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US national priorities are really screwed up

(I apologize for the rant, but I'm disgusted with my country. The problems continue to mount, with no leadership in sight. These issues have come to a head locally and personally, and I want to say something about it. I understand you may disagree. I'll return to the usual productivity writing next week. Note: I care about this country; that's why I'm pissed.)

Mark Forster, in his book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, talks about the reactive vs. the rational mind. The reactive is the lower-level animal one with shorter-term priorities. The rational is the thinking part that plans and makes us do what's best, even when it means sacrificing immediate gratification. The trouble is, when we're stressed or afraid, guess which gets priority? This arrangement makes sense in the wild, but it doesn't build civilizations. With apologies to Mark, I think we can use this analogy for countries as well. Sadly, the United States - apparently with the blessing of many of my countrymen - is solidly in the reactive camp, as evidenced by our national priorities. A few examples.

1) Culture of violence. We're a gun-worshipping, violence-glorifying country. Just look at the TV, cable, and films that we produce and watch [1]. Then notice how much more violence we have than civilized countries with gun control laws. The recent shootings should convince anybody operating with a full deck that we have a problem. And no, arming everyone to the teeth ("Welcome to third grade. Here's your class schedule, books, and .38. Enjoy.") is not a solution. And if we limited guns, would these nuts just kill anyway? Sure - I can see the news now: "Maniac kills 38 people using salt shaker." Right. We've prioritized the right to own a gun over the right to be safe.

2) Military vs. schools. Around the country you'll see local school systems in real trouble. Crumbling buildings, teachers being laid off, programs being cut, etc. This results in increasing class sizes and more poorly educated kids. Even where I live - a relatively wealthy community - the schools have been hit hard. Why? Mostly it's because the federal contribution to educating our children has dried up. This while we're spending $10B a month just in Iraq [2]. We've prioritized occupation and military adventures over our future citizens.

3) Health insurance. I recently quit a job that provided great benefits at a really good price. Now that I'm self employed, I've really come to understand how screwed up this country's priorities are. We've got tens of millions of people without insurance (including lots of kids), and the choices for people who work on their own are pathetic. Group insurance is invasive, expensive, and the coverage is fair to poor, in some cases non-existent. On top of that, if you've got any medical concerns whatsoever (and isn't addressing them the whole point?) you're really in trouble. We've prioritized commercialized health insurance over being having access to health care.

4) Energy policy. Guess what - Peak oil is real, and the planet's supply is on the decline. Oil is very special stuff, and we've a) pretty much squandered our terrestrial allotment, and b) we refuse to believe it or work on solving it. Picture James Kunstler's image of a fully-loaded SUV, with one driver, accelerating into the bricked-up dead end road of suburbia. That's us. No trains worth mentioning, and third-world bus options. We've prioritized a car-based, high-consumption culture over a pragmatic preparation for the decline.

5) Environmental policy. Finally, hand-in-hand with our transportation choices, we've really messed up our climate. Even if all the leading scientists are wrong, is it worth taking a chance? We've prioritized sticking our heads in the sand over addressing a real - and difficult - problem.

These priorities are not sane, and are not mine, and they're just a few of the choices we've made as a country. Sadly, in making them we've squandered an amount of wealth that has been unheard of in the ~10,000 years of human civilization. But that's not the worst news. The worst thing is that we're doing nothing to correct these priorities; in fact, we're doing the opposite. If it was just me, I'd be upset. But as a parent whose child's health, education, and overall welfare are all threatened, it really stinks.

  • [1] Don't believe our culture worships guns? Try this simple check, what I call the "Gun Test" - Go to your neighborhood video store (if you still have one - I'll leave corporate take-overs of small towns for another time) and look at the video covers. Try to find any that have no guns on the front or back. It turns out it's really hard to find any. I use this test when I rent, because I don't want to pollute my head with filmmakers who glamorize violence. There's no question it's unhealthy for adults, and especially children. (We limit our 6 YO to 30 minutes of controlled viewing per day, and no cable.)
  • [2] See for example Estimated Costs of an Iraq War According to CBO or Iraq War, Inflation and War Finance.

