Here in this coffee shop along Polk in San Francisco, I view the last of the American streets that I will see for a very long time. This country has treated me well. There is no doubt about that. There are, however, many problems I see here, and I know that this country has not been so kind to everyone. Here I have posted my dissertation on the factors that are pushing me to find a new home.
I am an American. I have been all my life. I stood every morning during elementary school to put my hand over my heart and state my allegiance to the red, white, and blue, hung limply in the corner of the room. I watched with wide eyes the explosions in the sky on Independence Day while I listened reverently to country twang, singing out our pride to be Americans where at least we knew we were free. I watched in anxious confusion as the adults around me showed for the first time their weakness and distress as the television screens displayed images of burning buildings in a far away state called “New York.” I proudly stood and removed my headgear for the “Star Spangled Banner” before each sporting event, whether I was a competitor or a spectator. After graduation, I donned the uniform displaying my dedication to the country and its military, an anchor on my forehead and “U.S. Navy” stitched to my chest. I strutted haughtily with the backward-swept stars and stripes on the sleeve of my flight suit for the brief time that I got to call myself an aviator. I knew the names of the operations in which our servicemembers had died and the machinery they used to fight for our freedom. I believed that their actions preserved the life I had led. I believed in the American dream. I believed what I saw.
I have lost that faith.
Though my passport carries the seal of the United States of America, I hold no more allegiance to this land than I do to the pack that grips my shoulders. I have come to realize that I do not share as much with these people as I once thought. Of course, my family will remain here, and I will love them always as my family. But this country has done things and stands for things in which I wish to take no part. The United States of America presents itself as the proud and free leader of the world. It promotes its honesty and morality around the globe. It promotes the pretense that it is a global force for good. The myth makes it hard to leave, but the reality makes it inevitable.
Here, I would like to share with you my truest motivations for leaving America. Perhaps this is only the adolescent identity crisis finally resolving itself a few years late, but I must seek out a place in which my beliefs and ideals take refuge among the majority. In a world so small, there is no reason to limit oneself to their country of birth for the empty ideals of patriotism or loyalty.
Though most Americans are disgruntled by their government, my disappointment goes far deeper. My animus with the United States is not only one of governance, but one of culture. Yes, corruption in the American electoral system is large and growing, but people still have a major influence on who gets the spotlight come election time – at least they could if they cared to participate. When we point fingers at our leaders for failing to act responsibly with the budget, bickering over menial partisan issues, or implementing another overreaching foreign policy, the responsibility for these failures lies equally with the American people. As much as Americans complain about their government and tell pollsters how pitifully impotent the Congress is, their actions condone the atmosphere in Washington. I could rant on a wide variety of issues for which I see the United States headed in the wrong direction, but I will limit my focus to only three that I believe will have the most direct impact on my life when I find a new place to settle.
The primary considerations I will take when searching for a new home are respect for education, social responsibility, and religious influence.
I am looking for a home in which the people place the education of their peers and of their children to be among the highest priorities. I want to live in a constitutional republic that recognizes that the key to a successful state is an educated and informed electorate. I want to live in a community that actually acts like a community. I want to be part of a society in which people trust their government to take care of them and do what is necessary to make that possible. I want to be part of a nation that places its faith in the natural world. I crave a sense of belonging that is only possible in a world in which the word “atheist” is not only valueless, but practically meaningless because to believe in the supernatural would be unusual. I am unsure if I will find this home, but I will not be content until I have searched the world over.
This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of problems America faces. It is only meant to be a primer on the prevalent issues about which I believe Americans have grave misconceptions. I only aim to open your eyes to what lie behind the curtains, and I encourage you to investigate further. I will support my claims with available evidence, but this is, after all, my opinion. Challenge me if you will. I welcome the discussion. I hope even more, though, that you challenge yourself.
Part I: Education
First and foremost is the issue of education. I believe that our greatest achievement as humans has been the successful preservation and construction of knowledge through the ability to educate both vertically to future generations and horizontally to our peers. Without such ability, we would never be able to achieve the mastery of our environment or the digital power that we already seem to take for granted. We have reached a point at which we can communicate information to each other from almost any conceivable distance. Through the shared knowledge of hundreds of generations, we have gone from a hunting and gathering band of bipedal animals to a global influence that has not only the power to slip the surly bonds of Earth but the power to destroy all of its magnificent creations. With this power, we must take great care. Only through the most astute evaluations of our world and our place in it can we ensure the survival and continued advance of our species. If our youth do not understand this, we may be bringing man’s epoch to a premature close. For this reason, I believe that a focus on sound and available education and an honest search for truth must be the foundation of human society if it is to last.
The United States is still home to some of the most reverent institutions of higher learning in the world, but the student bodies of those institutions are rapidly becoming more and more non-American. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, often recognized at the top engineering school in the country, over 40% of graduate students are foreign nationals (~2,750 of 6,800). At Stanford University, MIT’s west coast rival, precisely one-third are from outside the United States. It is wonderful that the United States is attracting such incredible talent from around the world and enabling such brilliant minds to forward the human technological revolution, but I am concerned about the dearth of American presence in these august student bodies. These schools do produce great leaders and innovators, but this is only one small piece of the larger educational system. Most people will not go on to post-graduate education. Very few will embark on technical careers in science and mathematics. Most Americans who go through the educational system need only to know how to be a citizen, which involves more than many might think. In this country, citizens are responsible for their own governance, and in the most powerful nation on Earth, that comes with a great deal of responsibility. In this respect, the United States is failing.
