One of the best places to live in the world, it’s official, Vancouver is always in the top 5 cities. I came here in 2007 from the UK and fell in love with the place. There aren’t many cities in the world with such a wealth of natural beauty. Nestling between the Pacific and the BC Coastal mountain ranges residents can swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon. They can go to the opera, eat like royalty knowing that 10 kilometers will take them to pristine wilderness. Wolves and grizzly bears, Elk, Beaver and Mountain Lions set in the finest scenery that Mother Nature can offer and on a scale that has to be experienced. It’s a majestic scale that often catches tourists out. All too often they blithely hire a car and set off for Calgary planning to “do” the Island in the second week. You’ll see them at the airport, wide eyed and exhausted.
Far better to stay in Vancouver, use it as a base, we have it all but you have to pace yourself. The funny thing is that the locals go on vacation to Mexico and Hawaii, Canadian staples. When the world is beating a path to our door I think that we can get better value right here on our own doorstep. We raise our families and work
here so it’s not surprising that we look for a change but vacation time is precious and all too scarce. I think that we can get a lot more from Vancouver and so I’m going to start blogging on the subject. Let’s see what we can discover.
The American Prison System, capitalism out of control.
It’s big of course but did you realise just how big. Prison costs the US taxpayer $77 billion every year. That’s bigger than the turnover of 133 sovereign countries. 65 million Americans have criminal records and are or have been under some form of correctional control, prison, probation or parole. That’s 20% of the population more than the population of Britain. Since 1970 the US prison population has increased by 700% and a desperate government is turning more and more to the private sector to cope. Since 1990 the number of private prisons has increased by 1600%.
The War Against Drugs and Illegal Immigration is the driving force for this startling increase in the number of prisoners. The government went to the private sector to improve efficiency and lower cost (mainly wages). In Mississippi, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the biggest private players, pays $12.88 against $27 for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Amazingly in their contract with Uncle Sam CCA are guaranteed between 90% and 100% occupancy rates! If occupancy rates fall below 90% the government pays for the empty cells. The taxpayer foots the bill from the public safety budget.
In their tough on drugs and illegal immigration policies, both failing miserably, the government put the fox in charge of the hen house. It’s well known that putting people in prison doesn’t work very well. At best it’s like sweeping your dirt under the carpet, out of sight out of mind. In this case however things will never improve, they can’t or the likes of CCA will be out of a job. For example most prisoners can earn time off for good behaviour but in a private prison they are 8 times more likely to get time added to their sentence for minor infractions. Talking back to a guard will get you 30 days at $200 a night. Worse, private prison operators spend millions lobbying politicians in Washington DC. They want harsher sentences, they do not want legalisation of drugs or immigration amnesties. So what about rehabilitation of prisoners and reducing the rate of reoffending? Not going to happen, it’s bad for business. The emphasis is on filling prisons and building new ones not on rehabilitation, not on treating people like human beings.
The co-founder of CCA is the former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican party. Oh and CCA is listed as a Real Estate Investment Trust not a Prison Operator, it is therefore exempt from paying Federal taxes.
On the domestic front CCA charges inmates $5 a minute for phone calls and pays them wages of $1 per day. That means a weeks wages for one minute on the phone. Prisoners are traded by brokers who get paid commissions by competing prisons. A lifer is worth more than someone who got 2 years for fraud. Prisoners become commodities not human beings. So we get a crazy and cruel situation where a New York prisoner’s wife will likely have to visit her husband in Texas or Mississippi. How does that effect the marriage and the family? How does that help him get his life back on course? The cheapest prisons to run are of course, in rural America. Here the cost of doing business is optimal. Private prisons rent out their prisoners to companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Boeing and even the American Military. Prisoners are heavily used in the making of military equipment, helmets, armour etc on lucrative government contracts. Last year CCA cleared $300 million, (tax free).
OK, there is no denying that from a moral standpoint the American penal system is one sick puppy. It’s just wrong on so many levels, unless you are a shareholder like Bank of America, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase & Co. There is also no denying that this coalition of power is incredibly effective from a commercial standpoint. American corporations run like Swiss Watches, they are frighteningly efficient, competition is fierce. It’s very easy to criticise but there is also much to admire here. There is nothing wrong with being effective and profitable within the disciplines of a free market. The problem is that corporate America has no moral compass only the relentless hunt for profit, naked greed.
