-quoting assassins shooting dope pushers in a Hollywood film.

Bringing It All Back Home

Not all of the American horror shows take place overseas, by any means. Most of them hit the American heartland. Would you be interested in a script that would make Tarantino’s blood run cold? Let’s talk about homelessness and poverty.

Last spring the Washington Post ran a story they called Homeless, Living in a Tent Blocks from the U.S. Capitol–and Working Full Time. In it they tell Monica Diaz’s story. Monica works full time in a fast-food outlet and sleeps, with her husband, Pete Etheridge, in a tent on the street. But even under those unthinkable conditions they are not secure from municipal harassment. This is their seventh tent; the other six have been swept away, along with their belongings, in raids by city police. The way to evade these evictions? Monica must stuff all of her belongings in black rubbish bags, take down her tent, put everything on a shopping cart and move it to another location until the police go away. Then she’s moves back in until the next rout. It seems to be the best the American capitol can do for its “more affluent” homeless, the ones with a job. This is the lesser homeless horror show. What is life like for people with no income, and with children? Let me guess. You try not to think about it.

Numbers of homeless peoplel in America in 2017:

553,000 total on a given night 2018 0.17% of population

According to http://www.opendoormission.com, the average age of a homeless person is nine years. But according to the New York Times, who interviewed the Department of Homeless Services, the average age across the whole system is 24 years. Estonia is the country with least homelessness with 0.06% of the population. The US has more than double that rate. According to joinpdx.org,  homelessness can essentially be broken down into four categories: chronic, episodic, transitional, and hidden. If we cut to the chase, the principal underlying cause of all of these modes is income inequality and we’re obliged to look at poverty.

Lurking Beneath Homelessness is Crushing Poverty

According to debt.org, more than 46 million Americans–15%–live in poverty today. Atd-fourthworld.org reports that the wealth of countries is usually rated by GDP per capita, and many statistics include the poor in that same basket. So when the rich get richer, they maintain, so do the poor. That’s not true. The rich can–and do–get immensely richer without the trend alleviating poverty in any way, whatsoever.

The Trump administration has made poverty in America much worse. Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib note, in an opinion piece published in The Guardian on New Year’s Eve, that Trump has just finalized the first of three policies that will make this inequality even more obscene. Just two years after passing a $1.5tn (that’s “trillion” with a “t”) tax giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and large corporations, the Trump administration now plans to eliminate nutrition benefits for 3.7 million people.

The second measure it to limit benefits to families who cannot afford childcare and decent housing. Add to this a determination to turn up the pressure on families who must choose between food or heat. Meanwhile, the Republican tax-cut scam is working perefectly. Today, the richest 400 billionaires pay lower taxes than any group in America – including the poor. Nearly 100 of the top Fortune 500 companies now pay zero taxes.

Down the Poverty-to-Prison Chute

The United States leads the world in mass incarceration with 788 prisoners per 100,000 population. A reasonable case can be made for a country’s incarceration statistics as a  pretty good indicator of its overall health and wellbeing. By that measure there’s the United States, topping the list of the most dystopian nations in the world. Is that because Americans are innately more evil than people from Argentina or Norway? I doubt that. Or is it that the least fortunate Americans are faced, virtually from birth, with an uphill struggle against poverty, inadequate education, failing social services, and alienating societal values. Unlike the first world, they don’t even have health care. And these conditions have gone from bad to worse thanks to anti-social measures taken by a series of right-wing governments which have given rise to an unheard-of level of income inequality.

In a society that embraces the Americans’ wild-west human values, for the children born into underprivileged America, it’s a short hop to violence and crime. They perceive that as their only option for getting rich quick–the universal American aspiration. And they’re not mistaken. So they are rounded up and sent to prison. About 25% of the world’s prison population is in the US, which currently has more than 2.1 million total prisoners. The prison population in 1972 was 200,000, almost 2 million less than it is today. Here are the comparative statistics by country (prisoners per 100,000 population) of the world’s top 10 lockups:

  1. United States (737)
  2. Russia (615)
  3. Ukraine (350)
  4. South Africa (334)
  5. Poland (235)
  6. Mexico (196)
  7. Brazil (193)
  8. Spain (144)
  9. Kenya (130)
  10. Netherlands (128) (Source: worldpopulationreview.com)

Despite President Trump’s lack of concern for American prestige abroad, as anybody with an IQ over 50 can discern, this is not a proud list to be on. And the United States is not only on it. The United States leads it.

