Thursday, July 30, 2015

July 31 2015. Intellectuals aren’t much liked—but are they relevant in the U.S.? How important is intellect anyway? Could it be that in a highly manipulated, instant-satisfaction society, the thinkers finish last?

EDUCATIONAL MEDIOCRITY

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HAS DEVASTATING CUMULATIVE EFFECTS. IT SHOWS UP EVERYWHERE—GOOD GRIEF! EVEN, SO IT SEEMS,  IN THE MARINE CORPS.  DO SUCH THINGS MATTER?

A friend of mine, who knows the Marine Corps intimately—and who has much experience of training Marine Corps officers—once remarked to me that the average young officer had problems constructing a five sentence paragraph.

Ye gods! Did I hear the man correctly? I checked. I had.

His point was not that they were not eager, brave, practical, street-smart, and even intelligent. He was talking about how inadequately trained most of the young officers he lectured were at writing. They weren’t good at marshaling their thoughts, and they were even worse at expressing them in written form. Their minds, in his opinion, were woefully under-developed. Inexperienced by definition, they didn’t read nearly enough to have even an initial grasp of what they needed to know in a complex and dangerous world—and they certainly couldn’t write with logic and clarity.

He was extremely frustrated. He felt a very great deal of human potential was going to waste—and that Marines were going to die because of lack of clarity of mind..

His criticism was more directed at the U.S. educational system in general—and its neglect of the written word—than at the Marines. Nonetheless, it was a somewhat devastating comment on the Corps.

I have heard much the same thing said about the Army. One colonel, Doug Macgregor, memorably remarked (many times): “U.S. Army officers don’t read and study their profession. Their training at places like Command and General Staff college is just not intellectually demanding. They are not subject to competitive examinations.” 

I was taken aback by that comment about the Marines—though since our conversation was primarily about writing in general, didn’t pursue that specific matter for long. True, I seem to be able to write—and once received a very flattering review in the Marine Corps Gazette—but I’m far from sure I would have been able to make it as a Marine.

It takes all sorts to make this world go around.

However, I have never forgotten that lecturer’s criticism. He had made it very clear—after I had queried him somewhat incredulously—that he had meant his observation literally.

What I have observed, again and again, is that the U.S. military—despite making much noise about wanting the most qualified intake, doesn’t rate intellectual achievement particularly highly (and I am being tactful here). In fact, if an officer really wants to put his career at risk, practically the optimum move is to write a book about his service.

You can then virtually guarantee that you’ll be passed over for promotion no matter how heroic you have been in combat—or how you have excelled intellectually.

Have I been deeply involved in all this? Absolutely—but I’ll safe the details for my memoirs.

Such a book invariably questions the status quo—and attracts attention—both things that senior officers dislike. They prefer clubbable people who will go along to get along, not intellectually curious warriors. If there is any thinking to be done, they would prefer it be done by generals—or, at least, for general officers to get the credit.

Generals, they believe (or choose to believe), are the repository, of all wisdom (even if they leave action officers to do the hard work of thinking). Such a notion has nothing to do with reality. It’s a cultural belief which induces a warm and fuzzy feeling of superiority—and no small fuzziness of mind.

Of course, I’m hopelessly biased—since I spend my time thinking and writing—but I tend to think that this neglect of the intellectual (subject to some truly impressive exceptions) serves the U.S. ill. I’m far from the first to comment on this lack.

It shows up in virtually ever facet of American life—and God preserve, you, if you encounter it in the bureaucracies (government or corporate—makes no difference). The sheer scale of the U.S., combined with its educational system, seems to induce a very special class of mindlessness.

But, I am much consoled by the exceptional caliber of my American friends—including those who are Marines (or former Marines).

Let me make a further confession. I even know some very bright Army generals.

Understanding the steady and troubling decline in the average intelligence of Marine Corps officers

Delaney Parrish | July 24, 2015 10:03am

When the United States ended the draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer military in 1973, there was concern about who would join and whether the transition would negatively impact the quality of the force, which many suspected it would.

As it turns out, the quality of the force as a whole actually increased over time. In 1977, 27.1 percent of new enlisted recruits met the military’s standard for being “high quality,” meaning that they possessed a high school diploma and above-average intelligence relative to the U.S. population as a whole. Decades later, at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 60 percent of new enlisted recruits met the high quality standard.

But what about military officers? Though commissioned officers comprise only about 16 percent of the force, they clearly have a major impact on the success of the military as a whole given their leadership role for their troops and responsibility for strategy and tactics.
So are today’s officers up to the task?

In new research, Brookings’ Michael Klein and Tufts University’s Matthew Cancian—a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan—take a closer look at this question and uncover a troubling pattern.
After analyzing test scores of 46,000 officers who took the Marine Corps’ required General Classification Test (GCT), Klein and Cancian find that the quality of officers in the Marines, as measured by those test scores, has steadily and significantly declined over the last 34 years.
Average GCT Scores of Incoming Officers

The General Classification Test (GCT) from World War II to present day


So what exactly is the GCT, and how are the scores used by the U.S. military? The GCT dates back to World War II, when it was developed to help classify incoming servicemen. Designed to have a mean score of 100, with a standard deviation of 20, 120 was used as the bar for entry into Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS).


After World War II, the military replaced the GCT with the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The Marine Corps, however, still administers the GCT to officers at The Basic School (TBS) because it strongly predicts their success there.


TBS is a six-month course that all Marine officers attend after completing two prior requirements: Obtaining a four-year college degree and attending Officer Candidate School.

GCT scores over time

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Marine Corps, Klein and Cancian received data on the GCT scores of all officers—46,000 altogether—from Fiscal Year 1980 to Fiscal Year 2014.


After analyzing the data, the authors uncovered a startling trend: A statistically significant decline in scores over the past 34 years, the magnitude of which, the authors say, “is relevant given the distribution of the scores.”
Other key findings include:

  1. Eighty-five percent of those taking the test in 1980 exceeded a score of 120, which was the cut-off score for officers in World War II. In 2014, only 59 percent exceeded that score.
  2. At the upper end of the distribution, 4.9 percent of those taking the test scored above 150 in 1980 compared to 0.7 percent in 2014.
  3. Over 34 years, the average score decreased by 6.6 percent, from 130.9 to 122.1.
  4. Taken together, the 8.2-point drop in average score represents 80 percent of an entire standard deviation’s decline (from 10.5 in 1980 to 9.6 in 2014). In other words, today’s Marine officers scored nearly an entire standard deviation worse, on average, than their predecessors 34 years ago.
GCT Scores, Statistics for Selected Years
Why more Americans going to college might be having unexpected effects on officer quality


So what’s causing this steady decline in GCT scores? According to Klein and Cancian, the decline in officer quality might actually have to do with the fact that more people are receiving college degrees than ever before: The authors note that the decrease of GCT scores over time correlates to an increase in the college participation rate during that same period.
GCT Scores and College Participation Rates
A four-year degree is required to become an officer. Therefore, the authors posit, as more people who may not have obtained four-year degrees in the past receive them, more people who would otherwise not be eligible for commissions become viable applicants. Because the decline concerns all college graduates, it has likely also impacted the other military services.