Reader Comments (31)

Hi Matt, Great rant! I migrated from the US to Australia way back in '86. I grew up with a hand on heart pledge of allegiance every morning as a kid growing up in the 60's and 70's and really believed in the US and what we stood for. My adopted homeland is not perfect but I have watched in total despair as the US continues to lose its way. There seems to be no vision for the society and this relates directly to its reactive nature. It breaks my heart when I witness the now rampant anti-American sentiment in the world. There must be some way to tap into the special 'goodness' that I know resides in the hearts of the majority of Americans- it needs to be manifest very quickly.
Thanks again for a great blog- particularly your productivity wisdom.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Your blog, so you're entitled to rant. I guess I'm entitled to comment, then.

1) Couldn't agree more on the culture of violence. But re guns: if making them illegal would work, we would have won the "war on drugs" already. You have to decide whether you'd like a society where only the police and army have guns (visited one lately?) or one where law-abiding and non-insane people have a right to defend themselves.

2) Military spending is obscene. I guess Clinton had it about right, since he did nothing about the Taliban, Bin Laden, Cole, WTC, etc.

3) Health insurance is outrageous. Part of the problem is its structure. Whatever happened to insuring for catastrophe? Now, every sniffly nose goes to the doctor because it's only a $25 co-pay. Supply meets demand.

4) We do need a real energy policy, and for national security reasons as well.

5) Is it worth taking a chance? That depends on what it costs, doesn't it? If the chance is small that it's anthropogenic, and cost to nations is huge, then yes, maybe we should just take the chance. Meanwhile, Al Gore probably has more lightbulb s in his walk-in closet than I have in my house, and Travolta's planes burn more fossil fuel in a minute than my Honda does in a day.

I'm not disagreeing that any or all of these are problems. Just that there are other viewpoints, held by equally sincere people. What a great country, where we can debate it all!

BTW, I enjoy the blog (when it's on productivity).

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlso disgusted

The true root of the "Leadership" problem is the entrenched bureaucracy and power-mongering by ALL elected leaders. There is too much money and influence to be gained.
We need term limits for Congress and reviews of all departments every year to justify their existence.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

Brian: There must be some way to tap into the special 'goodness' that I know resides in the hearts of the majority of Americans: Well said. Thank you.

also disgusted: Your comment is quite welcome.

What a great country, where we can debate it all! Exactly. The reduction of those liberties is another pitiful one, which I didn't mention.

BTW, I enjoy the blog (when it's on productivity) Understood, and thank you. This is my second rant out of ~150; I don't like doing very many.

Stephen: There is too much money and influence to be gained. I think you're quite right. Another reader posted a while back that the wonderful things we love about our government weren't started there, but by people who held it to a higher standard, and demanded change. With the big bucks controlling it, we don't have as much say unless we get together...

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I agree that the culture of violence in our country is horrible. Don't confuse violence with firearms. The bottom line is that gun control existed and FAILED at VT. It simply created a large unarmed population of victims. If just one person in that area was armed, the results may have been different.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDon

Hi Don. I'd like to hear more about the VT trial you mention. Thanks for the comment.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Ok- This sparked a rant in me as well.