If You’re White You’re All Right

Mass incarceration in the United States is, of course, a civil rights issue, as many argue that incarceration dehumanizes poor people and minorities, does not increase public safety and damages already marginalized communities. The creation of massive amounts of prisoners with ever-longer mandatory sentences has led to several other issues, including overcrowded prisons, which increase health risks and decreased psychological well-being. And we still haven’t touched upon the disproportionate numbers of minorities imprisoned in the United States. Let’s just look at the briefest of statistics. According to 2017 figures from pewresearch org, hispanic and black people make up 28% of the American population but 56% of federal and state prisoners, while white people, with 64% of the total US population, make up only 30% of its inmates. Something is clearly amiss in American society and it goes far beyond their minorities’ inborn penchant for crime.

Additionally, the increasing number of prisoners is putting a major strain on state budgets. Prisons must control and administer all aspects of life for inmates, which include lengthy and costly list of necessities. Prison costs include adequate security, food, recreational and education opportunities, infrastructure maintenance, utility costs for the facilities, and providing healthcare for the prisoners. State prison spending varies greatly and can be as high as $69,355 per inmate per year (the average cost of an inmate in New York).

Black Holes, Anyone?

Independent journalist, Will Potter, visited one of the quasi-secret US detention facilities that exist inside two prisons out there in flyover America. Here’s his 15-minute report:

Can you think of a screen writer who can make this stuff up? I can’t.

How Does It End?

Is this noir enough for you? I don’t want to bore you, though I could go on about titles like Americans Who Die by the Gun, The Uninsured, Children in Cages by Themselves, Victims of Homicidal Racism, Politicians Who Sell Democracy for Self Gain…

How does it all end? We can only guess. You want my guess? It’s not a happy ending.

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American Inequality is the Whistleblower

The United States has always been a country marred by the inequality of its citizens but never to the degree that exists today when the poles are more concentrated and farther apart. There are more rich Americans and they are richer than ever before. The poor are not only poorer but more numerous. What is more alarming is that people from the middle classes are slipping into poverty. Having a job is not always a solution. Many families in which the breadwinners are employed full time still can’t afford to have a home or a decent life.
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At the other end of the scale of inequality are the American rich, whose wealth and flashy lifestyles are unprecedented. The classic millionaire has slipped into the middle class; now it’s the billionaires who make the news. And it’s not just the Internet whizkids. Now even garden-variety bankers, accountants and company CEO’s–virtually anyone who can adjudicate his or her own salary–can also aspire to the vacuous elite.
According to a 2017 report on CEO pay from the Economic Policy Institute, chief executives at 350 top companies made $15.6 million on average in 2016—271 times what the typical worker earns. The CEO of Marathon Petroleum, Gary Heminger, took home an astonishing 935 times more pay than his typical employee in 2017.
Even Americans with “good jobs” are overworked and lack first-world working conditions. Any European worker is entitled to a month’s paid vacation in his or her first year of work. How long does it take the average American worker to merit a month’s vacation? Maternity leave in Spain has just been extended by their socialist government to 16 weeks, with an additional five weeks of paternity leave for the father.

Most of these statistics are from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality:
Wage Inequality
Over the last 30 years, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the overall level of inequality now approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression.

Education Wage Premium
Only college graduates have experienced growth in median weekly earnings since 1979 (in real terms). High school dropouts have, by contrast, seen their real median weekly earnings decline by about 22 percent.

Gender Pay Gaps
Throughout much of the 20th century, the average woman earned about 60% of what the average man earned. Starting in the late 1970s, there was a substantial increase in women’s relative earnings, with women coming to earn about 80% of what men earned.
This historic rise plateaued in 2005 and, since then, the pay gap has remained roughly unchanged.

Woman_pay

Women’s pay as a percentage of that of men

Child Poverty
The United States boasts fifth position in the world ranking of the percentage of poor children with 21 percent of its children in poverty,

Poverty_ranking
Health Insurance
In 2007, 8.1 million American children under 18 years old were without health insurance. Children in poverty and Hispanic children were more likely to be uninsured.