Commerce and trade is pivotal to any healthy society but it must have a moral conscience. It must embrace its social responsibilities and it must be supervised effectively by the elected representatives of the people. It is not surprising that Corporate America has, very effectively, taken control of the political machine. In marketing terms it’s called vertical integration, the corporation takes over every layer of the supply chain to maximise profit. It’s perfectly logical. Any organisation or person who has the power to influence the bottom line is targeted and coerced. Any political oversight has long ago been bought and paid for.
They say that you can judge a nation by how it treats its prisoners. Prisoners, no matter their crime, are still human beings. They are not commodities to be exploited and traded for profit. There is a name for that kind of thing, slavery. It seems that slavery is not dead. African Americans and Hispanics represent 25 % of the population of America but 60% of the prison population. Americans are being kept in prison for profit like farm animals.
The prison system is but one example of how corporate America undermines the democratic and political process. There are many others. The American Republic and its ground breaking constitution represents a milestone in human evolution. It is by its very nature a challenge to human nature, to discrimination, to prejudice and greed. It is under constant and sustained attack from within and without.
In 1787 Benjamin Franklin helped create the new Republic. As he left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia he was famously asked by Mrs Powel what kind of government had been chosen. He replied,
“A Republic, madam, if we can keep it.”
The battle rages on, it extends far beyond America’s borders and affects us all. So God Bless America and her idealistic constitution, she needs all the help she can get.
Culture, “the collective manifestation of intellectual achievement.” That’s a pretty broad brush considering many of us associate culture with art, theatre and literature. American culture has made a great contribution in that traditional sense, so many writers, so many, painters, sculptors, actors, poets, dancers and scientists. However one of their greatest contributions is an ability to think beyond tradition, to challenge what is possible or even correct, Americans innovate and adapt.
Non Americans tend to look down on all things American, let’s be honest. In Britain we tend to talk about American culture with tongue firmly in cheek, the war you know. America has become the worlds leader and many of us can’t quite forgive them for that so we over compensate. It’s tough at the top and as the last superpower America draws criticism from every quarter, whatever she does, good or bad and I do mean every quarter. We tend to regard Americans as loud and over confident when the reality is quite different. The old European powers have done their work well, many Americans are in awe of European culture and often overlook their own contributions. There is also a habitual tendency to analyse their own performance in pursuit of that other understated pillar of their culture, profit and efficiency. Americans are very competitive in everything they do and critical self-analyse is very necessary when striving for better results. The Americans have elevated it to a science.
Modern mass production techniques, research and development, financial control, human resources, advertising, sales and marketing. All revered by corporate Americans, refined and developed painstakingly with remorseless and ruthless critical self-analysis. Techniques that have been embraced by the world. Nowhere are these traits more evident than in the field of modern mass media which has become an American speciality. Take a moment and consider the numerous ways that American culture has directly affected you. Music, TV, literature, the Internet, work, science, food the car you drive and even how you pay for it.
Even the term culture has been revoultionised by America. Americans always, always, always, push the limits, they may not always get it right but American culture has changed the world forever. America’s contribution to human culture is vast and undeniable. They are now coming out of a huge depression, they tightened their belts and they hunkered down, they toughed it out. They are now lean and mean in a chaotic, competitive world that is constantly changing. They have a huge battle hardened military, unmatched in the world. They technical capabilities that other countries can only dream of. Their economic might is difficult to comprehend, remembering that they are now the number one oil producer in the world, no accident. There is literally nothing like them in size and scope. They face major challenges from Asia, specifically from China but also from Europe and a resurgent Russia but America thrives on challenges.
There is much talk of replacing the dollar as the worlds reserve currency and curtailing American global influence but talk is cheap. In another American cultural trait, America will always act in its own national self-interest, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. America can be single minded and ruthless, a good friend but a very, very bad enemy. The American cultural revolution is not yet at an end, it may even be just beginning.
The British learned the value of a special relationship with the Americans during the last war. It is never wise to bet against them, even when they get it wrong and they do get it wrong. However they generally get there in the end, maybe that goes hand in hand with critical self-analysis. It’s also always wise to consider the alternatives in these situations. Times are a changing, we are at war, a complicated economic war to be sure but all war is ultimately economic. There will be winners and losers and I believe the time for choosing sides is upon us.
The worlds global players are realigning themselves and squaring off, who knows where it all ends? The smart ones among you will be wondering what will the Americans do next?
A US Odyssey – Poverty in America
As has been pointed out to me by Americans, the State of Washington is poor. It seems that some states are poorer than others, something of a surprise to me but what do I know? That’s why I’m here after all, to learn. Now, I am not naïve, the idea that “all men are equal” never rang true for me but this is the wealthiest country in the world and we’re not talking about the high cost of caviar. I see grinding, endemic poverty, not just a lack of cash but homelessness, ignorance, poor health, massive addiction, the full package. Worse, some sections of the population seem divorced from choice almost as though they are excluded from the American dream.