Looking at the path American students must take on their journey toward the type of higher education that has become the envy of the world, the picture becomes much dimmer. Although it spends the most amount of money per capita on education (among many other items), its children are falling behind in their ability to understand the world through scientific and logical processes and to communicate their ideas through the written word. International benchmarks put students in the United States in the middle of the pack among developed countries. In primary and secondary schooling, the United States has cultivated a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” American children get through the public school system without developing many of the skills they will need later in life such as constructing a logical argument, communicating effectively, and understanding the scientific method.  The illiteracy of American children (both in the English language and in science) leads to an illiterate electorate who will be charged with commanding the most powerful military force human society has ever seen, directing the economic output of largest economy ever conceived, and overseeing the rapid interconnection of the globe as American enterprise reaches across borders and over oceans.
The vast majority of Americans do not understand the ramifications of the use of the American war machine around the world. Through their arrogance and apathy, they have overlooked obvious facts that indicate that current foreign policy is making things worse, not better. A people who place fact-based analysis on par with belief-based opinion cannot accept the revelation that Americans are dying from terrorist attacks at rates that would have been wholly inconceivable before the beginning of the so-called “war on terror.” A people unable and unwilling to have a real discussion with other cultures cannot understand how its insistence on controlling world affairs led to the popularization of extremist thought embodied in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa that unequivocally answered the question so many Americans asked after September 11, 2001: “Why do they hate us?” The answer simple: the United States struck first. We could go back to its occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American war of 1899 to look at the horrors of global hegemony the United States has inflicted upon the world. However, the current issues are a result of its insistence on trying to control Southwest Asia by supporting the creation and sustainment of Israel while it oppresses Arab Palestinians, inflicting regime changes like those of the Shah of Iran, arming the Mujahedeen extremists to fight a Soviet invasion strangely reminiscent of America’s 2001 invasion, and continuing to rain death from the skies throughout Muslim countries seemingly without regard to combatant or civilian. Despite America’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, their greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden, told them that it was their alliance with the oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia (a regime that continues to commit heinous humanitarian violations) that sparked the wealthy extremist’s animosity. Lest we forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11th were Saudi nationals. Islamic freedom fighters are lashing out at its oppressors just as any American would if any nation tried to implement its laws, values, and justice upon them by force. In no way do I condone terrorist attacks, but the pretense that “they hate us for our freedom” does nothing to solve the problem and only continues the cycle of violence. If more Americans understood how the actions of their government affect the rest of the world, they might think twice before electing another official who promises to abandon reason continue the bombing campaign. Unfortunately, I believe that Americans are too blinded by the classical narrative of good versus evil to accept the facts that are plainly in front of them.
I believe this to be the result of the American educational system’s failure to demand critical thinking or teach fact-based approaches to problem solving. It is in the American culture to view scientific consensus as another equal opinion. Illogical arguments and emotional appeals do much more to win campaigns and gain elected offices than do facts and scientific discovery. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has not seen the imminent threat of failing to educate scientists, engineers, and technologists. In this failure, they have forgotten how to base decisions on verified theories about the world instead of hype and propaganda. These failures affect both the ability to make decisions about how Americans conduct themselves around the world and at home. By looking at what the experts are telling them about their foreign policy, Americans may accept a less militaristic stance toward the Muslim world, which we have seen has a propensity for extremism. At home, Americans will need to reevaluate their way of life and the technology that supports it because the science is conclusive in the determination that American (as well as others’) energy consumption is unsustainable.
By its failure to adhere to the scientific principles that have gotten humanity to its zenith of technological achievement and universal understanding, the American people lead the charge in denying what sound scientific research is telling us about our world and our influence upon it. The scientific method long ago determined the causal link between carbon emissions and global temperatures, but the insistence upon belief over fact retards the necessary change that this world will need if it is to continue to support human life. It is hard to blame the American people when those who have stock in maintaining the status quo have run such a powerful propaganda campaign trying to discredit those doing actual science, but just like the acceptance of the fact that cigarette smoke is a carcinogen (fought by many of the same people who are fighting acceptance of climate change) people will come to realize the truth. My fear is whether or not that time will come before it is too late. The preeminent figure in climate science right now is 2˚C above preindustrial levels; this is the rise in average global temperatures that climate scientists fear will trigger positive feedbacks in the environment that will cause runaway global warming. We are on track to see this rise this century if we do not take drastic measures to reduce carbon emissions immediately. The fact that people like Senator Ted Cruz, chair of the Senate Science, Space and Technology subcommittee agrees with Congressman Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, who has this to say about climate change: “there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science” makes me lose all hope that this country will ever get back on the right track. The United States is the preeminent leader in global policy. The world will follow if it takes the necessary steps. It has already backed out on Kyoto, a highly hypocritical move, and the world is losing faith that the largest consumer of oil will take the lead on helping save mankind.
The idea of a global economy has the potential to catapult humanity into a new realm of innovation and achievement, but it also begs for those without restraint to exploit the masses who are vulnerable to their will. Free trade may seem fair in business sense, but without oversight, it leads to the enslavement of millions for whom the pennies of a paycheck are plenty while opportunities disappear in the land of milk and honey. In the technological age, a headquarters needs little in the way of physical space, and multinational corporations have the ability to hide in tax-free havens to siphon money out of the pockets of the many and into the coffers of the few.
