Sunday, August 9, 2015

Incurable American Excess: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

image from

AUG. 6, 2015
Roger Cohen, New York Times

A few years ago, Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global
Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals
without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.” In the
United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to
eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent
opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European
Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state
protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62

This finding gets to the heart of trans­-Atlantic differences. Americans,
who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are
hardwired to the notion of individual self-­reliance. Europeans,
with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound
to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency. The
French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights.
Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French
ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive

To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be
struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the
conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and
the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and
vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing
intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is
more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems
somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.

In his intriguing new book, “The United States of Excess,” Robert
Paarlberg, a political scientist, cites the 2011 Pew survey as he grapples with
these divergent cultures. His focus is on American over-consumption of fuel
and food. Why, he asks, is the United States an “outlier” in greenhouse gas
emissions and obesity, and what, if anything, will it do about it? Per capita
carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are about twice those of the
other wealthy nations of the 34­-member Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development. American obesity
(just over a third of
American adults are now obese)
is running at about twice the European
average and six times the Japanese.

Paarlberg argues persuasively that these American phenomena are linked.
He finds their causes in demographic, cultural and political factors. A
resource­-rich, spacious nation, mistrustful of government authority,
persuaded that responsibility is individual rather than collective, optimistic
about the capacity of science and technology to resolve any problem,
and living 
in a polarized political system paralyzed by
its “multiple veto points,” tends 
toward “a scrambling
form of adaptation” rather than “effective mitigation.”

Americans, in their majority, don’t want to increase taxes on fossil fuels or
tax sugar­sweetened drinks because they see such measures as a regressive
encroachment on individual freedoms — to drive an automobile and consume
what you want. They won’t go the German route of promoting renewables like
solar and wind power by guaranteeing higher fixed prices for those who
generate it because higher electricity costs would result. Whether it comes to
food or fuel, they don’t want measures where “voting-­age adults are being
coerced into a lifestyle change.”

Individualism trumps all — and innovation, it is somehow believed, will
save the country from individualism’s ravages. Paarlberg notes that:
“Americans eat alone while at work, alone while commuting
to work in the car, 
alone at the food court while shopping,
alone at home while watching TV, and 
alone in front of the refrigerator
both before and after normal mealtime.”

But if all that eating continues to generate obesity — as it will —
Americans tend to put their faith in “improved bariatric surgeries, and new
blockbuster diet drugs” that “will be challenges welcomed by America’s
innovative and responsive private market institutions.” Rather than cut back,
they prefer to consume more — whether fuel or food — and then find ways to
offset excess.

With the strong policy measures needed to control excess consumption —
taxes, regulations and mandates — blocked, political leaders are “tempted to
shift more resources and psychological energy toward the second­best path of
adaptation,” Paarlberg writes: Easier, and potentially more profitable, to
develop drought­resistant farm crops or improve coastal protection systems
than tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

His conclusions are pessimistic. The world should not expect America to
change. Its response to over-consumption is inadequate. On global warming,
the country adapts but does not confront, content “to protect itself, and itself
alone.” On obesity, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help
the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities.

The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn,
vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic
conclusion is that they probably are.

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