Klein and Cancian also address claims that changing demographics in the military may be driving the decline in scores. In particular, the authors look at the effects of a higher proportion of women and Hispanics in the force, as well as the military’s efforts to actively recruit more African-American officers.
What they find very much disputes claims that affirmative action or changing demographics have played any role in declining officer quality: “We find, in fact, a positive association between African-American officers and mean GCT score, perhaps because recruitment efforts by the Marine Corps have attracted minority officers who are more qualified than the typical college graduate,” say Klein and Cancian. The authors also note that the proportion of Hispanic officers has no statistically significant impact on the decline in score.

Today’s less qualified officer candidates will be tomorrow’s senior military leaders

Klein and Cancian stress the importance of acknowledging and reversing the decline in officer quality as measured by the GCT score not just for the short-term impacts it has. The junior officers of today will become the generals of tomorrow; if the military does not receive the intelligent young leaders today that it used to receive in the past, it will not have high quality generals in the future.


“What has been the impact of this drop in quality on the effectiveness of the military? Answering this question is beyond the scope of this paper. Given the myriad studies associating performance with intellect, however, it is hard to imagine anything other than a seriously deleterious impact on the quality of officers and, by extension, on the quality and efficacy of the military,” say the authors.
Read Klein and Cancian’s full paper here »


July 30 2015. Feel free to panic. Someone needs to. Besides, screaming is such a release!

THE U.S. ECONOMY—IT IS ALL OF A PICTURE (It so reminds me of Dorian Gray)

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SUPERFICIALLY RECOVERING—BECAUSE OF DEBT—BUT FUNDAMENTALLY STRUCTURALLY FLAWED (and severely so)

GREECE ON STEROIDS? OR WORSE?

I find it extremely disconcerting that more American economists are not expressing extreme concern about the U.S. economy. Here, I largely don’t mean the routine statistics that are trotted out to predictable responses—and largely misunderstood, or ignored, by the general public—but ‘the fundamentals.’

The Federal Reserve is even considering raising interest rates because there are some signs that pay is beginning to increase (a long overdue—and much needed—development). The Fed’s behavior is so dubious that I’ll leave comment on it for another day—but, suffice to say that the Fed, just in itself, is one of the fundamental problems.

You would be wise not to buy a used car from it. It props up a bunch of people who almost certainly should be in prison. It consistently ignores the fact that it is supposed to be as concerned about ensuring full employment as keeping inflation under control. It does what author Edgar Wallace used to call ‘so-and so’ and ‘such-and-such’ in his Sanders of the River books. The implication was of depravity of some kind.

What are the fundamentals? They are the things that really matter. If you were talking about a house, your fundamentals would include the foundation, the walls, and the roof. If your foundation was unsound, and your walls were cracked, it would be said that such a house had structural problems. They might, or might not, be evident. Cracks can be filled in and papered over. Either way, they would be there—and if they continued, the house would fall down.

Houses aren’t supposed to do that. Inconvenient if they fall on top of you.

The U.S. economy, which is run according to ‘The American Business Model,’ has structural problems because some of its fundamentals are flawed, distorted, rigged, corrupted, or otherwise not working correctly.

Let me list a few economic fundamentals to give you the general idea. Some are obvious, some are less so. Judgment comes into the picture. But, here are some examples.

  • A POLITICALLY FAIR, JUST, & EFFECTIVE SYSTEM. An economic system doesn’t function in a vacuum. It is a subset of a political system. Research has demonstrated—and events prove—that the current U.S. political system is dominated by lobbyists, corporate interests, and Big Money and the average American doesn’t have a voice.
  • ADEQUATE DEMAND. People obtain jobs because the goods and services they manufacture, or otherwise supply, are in demand. If demand is inadequate, either there are not enough jobs and/or the pay is inadequate. The U.S. has lacked adequate demand since the Great Recession in late 2007. The obvious solution would be to boost it, but the Republican Party has either blocked or whittled down most attempts. Pay, for many, remains so low that government subsidies are required for them to live. That is not free enterprise. A full-time job should not require a government subsidy. That is corporate welfare on a massive scale.
  • GOOD LABOR RELATIONS. America has just about the worst labor relations of just about any developed country. Worker rights are minimal. The unions in the private sector are nearly crushed. Job security is minimal. Paid vacations are either unavailable or short. Management is largely authoritarian.
  • INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY. It should come as no surprise that U.S. productivity is now increasing minimally—and is declining in some sectors. Combine a de-motivated, badly led workforce with a lack of investment and poor infrastructure—and the consequences are predictable.
  • A WELL EDUCATEDF, TRAINED & LED WORKFORCE. The inadequacies of the U.S. educational system are widely known—as is the reluctance of American managements to invest in training. Leadership, at best, may be described as spotty.
  • FULL EMPLOYMENT AT ADEQUATE PAY. No one is too sure what full employment is these days. It used to be considered 5% but now economists are wondering because worker pay should go up in response to demand at that point—but largely isn’t (because there is still slack in the economy and workers have minimal bargaining power). Add in the fact that far too many people are not being given enough hours, are in the wrong jobs, or have just opted out of the workforce, and it soon becomes clear that the U.S. is not close to full employment at adequate pay.
  • AFFORDABLE GOODS & SERVICES. Just about everything a human being could ever want or dream of is available in the U.S., but much of it is beyond the reach of most Americans. There are serious problems with Healthcare, Education, Car costs and Housing (and a whole lot else). Because so many people cannot afford to live on their pay, they are being driven into debt just to pay for necessities.
  • A COMPETITIVE & EFFECTIVE HEALTHCARE SYSTEM. The U.S. Healthcare System has become a major drag on the U.S. economy to a degree that is hard to overemphasize. It is so much more expensive than that of the competition that it undermines international competitiveness and distorts take-home pay. Worker compensation may increase as healthcare costs go up but take-home pay does not. On top of that, American is not particularly effective and doesn’t rate well internationally.
  • EFFECTIVE COMPETITION. Major corporations have been concentrating for years. Most market sectors are now dominated by only a handful of corporations. De-facto monopolies are now common. Since competition is supposed to police a free market economy, in its absence, there is a serious problem here.
  • A COMPREHENSIVE AND WELL MAINTAINED INFRASTRUCTURE. The U.S. has been failing to invest in its infrastructure for decades and the deficit is now up to several trillion dollars.
  • ADEQUATE CAPITAL FOR SMALL BUSINESS. The banks, despite extraordinary support by the Fed, have actually cut back on lending to Small Businesses since the Great Recession. 

The data may not be either well or adequately covered, as far as the general public is concerned, but you would think an economist would do his or her own homework, and have reached certain inevitable conclusions. The information may be badly communicated, but the facts are out there.

