7 Systemic Problems that are Killing America

This country is full of idiots, socialists, and rednecks. At least that’s what partisans will have you believe.

As long as you’re railing against the people you hate, you can’t see the reality behind the rhetoric. These problems go beyond Liberal or Conservative, Republican or Democrat. They’re serious enough to contribute to internal collapse. We dug up 7 systemic problems that have nothing to do with political parties, yet are still killing America.

Collapsing infrastructure

Image: Sanbeiji/Flickr

Recently, a drinking water supply line burst in Boston. Affected people had to boil water before drinking it.

Boiling drinking water sounds shocking today. But unless we update the country’s infrastructure, boiling water (and collapsed bridges and burst dams) will become weekly news.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2009 report card tallies the hazard:

1,819 of the country’s dams are deficient “high hazard” dams (dams that will destroy buildings and kill people if they burst).
7 billion gallons of clean drinking water are lost per day through leaking pipes.
1 in 4 of the country’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
1/3 of the country’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Combine that with natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes, and you have a nation constantly firefighting fallout from bad infrastructure. Infrastructure updates would prevent Katrina-sized outcomes. They’d keep our economy flowing, keep our water supply safe, and keep us looking like a developed country.

Loss of economic independence

Image: DaveFayram/Flickr

Right now, the rest of the world owns $3 trillion more of us than we own of them.
-Warren Buffett in 2006

In 1979, manufacturing comprised 21% of the economy. In 2008, that number was 11.5%. One in six factory jobs disappeared between 2000-2007. When a factory goes away, it takes its supply chain, R&D, and other supporting companies with it. Richard McCormack writes that “one manufacturing job supports 15 other jobs. No other category of job has such a high multiplier.”

By outsourcing much of our manufacturing, we ended up relying on services to support the economy. It’s a precarious situation, especially since services are outsourceable, too. One Princeton economist says 40 million jobs could be shipped out in the next 10-20 years, including 1 out of 3 service jobs.

What have gained by transferring our manufacturing (and, by association, knowledge and wealth) to other countries? A massive trade deficit with 90 countries, for one. Consumers and companies don’t have a choice of where to buy products. They’re made abroad by default. If they were made here, they’d be prohibitively expensive, thanks to stringent regulatory requirements that the US doesn’t apply to goods produced elsewhere. It’s no wonder we’re a country that consumes more than it produces.

We have a trade imbalance of $232.5 billion with China alone. China produces most of the goods that American consumers buy. American companies offshore there because China is cheap and doesn’t have expensive regulations. Moreover, China owns an estimated $1 trillion in US Treasuries. Yet the US only makes up about 12% of China’s trading. If China drops the ball, we flounder. We’re forced to politically tap dance with China in order to maintain economic stability.

All of this makes us look more like a colony than a sovereign country.

The lobbyist industry

Ever get the feeling the government just isn’t listening to you? All you need to do to get a response is slip a couple million dollars into your Congressman’s pocket. Up the money tenfold, and you’ll probably get your own law. This is the power of lobbying in the US.

Politicians listen to you when they want your votes. Once they’re in office, the currency changes to cash. During the first 3 months of 2010 alone, lobbyists spent almost $1 billion to influence the government.

The four primary lobbying groups—health interests, business associations, energy companies and Wall Street firms—each spent more than $123 million lobbying during Q1 2010, according to Open Secrets. That’s $1.37 million per day. Last year, lobbyists spent almost $3.5 billion total, that we know of.

If lobbyists are lucky, they’ll get regulators drooling on their laps. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, legally pays the FDA to speed up the drug approval process. The FDA, which monitors labeling and drug safety, is basically paid to do what its main funder, the pharma industry, tells it to. No wonder consumers don’t usually find out about adverse drug effects until years later.

Few laws exist to put distance between politicians and lobbyists. Bribery is both systemized and legal. Meanwhile, lobbying reform has been minimal. Lobbying makes our claims to democracy look more like reality TV than truth.