As the world shrinks, the ways in which individual nations regulate business must change. New opportunities for rapid capital growth and low taxation have allowed the gap between rich and poor expand to record levels. Economist Thomas Piketty argues that the growing inequality around the world is due to globalization and technology trends that make invested capital more lucrative than actual work. This phenomenon is exacerbated in the United States by policies that reduce tax burdens on the wealthiest Americans. The United States employs a progressive tax code, in which the more a person earns, the higher their tax rate. However, due to a series of loopholes, this only holds true up to around $2 million of annual income, with the tax rates peaking at about 25%. Above this number, it becomes feasible to take steps such as borrowing against stocks that are earning enormous capital gains, making “charitable contributions” that go right back to the wealthy family, or hiring lobbyists to defend massive government handouts (large agricultural corporations receive billions in subsidies each year as a result of policies left over from the Great Depression and defended by lobbyists in Washington). The rate continues to fall through the wealthiest 400 Americans who pay tax rates around 16%., Granted, these are higher than most tax rates of the middle class, but these people have access to money-making opportunities that the middle class does not and most likely will never have. The wealthiest Americans have benefited disproportionately from the American system and should give back a proportional amount. Opponents of raising tax rates on the wealthiest will claim that it will hurt American economic growth and that gains will “trickle down” to the rest of society. Although higher taxes on business owners may have an impact on the overall growth numbers, very few Americans are feeling the growth as it is. Since the last recession, real hourly wages have decreased for 95% of Americans despite steady productivity growth. Only the top 5% of earners in the country have benefited from the recovery. This is demoralizing, but the truly frustrating part is that Americans broadly support the policies that make this possible.
Any talk about income inequality immediately sparks backlash about “class warfare” even though the country has not seen these levels of inequality since the 1920s, a decade that ended very poorly for the world. Over the past forty years, income taxes and capital gains taxes have fallen dramatically for the top earners. The federal estate tax, a tax that should support equality of opportunity by taxing extremely large inheritances, is on the brink of elimination because millions of Americans apparently want the elite families to stay at the top at the expense of everyone else. Americans have the delusional hope that they will someday join those elite ranks by working hard and getting ahead. This is fallacy. The odds are stacked against the working man, and the working man seems to be just fine with that. (This paragraph is a dry version of John Oliver’s episode of Last Week Tonight that featured the “Wealth Gap.” If you are reading this on the internet, follow the link in the footnotes to watch this clip now.) I think that all Americans would agree that the tax code is broken, but Americans have a dysfunctional view of how it should be fixed. With the knowledge that the richest are getting richer without extra work while everyone else is working harder while falling behind, it would make sense to address this problem with taxation. Almost every EU country has higher effective tax rates for their wealthiest than the United States. The share of income held by the wealthiest Europeans (~5%) is far lower than that in America (~20%). The continent may be sluggishly recovering from the recession (caused by irresponsible American financial practices), but they are coming up together. The individualism of Americans has deluded them into believing that the American Dream is still alive. It is not. That dream has been coopted by those at the top, who are pulling away from the rest of the country. Educational barriers and inability to understand what the statistics are telling them keeps most Americans from demanding the change that is necessary.
I do not claim to have the solutions to all of these problems, but I do know that it will take more than powerful rhetoric and a cheery smile to solve them. With an ignorant and apathetic electorate, the American electoral system rewards those who can be most convincing without being most qualified. Without the knowledge of the world around them, the American people will continue to fall for the tricks and the propaganda put forward in the multi-billion dollar election campaigns. America will need to cultivate those who can solve such problems or it will face its ultimate demise, and the whole world will suffer. Without teaching the basics of communication, mathematics, science, and history, that generation of problem solvers will not come.
The future may look bleak, and indeed it could be, but there are ways to avoid such an apocalyptic future. It is through the education of America’s next generations that the United States may be able to retain its place, front and center on the world stage. However, drastic changes will need to be in order.
The change must be cultural. The American people must reevaluate their priorities, and education must come in at the top. In a country that needs the best and brightest to flourish during their formative years, elders perpetuate the myth that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” The majority of American public school teachers graduated in the bottom two-thirds of their college classes, nearly half from the bottom one-third. So little trust is placed in the hands of the educators that the solution continues to be more and more assessments even though they continue to show the same list of failures without any hint of reform. The bureaucratization of America’s educational system has left teachers powerless and irresponsible. As educator and poet Taylor Mali wrote facetiously, “What’s a kid gonna learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?!” This is a common sentiment that I heard growing up and something I often thought while going through the public school system. It will take a massive paradigm shift to convince the American people that the mantra should be, “those who can, shall teach” and “Someone who decided to become a teacher decided to make a difference.”
Perhaps they could take a leaf out of Finns’ book for whom public school teachers are equals with doctors, lawyers, and scientists. Maybe someday, the Americans too will select the top 10% of applicants for hands-on post-graduate study before they are even allowed to take over a classroom. Unfortunately, for now, the United States is too short on teachers to be selective. Maybe with a little encouragement, though, kids growing up wanting to become soldiers, race car drivers, and Wall Street bankers will instead want to become teachers.
The primary and secondary schools have a series of problems with profound implications, but there is a serious tragedy going on in higher education. Many accept that a bachelor’s degree has become the new high school diploma. Without one, nearly all Americans are relegated to a life of menial labor. However, the higher education system has developed into a hurdle that many cannot (or prefer not to) get over not because they are intellectually incapable of learning the material, but because their pocketbooks aren’t thick enough. The average annual cost of a student attending a public American institution in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree is approximately $17,000. The average annual cost of a student attending a public Finnish institution (all Finnish universities are public) in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree is approximately $0. (It’s the same for master’s and doctorate in Finland.) Are American universities that much better? The question isn’t entirely pertinent. Finns do not rank their schools because such ranking is an irrelevant distraction to education. The question is whether Finnish schools give their graduates the tools they need to succeed in life. Considering the fact that Finland remains one of Europe’s strongest economies, its citizens enjoy a very high standard of living, and its innovators continue to be on the cutting edge of technology, I would have to say that yes, Finland’s universities do give graduates the tools they need. Of course, Finns pay much more in taxes than Americans do to finance such luxuries. These luxuries, though, are what many would call freedom. By properly funding education through taxation, Finnish youth are free to make the best possible lives for themselves. Education is not a financial hurdle that must be conquered in order to rise on the socioeconomic ladder. Finns are willing to hand over a third of their earnings to the state because they trust that it will continue to support priorities like education that enable their fellow Finns to realize the Finnish Dream.