But they don’t. Either they will comment on a specific set of figures—which is normally all they are asked about—or they will stay silent.

Either they genuinely don’t see what is going on—in which case you would have to worry about their competence—or they are too gutless to speak out—even in the National Interest. Frankly, I suspect the latter. Careerism is rife these days, and such a pattern of behavior does not include doing the right thing. In fact, it precludes moral courage to a distressing degree.

My interpretation of the data over a decade now—I started seriously in 2004—has led me to the following conclusions (amongst others). It seems to me they are sel-evident, but that doesn’t seem to be the opinion of most U.S. Economists and the Fed.

I am an outcast (but right).

  • FLAWED AMERICAN BUSINESS MODEL. The American Business Model is structurally flawed, and needs to be changed drastically before the U.S. economy will thrive again (not to be confused with appearing to thrive because of some unsustainable ingredient such as debt).
  • GREED DRIVEN MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY.A management that focuses solely on maximizing shareholder value, invests obsessively in share-buybacks, rewards CEOs and senior executives to excess—and ignores the wellbeing of its workers, suppliers, customers, community, and the National Interest—cannot succeed over the longer-term. Far from all firms are like this, but it seems to be the prevailing ethos.
  • FINANCIALIZED ECONOMY. Currently, financialization has an excessive grip on the economy and is hindering growth, economic wellbeing, and the American Way of life in general. It’s a disaster.
  • DISTURBING PAY, PRODUCTIVITY, & DEBT ISSUES. An economy based upon virtually static pay, declining productivity increases, rising debt, rising corporate profits, a booming stock market and ever increasing levels of income inequality is unsustainable—and must eventually lead to social unrest.
  • NO LONGER A DEMOCRACY. A representative democracy where only those who fund politicians are listened to is no longer a democracy. If only the rich have clout—and run matters exclusively to suit themselves—it’s  a plutocracy.
  • CHRONIC UNDERINVESTMENT. A nation that under-invests in training, R&D, plant and equipment—and infrastructure—year after year won’t remain internationally competitive for long, and must decline.
  • FEDERAL RESERVE OFF TRACK. The Federal Reserve—which, in the final analysis—supports the Big Banks and the financial sector despite the most appalling behavior—needs re-thinking.
  • NO ANSWERS BEING OFFERED. No adequate answers are, as yet, being presented by either political parties, or, presidential candidates, to the point where it is far from clear they accept there is a problem—let alone a whole series of inter-connected problems which add up to an existential threat. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are on the right track—but even they don’t seem to have come to grips with the sheer scale of the issues.

Since I seem to be somewhat isolated in expressing my concerns, have I given any though to the possibility I may be madly, deeply, and absolutely wrong?

Of course, I have. We writers are are mass of angst, self-doubt, and insecurity. Fascinating people, but hell to live with, so they say! Why do you think we work alone?

It would be great to one of the guys—and not be bullied on the playground.

But, then there is the small matter of the evidence. It increases by the day—and its conclusions are ever stark. Go pick a key economic figure—and then evaluate it in context—and you will see for yourself. The great mistake—which is made constantly—is to look at economic figures in isolation.

You need the whole jigsaw (or a big piece of it). The piece below demonstrates that U.S. consumers are reverting to their debt driven ways—except his time with the added bonus of educational loan debt.

The Great Recession Part 2 would seem to be in preparation. It looks like having a similar cast. Little has changed since The Great Recession Part 1. 

4-13-15-CreditCardBalanceBarChart (1)

credit card debt

chart-of-the-day-credit-card-debt-swallows-american-households


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

July 29 2015. A feature of my school reports—even after winning a prize, or doing particularly well—used to be “could try harder.” It still applies to much of my life, but I’m not sure it would be true where writing is concerned. There, I’m about as committed as any human being can be to anything—and feel blessed accordingly.

MOST OF US TEND TO THINK OF CHURCHILL AS A WAR LEADER & POLITICIAN

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I SUSPECT HE MAY BE UNDERESTIMATED AS A WRITER

"Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and the glory of the climb. ('Painting as a Pastime', the Strand Magazine, December 1921)" -Winston Churchill

I tend to react with interest to any and all quotes to do with writing—and have been particularly taken with the above. It conveys virtually exactly what I feel, though in an even more positive way.

When I write about writing, I notice I tend to emphasize the struggle aspect rather more—and I frequently remark that “we writers live with failure.”

This isn’t because I don’t feel as positive about writing as Churchill felt about painting, but more that I empathize with all who struggle to fill a page—and prefer not to gloss over the difficulties. People who struggle like to feel that their efforts, fears, and frustrations, are understood and appreciated.

We writers suffer, I’ll have you know—and should, of course, be admired accordingly! A vain plea since we mostly write alone and unseen—our efforts witnessed. Damn fools as we are, we even prefer it that way.

I also tend to add that, at least as far as I am concerned, I regard failure as a writer—by which I mean one’s failure to write quite as well as you would like (and not commercial failure) as more joyous than success in another field).

Generally speaking, you would think that success would be more satisfying than it is—and I have enjoyed a great deal of it at various times in various fields (as well as a more than an adequate share of failures) but the reality is that it is an ephemeral feeling—though invaluable as an incentive to try something even harder.

You would think, given the amount of time we writers invest in our craft, that we would get to know our limitations—and accept them.

I regard it as a particularly fine thing that we don’t.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28 2015. Food, food, glorious food! But (a whole lot) less of it is better. But what is ‘it’ really?

THE U.S. IS FACED WITH TWO SERIOUS FOOD ISSUES

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QUANTITY AND QUALITY (about which we care little—and know less).

ONE IS BEGINNING TO BE ADDRESSED. THE OTHER IS AT LEAST AS SERIOUS—AND SEEMS TO BE RECEIVING MINIMAL ATTENTION

Back in September 2013, I decided that since there were a number of things beyond my capabilities and circumstances to  control—scarcely a new discovery—I would not repine, but focus on what I could master.

It wasn’t a lot—but it was important.

To that end, amongst other things, I decided I would eat significantly less—and better—and try to exercise a little more. Shortly after that, more as an exercise in self-discipline than to cut calories, I decided I would eat only one meal a day. I had noticed that I was feeling a little sluggish, after even a comparatively light lunch, and wanted to retain my writing edge.

Do I think of writing as a sword? Not literally—but it conveys the spirit of the thing.

I don’t think I am particularly strong-willed—but, where writing is concerned, I tend to be as motivated as a human being can be—and motivation is a force to be reckoned with.

Like most of us, I have dieted before—sometimes with significant success, sometimes not—but, in this case, I was after a lifestyle change.

When you reach my age, that is not so hard, because you don’t face decades of deprivation. Your quest becomes manageable. Getting old, strangely enough, has its compensations. I guess that is why we bother.