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Image: Tobyotter/Flickr

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. 33% of children are obese. Nearly 50% of African-American and Hispanic women are overweight or obese. If you’re a suburbanite or sit in front of a computer for hours a day, you’re also at risk.

What gives? If you trace obesity back to its roots, you’ll come back to the waterbed that government and industry cavort on every night. The government pays $20 billion per year to subsidize agriculture. Feed grain, corn, and wheat are some of the biggest recipients. As a result of subsidies and scale, food made with refined grains, sugars, and beef is cheap. Consumers, short on time and money, can buy a “complete” meal for cheap.

If you’re a poor American, you’re more likely to buy cheap, bad-for-you food and grow obese. If you’re obese, you’re more likely to develop diabetes, cancer, and the host of other diseases that cost the US an estimated $100 billion per year.

If you can afford health insurance to treat those problems, great–the US insurance industry, including health insurance, owns $2 billion in stock in the country’s five biggest fast food companies. And if you feel insecure about your weight, there’s a $35 billion/year weight loss industry waiting to sell you temporary self-esteem.

The bottom line: Government subsidies help make fast food cheaper than healthy food. Poor people, women, and children are most likely to become obese. Lacking the resources, motivation, or know-how to stop eating the stuff that makes them obese, people turn to a gargantuan dieting industry for a quick fix. Insurance companies also don’t mind if you turn to their products when your weight makes you sick.

Maybe obesity is an epidemic, but some very important people aren’t arguing with it.

The revolving door

Image: Dan4th/Flickr

After their terms end, many politicians become lobbyists for the same corporations and industries they used to regulate. 43% of Congressman and Senators who left the government between 1998-2005 became lobbyists, according to one study.

These former politicians retain access to all of the Congressional and House amenities they had during their days on Capitol Hill. They can legally join their politician buddies in the House gym or Senate floor. Their companies are allowed to buy politicians fancy meals, gifts, and trips.

Many politicians later rotate back into government in a different role. Larry Summers, for example, is today’s Director of the National Economic Council. Before that, he was the managing director of D.E. Shaw & Co., a massive Wall Street hedge fund. Before that, he was Secretary of the Treasury. You see how this works.

National laws support the revolving door. Former policymakers can jump into corporate boardrooms and corporate executive leadership teams with no wait. After one year, they can contract for the military.

What if these laws were extended to five years, without loopholes? The poli-lobbyist club would be broken up, or at least seriously dented. Lobbying would lose some of its exclusivity and, as a result, some of its power. The words conflict of interest would once again enter our legal vocabulary.

Using personal funds for campaign purposes

Image: Saad Akhtar/Flickr

Back in the day, we elected a tailor (Andrew Johnson), a teacher (James Garfield), and several farmers to office.

Can you imagine that happening today? 44% of Congressman are millionaires. Senators had a median reportable net worth of $1.79 million in 2008. Mike Bloomberg alone spent more than $100 million dollars of his own money in the New York City mayoral race. Linda McMahon has stated she is prepared to spend $50 million of her own money in the Connecticut Senate race.

If you have to be personally wealthy to run for office, “poor” (read: non-millionaire) candidates hardly stand a chance. The result is a ruling class of rich, out-of-touch politicians.

No term limits

In the United States, presidents can only stick around for 8 years. But our other two branches of government, the legislative and judicial branches, can be around forever.

US Senators have an unlimited number of six-year terms. Congressmen can be elected to 2-year terms as long as they run. Supreme Court justices stay for life.

This system practically lays out the red carpet for oligarchy. Companies bribe build long-term lobbying relationships with politicians. In return, those politicians devise laws and exceptions benefiting those companies. Supreme Court justices do the same, often ruling in favor of corporations.

Our infinite terms have produced visionless, complacent back-scratchers instead of leaders. Why we don’t choose to limit House, Congress, and Supreme Court terms in a democracy is beyond comprehension.