The American educational system is failing its people, and they seem to be oblivious to its consequences. An uninformed electorate cannot make the decisions it must about its own government. In charge of the world’s preeminent economic and military power, the average American voter must have a basic understanding of the potential impact of their votes. It is true that the American voter has lost a great deal of power since the dramatic rise in cost of running a campaign, but if all eligible American voters actually came to the polls, they could have a much larger impact than they may think. The American people can affect this change, but they will need to change their values if they hope to raise a generation that understands the myriad other problems the nation faces.
Part II: Social Responsibility
The American colonies began as a business venture for wealthy Europeans who wanted to increase their fortune. It soon became a haven for victims of religious persecution who wanted nothing to do with the major factions they found in Europe. After these United States formed a country, the people spread west into the great unknown. The land was unforgiving and the savages they encountered, inhospitable. As they spread, the settlers formed small communities, insulated by leagues of uncultivated land, alone to build their own micro-cultures. In an age when the world was only as big as the horizon, they took solace in their natural liberty. The government was only a distant big brother providing minimal support and demanding even less. The menial complaints of the old states to the east were irrelevant. As the white man stretched across the continent to fulfill his manifest destiny, he made the American Dream: solitary, tough, free.
It is in the DNA of every American to long for the freedom from oppression that the wild beyond allows. It is in their history and their daily struggles. It is also not for me. To be honest, I am an introvert. I appreciate my time alone. I need time to recharge my batteries after every social encounter. Sometimes I simply like to be left to my own devices. Despite all of this, it far from encompasses who I am because I am also a socialist.
I have come to realize that the greatest facets of my life are defined by the relationships I have formed and the connections that I cherish. As socially inept as I am, this is a difficult part of life to enjoy, but like any great challenge, it is worth it. Here, my issue with the United States is not entirely incriminating. There is no blame to be had by any American for continuing the tradition of liberty and personal responsibility. These are, indeed, wonderful things. However, there are those of us who are willing to give up a little more freedom so that we can be more connected to and more involved with our countrymen.
A few months ago, I wrote about the tragedy of the solitary communities separated by state highways found in northwest Florida. Although this is far from representative of the country as a whole, it is certainly part of the American Dream to own one’s own home, have satisfactory separation from one’s neighbors, and generally be left to one’s own business. To me, this is very lonely. Although the move back to the central urban areas in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. is growing, keeping distance from neighbors is still the norm. In Sweden, the movement is toward communal housing. In these small communities, individuals or families can rent flats or even small apartments that connect to larger shared spaces, such as kitchens, recreational areas, and exercise facilities. In a way, it is much like living in a high class hostel. With the obligation of helping prepare meals once every few weeks and helping to clean the community spaces from time to time, these Swedes enjoy the benefits of having higher quality amenities than they could otherwise afford, prepared meals every night, and easy access to social contact at practically any time. Although these communities are still in the minority, social engagement in Europe tends to hold much more value than in the United States. In my travels, I will be seeking communities like these to make my home.
I still hold that the American lifestyle (idolizing liberty and individual responsibility) are not inherently bad, but I believe that these traits have led to a series of issues that the United States has failed to address appropriately. The adherence to personal responsibility is fantastic until it gets taken to the extreme. I believe that this mindset has a strong influence on Americans’ resentment toward paying taxes, but there are too many other facts at work there to make it an appropriate discussion. Here I would like to discuss the glaring issues with America’s criminal justice system. Among my chief complaints is its “war on drugs.” If it were to be analyzed like a real strategic military conflict, the good guys would be losing. Analyzed as a business venture, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says it should be shut down because of its horrendous failure. Costing the U.S. government $51 billion each year, this program has put millions behind bars for the use or possession of drugs. It should not take a psychologist to recognize that these people do not need a concrete cell; they need help. By shoving drug users and abusers in jail, the United States pushes them to the fringes, shows them that they are unworthy of controlling their own lives, and exacerbates the cycle of increasing drug use. Over the last decade, rates of drug use among Americans has increased. Granted, basically all of it is due to cannabis use (which is now “legal” in four states), but Americans should hope that for $51 billion a year, they would get at least a modest reduction. The United States certainly is not the only one with this problem, but many places are doing better. Even in Sweden, which has some of the most unforgiving drug laws in the world, simple possession does not land a Swede behind bars. In countries like Portugal, in which drug use has been completely decriminalized, drug users are not treated like criminals, but like medical patients. Data of decrease in drug use in Portugal are still inconclusive, but it is clear that the decriminalization has not caused a significant increase. In this manner, the Portuguese do not waste millions on fighting drug use, and they set in place programs that help drug addicts instead of punishing them.
I like this approach of treating drug offenders as people because that is what they are. The recreational use of drugs that does not have negative consequences on one’s professional life should not be seen as a crime (a point that I thought would have more legitimacy among liberty-loving Americans). However, even if that use becomes a problem, that person is still not a criminal. They are ill, and they need help. Most European systems recognize this. The United States throws these people in jail. To be clear, I am not supporting the irresponsible use or distribution of mind-altering substances. The enabling of ill persons in their struggle with addiction certainly should carry heavy penalties. A proper war on drugs empowers those who have struggled with substance abuse and punishes those who aim to exploit the weakness of others. Nobody has found the panacea for conquering drug abuse, but it is clear that many countries are closer to it than the United States, and I see few signs of change.