Culture of Violence: The culture of violence is a result of a culture that glorifies possessions and de-emphasizes personal responsibility. As long as we can only think about ourselves we will never be able to care about others. If we don't care about others, then why would we care if they live or die? Especially if it's always someone else's fault. We blame VT's administration or Public safety officer's, the store that sold the guns, maybe even the system that didn't recognize this kids was who he was - In reality one guy pulled the trigger. One guy who is getting more airtime than any presidential candidate or other issue.
Aside about guns: With our porous borders gun smuggling would quickly create a very profitable and totally unregulated black market. Much like drugs. As a kid it was much easier to locate drugs than booze. Alcohol was at least partially regulated.
Military vs. Schools: The Federal Government shouldn't have anything to do with schools. Education should be handled at the local level. The federal Gov't is charged with our military. The defense of the U.S. is really the Federal Government's primary responsibility.
More about Education: The Fed's have messed up just about everything they've been involved with. Education should be handled locally and without interference. The amount of testing and red-tape in the school system now really takes away a teacher time and energy to focus on teaching. Also by making teachers follow a set curricula we are robbing them of a chance to teach things that they are passionate about. Things that make them excited and make learning exciting. Another thing - don't blame schools for poor parents. Schools can only do so much, if the parents don;t value education.
Further schools rant: Everyone doesn't need to go to college. Stay with me here. With our emphasis on college and white collar jobs we are really shortchanging ourselves. Good plumbers and electricians are as essential as any manager. We need blue collar workers and should give them respect.
Health Insurance: OK...This is a tough one but, how many tests does a Dr. have to give you to make sure he doesn't get sued. How much is his malpractice insurance? How many patients does he have to see in a day to pay for that and the staff necessary to deal with the paperwork for all of that and your insurance company or Gov't provider? This is a big issue. It's getting really hard to find someone willing to deliver a baby. The risk of lawsuit is too high.

Energy Policy:Goes back to the culture of bling,not caring about anyone else, and it's always someone else's fault. "I realize the corporate jet take s alot of fuel but I really need to speak at this rally. You people should switch to compact flourescents...Don't worry about the cost upfront or the mercury inside."
Environmental Policy See above.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBuz

Thanks very much for your comment, Buz. You bring up some great issues regarding the role of the federal government. I see it as the organization that makes sure the important, long-term work of civilization gets done. And I include defense along with health, safety, and education. My issue is that the government has our tax dollars, but is spending them in ways I can't abide by...

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

"Even if all the leading (i.e., **non-Christian** non-Bush) scientists are wrong..."

As a Christian with a Ph.D. in math, and a regular reader of this blog, I found this swipe at Christians to be disappointing, totally unnecessary, highly prejudicial.

You are suggesting that being a Christian precludes one from being a leading scientist. Please supply the data supporting this claim, and then inform such leading scientists as Francis Crick and John Polkinghorne that they should either hand in their scientist credentials.

There are other things I'd take issue with in your rant, such as all of point #2 (buz got my thoughts about right), but honestly if you really believe that Christian faith and scientific skill are mutually exclusive, there's no point in attempting to stage an argument here.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobert


"...either hand in their scientist credentials or renounce their faith."

End of a long day.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Robert - you are right, and I am sorry. I was trying to refer to recent reports that the Bush administration is trying to bias scientific findings in favor of its politics, including firing people whose results don't match doctrine. Issues like global warming come to mind. Again, I was wrong to generalize.

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Robert: Below are a few articles that talk a bit more about Christian vs. science perspective. As someone who knows about both, it'd be good to hear more from you about this group - the thought is they're driving politics (including environmental issues) from a Apocalypse perspective, which I find surprising and frightening. I'm aware of these folks because I have fundamentalist Baptist family, and they're very swayed by Christian leaders like Falwell, whose arguments don't seem based on solid research. ?

[ Evangelical’s Focus on Climate Draws Fire of Christian Right - New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/03/us/03evangelical.html?ex=1330578000en=b56268ba037f482eei=5088partner=rssnytemc=rss ]

[ Christian-right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment | By Glenn Scherer | Grist | Main Dish | 27 Oct 2004 | http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2004/10/27/scherer-christian/ ]

[ The Blog | David Roberts: Jerry Falwell on Global Warming: It's a Myth | The Huffington Post | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-roberts/jerry-falwell-on-global-w_b_42133.html ]

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Note: I removed the unfair swipe that Robert identified, but I'm leaving his (very valid) comment. Another LessonLearned :-(

April 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I haven't read any comments yet, but just want to say this was a great and very refreshing rant.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Anonymous: Thank you. It always feels risky to me speaking out, and I don't want to loose readers.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I shouldn't think that you would lose readers over an OT rant. Everybody needs to vent once in a while.
And when you post things like this:
"Note: I removed the unfair swipe that Robert identified, but I'm leaving his (very valid) comment. Another LessonLearned :-("

...it increases your credibility. The (usually) silent majority of us can get along, but some of the issues of the day are getting harder and harder to swallow.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

Hi Matt,

Firearms are used often by good, law abiding citizens to protect and save lives. Please review this similar incident as an example:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_School_of_Law_shooting

I know it is hard to compare apples to apples (or in this case fruitcake to fruitcake), but there are many similarities. Both were in VA; both involved a disgruntled student; both incidents are fairly recent; both involved handguns; both involved a tragic loss of life. One was resolved quickly by law abiding civilians legally carrying lawful firearms.

