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The American anti-pattern

Something strange has happened to me over the last four years living in the United States: I’ve felt a growing affection for the place. As a dyed-in-the-wool true blue Aussie (not to mention an anti-US imperialism Muslim), this has come as something as a shock. The liveliness of the place, the sincerity of its people (excluding Los Angeles), and that go-for-it attitude have won me over.

But there is one repeated template of failure (what software people call an anti-pattern) of the American system that is one of its greatest weaknesses. One could argue that it happens everywhere in the world, but I’ve only seen it threaten the future of a country as it does here.

For all its brilliance, wealth, and culture, what many people don't realize is that the USA, according to many of the conventional metrics, is a third world country. These metrics include income inequality,  poverty, healthcare, and education. Why would a country with as much wealth and resources as the United States have such obvious socioeconomic injustice.

Here’s how it goes, in five steps:
  • Change: Someone makes a change in the political or legal landscape with some good intention. Alternatively, sometimes the environment changes in a radical way.
  • Exploitation opportunity: There’s some kind of weakness in the change that allows it to be exploited in a way not originally intended or conceived of.
  • Entrenchment: The exploitation opportunity creates entities with resources and they use it to entrench their wealth/power. A cycle is created where wealth/power is used to acquire greater and greater wealth and power.
  • Crisis: The problem or a side effect of the crack causes a crisis of some kind, or the flaws become so patently obvious that “something must be done.”
  • Inertia: Change and/or fixes are now difficult because the people who took the exploitation opportunity are now entrenched.

Here’s a relatively uncontroversial example: Consider corn subsidies in the USA.
  • Change: During the Great Depression, the United States introduces subsidies for corn for important social reasons.
  • Exploitation opportunity: Growing corn becomes very lucrative. One assessment of corn growing shows that for every $100 a farmer earns, $62 of it comes from the government.
  • Entrenchment: Farmers start to have disproportionate representation in the Senate. Iowa becomes the first primary state, locking it in to greater subsidies. A new ethanol subsidy is created based largely on corn, worth billions of dollars.
  • Crisis: The USA ends up spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on corn. It distorts food ingredients, with high fructose corn syrup being extensively used.
  • Inertia: Everyone knows this is a problem, but the corn lobby is now too powerful to be moved.

I’m sure you can think of your own examples: the “too big to fail” banks of the financial crisis, health-care, gun laws, climate change, poverty, dealing with huge government debt, how government debt came about in the first place, and so on and so on.