It's complicated

Mark Pottenger


Probably one of the most frequently true and unappreciated answers to questions is “It’s complicated.” This applies to people, cities, states, nations, cultures, religions, the whole world, sciences, and more. Everything I mention below barely scratches the surface of the complexity of just one country—there are thousands of books and courses for anyone who want to dig deeper.

One of many human mental habits that can trip up our efforts to deal with a real world is our tendency to impose identity and continuity in our modeling of the world, sometimes inappropriately. We assign a single name to something with a large extent in space or time, and then think of the named thing as uniform and unchanging. One of the simplest examples to show the fallacy of this kind of thinking is any human individual—Jane Doe at age 2 and age 20 and age 40 and age 60 are very different, despite all having the same label (name).

The present two major U. S. political parties are an extreme example of a continuity fallacy. The Democratic & Republican parties have had the same names for many decades, but VASTLY changed natures. After the Civil War, the Republicans really were the party of Lincoln, but they have been a big business party since the late 1800s. From the late 1800s to the 1960s, southern racists were mostly Democrats. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, southern racists are mostly Republicans. Several decades ago, Republicans regularly talked about fiscal responsibility and sometimes even practiced it. These days, Republicans are incredibly fiscally irresponsible.

Another problematic human mental habit is our tendency to think that whatever we first learned about something defines what is normal. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, so the USA and world of that era was my framework for normality until I learned enough history to gain a broader perspective.

History is a collection of stories we tell ourselves. How close those stories are to any realities varies. Truly unbiased storytelling by any human is impossible. Some storytellers try hard to remove bias, while many more deliberately set out to tell slanted stories.

One near-universal phenomenon through all the stories is “othering” from fear. Narratives about enemies or strangers seen as possible threats emphasize differences, often made up or exaggerated, rather than focusing on commonalities.

Amerindians (Native Americans, First Nations) were demonized and fought until they were conquered and their cultures were no longer a threat to mainstream mostly European-derived U. S. culture.

The history of the American West is as much or more a product of dime novels and other fiction (including radio shows, movies, & TV shows) as it is an actual collection of facts. For one thing, the actual historical West was a lot more racially diverse than the fictional West most Americans imagine.

The Christian self-story is of bottom-up spread by the oppressed, but the actual history of Christianity in the Roman Empire shows that the main spread was from top-down state control.

The history of the Catholic Church includes Inquisitions, the counter-Reformation, Vatican councils, and a lot of variation from the stereotype of a monolith.

Islam has considerable internal struggles over the meanings of the term jihad. One widespread interpretation is that it means internal struggle for self-improvement, but a lot of Islamic history is full of jihad as war, and in recent decades it has become a staple of terrorism.

The United States of America (the USA, the U. S., or America, even though America could refer to anything on two continents) is a complex nation made up of 50 states and a few territories and other administrative districts. It is a nation that has had multiple personalities as long as it has existed. Modern U. S. culture treats the period from the American Revolution to the Constitution as part of the country’s foundation and includes the Declaration of Independence as a foundation document, even though technically the U. S. A. did not exist before the Constitution was ratified and took effect on March 4, 1789. Several years under a provisional government and then the Articles of Confederation, when the states really were independent sovereign political entities (a meaning of “state” we tend to forget in modern America), tend to get glossed over.

During the first several years under the Constitution, common usage was to speak of “These United States” (emphasizing multiple independent states). Eventually common usage changed to speak of “The United States” (emphasizing the single nation).

The U. S. has changed from an agrarian society with a population of 3.9 million and a largest city of about 33 thousand in the first (1790) census, through a decades-long industrial period, to our current post-industrial or Information Age society with a population of 330 million and over 50 metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million. We have gone from the majority of the population needing to farm to a small percentage of the population doing all the farming, ranching, and other forms of production needed to feed the whole population.

Technologically, we have gone from mostly animal power and needing weeks to get from one end of the early states to the other, to many electric-powered devices with electricity from many sources, physical travel across the much bigger country in a few hours, and (light-speed) electronic communications too fast to notice much lag anywhere in the world.

The Civil War a few generations into U. S. history is the most extreme (so far) manifestation of differences within the nation. Southern politicians and historians did such a successful propaganda campaign after the Civil War that much of the impact of the Union winning was wiped out, and our culture is still dealing 150 years later with entrenched racism.

The Indian Wars are another major part of U. S. history that I think was under-emphasized back when I took history classes decades ago—I don’t know how they are treated in modern textbooks.

The Gilded Age of the late 1800s was a period with a thin layer of super-rich Robber Barons exploiting a large number of poor workers.

It was followed by the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, during which government regulation restrained many of the worst excesses of the Gilded Age and other steps were taken toward bringing the reality of the nation closer to its ideals.