  • Very well written article and I agree that these truly are problems bridging the gap between polictical divides. What I don’t understand is this. Americans are more informed now about how this country operates at political levels more than at anytime in history. It’s due to the internet. For instance your article and the easy propagation of this information would not exist without the internet…despite this the average person still chooses to turn a blind eye. If everyone person with the capability to think logically in this country would get off the video games, stop watching American Idol, and turn their attention simply to even this one article we would see change. I guess it’s left up to us to keep yelling. Great article.

  • Khannea Suntzu

    I’ll add you another big problem : lack of necessary imagination.

    Right now the US is dying in its own filth. It’s addicted to raw resources which will take years rather than decades to run out. The US can no longer outcompete ‘foreign colored people’ to get any new mineral resources, not when the US comprizes ‘a few hundred million’ and the world close to ten billion. The US doesn’t deserve blank access to oil and gas and minerals – it never did and the time it could bull itself into access has long been over.

    On the other hand too large a part of its upper crust is blithely disinterested in the country itself. If the US collapses in on itself, the elites of the US, neocon racists or liberal degenerates, will just pack up to their second homes in costa rica, dubai, moscow, bedjing or london. Those in charge in the US are not managing the US – they are managing their own wallets and for most of them the US can go and die for all they care. They can shop elsewhere as well.

    What is needed is energy and minerals that scale infinitely. In other words – invest an enormous amount of money (say, half the current debt) over 2-3 decades and get access to unrestricted mineral; resources and energy wealth at a tenth or less of current costs. And that is where the lack of imagination kicks in. Mention ‘asteroids’ on a place like digg or with republicans, or at a liberal blog, and they’ll have to wiki the word to even get a clue, and even then they won’t get it. ‘but but but the moon is a bigball of dirt?’ they’ll ask.

    So I’ll say, to hell with current shortsighted governmenty bureaucrats, and self-centered corporates and sell-ouit scientists and dumbed down voters in the US, the EU and anywhere else. You made your bed, you are going to literally die screaming in it as these chickens come home to roost. The world is breeding to ten billion halfway this century and we alteady need five planets for the current population levels to live without spiraling into an indefinite war.

    Lack of imagination indeed.

  • john

    I always wonder why supreme court justices have no term limits.they should retire at 65 or have a fixed term and only then can they be “independent” of any political influence.

  • Yes

    I would add to your list

    – The treatment of corporations — both domestic and foreign — as citizens by U.S. law. Though they can not serve in the military, vote, or serve time for criminal misdeeds, corporations are given the same rights of free speech as any citizen. And since the Supreme Court defines political contributions as a form of free speech, because corporations have much more money to spend, it’s often their voices that drown out the voices of individual voters.

    – The shocking lack of value placed on education — except notably by immigrants and their children — by the sports-/celebrity-/entertainment-obsessed general public is a serious impediment to American competitiveness in a global workplace. The culture of celebrating excellence in America is wonderful, but we focus too much on the top one-thousandth of one percent (or even less) and not on the median (average). And ours is falling relative to the rest of the world. Look at the science and engineering departments of our top universities, and you’ll see many more foreign students than American-born ones. Where do the children of our elites go? Law (politics) and business school.

    – A blind, even jingoistic, refusal to acknowledge our problems hampers even our best efforts to improve our situation, since you can’t fix a problem if you won’t even admit to one. Self-serving claims that “America has the best health-care in the world,” “the best Internet in the world,” actually hurt the country and are not supported by the facts. When you consider that they’re often made by people who have never been outside the country, much less lived in a foreign land (as a civilian), they are worse than meaningless. I had good friends in Texas who were proud of the fact that they’ve never left the state, much less the country. America is the best country in the world only when we’re willing to face up to our problems and solve them.

  • Paul

    All your points are fantastic.

    Although, the obesity epidemic is a cultural problem as much, if not more, than a governmental one – I agree, the discussion needs to be had.