In the larger picture, America’s prison system is an absolute train wreck. It boggles me that so few see the painful irony in the fact that the “land of the free” incarcerates its citizens at rate higher than any other country in the world. I understand that prisons are a necessary evil for society to function smoothly, but I strongly disagree with the manner in which we operate them. Prisons as we know them are little more than holding cells for people to waste away their lives while thinking about what they did wrong – if they did anything wrong, but the judiciary process is an entirely separate issue. In many prisons, this time is punctuated by interaction with other inmates. By inmates, I mean other people who have broken the law and have more insight to share on how to get around the law next time. Maybe the advice isn’t very good, given that 3 in 4 Americans released from prison are locked up again within five years, but it certainly doesn’t stop those people from trying. I fear that I am in the minority by holding the belief that prisons should be a place people go to learn how to be productive citizens. I do not wholly discount the principle of retributive justice, but throwing someone in prison is not effective retribution. I’m not saying to make the life of someone who committed a crime luxurious, but we must accept the fact that whatever deterrent was in place has failed. A person has committed a crime, and we must deal with the situation at hand. The current system does not do that. There are many reasons for the failure to change, but one is uniquely American.
In the land of privatization and competition, the United States started allowing private contractors to run prisons in 1989. Now, these prisons are responsible for 1 in 10 incarcerated Americans and nearly 1 in 5 prison facilities, figures that grows each year. Proponents of this process say that it is a system that cuts down costs and relieves pressure on the bloated federal prison system. Sadly, this isn’t the case. These firms often charge just as much or more per prisoner than a public prison, and issues repeatedly surface about cost-cutting measures that put the efficacy of the prison and the safety of the prisoners in jeopardy. This is only a small portion of the prison population, but the trend shows that the problem will get worse. The problem is not so much that the companies are exploiting the government; it is the fact that building an effective prison is not in their best interest. These companies are publicly traded. They thrive on investments, and their loyalty is to their shareholders. Investing in a company that aims to reduce its clientele base in the coming years is a bad investment. The solution: increase clientele by assuring high recidivism. We already saw that 3 in 4 recently released prisoners will be back shortly. Those combined with new prisoners make a system of higher crime and plenty of criminals asking to get arrested a good business model even if it means a less safe society. Without strict oversight, these companies will take advantage of the prisoners and the American taxpayers in order to support their shareholders. As someone who recognizes the fallacy in commissioning watchers to watch the watchers who are watching other watchers, I do not accept that the privatization of the prison system is an effective strategy.
Yes, it’s hard to feel sorry people who have done wrong and deserve to be punished. However, we must look forward to the time at which these prisoners are released. After months or years of mistreatment, newly released prisoners cannot have much desire to abide by the laws of the state that was responsible. However, if the United States treated people in prison like, say, people, who want to get their lives together and be productive members of society, perhaps they might turn away from the life of crime when they are released. Opponents of this theory will shout that these people are criminals, and they will always be criminals, and trying to treat them like anything different is a waste of time and money. This argument is completely devoid of empirical evidence. Let’s take Norway, a country that has prisons like Bastoy Island, which resembles more of a summer camp than a prison. In these facilities, the only right removed is the freedom of movement. The prisoners are not allowed to leave the island or be out of their assigned areas. Otherwise, these Norwegians spend the last few years of their prison sentences living much the way they will after their release. They have jobs, they get paid, they must prepare many of their own meals, and they have real responsibility (including driving the ferry that goes to the mainland). The result: at 20%, Norway’s recidivism rate is lower than anywhere else in the developed world. Most Norwegians do not return to a life of crime; they become productive members of the their community, building a greater nation and a happier people. That is a successful prison system. The United States shows no sign of getting there any time soon.
In the United States, I get the feeling that people do not truly care about their fellow countrymen. They will proudly hang the colors from their front door and plaster the stars and stripes on every knick knack, piece of clothing, and bumper sticker they can find, but I don’t see that patriotism in their actions. They live as far away from each other as possible, work to give as little as possible to support their social systems, and ignore millions of their brothers and sisters who need not a cell with a barred window but a helping hand. I have heard of countries around the world in which patriotism doesn’t mean flying the flag day and night; it means doing right by their community. Some places, like Germany, fear the nationalism that comes with patriotism, but they at least want to take care of each other enough to support universal healthcare.
The United States is the only developed country left that has not implemented universal health care. Americans may not see the issue with this, but I have come across a way in which Americans are much worse off than many around the world. I was recently reviewing my financial situation. Given that I have been unemployed for a full month now, I have had no shortage of fun while I have been unemployed, and I recently coughed up nearly $1,500 to repair a friend’s car after I ran it into a curb, my financial situation looks pretty rosy. All of that rosiness however revolves around one key assumption: I don’t need massive savings. If all goes as planned, I can have myself debt-free by this time next year. That would be a wonderful feeling, but it will require that I liquidate nearly all of the contributions I have made to my IRA. For someone who has recently forgotten why the hell he cared so much about money in the past and has many years before potentially “retiring,” this is really no big deal.
However, I have a distinctly American problem: what if I get hurt? What if I have a medical expense that I cannot cover? What if I contract a disease while I am traveling? What if I develop an illness later in life that requires me to drain my life savings to get treatment?