The results have been entirely positive to the point where I feel decidedly foolish for not doing this before. I feel better, I have more energy, and I have lost a great deal of weight. On top of that, it hasn’t even been that difficult. I don’t miss eating breakfast, rarely miss having lunch—and, by and large, find one course in the evening adequate. If I’m still hungry, I’ll eat more—but mostly I find I’m satisfied with a comparatively small meal.

I eat a little meat, a lot of fish, some fruit, and as many vegetables as I can lay my hands on. I eat a little pasta, but have cut back on bread—and avoid sugar, or anything containing sugar, as if was poison. It probably is.

Do I sin occasionally? Well, I have experienced enough Catholic guilt in my life to last for generations—so I have built some degree of flexibility into my regime. I’m not after perfection—merely better. Nonetheless, I depart from my chosen standards much more rarely than I would have expected—even when I am accused of being discourteous.

If people don’t understand the discipline of a diet—and take the refusal of food as ill-mannered—then I don’t have much sympathy for such people.

Despite being high in calories, I have continued to eat good cheese—normally without bread, and frequently by itself. It seems to round off a meal somehow. The French know what they are doing.

What is good cheese? It is stuff like Camembert or Stilton—and mostly not American. Clearly, cheeses like Camembert are processed—but in a very natural way. There is processing and processing.

What is the difference? I can’t tell you with precision—but it is there, and it is profound. Conventional American food processing involves the addition of unhealthy chemicals and fillers, the utilizations of processes which degrade the nutritional value, and excessive, unhealthy, and misleading packaging. Deception underpins the whole approach. The idea is to deceive you into thinking you are getting a substantially better product than you really are.

Is an industry based upon deception to be trusted?  

I never touch soft drinks. I drink an enormous amount of tea with milk and stevia during the working day—and some alcohol in the evening. I have tried doing without alcohol completely, but seem to function better on it. I prefer wine to beer, but these days enjoy both.

Relative success with diet hasn’t left me cocky. I still don’t eat as many vegetables as I would like because it’s socially difficult—I can only manage it when I cook for myself (I eat about four times as much as a traditional portion of vegetables)—but my real concern lies with the quality of our food.

As I have written elsewhere, I tend towards the view that the American food chain is a health disaster, and that we are poisoning ourselves on an industrial scale.

Quite why that receives so little attention defeat me. Cancer and all sorts of worrying conditions are rife and growing. Why is this? There is always a cause for such developments.

I guess it isn’t seen as a vote getter. In contrast, condemning terrorists seem to get the blood running.

Throat-cutting ISIS is more compelling, in media terms, than the threat from sugar-saturated yoghourt.

If it bleeds, it leads!

Perhaps we need a new slogan specially crafted for the food industry.

If it fills, it kills.

It is my belief that American food kills vastly more people than terrorists—by many orders of magnitude. We already know that the quantity does—but seem determined to dodge the quality issue. Big Food has the resources to buy political silence—and it certainly knows, with considerable precision, how to tempt, hook, and otherwise manipulate us. We humans like to think we make up our own minds, but we are remarkably easy to condition.

It is hard not to be reminded of Big Tobacco. Should we constrain Big Food as well? It’s counter-intuitive—since we all need food and like to think we have the freedom to choose what we eat, but if we are being manipulated to the extent that I believe we are, maybe we are not really deciding for ourselves after all.

Sooner or later, I would like to think we will wake up—preferably while still alive.

The following is from a New York Times story of July 24 2015.

After decades of worsening diets and sharp increases in obesity, Americans’ eating habits have begun changing for the better.

Calories consumed daily by the typical American adult, which peaked around 2003, are in the midst of their first sustained decline since federal statistics began to track the subject, more than 40 years ago. The number of calories that the average American child takes in daily has fallen even more — by at least 9 percent.

The declines cut across most major demographic groups — including higher- and lower-income families, and blacks and whites — though they vary somewhat by group.

In the most striking shift, the amount of full-calorie soda drunk by the average American has dropped 25 percent since the late 1990s.

As calorie consumption has declined, obesity rates appear to have stopped rising for adults and school-aged children and have come down for the youngest children, suggesting the calorie reductions are making a difference.

Perhaps the biggest caveat to the trend is that it does not appear to extend to the very heaviest Americans. Among the most overweight people, weightand waist circumference have all continued rising in recent years.

The recent calorie reductions appear to be good news, but they, alone, will not be enough to reverse the obesity epidemic. A paper by Kevin Hall, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, estimated that for Americans to return to the body weights of 1978 by 2020, an average adult would need to reduce calorie consumption by 220 calories a day. The recent reductions represent just a fraction of that change.

Monday, July 27, 2015

July 27 2015. I once though it would be very convenient if rain confined itself to falling only on rivers, lakes, and the sea.

NOW I’M BACK IN EUROPE

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WHAT DIFFERENCES AM I NOTICING BETWEEN THE U.S AND EUROPE?

I have actually resolved not to write too much about the contrast until I have been back some time—and have reached some kind of equilibrium. Also my primary intellectual focus (as far as countries are concerned) will remain the U.S. for the foreseeable future—whether I’m living there or not, whether it is in decline or not.

Either way, it remains a Great Power, and interesting for that reason alone.

The story is the thing, as far as this writer is concerned, and it remains a great story—though I don’t know whether it should be entitled DECLINE & FALL OF A GREAT EXPERIMENT or THE GREAT AMERICAN TURNAROUND. Fascinating either way.

Being a great fan of Roman history, I always wanted to see Rome in its heyday. Since, I haven’t managed to lay my hands on a time-machine as yet, monitoring the U.S. remains my next option.

At present, I’m in the UK—after being away for well over three decades (about half my life). The place feels both strange and familiar. Great change has taken place over that time; but, superficially, much of it looks the same. I doubt I’ll feel that way when I see London again. When I was a kid in the 40s, you could still see extensive evidence of the WW II bombing. Now, when I look at photos, I can scarcely recognize the place.

Here are some observations of no great earth-shattering significance.

  • I like the way the British have kept hedges and have relatively small fields. Hedges do take up land which could be used for crops, but they are invaluable for wildlife and look beautiful. I love the things. I am no fan of vast hedge-less fields and monoculture—and I’m not even sure it’s efficient. You can’t restore soil with fertilizer alone, so monoculture, which relies upon such such a method, produces food that is less and less nutritious, as the years go by—and pollutes the surrounding waterways with an excess of nitrates.
  • Motorways (freeways) apart, some of the British roads are frighteningly narrow—to the point where two cars can scarcely pass. Sometimes, one car has to pull in and stop. Have I the nerve to drive on these things? Probably. Irish roads are little better, and I learned to drive on them.
  • After decades of thinking I didn’t much like British beer, I have learned that I like bitter a great deal—a convenient discovery. Though I have never been much of a pub frequenter in the past, I find I now also  like pubs, which I regard as a wonderful social institution. Sadly, British pubs are under considerable pressure.  
  • Although the UK is scarcely short of retail chains and big box stores, there still seem to be vastly more local shops—at least in this immediate area—which I like. When walking the dogs today (a new experience for me—and unexpectedly pleasant)—I noticed in my road alone (and not a particularly long one):
    • A post office
    • A health club
    • A hardware store
    • Several off-licenses
    • Several barbers and hairdressers
    • Several well stocked, but small, grocery stores
    • A newsagent
    • A supplier of raw materials for making your own beer and wine.
    • A climbing equipment store.
    • A butcher.
    • Multiple restaurants and coffee-houses.

and much else besides. Most of the basics available within walking distance. No bank, but an ATM machine. Needless to say, this being England, the road has pavements (sidewalks) and there are plenty of walkers in evidence—and a convenient bus service. Public transport—something I believe in—is considered important in Europe.