    I will point out one important thing. The Judicial Term. Supreme Court Justices sit for a life term in order to create a consistency in the touchstone document of American jurisprudence. Every law the federal government has has to be empowered by a clause in the Constitution and not conflict with the rights guaranteed by that same document. The life term of the justices is designed to create as little change to the way that document is interpreted as possible. A stable, consistent interpretation of the law benefits everyone. It’s a question of highlighting and ensuring the Rule of Law over the Rule of Man. It also ensures – as much as possible – that our jurisprudence isn’t as subject to the waves and tides of public opinion as the other branches of the government are. Can you imagine how foggy laws would become if the Supreme Court gave their rulings based on polling data?

  • jack

    we need more of these kind of issues. but let’s be serious:

    1) Greed…gambling is illegal except when it comes to setting the price and essentially controlling the lives of every person on this planet.

    2) Religion…my god is better than your god? O ya! well now I’ll prove it by killing you…patheticly gullable species we’ve become.

    3) Collusion. Have fun trying to invent something or starting up your own business today. The American Dream has been sold off to the lowest bidder

    4) Corporatations. Human begins are more than simply enterting data into a machine. what’s different than sweat shops? Just because someone is smiling while sucking out your soul doesn’t mean they are not sucking away your soul.

    5) EDUCATION. Our kids are dumb. plain and simple. have you been inside a public school? It’s a cesspool of lost children with zero drive. our future ladies and gentlemen

    6) Vanity. As a people we are as deep as a pudddle. I do not care that a plane crashed, show me what jon and kate are up too

    7) Money. Speaks for itself and will divide people. GET THE MONEY OUT OF WASHINGTON. Politicians SHOULD NOT be rich.

    8) Innert Racism. It’s not about being black or white or any of that it’s about how much PROFIT can you deliver me on a quarterly basis. the new white is green.

    9) OLD PEOPLE IN CHARGE. sounds childish but by the time a politician becomes a senator his way of doing things is obsolete and completely out of touch with what the country needs today.

    10) lies. cigarettes and alcohol is legal but not marijuana. makes sense..hey let’s ban milk, actually..maybe we should.

    11) Capitalism. Like religion, it’s not the actual idea. it’s a good idea but it’s been abused. free market. that’s like giving your wife the credit card (sorry ladies, couldn’t think of anything cooler :)

  • mark

    Also 30 million illegal aliens…

  • carver

    The corporations that are, by SCOTUS decree, “persons” are by their very makeup, sociopaths. Persons that are above the laws which govern we mere meat persons, are invisible and are potentially immortal … which is suspiciously like a…uh ..never mind. The executives that hide behind the skirts of the “persons” are the ones that need to stand in the docks; the imaginary person doesn’t make the decisions the executive officers do..

  • Patrick Brinton

    Your last item is incorrect. We have term limits for all senators and congresspersons; they are called elections. If we go on electing the same people time after time, then it is the electorate that is at fault, not the lack of term limits. What we need to fix is the system of organized bribery that goes under the name of campaign contributions, by means of which large corporations and wealthy individuals are able to purchase legislation that serves their interests. A good start would be to reverse the Supreme Court decisions that said that corporations have all the rights of people, and that political contributions are a form of free speech. At the very least we could set up a system whereby anyone could donate any amount to any candidate, but all contributions would be made through an organization that would ensure that no contribution could be traced to any specific person or organization. This would not abridge peoples’ right to give freely, but would, I suspect, result in a huge reduction in the amounts donated (a desirable result IMHO)

  • Ken

    All civilizations come to an end. We are just the latest. Philosophers predicted the end of America when they studied the American experiment over 100 years ago. These problems are not new or unique when viewed in the context of history. We are just repeating them.


    Two More;

    1)Electronic Voting Machines.

    2)One Sided, Nearly Monopolized Mainstream Media[think fox].

  • Ron Harold

    The main problem in the US is the 250 million of Americans living there.