These are questions that Brits, Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes, Dutchmen, Germans, Frenchmen, the Swiss, Spaniards, Poles, the Portuguese, Icelanders, Greenlanders, Greeks, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Russians, Saudis, Australians, Kiwis, Koreans, the Japanese, Brazilians, Uruguayans, Chileans, Argentinians, and even Sri Lankans never ask themselves because they are simply not pertinent. All of the people listed above (and more) can trust that their government/state/community/society will help them if they get sick.
Americans have no such reassurance. This is rather sad considering the fact that the United States is one of the least healthy countries in the developed world and by far spends the most per capita on health care. However, the idea of such a “socialist” system of medicine remains completely unthinkable. With socialized medicine, you may say, America will lose its ability to provide the best health care in the world!
That time has come and gone. America does not provide the best health care in the world. A 2009 study of seven developed nations concluded that six countries with universal health care outpaced the United States in measures of care safety, cost, efficiency, equity, and quality of life. Overall, the United States came in last. Its highest scoring categories were care effectiveness and being patient-centered, but those rankings still only put the United States in fourth. An internationalliving.com story even placed Malaysia, Costa Rica, and Mexico on the list of the top five countries for Americans to retire in if they want affordable quality health care. With the dismal statistics about American healthcare, one would hope that at least Americans were taking care of themselves. Again, false. Bloomberg ranked 145 countries using factors such as causes of death, death rate by age group, life expectancy at birth, survival to 65, and life expectancy at 65 while subtracting points for risks such as alcohol consumption, obesity, sedentariness, immunization rates, and pollution. The United States came in 33rd with 26 of the preceding countries having universal healthcare. Despite Americans’ continual insistence that its privatized health system creates the best health care in the world, the United States comes up short on nearly every front of medicine.
Getting into this mess is characteristically American. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, injuries on the job were a fairly regular occurrence, and financial support to those who had been injured was minimal at best. Unions and labor collectives began to provide some modicum of support against unforeseen losses at the end of the nineteenth century, but these payments hardly helped and in no way augmented the loss of a paycheck. The first real disability insurance came from a private provider in 1910. To be fair, the medical system of hospitals and doctor’s offices that we know today didn’t really start to take form until the middle of the century. The Socialist movement during the second decade of the twentieth century saw the rise of advocacy for socialized medicine, but it never took hold because it too closely resembled the Bismarckian system of Germany, against whom the United States had waged war. During the Great Depression, people began to recognize the issue of being unable to survive because of inability to pay for health care. By the middle of the 1930s, prepaying systems started by what was then Blue Shield had cropped up around the country. Despite President Roosevelt’s advocacy the government failed to step in. The Kaiser Construction Company (whose health system would lead to the modern Kaiser-Permanente) led the advance of offering health care payments to come directly out of paychecks, and the modern system of employer-provided health care was born. Although advances in medicine and the development of health care plans emerged through the depression, only 1 in 10 Americans were insured by the outbreak of World War II. That was until the 1942 Stabilization Act, which aimed to limit wage hikes during the war to prevent inflation. Employers, seeking more workers from the dwindling workforce, had to get creative with benefits, so they began offering health insurance plans. By the time of the next war (Korea), half of Americans had coverage. Despite its improvements, this system still left the unemployed and the elderly vulnerable to financial devastation in the face of medical emergencies. It was not until 1965 that Medicare and Medicaid came into being. The Nixon administration first brought talk of a universal health insurance system, but those plans died with his presidency. The Clinton administration brought back talk with the first lady’s plans to mandate employer-provided health insurance (much like the current ACA) and offer a public option. These too never made it through Congress. What was even more disappointing was that employers had begun dropping health coverage from benefits packages. In 1979, 97% of medium and large businesses offered health coverage to their employees. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 83%. Although Medicare expanded under President George W. Bush, the move toward government-provided health care is stalling. Requiring that all Americans sign up for health insurance and that employers offer insurance, the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, but right wing extremists in Congress have vowed to roll back as much of the act as possible during the current congress and when the Republicans presumably take control of the White House in 2017. If current sentiment and disdain for “Obamacare” continue, progress toward giving Americans the assurance of their health may falter.
To see just how poor the American health care situation is, let’s look at some statistics. Currently, 13% of Americans, 41 million people, are uninsured. That means that if you and nine of your friends get hurt tomorrow, at least one of them will probably enter a lifetime of indebtedness because of a freak accident. Nearly 40% of all private debt in America is due to unpaid medical bills. These debts destroy credit scores, and they’re often not the debtor’s fault. Many hits on credit reports come up after the recipient had thought the insurance company had paid the bill or when bills were levied in error. Regardless, the recipient is on the hook, and it can be a serious pain to get the hit removed. That’s assuming the bill can be paid. With ambulance rides costing thousands of dollars, and specialist visits sometimes costing six-figure sums, it should be no surprise that so many Americans cannot get out of medical debt. Even with mandated health coverage, these problems will not go away. Many health plans only cover a certain amount or certain types of care. Hospitals and out-of-network specialists can tack on thousands in extra charges. Living with this debt keeps people from being able to get ahead, trapping them in a cycle of debt that spirals toward poverty or bankruptcy, if they’re not already there.
Speaking of poverty, the United States is failing on that front as well. 45 million Americans, nearly 15% of the population, live below the poverty line. In a recent pamphlet supporting a universal basic income, I wrote:
In one of the core founding documents of the United States, The Declaration of Independence, revered founding father Thomas Jefferson writes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The United States would eventually become the home of prosperity, and it remains a beacon of hope for millions of immigrants crossing its borders in search of a better life each year. The influence of American commercialism can be seen in nearly every corner of the globe. McDonalds arches on street corners in Shanghai, Chase Bank ATMs in Frankfurt, and Coca-Cola advertisements in Baghdad continually remind us of the reach of American business. With trillions of dollars flowing in and out of the United States every year, we should expect to find prosperity across the land of promise. Unfortunately, the real picture is something very different. Ranking fourth in the OECD for measures of both income inequality and poverty rates, the United States supports millions of citizens struggling to maintain the most basic amenities of a civilized society including food, shelter, and meaningful life. These statistics do not point to a country that maintains the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens.