Whereas, I accept the utility of cars—I’d be a damn fool not to—I have never been particularly keen on cars, and prefer to do without one if I can. I have never been much of a sports enthusiast, or keen on exercising—but I have always enjoyed walking daily.

You notice more when you walk, it keeps me moderately fit, it promotes thinking,and I have mastered the art of walking while carrying a bag in one hand, and an umbrella in the other. Come to that, I can handle dog leads too.   

Based upon the weather I have encountered in the UK so far, I’m going to need that umbrella.

That’s fine with me. Anyone brought up in Ireland is pretty used to rain. It’s useful stuff, you know—though I prefer it after it has landed.

We call it water then. Fish may fuck in it, (courtesy of W.C.Fields) but, beer wouldn’t be the same without it.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

July 26 2015. What a relief.For some time I have felt like the only person stating the obvious—that America has severe structural problems, and is in (reversible?) decline. Now TIME magazine has just run a story saying just the same thing. Better late than nothing. That said, TIME is very late. By my reckoning, U.S. decline started in 1973.

U.S. DECLINE IN RELATIVE TERMS WAS TO BE EXPECTED. NEW EMERGING NATIONS CAN—AND DO—LEARN FROM MORE DEVELOPED NATIONS AND LEAPFROG

VICTOR - SHOT BY MICK - WEBSITE 1

HOWEVER, AMERICA HAS BEEN LOSING GROUND IN ABSOLUTE TERMS, AS WELL, IN SECTOR AFTER SECTOR

The TIME story is frustrating because it is really only a report on a report—and doesn’t get to grips with either the causes or the solutions.

Shoddy, but typical!

In that sense, its very mediocrity is illustrative of the subject it is writing about. In fact, the inadequacies of the U.S. main media play no small role in the decline—though some lesser known American publications, such as www.theatlantic.com are exceptional.

The frustrating thing is that the information is out there, but takes work to find. It is accessible, but not readily so.

Generally speaking, Americans aren’t being kept well informed about what is going on in other countries. Instead, there is a disconcerting tendency for much U.S. media to gloat over sundry foreign setbacks—rather than focusing on the numerous ways where other countries have been pulling ahead.

Schadenfreude has become the American media way—and it does not serve the country to advantage. It foments ignorance, but doesn’t make Americans feel content. They might not know the facts, or the scale of the problems, but uneasiness, to the point of fear, is pervasive.

One of the more telling manifestations of this is a truly massive breakdown in trust in virtually all U.S. institutions. The very structures that together constitute functional America are, by and large, held in low regard—from Big Business to the media, from the legal system to education.

Congress is trusted by fewer than 10 percent of the population. The military are trusted most—by over 70 percent—a decidedly unhealthy situation, particularly given the pervasive corruption and influence of the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex), and its unhappy habit of engaging in a whole series of expensive, but inconclusive, wars.

 

What are the causes of U.S. decline?

I write about this subject regularly, but it really deserves an essay of length rather than the relative brevity of a blog. Nonetheless, let me risk a long blog and hazard a few reasons—since I have just criticized TIME for skipping this fundamental aspect.

Do not regard these few thoughts as my definitive contribution on the matter. They are more of a place-holder.

AN OBSOLETE CONSTITUTION.

The U.S. Constitution is an extraordinary document and has served the Nation well throughout much of its history. Yet, it was always a flawed document—as its initial tolerance of slavery demonstrated—and has needed modifying much more fundamentally, and regularly, than has actually happened.

The Founders expected it to be modified in the light of changing circumstances, so they would undoubtedly be both surprised, and shocked, to find it has been amended as little as it has. They created what they expected would be a dynamic, evolving document—but instead it has become, in many ways, an instrument of repression.

A core weakness is that, over time, the rich, in particular, have learned to game the Constitution to serve their purposes. In effect, the Constitution has become the tool that enables them to rig the system to their advantage. They are able to do this for a number of interconnected reasons.

  • Through being able to pack the Supreme Court with business friendly judges—and thus use the court to block labor-friendly legislation. This has done untold damage to U.S. labor relations because it has minimized the incentives to compromise. Business knows it has all the power, so is damned if it is not going to use it.
  • Through having corporations granted the same legal rights as people. This insanity has increased corporate power to excess and enabled it to gain substantial control of the political system.
  • Through, mainly thanks to the Supreme Court, being able to make money in politics the dominant force—way ahead, in terms of impact, of the electoral process. In effect, the rich are able to do whatever they want largely unhindered. Since all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the consequences have not been positive.

 

CLASS WAR ON A TRULY EPIC SCALE

If nothing else, two world wars have taught Europe in particular—and more than a few other countries—that social justice is a more productive option than social oppression. This doesn’t mean that Europeans are kinder, nicer, or that human nature differs the other side of the Atlantic. Instead it means that bitter experience has taught Europeans that cooperation will almost certainly have a more positive outcome than confrontation.

As a consequence, you have the evolution of the EU, European soft power, and a legislative system that curbs corporate excess, and grants European workers substantial rights—including adequate vacations.

We are not talking a worker paradise here—merely a more humane, flexible, lower-risk, and motivating work environment

In contrast, the American rich—who have known little but success (if one ignores such tragedies as the Vietnam War) haven't developed a comparable mindset, and instead embarked on a campaign in the early 70s to restore corporate power to its dominant position, subdue workers, and destroy the trade union movement. 

They had never really accepted the New Deal in the 30s, were too busy making money during, and after, WW II to care, but, in the 60s, were particularly rattled by such developments as the Civil Rights Act, the 1968 riots, and the rise of international competition—as other countries recovered from the devastation of WW II. They felt that the dominant status of American Business was at risk—and were determined to regain the high ground.

They didn’t have the numbers in terms of voters, but they had the money, the connections, the organizational skills, and the propaganda expertise so they had ever reason to be confident of success. Since they already knew how to manipulate the average American for commercial reasons—regardless of the merits of the products—they determined to use similar techniques for political ends. In fact, they soon appreciated that they could manipulate voters to both work, and vote, against their own interests. It was just a matter of playing on their fears and pressing the right emotional buttons. Racism and resentment proved to be particularly useful. Their faith in their expertise had not been misplaced.

