Letter from America : Frantic with living The first great sense of America, that everyone who travels or lives there feels, is freedom

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Forrest Cookson:I was recently in the United States. Walking the streets in the Bay area of San Francisco I saw what is happening in America.  I was surprised, both delighted and horrified.  This is not about politics and Trump.  Rather I saw traces of the five deep forces now shaping American life.  The basic freedom and openness of America make humanity’s future trends first appear in the USA.  These five are both frightening and enlightening.  It is not a matter of good or evil, like or dislike, admire or despise, this is our future.

The first great sense of America, that everyone who travels or lives there feels, is freedom.  We are a society of truly free women and men.  From far back in human history the battle has been fought between freedom and autocracy.  In the 20th century freedom won destroying fascism and communism, the two great autocratic movements that challenged freedom.  Freedom is again challenged, particularly in Asia where China is the rising new autocracy.  There are many in Asia bewitched by this Chinese autocracy.  But the bewitched ae doomed to disappointment as were those who admired the communist regimes of Russia and eastern Europe or the facist regimes of Spain, Italy, and Vicky France. Americans have long broken from the traditions of class, from models of good behavior, and from the claims on us of socially conservative political and religious beliefs.  Imperfect as it is, America is struggling to build a society that accepts people as equal regardless of gender, color, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or age.  Where what you are is how hard you work and how honorable a person you are.  Accomplishment is rewarded, as is honorable behavior.  Slowly society becomes stronger.

If you walk the streets of a California town you see everywhere this sense of we are all Americans.  The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, that struck down an old Virginia law that made it illegal for persons of different “races” to marry, occurred during my visit.  A perfect symbol of what American freedom means.  There is increasing freedom from bias against race, color, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.  Very far from perfect, but better than any other gathering of humanity.  Americans have freedom but it is a continuous battle to maintain it and to insure that blessings spread over the whole society.  If you want real freedom to be who you want to be, then you need to live in America. No other country provides such opportunity.  The thousands of Bangladeshis who immigrated to America prove this.

The second great force shaping America is environmental poisoning.  Every day new chemicals enter the environment to improve the detergents we use to wash cloths and dishes, to improve the strength or flexibility of plastics, to make our automobiles operate more efficiently, to wash windows, providing paints that last longer and on and on.  Industrial development has brought with it a tremendous growth in the number of chemicals used in manufacturing and construction.  These are rarely tested before use.  The cumulative impact of these is devastating.  I take an extreme position here but one I think correct.  As humans we all believe that we can really change what happens through good public policy.  We have many organizations busy working to change things for the better.  I suggest that the chemical poisoning that has been going on the past 100 years is what really changes our lives.  Policy making is just froth. Reduced fertility and hence smaller families are a consequence of this poisoning, not decisions to have smaller families; the obesity epidemic that has overwhelmed America and soon the rest of the world, is not a lack of will power and good nutrition but environmental poisoning.  Not so clear but very likely is the increase of estrogen like chemicals result in a greater homosexual preference.    Control over these chemicals is limited and there is no real understanding of the total impact on humans.

But it is very clear in America today: growing incidence of depression, increased asthma, rising fertility problems, more prevalent sexual dysfunction, and increasing noninfectious diseases arise from this poisoning.  Ironically our industrial wealth poisons us.

The third force is the accelerating use of narcotics for pleasure.  I saw four trends: The widespread availability of Opioids, a class of drugs developed to reduce pain. This class of chemicals was heavily advertised by greedy pharmaceutical companies to doctors leading to widespread use, 250 million prescriptions in 2016.  A friend of mine told me she had a simple out patient procedure; she was given two prescriptions for an opioid, altogether 140 pills.  She took only a handful for the pain.  The street value of a pill is about $15 in California so the remaining pills were “worth” almost $2000 if she sold them on the street.  Many are imported from China.

The second trend was the legalization of marijuana, a process going forward very fast.  This drug will be commercially exploited just like tobacco.  Its use will increase many fold.  The third trend is the increasing inflow of heroin from and through Mexico.  Poppy cultivation is increasing rapidly in Mexico to serve the American market.  This dangerous and debilitating drug is raising havoc in America.  Finally is the availability of meth-amphetamines.  These are everywhere, as common as coca-cola.  The American “war against drugs” has been lost.

The fourth force is the rising role of women working outside the home and the unhappy consequences of this change.  Human societies have organized around the family.  The family did three things: It was a device for cooperatively obtaining and managing resources; it provided the basis for reproduction; it provided security against outsiders.  As the state becomes more powerful the importance of the family as the organizing force declines.  The woman’s role in the family, managing resources while producing and caring for children, are now all undermined by the state.  In addition the need for workers for industry and services is constantly growing, attracting women into the labor force.  The results in America are startling.  More than 40% of adult Americans live without a partner.  Half of marriages end in divorce.  Women increasingly find that they can do just as well without the family structure.  The demands of women for an equal position in the traditional man’s world of work is wrecking the traditional family.  Some 40% of children are born outside marriage and that share will continue to increase.  More and more children are raised with only one parent in attendance and another large group go back and forth between two parents who no longer live together.  What this does to children is unknown, but it cannot be an improvement on the traditional family.

The final force is one for optimism and fear: The explosive growth of science and technology.  The great research universities and laboratories in the United States are pouring out new understanding of the physical and biological universes.  Never have mathematics and the sciences soared as now. There are two consequences – one is the improvement of our lives through better material goods; the other is the philosophical impact. The description of nature in the universe of ordinary matter is essentially complete.  Knowledge of the biological universe based on evolution through changes in the DNA of what we call living creatures is equally complete.  The Enlightenment view has won out.  We have the knowledge to bring a good life for everyone, and simultaneously to achieve a sustainable environment.  The science now available provides the path. The role of religion is increasingly squeezed out by science.  Ironically the science that provides knowledge undermines religion.  But it is religion we need to moderate our greed and build societies that will enable elimination of poverty and achievement of a sustainable environment.

How we will live in this emerging world is not clear.  Long life, wealth, and economic security will be available.  But the spiritual world of religion, family, and acceptance of suffering are vanishing.

These five forces environmental poisoning, rapidly progressing science and technology, rising role of women outside the family, a drugged nation, and the great freedom of citizens will shape America.  It is difficult to see where this is going.

The writer is an economist

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