Although poverty can, by definition, never be eradicated because the poverty line floats based on mean or median income, many countries do much better than United States. There are a hundred federal programs to help the poor, but these programs are bloated and ineffectual. It is estimated that the United States spends about $1 trillion fighting poverty each year, yet the proportion of the population in poverty has stayed essentially constant for about four decades now. This is due to a welfare system that contains a series of cutoffs and cliffs that prevent people from getting ahead. Conservative news outlets sometimes cite that people on welfare make more than working class Americans. In some ways, this is a true statement, but it does not get at the heart of the issue. The problem is not that people on welfare make too much – often, they are barely surviving – the problem is that benefits stop abruptly, so people who are just about to get back on their feet suddenly lose the support they need to keep moving forward. This system destroys the incentive to try to get out of poverty.
People do not want to live in poverty. They do not want to live on government handouts. All the data out there supports the idea that people want to be productive, and giving them money does not encourage them to become lazy bums. People want to contribute. The American system does not support these desires. Upward social mobility in the United States has been at best stagnant, and by many measures, on a steady decline over the past several decades. Those born into poverty are equally likely to die in poverty as not, a phenomenon only witnessed in the United States and developing countries like India and Bangladesh. Although studies on social mobility are difficult, it is clear that the Nordic countries cultivate it the most, and the United States, the least. The United States continues to tote its “American Dream,” but other countries have gotten much better at realizing that dream than its progenitor. One thing has become clear: if you want the best chance to improve your situation, you should hope to live in any developed nation other than the United States.
Part III: Religion
Americans struggle with the difference between fact and belief. 92% of Americans believe that there is a magical man in the sky watching over everything they do. 68% of Americans believe that there is life after death. 80% of Americans believe that divine miracles are a real thing. These beliefs are personal decisions and are questions to which humankind does not yet have a definitive answer. The problem arises when religious belief tries to trump fact. The fact is that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The fact is that evolution by natural selection is the cause of the Earth’s biodiversity. The fact is that human activity is having a significant impact on the Earth’s climate. Believe what you will, these are verifiable explanations of the way the world is. Only in America do these facts come into contention on such a grand scale.
In this country, lack of belief in a higher power is a deficiency. Atheists are the least trusted group in the United States, falling behind Muslims, Homosexuals, Jews, etc.; 55% of Americans say that they would not vote for an atheist purely because he/she is an atheist. Only one openly atheist representative has ever been elected to the United States Congress. Simply by taking the rational approach to the world by accepting the fact that there is no evidence to support the existence of a higher being, we are somehow a lower class of citizen.
For many years I have been trying to refute the idea that “atheism” is a religion. It is not. It is merely a statement of disbelief in the supernatural. However, in this country, I have found that my lack of belief defines me in more ways than the beliefs I otherwise hold. I believe that humans have the potential to do literally anything. I believe that society’s expectations of an individual can define his/her life. I believe that the United States will collapse if it does not solve many of its problems very soon. I believe that government regulation of business is necessary to enforce fair competition. I believe that the United States should brings its troops home. I believe that I will find somewhere that others share these beliefs. I cannot substantiate these beliefs, and they are open for debate. This is where many Americans and I differ. When the issue of a religious belief enters the debate, the debate ceases to hold any meaning. There is no compromise and no change of course.
I understand that our core beliefs define who we are. I understand that the information we have learned to be true since childhood takes hold deep in our psyche. I also understand how hard it can be to admit that we are wrong. However, religious Americans take these issues to the extreme. American parents have watched their children die of curable illnesses because they insisted on depending on the power of prayer. The Bible continues to be used as a basis for discrimination, most recently on the issue of sexual orientation. In a twisted Protestant moralism, Americans have waged a war on private citizens who simply would like to enjoy the same rights heterosexual couples have enjoyed for centuries. Although there is absolutely no secular basis for the banning of homosexual marriage, the fight rages on. Even the education of our children in such vital and fundamental topics as biology has become a struggle. Millions of Americans have somehow accepted “intelligent design” as a scientific theory despite the fact that it fails to hold up to the faintest scientific rigor, and these people insist on retarding the education of their children because they cannot accept the idea they what their parents told them may not have been absolute truth. Many Americans believe that their religious belief can trump the rights of others.
Even more saddening is that there is a pervasive belief that this is justified because “America is a Christian nation.” It doesn’t take much effort to find evidence to the contrary. If we ask America’s founding fathers, we see that this was never to be the case. As John Adams wrote in the Treaty of Tripoli, “The Government of the United States is not, in any way, founded on the Christian religion….” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions….” Even in the United States Constitution, we can clearly see that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Not once does the U.S. Constitution mention “God” or a higher power. Despite this, even United States Senators like John McCain fail to understand that church and state shall remain separated in the United States. Marriage, something the churches claim to be a religious institution, is regulated by the states. Religious organizations can become tax-exempt simply by virtue of their status as religious. In direct violation of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, the state constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all require elected officials to profess a belief in a higher power. These statutes, however, continue to stand decades after their writing. In some states, “intelligent design” is taught to be an equal theory to natural selection in biology class. These are only a small handful of the ways the church has crept its way into the statehouse.