That campaign, which has been waged with extraordinary viciousness, has certainly cut wage-costs, virtually destroyed the trade union movement in the private sector, corrupted the political system, and tilted the economic system to favor the rich, but it has also gutted the American Middle Class and destroyed much of its  spirit.

Since the American Middle Class is America’s largest class, and the backbone of the economy in terms of income, numbers, and productivity, America has declined in parallel.

The U.S. is a house bitterly divided. Much of its famous ‘can-do’ spirit is canceled out by internal strife. It has been in a state of quiet civil war for over 40 years. The consequences have been—and continue to be—devastating.

 

A DEEPLY FLAWED AMERICAN BUSINESS MODEL (ABM)

The purpose of an economic system—whatever it may be(unfettered capitalism, European-style Social Democratic capitalism, socialism, or whatever)—should be to deliver the highest possible standard of living, and quality of life, to all the population in as risk-free manner as possible. Workers should be able to survive the inevitable vicissitudes of life—such as losing a job or suffering an accident—without excessive stress, or being driven into poverty. A successful economic system has to both encourage enterprise, yet promote resilience.

Such an objective is widely considered to require full employment, or, where that doesn’t exist, a social safety-net including adequate unemployment play, re-training if necessary, and help getting another job.

The goal is not equality,but equal opportunity—and reasonable equality consistent with the need to motivate and incentivize. As with most things, it is a question of balance—but one thing we do know is that excessive income and wealth inequality is socially divisive, and destructive, in a host of ways.

We also know that the U.S. is one of the most unequal countries in the world—with political, economic, judicial, and academic systems that are blatantly tilted towards favoring the rich. It is grossly unfair, unjust, anti-democratic, and—as recent productivity figures indicate—inefficient. Many other countries can offer a superior quality of life to their workers—including higher pay—and yet out-compete American firms. U.S. businesses are losing market leadership in sector after sector.

It is disillusioning. Workers are voting with their feet. Labor force participation is dropping like a stone.

The current ABM is widely touted as being the American Free Enterprise System. It really isn’t any more. What we have now is a heavily financialized system which has its hooks so deep into government, it is hard to tell where one part leaves off and the other commences. Corruption is rife. Conflicts of interest are routine to the point of being considered normal and socially acceptable.

The deficiencies of the current ABM would take a book to list but here are a few.

  • The ABM is neither delivering the jobs people need, nor the pay they require.
  • The ABM seems to have no social concern. American manufacturing plants have been closed down by the tens of thousands, and their jobs have been exported at will.
  • The ABM actively opposes any and all worker rights. These extend to such basics as paid vacation time of reasonable length, or maternity leave.
  • The ABM continues to make every effort, both legal and illegal, to destroy trade unions.
  • The ABM has shifted the burden of economic risk from its corporations to its workers.
  • The ABM has largely eliminated the defined pension.
  • Though competition is supposed to police private enterprise, the ABM has become increasingly concentrated and monopolistic. Most maket sectors are now dominate by a few large corporations which constitute an oligopoly.
  • The ABM is underinvesting and hoarding cash to the detriment of the National Interest.
  • The ABM is avoiding tax on an unprecedented scale. Business used to contribute about a third of the tax bases. The figure is now closer to 10 percent.
  • The ABM is not, in many cases, internationally competitive.
  • The ABM has suborned the political system and, quite blatantly, spends vast sums of money to buy politicians.
  • The ABM is focused on the entirely specious doctrine that management’s sole obligation is to maximize shareholder value. As a consequence it is fixated on share buybacks instead of productive investment in training, R&D, plant and equipment. It is a system without a moral code.

 

THE FOSTERING OF A TRULY ENORMOUS UNDERCLASS

The scale, scope, and sheer size of the American under-class is so large that it is hard not to form the opinion that fostering such a class is not government policy (or that of the ruling class).

It isn’t quite—in an overt declared sense—but the social safety net is so inadequate, and inconsistent, that the effect is much the same.

These problems are compounded by a widespread lack of social concern amongst Americans (to the point of resentment of the poor), deeply rooted racism, aggressive policing by heavily militarized police forces, a legal system that imprisons on a scale that few other countries come close to (the nearest is China with four times the population) policies towards felons that make it exceedingly hard for them to get back on their feet after they have served their time, and a self-righteous Republican party that seems to take egregious pleasure in the sufferings of the less fortunate—whether they be the poor, the long-term unemployed, or illegal immigrants.

The net effect of such a malign mixture of policies, prejudices, and penal legislation, is to create and perpetuate a substantial population that, in effect, constitutes a costly drag on society. And are perceived as just that—and treated accordingly in a self-perpetuating cycle of despair.

The truly enormous American subclass constitutes human waste on a scale that, just in itself, is an impediment to progress.

Nearly 50 million Americans are officially classified as living in poverty—and as many again are living paycheck to paycheck.

As for social mobility, it is significantly lower than that of many other developed nations. If you are born poor in the U.S., the chances are that you will be badly educated, and will die poor. If you are born poor and black, you are highly likely to end up in prison as well.

 

IGNORANCE

The U.S. contains pockets of the most astonishing talent, creativity, and expertise—but they are not sufficient to compensate for:

  • A mediocre to poor K-12 educational system which supplies largely under-educated people to the labor market.
  • An entirely inadequate apprenticeship system largely caused by the unwillingness of business to invest adequately in training.
  • A mixed college and university third level educational system which, at it best, is world class, but which is excessively expensive, socially divisive, and which is largely mediocre.
  • Media, which are largely for-profit and which focus on distraction and entertainment to the near exclusion of information.
  • A cradle to the grave diet of commercial and political propaganda which conditions, distracts, and confuses, but does little to communicate anything resembling the truth.

The cumulative effect of all this is to produce a population that, overall, not only doesn’t the skill levels to compete internationally, but which lacks the necessary qualities to function to full effect in the home market.

These inadequacies show up across the board in business, government, academia, and politically—and not only are self-perpetuating, but have a deadening effect on both creativity and productivity.

It is not that the talent isn’t there. It almost certainly is. But it is not cultivated—and then what remains is dulled, and then destroyed, by the pressures, cruelties, and distractions of the American Way of Life.

This is not a compassionate society. Individually, Americans can be exceedingly caring and compassionate, but the society they have created does not boast such qualities. Indeed, it has a tendency—as its prison system demonstrates—to be self-righteous, ignorant, and brutal.

A major manifestation of American ignorance is an unwillingness to learn from abroad—which, of course, perpetuates the ignorance.

Yet the answers, all too often, are in plain sight—and relatively straightforward. Ignorance apart, typically they are not adopted because of ideology, or because of some vested interest which benefits from the status quo. The concept of doing something for the common good seems to be less accepted in the U.S. than in other developed nations. Self-interest rules—and blocks.