  • A Chinese

    Adding one more: poor middle/high school education. When I worked as a teaching assistant for college physics course in a large public university, I was totally shocked there were students who don’t know how to add fractions sitting in a college classroom, for a college physics course. In China, virtually every elementary school graduate knows how to do that, independent of their background, and elementary school education. I just can’t figure out how American high schools manage to spend so much money and get so little knowledge taught. terrifyingly shocking …

  • Lee

    I agree with most of this. However, term limits only sound like a good idea until you ask the next question: if all elected politicians are term-limited, where does the long-term stability (and hence the power) of government go? And the answer is, “to the long-term staffers in those government offices, who are NOT elected and hence not accountable to the public in any way whatsoever.” To say that this is not going to be an improvement is an understatement.

  • George

    re: “Why we don’t choose to limit House, Congress
    , and Supreme Court terms in a democracy is beyond”

    See? that’s just it. America isn’t a democracy but a republic (or at least it’s supposed to be). Big difference. In a Democracy, the majority mob rules. In America’s case, the Progressives. The progressives are spanned across both main parties with the Fed bankrolling them all the way. That’s why nothing ever changes. End the Fed and a lot of these shenanigans will go away as well as these lifers..

    Democracy vs Republic

  • Nick

    In point of fact, there isn’t any limit to how many terms a president can run for in the US. FDR was elected for a 3rd term. So that could mean that ALL the branches of government could be without limits.

    The only reason no other president (except FDR) ran for more than 2 terms is only out of tradition. When George Washinton was ending his 2nd term, he was asked to run for a third. He refused saying that the whole purpose of what he fought for, was to allow others the opportunity to run the country.

    I was surprised to find that there is NO law in the US that prevents more than 2 terms as president. It’s just a tradition.

  • Ken

    Look up the 22nd Amendment. Enacted after FDR for just that reason.

  • Kathy

    I agree with this article except for term limits for Supreme Court Justices. If they judged on law and not ideology then it wouldn’t make any difference how long they served. We only need to limit their terms when their political beliefs sway their judicial opinions.

  • Bill

    How about a trillion dollars, paid by us taxpayers, every year for the military/industrial complex? Take a look at studies that show how many jobs are LOST due to military spending.

  • Amy

    Except the arbitrary term limits, I agree with your points and just about every other point on this page. But term limits are not limits to just the terms of service. They are limits on who citizens can vote for and who they can’t. I believe it is an unconstitutional limit on my free speech. We have term limits: elections. The problems with elected officials and whose pocket they’re in is not solved by term limits. In my opinon there are no problems that are solved by term limits. This looks like a solution when you’re discussing a politician you hate, but it is arbitrary and does not ensure better government.

  • SayBlade

    Several other commentors mentioned the problem of corporations as “persons.” While I do not believe in the death penalty for “meat” persons, there is a provision for the death penalty for corporations.


  • Jason

    I think you could switch out term limits with proportional representation. We are one of the few democracies (yes, republic, they almost all are) that still use such an outdated and exclusionary system. Why vote if you are a Democrat in Utah or a Republican in Rhode Island? That isn’t just for President either, that is for Congress. Why vote if you happen to be a Green or Libertarian, the two largest third parties to the left and right, respectively? As long as there is a voting process, there will be like-minded individuals who band together, and therefore, political parties. Unfortunately, our system of ‘first-past-the-pole’ elections make our system of left v. right, and therefore, cooperation and compromise impossible. It’s just taken the politicians this long to figure it out.

  • king

    7 systemic problems that are killing America…..no no, its the politicians in the great nation. Note; all americans jobs in china or oversea some were…..we vote nothing works.

  • George

    End the Fed and then things will work..

  • madashell

    Not sure what search engines you folks use, but this page is blank using google, even after many refresh clicks, I found it on google but had to copy/paste the address on my usual search engine to read it. I don’t care for google but sometimes click over to it if I cannot find what I’m looking for on my regular search engine, just curious if anyone else has noticed this in the last year, seems to happen quite often with websites that are not in lockstep with the status quo.