Beyond the legal ramifications, though, it is the culture of religiosity in the United States that makes me want to leave. The fact that the President must end every speech with “God bless the United States of America” for fear of losing his voter base makes me wonder how this is supposed to be a secular nation. The fact that many of the midshipmen who joined the Naval Academy’s first secular student society had not yet “come out” to their families for fear of being disowned infuriates me to no end.
I’m not the only one to see the issue of the American religious fervor. America’s enemies feed on it. When President George W. Bush rashly led the United States into two open-ended wars, he framed them in such a way that his enemies could only see it as religious. Despite the best intentions of many of the warriors who had to fight those wars, the Muslim world believes that the Christian West is waging another crusade. They have good reason to believe this because President Bush actually called it a “crusade” just a week after the September 11th attacks. When the mission of America’s “War on Terror” is to eradicate religious extremists, the last thing it should do is play along with the idea of religious warfare.
I want to live in a country in which I do not get the same rush of adrenaline whether I say something that is intended to provoke a fight or if I simply want to explain that I’m an atheist. I want to live in a country in which people don’t ask what my religion is because they don’t believe in such irrational things. I want to live in a country in which people vote for representatives based on their policies and ideas instead of which fairytale they choose to believe. I want to live in a country in which political leaders make decisions based on the real world, not fantastical religious beliefs.
My search for a new home began with Alternet’s article “8 countries where atheism is welcomed instead of demonized.” At the top of the list was the Czech Republic. This former Soviet state has almost completely turned its back on religion. Religion, suppressed under Soviet rule, has exploded in many Eastern European countries like Poland, Romania, and Georgia, but the Czechs simply forgot about it. Even in the Nordic countries, some of which actually still have a state church, about three-quarters of Nordic people are atheist. This is the mirror image of the United States. These countries represent havens in which people do not have to give equal time to ridiculous proposals like intelligent design or marriage inequality. In these potential future homes, perhaps the idea of religion, something I will most likely never understand, will simply fade into the background. It is in one of these places, I hope to find a community in which I can be myself.
First of all, thank you for getting this far. Those of you who have put forth the effort at least to try to understand the jumbled mess I just threw at you have shown me a great respect by accepting my sincerest attempt to show you what I am leaving behind and what I hope to find in the future. I have picked fights with people across the ideological spectrum, and I’m sure I have offended more than one reader. I will not apologize. These are the things I believe about the country in which I used to live, and the evidence seems to support these beliefs.
The first step to solving any problem is accepting that there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Too many Americans are in denial of this fact. If it remains this way, it may be too late before they are boiled like frogs as this once-great nation erodes into obscurity.
But, I could be wrong about all of this. Time and time again, I hear stories of expatriates returning to the United States, grateful to be home. The kindness and friendliness of Americans sets a world standard. Even that has a verifiably factual basis. The fervor with which Americans take pride in their flag and in their nation may be necessary and sufficient to overcome all of the problems I have laid out. That is, of course, if they recognize those problems.
In fact, the trends are positive. The United States may still be mediocre when it comes to education, but the fact that we are actually having a serious debate over Common Core and education reform could be the first step toward actual reform. In terms of post-secondary institutions, America is still home to the best. Tuition costs are still on the rise, but President Obama recently proposed free community college for all. Politicians don’t make offers unless they know people want them. Americans want free college. Especially as the generation in student loan debt up their eyeballs begins to take power, this issue may begin to fade. Americans are still very independent people, but there is a significant movement back toward urban areas in which at least some social interaction is required. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska have taken some of the first monumental steps in the decriminalization of minor drugs, and the movement across the nation is growing. People are talking about the mess that is America’s prison system, and hopefully some of those people will have the power to do something about it. John Oliver has done an excellent piece on some of the issues the prison system faces, and I’m sure he has a sizeable audience. The gap between rich and poor is still growing, but books like Divide and Capitalism in the 21st Century are calling attention to these issues and offering solutions. Money is playing a massive role in keeping politics from moving in the right direction, but those in control are going to start dying off soon, and the younger generations are paying much more attention to these things. Protestant Christianity may still have a death grip on the American political system, but the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing at an alarming rate. Especially among the Millennials, religion is fading bit by bit. Even those of our generation who are religious recognize much better than their parents the bigotry and prejudice that religion has propagated in the United States. There is hope in this country yet.
I have not discounted the possibility that I will return to this land, passport intact. Perhaps this is the best the world has to offer. I remember feeling much of this desire to leave when I was about to leave Colorado – although I was much less informed then. After over five years in Maryland and Florida, I have become one of the proudest Coloradans I know. I have come to respect the breathtaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the progressive politics of this conservative western state, and the sincere friendliness Coloradans exude. Perhaps I will become the proudest American to hoist the Stars and Stripes when I return. If I do, I will do so with a deep and complete understanding of why America is great, and I will make it my mission to educate all Americans, so that we may heal this country of its ailments and make a great country even greater.
But perhaps that’s highly wishful thinking. Perhaps I will settle outside these borders. I will not return permanently until I have scoured the globe for a place I may more confidently call home. I may have many misconceptions about the world right now, but there is one certainty in this journey: I will never stop exploring. I will never stop learning about the incredible world in which we live and the beautiful planet we have been so lucky to inhabit. I will never stop asking the tough questions, and I will never stop looking for solutions. To stop learning is to stop growing, and to stop growing is to stop living. Until my heart stops beating and my lungs breathe their last, I will never stop learning.
Goodbye, America. Please take care of those I love. Maybe I’ll be back someday, but for now, you are only a stage for the first chapter of my life story.
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