 

THE WRONG INVESTMENT CHOICES.

Most developed nations attach great importance to government investment—and focus primarily on infrastructure and the welfare of the population. They also spend on defense, but try and keep that portion—which they know yields fewer practical benefits—to a minimum. They take the view that there are better options than war in most situations, and that investments in infrastructure and education, for example, yield a higher return than money spent on weaponry.

The U.S., where policy is significantly influenced by the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex) and the Republican Party (which opposes almost all expenditure except on defense) marches to the beat of a very different financial drum, and has largely prioritized defense since WW II. As a consequences, numerous other important priorities have been neglected.

The point that people generally miss is the scale of this neglect. If you start counting from the end of WW II, it has now been going on for 70 years. That adds up to a waste and an investment deficit on an incalculable scale—not to mention a whole string of wars where the U.S. has not done too well.

A major reason for the U.S. decline is that it has spent its money—vast sums of it—on the wrong things. It has invested irresponsibly—and the consequences are self-evident.

 

A NATION THAT DOESN’T KNOW WHERE IT IS GOING

On the time-proven basis that if you don’t know where you are going, it is rather hard to get there, most developed nations plan.

They don’t micro-manage Soviet-Union style. Instead, they determine broad goals, and then, generally speaking, try and reach them through a blend of government action, persuasion and private initiatives.

Most successful nations today run mixed economies where what counts is what works. Pragmatism tends to be a great deal more common than ideology—even in officially communist countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba.

U.S. business plans—as do government departments and most other institutions—but the Federal Government, as a whole, doesn’t plan both for for ideological reasons, and because its primary base of support—Big Business—doesn’t want any government interference.

It would be unfair to say that the U.S.government doesn’t plan at all—because policy statements are made by heads of departments and others at various times, but it certainly doesn’t plan in the integrated way other nations do—and this lack puts it at a serious disadvantage.

To make matters worse, the Federal Government is nearly entirely dependent on Congress if it wants to do anything—except make war—so the U.S. has a system which not only doesn’t plan, but—crucially—lacks the ability to execute with any degree of predictability (except where war is concerned).

A government which isn’t permitted to plan—and is prevented from executing in any kind of a rational and orderly fashion (and which is staffed by under-educated people) is unlikely to be an effective government—no matter who is president.

That situation is further compounded by Congressional gridlock and a Republican party which values ideology ahead of data—and blocks any initiatives except expenditure on defense.

 

Can the U.S. decline be reversed?

The good news is that virtually all—if not all—of the issues that underpin America’s decline (which I haven’t come close to listing) are, on the face of it, eminently resolvable within a manageable amount of time.

These are not wicked problems. In most cases, these are problems where the answers are known—and are probably already in effect in some other country.

The bad news is that the American Way of Life, deeply flawed though it may be, has such astonishing momentum as to be exceedingly hard to change.

If nothing else, American are conditioned to be American to a degree that the most fanatical Taliban might envy (where blind faith is concerned). And fundamental to the American Way of Life is the belief that the American Way is the best way, and superior to any, and all, alternatives. So why change! Facts don’t much enter into the picture here.

The simplest change is difficult in this context—and the sheer number of issues is daunting. On top of that, whereas Europe is well-educated, outward-looking, and multilingual (which brings cognitive advantages in addition to language skills)—because geography makes that virtually essential—under-educated America, because of its scale and location—and because of its media and culture—tends towards the insular

I have spent 14 years in the States, and was optimistic that the American decline could be reversed for much of that time.

More recently, as I contemplate the numerous ways in which other countries have been pulling ahead, I have begun to wonder.

On the one hand, I have long expected Americans to wake up and re-assess their extremely problematic situation—and you would be hard to encounter a more effective wake-up call than the Great Recession—but, somehow, there is always another distraction to prevent Americans from focusing on the real issues. America’s movers and shakers have a truly remarkable talent for manipulating public opinion away from issues of consequence—with distraction being the primary, and most effective tool.  The most recent is probably ISIS who have distracted so effectively you would have to wonder if they weren’t a creation of America’s ultra-rich.

In fact, not only was the financial sector—which caused the Great Recession—bailed out with taxpayer money—but it has been allowed to make the whole situation worse. The big banks are now bigger and stronger than ever—and the poor, who suffered most, are now poorer. It is as if the U.S. population has learned nothing.

That is not entirely true. Interested observers, who have monitored the situation closely, have learned that the rot, that pervades the U.S. at present, is deeper and more destructive than our worst fears,  and that the elite who control the country are even better entrenched. These findings, based upon much data about the truly appalling behavior of the Big Banks, and others within the financial sector, do not yield grounds for optimism.

In addition, Americans are conditioned to believe that the U.S. is “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,”—together with all its associated myths and clich├ęs—so are extraordinarily reluctant to believe, in any public way, that the U.S. is in the mess it is in. To freely and openly admit something so intrinsically un-American is a denial of their birthright—just too much for a red-blooded American to succeed.

What they believe privately is another matter. All the research suggests a massive loss of confidence in America which, nonetheless, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to incentivize most Americans to organize for fundamental change. It’s as if the whole nation is in denial—quietly but desperately worried, but (mostly) remaining silent.

As a consequence, I am no longer convinced that the American juggernaut is capable of changing course in time. The momentum of a mighty nation like the United States is near impossible to deflect, let alone to stop.

To paraphrase Stalin (who was talking about firepower) “Momentum has a quality of its own.”

Unfortunately, much of that unstoppable momentum is heading in the wrong direction.

For the sake of my many American friends, and the deep affection I feel for the U.S., I truly hope my conclusions are wrong.

They are not, of course, mine alone.

 

Why America is Falling Behind the Rest of the World

TIME.com · by Jill Hamburg Coplan / Fortune · July 21, 2015

Homelessness Reaches All-Time Record In New York CitySpencer Platt—Getty Images A homeless man sleeps under an American Flag blanket on a park bench in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on Sept. 10, 2013.

12 signs of the decline of the U.S.A.

America is declining, in large and important measures, yet policymakers aren’t paying attention. So argues a new academic paper, pulling together previously published data.

Consider this:

  • America’s child poverty levels are worse than in any developed country anywhere, including Greece, devastated by a euro crisis, and eastern European nations such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.
  • Median adult wealth in the US ($39,000) is 27th globally, putting it behind Cyprus, Taiwan, and Ireland.
  • Even when “life satisfaction” is measured, America ranks #12, behind Israel, Sweden and Australia.

Overall, America’s per capita wealth, health and education measures are mediocre for a highly industrialized nation. Well-being metrics, perceptions of corruption, quality and cost of basic services, are sliding, too. Healthcare and education spending are funding bloated administrations even while human outcomes sink, the authors say.

“We looked at very broad measures, and at individual measures, too,” said co-author Hershey H. Friedman, a business professor at Brooklyn College – City University of New York. The most dangerous sign they saw: rising income and wealth inequality, which slow growth and can spark instability, the authors say.

