Wednesday 19 December 2018

Joe Brolly: Despair behind the empty plea to 'have a great day'

Unchecked elitism and commercialism have eroded America's spirit of togetherness. That could also happen here, writes Joe Brolly

AMERICAN DREAM: A homeless man plays his guitar in the street in the Mission District in San Francisco.
AMERICAN DREAM: A homeless man plays his guitar in the street in the Mission District in San Francisco.
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I was in San Francisco last week for the hospice. You get into a taxi. The taxi driver beams a bright smile: "Hi, how are you today?" You walk into a shop. Again, that wide, white smile: "Hi, how are you today?" You pass the hotel lobby, they chorus: "Hi, how are you today?" It's like being surrounded by young Mormons.

After a few days there, it gets stuck in your head, like Chinese water torture. "Have a great day," "have a great day," "have a great day." But what happens when positivity meets reality?

You talk to the taxi driver. He is on a zero-hours contract. His rent is $3,000 a month for the two-bed apartment where he lives with his family. He can make $5,000 a month if he works 14 hours a day. He's working hard for his family, but he rarely sees them. After the bills are paid, there is nothing left. If he gets sick, they are in big trouble. When you delve beneath the surface, these ordinary people are living with terrible daily anxiety. Will they lose their home? Will they be able to afford a decent education for their children? How will they get by in retirement? A sobering statistic: over 10 million Americans have lost their homes since 2008. Are they having a great day?

Since the Reagan era, when the financial sector was deregulated, progressive taxation was abandoned and patent law was relaxed to allow monopolies (think Big Pharma) to set extortionate prices, unchecked elitism and commercialism have concentrated the wealth in the top 1pc. The federal minimum wage has collapsed under sustained pressure from the right, unions have been systematically weakened by repressive legislation and tax take has nose-dived.

The traditional bonds of American society have been destroyed. The spirit of togetherness and community that prevailed until around the 1970s (fostered by Roosevelt's New Deal) has disappeared. Individualism and greed have flourished. Inevitably, the ordinary folk have been left behind. The once securely employed middle classes live in insecure fear. The old blue-collar working class has disappeared, replaced by their dollar a day counterparts in Asia. The health system exists only for the wealthy, the only decent schools are private and, according to the inaugural World Inequality Report (December 2017), 41 million Americans (roughly 20pc of the population) live below the poverty line. As of 2013, an estimated 20-25 million Americans were living in trailer parks, with people living permanently in 8.6 million mobile homes (the 2013 US Census Bureau report).

We are disturbed at the images of shanty towns in Calcutta and Brazil. But on my second morning, I got up early and walked the length of Mission, one of the major streets running through San Francisco. In the morning sun, the sidewalks were covered with tents and makeshift beds. People were washing and urinating. I stopped and watched as a lady carefully injected herself with heroin. She looked elderly but it is difficult to say when people have been living on the street for any length of time. A block further on, I saw a man smoking crack, his eyes glazed over. Nearby, a shrivelled old lady was dancing on the street to loud music. Beside her, a man in a motability scooter was nodding his head with the beat. I stopped to see where the music was coming from, then noticed a large speaker between the man's legs, plugged into a socket on his scooter. A man came rollerskating towards me on the path. As he passed me, I saw the shopping trolley tied to his waist, filled with his worldly goods, rolling along behind him.

A man was walking his dog. He stopped, took down his trousers and went to the toilet against the wall, as the dog waited patiently. I half expected the dog to take out a pooper scooper and clean up the owner's mess. I handed a $20 bill to a very old man with a cardboard sign saying, "Please help me to eat". "Have a great day, man," he said.

As ordinary Americans disappear down the plughole, the last sight you have of them is a wide smile and a cheery "Have a nice day". Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about this cult of false positivity called Smile or Die. The point is that we need to confront our problems realistically, tackle them head on and call things as they are. Otherwise, we are merely deluding ourselves. In the absence of critical thinking, America has become a vast delusion, with a president who many poor Americans sincerely believed was going to build a wall across the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico. A wall that was going to make them all great again.

As the former president of the World Bank and Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it in his masterwork The Price of Inequality, the myth that caused all of this needless misery "is the same old myth that we should celebrate the great wealth of those at the top because we all benefit from it". In the US, the poor and the starving are slackers and freeloaders who haven't bought into the American dream. This is, of course, nonsensical.

Social mobility is virtually non-existent in America because the system prevents it. Our neighbours in the UK this year became the second most unequal country in the world after the US. Many of the symptoms are now present in our own country: think the slashing of public services and social protection, the grotesque tax incentives for major corporations who make minimal social contribution, the deep cuts in teachers' pay, the burgeoning homelessness crisis, the sky-rocketing price of homes, the proposed cuts in pensions for the elderly etc.

A recent comprehensive study of the Iceland success story, carried out by a team of US economists and psychologists under the leadership of Professor Barbara A Kerr, concluded that the key to their excellent economic performance and more importantly, the happiness of their people, lay in a system that has been rigorously designed to prevent inequality.

It is not a communist state, so capitalism is allowed to flourish, meaning that those creating the wealth earn greater financial rewards. But the system of progressive taxation, strict regulation of the financial sector, and heavy investment in their Innovation Education (IE) system (free at all levels) and public services, has created a cohesive, fair society.

Schools in Iceland are hubs of creativity, with no set curriculum and an emphasis on collaboration and independent thinking.

Crucially, as the final paragraph of the report puts it, when assessing the almost universal sense of well-being in their society, "a great deal of emphasis must be placed on the generous, social safety net that Icelanders enjoy".

An efficient system of social protection is not a charter for freeloaders. It is a critical element of any functional society. This is best summed up in the Kerr report by a quote from an Icelandic immigrant who collaborated on the study: "Never underestimate what knowing you will always have food, shelter, childcare and an education will do for your creativity."

In a modern Ireland where none of these are guaranteed, how long will it be before Dublin becomes a full-blown shanty town, with smiling tellers on zero-hour contracts exhorting us to "Have a Great Day".

Sunday Independent

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