Bad Jobs
“Bad jobs” are typically considered those that pay low wages and do not include access to health insurance and pension benefits. As shown here, about 10% of full-time workers are in low-wage jobs, about 30% don’t have health insurance, and about 40% don’t have
pensions. The graph also shows that the likelihood of being in a bad job is much worse for part-time workers, for on-call and day laborers, and for those working for temporary help agencies.

bad_jpbs

Incarceration
The incarceration rate in the United States has grown so dramatically since the 1970s that the U.S. now has one of the highest rates in the world. The rise in incarceration has been especially prominent among young Black males and high school dropouts. As shown in this graph, a full 37% of those who are both young black males and high school dropouts are now in prison or jail, a rate that’s more than three times higher than what prevailed in 1980.

incarceration
Percent of 20-34-year-old men in prison or jail, by race, ethnicity,
and educational attainment, 1980 and 2008

under_bridge

Homelessness is as American as Apple Pie

Scenes of homelessness such as are seen on the streets of the United States today are unthinkable in any other country in the first world.

Homelessness

According to The Week, March 11, 2018, about 554,000 people in the U.S. were homeless on any given night in 2017 — including nearly 58,000 families with children — meaning they didn’t have a safe, permanent place to sleep. That figure represents a 1 percent rise since 2016 — the first time the nation’s homeless population has increased in seven years. But the country’s biggest cities, especially those on the West Coast, have seen a far bigger rise in homelessness. New York City, which has the nation’s largest homeless population, reported a 4 percent increase since 2016 to about 76,500 people, San Diego a 5 percent increase to 9,160, and Los Angeles a 26 percent increase to nearly 55,200.

Consider This Testimony Posted on Quora.com by an Open-eyed American Retiree

I am American. I am married to a French woman. I have worked for years in the United States and for years in Europe. Americans, including myself (as a working-class boy who became a university professor and Dean), are culturally molded (brainwashed) into believing that work is everything. Our lives revolve around the work we do.

I’m retired now, but in my final years as a top-level administrator I was working so hard— 10 hours a day, 6 days a week—that I did not take the vacations due me. At the end, my employer owed me more than 6 months vacation time. And, oh yes, a former employer fired me because at 55 years of age I was being paid too much in their view and they could hire a 30-year-old for much less. That is normal in America. There is no such thing as loyalty to a long time and valued worker. Workers are “inputs” into the process, not people. Americans have been raised to think this is the way it is and the way it should be.

I think it likely that the United States has been controlled by the elites at the economic top for a very long time—probably since the time of the famous “Robber Barons” of the late 19th century. Today the United States is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. The “wealth gap” is enormous. The top 1% are billionaires. There is literally nothing they cannot buy: law, tax codes, regulations, media outlets, controlling interests in big corporations, the entire healthcare and medical industry, the infamous “military industrial complex,” political campaigns, etc. In short, the government in the USA exists to serve the super wealthy.

In much of Europe governments (incredibly) seem to be truly inclined to see themselves as serving the people and their welfare. So, the government provides high quality and free (or very inexpensive) education—including at university level, as well as high-quality universal healthcare for everyone. And workers are given protections and rights that are unheard of in the USA, including at least 4 weeks vacation a year. Of course, the people pay higher taxes for these services, but it seems well worth it. And, Chief Officers of companies are not paid ludicrously high salaries and bonuses. In fact few companies in Europe are public corporations, and so the chief executives do not have the power to raise their own salaries and bonuses as do the American chief executives of the infamous public corporations (run by “agents” not by the owners).

In short: The American workplace is brutal and the European workplace is much more humane. Americans are trained to respond to this by saying “But American companies are more successful, they generate more wealth.” Not only is this untrue (the GDP of the EU is very close to that of the USA), but so much of the wealth created in the USA just goes straight up to the billionaires at the top. That’s why one out of seven families in the USA lives in poverty, and why the American working class has not progressed economically since the late 70s.

As long as Americans are willing to be brutalized in the workplace and accept a government dedicated to the oligarchs, nothing will change for them.

Greatness?

President Donald Trump says that his goal is to “make America great again,” and there’s nothing to keep him from doing just that. But he should be mindful that true greatness is not about invading Iran, nor bigger limousines, nor tax breaks for fat cats. It’s about taking care of your people–all of them.

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Read more rantings in my ebook, The Turncoat Chronicles.
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