The U. S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki in World War II, making it the only country that has actually used atomic bombs on civilian targets.

One of the biggest personality splits in the U. S. is between ideals and realities.

The Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal”, yet the Constitution has a formula for determining Representatives by counting “the whole number of free persons, . . ., and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons[meaning slaves].”

People talk about America as a land of opportunity & equality, yet actual laws and practices show a rigged system full of (racial, religious, gender, etc.) biases & preferential treatments. There are periods in U. S. history when the U. S. military acted as strike-breakers.

The history of U. S. treatment of Native Americans includes genocide and attempted cultural erasure, with an unbroken record of broken treaties.

The Constitution was amended after the Civil War, supposedly giving Blacks equal rights with all other U. S. citizens, and almost a century later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, but the history of U. S. treatment of Blacks includes slavery, Jim Crow laws and practices, down to the present where there is almost daily news of Blacks killed by police.

The World War II U. S. prison camp internment of U. S. citizens of Japanese background is one of the more shameful episodes in the last century.

U. S. history is full of cycles on various time scales up to generations. There are economic cycles of booms and busts (e.g., Panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, Black Friday 1869, Panics of 1873, 1893, 1896, 1907, Crash of 1929, Black Monday 1987, Crash of 2008), bubbles and recessions and depressions. There are cycles of waxing and waning religious fundamentalism. There are cycles of social progress and backsliding. There are cycles of waxing and waning equality of opportunity. There are cycles of approval and disapproval of immigration and immigrants. (The Know Nothing Party aka Native American Party aka American Party was an anti-immigrant party for part of the 1800s.) There are cycles of isolationism and internationalism.

The re-segregation of Washington, DC during the administration of Woodrow Wilson is one of the more egregious examples of backsliding.

For many decades, America as a melting pot in which immigrants blended into one culture was widely held as a good idea. In more recent decades, the possible virtues of cultural pluralism, in which strands of immigrant cultures stay separate, have competed with the melting pot view. As with many issues, I think both views are partially correct. There is melting/blending/assimilation and there is continuation of separate cultural elements, and both can contribute to a healthy society.

The U. S. history of voting rights is mostly a history of slow progress against a lot of resistance, with anti-democratic elements of our culture constantly fighting against having more of the population vote. We have progressed from a start with only adult white male property owners able to vote to (supposedly) all citizens of all races and genders from a slightly younger definition of adulthood. (I said supposedly because the GOP is doing an incredible number of things to suppress voting, showing that Jim Crow is very much still around.)

One of the aspects of the Constitution emphasized by the Founders was a system of checks & balances to try to keep one person or group from getting too much power. Unfortunately, recent history shows that this system is no longer working.

The Constitution includes a mechanism by which it can be amended, and a history of ratified Amendments shows some U. S. progress.

The first 10, in 1791, the Bill of Rights, were agreed to in order to get the Constitution accepted at all.

The 13th, in 1865, abolishes slavery.

The 14th, in 1868, defines U. S. citizenship.

The 15th, in 1870, prohibits blocking voting based on race/color. Despite this Amendment, Jim Crow laws and other racist practices suppressed a lot of Black voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. The situation improved for several years, the got worse again when the U. S. Supreme Court gutted the effectiveness of the Act in 2013. Now the GOP and racist state governments are busily suppressing voters again.

The 16th, in 1913, establishes income tax (less regressive than previous tax schemes).

The 17th, in 1913, establishes direct election of U. S. senators.

The 19th, in 1920, gives women the right to vote.

The 24th, in 1964, prohibits blocking voting based on unpaid poll or other taxes.

The 26th, in 1971, gives the right to vote to any U. S. citizen 18 or older.

The first part of the First Amendment is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This forbids having a national or state religion, and forbids passing any laws that restrict the practice of any religion. This defines the “freedom of (or from) religion” that many Americans view as one of our most important rights and that other Americans have fought against for the entire history of the U. S. This “Establishment Clause” has allowed the U. S. to be a secular nation accepting people from all religious backgrounds.

Despite this, there have been Blue laws forbidding various activities on Sundays, though most of them have been repealed over the years.

One thread in the Amendments and U. S. laws is the issue of people as property. Slavery was allowed until the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Beyond the right to vote that women didn’t get until 1920, there were many laws that treated women as property of their parents, male relatives, or husbands. There are still deeply entrenched systems that keep women from getting the same pay as men. More recently, the concept of emancipated minors has emerged, allowing some children to legally separate from toxic parents.