“Capitalism has been amazingly successful,” write Friedman and co-author Sarah Hertz of Empire State College. But it has grown so unfettered, predatory, so exclusionary, it’s become, in effect, crony capitalism. Now places like Qatar and Romania, “countries you wouldn’t expect to be, are doing better than us,” said Friedman.

 

12 signs of the decline of the U.S.A.

America is declining, in large and important measures, yet policymakers aren’t paying attention. So argues a new academic paper, pulling together previously published data.

Consider this:

America’s child poverty levels are worse than in any developed country anywhere, including Greece, devastated by a euro crisis, and eastern European nations such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.

Median adult wealth in the US ($39,000) is 27th globally, putting it behind Cyprus, Taiwan, and Ireland.

Even when “life satisfaction” is measured, America ranks #12, behind Israel, Sweden and Australia.

Overall, America’s per capita wealth, health and education measures are mediocre for a highly industrialized nation. Well-being metrics, perceptions of corruption, quality and cost of basic services, are sliding, too. Healthcare and education spending are funding bloated administrations even while human outcomes sink, the authors say.

“We looked at very broad measures, and at individual measures, too,” said co-author Hershey H. Friedman, a business professor at Brooklyn College – City University of New York. The most dangerous sign they saw: rising income and wealth inequality, which slow growth and can spark instability, the authors say.

“Capitalism has been amazingly successful,” write Friedman and co-author Sarah Hertz of Empire State College. But it has grown so unfettered, predatory, so exclusionary, it’s become, in effect, crony capitalism. Now places like Qatar and Romania, “countries you wouldn’t expect to be, are doing better than us,” said Friedman.

“You can become a second-rate power very quickly,” added Hertz.

To be sure, the debate over whether America is on the decline has raged for years. The US National Intelligence Council said in its global trends report a decade ago American power was on a downward trajectory. Others making the case say the US is overstretched militarily, ill-prepared technologically, at-risk financially, or lacking dynamism in the face of influential, new competitors.

Arguing decline has been exaggerated, others point to a rising US stock market, manufacturing strength, a growing population, and a domestic energy boom.

The authors collect many previously published rankings, and the picture that emerges, however, is sobering:

1. Median household income

Rank of U.S.: 27th out of 27 high-income countries

Americans may feel like global leaders, but Spain, Cyprus and Qatar all havehigher median household incomesthan America’s (about $54,000). So does much of Europe and the industrialized world. Per capita median income in the US ($18,700) is also relatively low–and unchanged since 2000. A middle-classCanadian’s income is now higher.

2. Education and skills

Rank of U.S.: 16th out of 23 countries

The US ranked near the bottom in a skills survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which examined European and other developed nations. In its Skills Outlook 2013, the US placed 16th in adult literacy, 21st in adult numeracy out of 23, and 14th in problem-solving. Spots in prestigious US universities are highly sought-after. Yet higher education, once an effective way out of poverty in the US, isn’t anymore – at least not for lower-income and minority students. The authors quote studies showing, for example, that today 80% of white college students attend Barron’s Top 500 schools, while 75% of black and Latino students go to two-year junior colleges or open-admissions (not Top 500) schools. Poor students are also far less likely to complete a degree.

3. Internet speed and access

Rank of U.S.: 16th out of 34 countries

Broadband access has become essential for industry to grow and flourish. Yet in the US, penetration is low and speed relatively slow versus wealthy nations—thought the cost of internet is among the highest ($0.04 per megabit per second in Japan, for example, versus $0.53 in the US). The problem may be too much concentration and too little competition in the industry, the authors suggest.

4. Health

Rank of U.S.: 33rd out of 145 countries

When it comes to its citizens’ health, in countries that are home to at least one million people, the US ranks below many other wealthy countries. More American women also are dying during pregnancy and childbirth, the authors note, quoting a Lancet study. For every 100,000 births in the United States, 18.5 women die. Saudi Arabia and Canada have half that maternal death rate.

5. People living below the poverty line

Rank of U.S.: 36th out of 162 countries, behind Morocco and Albania

Officially, 14.5% of Americans are impoverished — 45.3 million people–according to the latest US Census data. That’s a larger fraction of the population in poverty than Morocco and Albania (though how nations define poverty varies considerably). The elderly have Social Security, with its automatic cost-of-living adjustments, to thank, the authors say, for doing better: Few seniors (one in 10) are poor today versus 50 years ago (when it was one in three). Poverty is alsodown among African Americans. Now America’s poor are more often in their prime working years, or in households headed by single mothers.

6. Children in poverty

Rank of U.S.: 34th out of 35 countries surveyed

When UNICEF relative poverty – relative to the average in each society—the US ranked at the bottom, above only Romania, even as Americans are, on average, six times richer than Romanians. Children in all of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan fare better.

7. Income inequality

Rank of U.S.: Fourth highest inequality in the world.

The authors argue that the most severe inequality can be found in Chile, Mexico, Turkey — and the US. Citing the Gini coefficient, a common inequality metric, and data from Wall Street Journal/Mercer Human Resource Consulting, they say this inequality slows economic growth, impedes youths’ opportunities, and ultimately threatens the nation’s future (an OECD video explains). Worsening income inequality is also evident in the ratio of average CEO earnings to average workers’ pay. That ratio went from 24:1 in 1965 to 262:1 in 2005.

8. Prison population

Rank of U.S.: First out of 224 countries

More than 2.2 million Americans are in jail. Only China comes close, the authors write, with about 1.66 million.

9. Life satisfaction

Rank of U.S.: 17th out of 36 countries

The authors note Americans’ happiness score is only middling, according to the OECD Better Life Index. (The index measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings.) People in New Zealand, Finland, and Israel rate higher in life satisfaction. A UN report had a similar finding.

10. Corruption

Rank of U.S.: 17th out of 175 countries.

Barbados and Luxembourg are ahead of the US when it comes to citizens’ perceptions of corruption. Americans view their country as “somewhat corrupt,” the authors note, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit. In a separate survey of American citizens, many said politicians don’t serve the majority’s interest, but are biased toward corporate lobbyists and the super-rich. “Special interest groups are gradually transforming the United States into an oligarchy,” the authors argue, “concerned only about the needs of the wealthy.”

11. Stability

Rank of U.S.: 20th out of 178 countries.

The Fragile States Index considers factors such as inequality, corruption, and factionalism. The US lags behind Portugal, Slovenia and Iceland.

12. Social progress index

Rank of U.S.: 16th out of 133 countries

A broad measure of social well-being, the index comprises 52 economic indicators such as access to clean water and air, access to advanced education, access to basic knowledge, and safety. Countries surpassing the US include Ireland, the UK, Iceland, and Canada.

“If America’s going to be great again, we’ve got to start fixing things,” Friedman said.

Jill Hamburg Coplan is a writer and editor and regular contributor to Fortune.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com