When you start to investigate surprise soon turns to incredulity. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25 but each state has a great deal of autonomy. Some US states have a higher minimum wage but, significantly, some states have a lower minimum wage, or no minimum wage at all. If you Google it you will see that Wyoming is $5.15, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi Louisiana and Alabama have no minimum wage while at the other end of the spectrum Washington DC is $9.50, New York is $8.75 and California is $9. The South seems to stand out for some reason? In Canada it’s $10.25 about the same as the UK. Interestingly, I recently had occasion to complain about a Samsung product and was put through to a customer services call centre. The lady had a beautiful southern accent, she was from South Carolina, not Mumbai or Manila. It seems those third world call centre jobs have come home.
The average American owes $15,600 in credit card debt, the most downright socially destructive money of all. Credit card debt is particularly crippling because the interest rates are scandalous. The victim never catches up because they are not supposed to catch up. It used to be called usury and it was illegal. Now the financial industry caters to poor people for that reason, they have to pay more for less because they are short of cash. Nowadays they are a valid target.
Ironically, poor people pay more for their products not less. They buy kitchen towel a roll at a time, or cigarettes one at a time. They may not have a bank account and have to cash their pay or benefit cheques at a high street money seller. As for housing, the average American owes $157,000 in mortgage debt, remember house prices vary wildly here. In this area you can buy a three bed, 2 bath rancher a short walk from pristine beaches for $85000! Prices have dropped alarmingly. In the last few years there have been over 4 million repossessions as the property market folded. 20% percent of all mortgages are in negative equity with 10.8% of mortgages in foreclosure or past due. The idea that you saved your money (and got interest!) waiting until you could afford what you wanted was killed off long ago, deliberately. The banks are no longer interested in your savings they are now mere money lenders. Debt has become a way of life for just about everybody, even the government. More people than ever depend on high interest money just to get by.
The vast majority of Americans rent their homes but there is trouble here too. Officially, anyone paying more than 30% of their income on rent is financially “distressed”. On that basis in Washington State, on average, a minimum wage worker needs $18.92 per hour to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment. Clearly the numbers do not add up. Many people are paying much more than 30% of their income on rent i.e. their income is low, their rent high. They are officially distressed and believe me, they know.
The middle class has all but been wiped out. In an admittedly rather outdated definition of middle class one of the qualifying parameters was to have a years salary in the bank. How quaint. Those days are gone with most Americans a mere one or perhaps two pay cheques from disaster. The economy is improving but the gap between the poor and the wealthy is widening at a frightening rate.
The amount Americans spend on food has declined with 46 million Americans on government food stamps. Levels of obesity increase exponentially as a result. It seems many Americans can’t eat and pay their rent so the government came up with SNAPS, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps. For many Americans the slippery slope to homelessness looms large.
In Seattle, Washington State, Mayor Murray recently presented plans to city council for 3 new tent encampments (see photo inset) to accommodate homeless people. Every major city in the US has tented encampments. (YouTube – tent city USA) Many cities refuse to acknowledge the homeless problem and just send in the bulldozers and move the problem somewhere else.
Tent City 3 Seattle (Seattle Tower in background)
It all seems hard to believe, America is after all the last super power. How can such grinding poverty exist in the land of opportunity? America is huge, there is real wealth here make no mistake. I am focusing on poverty here because it took me by surprise, I just wasn’t expecting it to be so, obvious. As a tourist you rarely see this side of Uncle Sam and that’s no accident. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the flow of tourist dollars, customer perception is carefully controlled. It’s only when you dig a little deeper that the dark side comes out but hey, every country has poverty and a dark side so let’s keep things in perspective.
America can handle a large economic underclass, no doubt, because it always has. Poverty is a fact of life here and it’s not going away. The simple truth is the country needs poor people, illegal immigrants for example, people to do the jobs that no one else will do. Illegal immigrants however, send much of their hard earned cash abroad, much of it tax free. It leaves the American economy forever, a fact that has not been overlooked.
America’s growing underclass hearkens back to the days of the great depression in some ways but in others it seems a little more sinister. The simple fact is resources are finite and equality, a myth. Millions of Americans have lost their life savings, through no real fault of their own. They have been well and truly fleeced and are now vulnerable to exploitation. These days the person who cleans your toilets or cuts your grass is more likely to be a real live American.