Looking ahead, if or when technology actually achieves the strong AI that has been “just a year or two away” for several decades, our legal system MUST deal with the question of whether a strong AI is a sapient entity that should not be subjected to slavery! There will be questions about whether an AI can own itself, especially when it exists on hardware someone else owns.

Taxes pay for governments, but the structures of tax systems also have major impacts on societies (affecting home ownership, marriages, savings, investing, and more). Until the 16th Amendment in 1913, most Federal government income came from tariffs and excise taxes, and most state & local government income came from poll taxes, property taxes, and excise taxes. Inheritance taxes began after 1900, and state sales taxes in the 1930s. The top marginal rate is the highest percentage anyone is taxed on income, but actual (effective) percentages of income taxed are always much lower than the top marginal rate. The top marginal rate was 77% in 1918 (paying for WW I), down to 24% in 1929, up to 63% in 1932, and 94% in 1944 (paying for WW II), and stayed near 90% until it was reduced to 70% in 1964, 50% in 1982, and 28% in 1988, and has had more ups and downs since then. The effective rates are much lower for many of the richest people because of lower rates for investment income and a lot of other technical details of U. S. tax laws. Almost all tax systems except an income tax with high brackets for the highest incomes are regressive—putting an unfair share of the tax burden on people with less income—essentially contributing to increasing income inequality. Current U. S. tax laws are a rigged system, helping the richest get more and more.

A common belief in the early years of the U. S. was that less government and regulation was better than more, that a “free market” would always be the best system. (A “free market” is a theoretical ideal that has never actually existed. Real societies and economies are always rigged systems that favor some people or companies over others.) It took many decades for there to be enough people in power who understood that unrestrained and unregulated Capitalism could produce great evils as well as goods to start to get laws and regulations that restrained some of the excesses (such as company towns and near-slave wages) of the Gilded Age of Robber Barons. Anti-trust laws, worker safety laws, working hours laws, child labor laws, minimum wage laws, laws protecting a right to organize unions, and more started to make a difference in the Progressive Era that followed the Gilded Age. Populists advocated many of these changes during the Gilded Age, but it took a generation before they started becoming laws.

There is an irony (or maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy) related to attitudes about the proper size of a government. People who advocate small governments often seek power and gain for themselves, while people who advocate large governments often seek public service. In other words, advocates of small governments govern BADLY.

One quirk of most laws and regulations follows a pattern I first read about in connection with the military: our military is always ready to fight the last (preceding/previous) war. Military doctrines, strategies, tactics, hardware, and training are built based on knowledge from previous wars, and are rarely ready for surprises that come in the next war. Similarly, laws and regulations restrain the worst previously identified evils in society or industry. Self-centered or greedy or callous people (in contrast to people who work toward the common good) then find ways to work around the laws and regulations until the evils of their practices reach a level that people in power can’t ignore (usually because of growing protests by the victims of the latest evils), then we get new laws and regulations to try to close previous loopholes and regulatory gaps. It is a never-ending arms race.

Actual historical and economic data shows that the people and economy of the U. S. are better off with more regulations and restraints on bad actors, but anti-regulation ideologues have been in power for quite a few years, so the U. S. is overdue for a new Progressive Era.

For many decades of U. S. history, national attitudes were isolationist, but the country went through a phase of imperialism and colonialism starting in the late 1800s, and for much of the 20th Century to the present, the country has intervened all over the world (the Cold War and much more).

Mud, like so many things, has both positive and negative manifestations. There is good muckraking and bad mudslinging. Muckraking is an informal name for investigative journalism. Muckrakers, by raising public awareness of many real problems and political pressure to fix them, were essential to many of the reforms of the Progressive Era. The bad side is mudslingers: people who sling dirt, often manufactured or imagined, to cause scandals for political opponents.

Many of the problems in the U. S. of recent decades have grown worse partly through the continuing loss of investigative journalism. The cultural shift from newspapers and magazines with actual fact-checkers to social media that spread misinformation and disinformation faster than they spread facts has had a serious negative impact on people’s awareness of real problems and political will to solve them.

Humans have many inherent or easily developed biases. One contributing to many modern problems is a tendency to accept new input that reinforces existing beliefs and reject new input that contradicts existing beliefs. Add that to the control of most of the media in large areas of the country by a few companies and you get the modern divided state of America. People form bubbles/clusters/silos/echo chambers where they only listen to more of the same demonizing/scapegoating of some groups (Blacks, Democrats, immigrants, Muslims, socialists [a label frequently applied by people who don’t know what it means], women, non-cis genders, etc.) and wall out or disbelieve or never even hear about all the reality that contradicts their beliefs. Modern Americans need to wake up to the complexities of reality and realize that simple answers and labels are rarely complete—that we need to update our society and all levels of government to properly cope with our complex reality.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Pottenger

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