This doesn't sidestep the problem you mention about violence. I wish I could pin-point the problem, but I think you are on the right track in suspecting the media (TV, cable, films) and I would add video games to that mix. Also, I didn't mention in my first post, that I agree with a few of your other points.

As a parting thought, why doesn't anyone know about the Appalachian School of Law shooting? Kinda makes me wonder just what is the media feeding us? :)

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdon

Hmmmmm.... your blog doesn't like the long URL. Try this to see information about the Appalachian School of Law shooting.


April 24, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdon

Stephen and Don: Thank you both for the food for thought.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

On guns: There's actually psychological testing thats been done where a person is asked to enter a room and fill in a survey. The survey is designed to measure aggressive thoughts.

Here's the catch. On a table to the side of a room there was either a gun or a badminton racket placed on a table. The person taking the test was told it was left over from a previous study and should be ignored.

The results on the tests showed that just by having an object of violence (i.e. the gun) had a significant impact on how people answered the questions in the survey.

If I can find the study, I'll add another comment pointing to it.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

Very interesting, Doug - thanks. Reminds me of a simulated prison study a while back involving college students (IIRC). They were divided into two groups - "prisoners" and "guards," and it didn't take much for the guards (all normal people) to get pretty nasty.

Oh, here it is:

[ The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment | http://www.prisonexp.org/ ]

[ Stanford prison experiment - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment ]

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

The reactive is the lower-level animal one with shorter-term priorities. The rational is the thinking part that plans and makes us do what's best, even when it means sacrificing immediate gratification. The trouble is, when we're stressed or afraid, guess which gets priority?

How should one apply this to the question of whether or not to post political or social or religious commentary to what is essentially one's professional web site? If the most important audience (because of the realities of needing to work) is going to be one's current and prospective clients, are rants the optimal course? Aren't rants reactive and not rational for this kind of web site?

It's possible that posting such posts would select a certain class of clients and even attract more of them; if done for that kind of reason, then it is rational, a course chosen for a specific purpose.

If it's for ranting to get something off one's chest, then isn't that "immediate gratification"?

In terms of clients, doesn't a post like this have a certain business cost because of possible loss of clients? How would one judge that cost? Is it worth it? Is it a question of values, of not feeling like one is hiding or masking personal beliefs?

After clients, what about blog readers, as the next most important audience?

I like your blog and followed your decision to leave the 9-5 job from that post over at "Escape From Cubicle Nation". Just an observation, no real horse in this race.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Anonymous: If it's for ranting to get something off one's chest, then isn't that "immediate gratification"? ... - Extremely good points - thank you for bringing me back to the client perspective. I haven't clarified where I want my blog to go. I started it simply as a place to "write to see what I'm thinking" and to develop ideas that were coming from reading. But as a marketing tool... I'm not sure! Currently I share personal stories, challenges, etc. (and yes, a very occasional rant), which aren't necessarily meant for clients.

That said, I have had clients say the blog helps establish my bone fides. A long time ago I [ asked | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/05/limited-posting-next-ten-days-plus.html ] whether people wanted separate blogs for different topics, and at the time I decided to stay with one. However, it's probably time to re-evaluate, maybe a rant blog elsewhere...

Thanks very much for reading.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Don't need the rants.... my subscription has been shut off.

And, no, I don't just subcribe to the FoxNews feed instead :) ... I just don't need it from either side when that's not what I signed up for.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Sorry to see you go, Anonymous. I realize that it doesn't take much to loose some readers - I've done the same at times myself. Thanks for letting me know.

April 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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