The Decline of the US, and what India can learn from this

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A hair salon might be an  odd place to derive information about a community or a country, or  the changes going on in it. But knowing how and why some small and  big businesses are supported or promoted might help us figure out a  lot about the larger vision, priorities and values of a society. As  they say in qualitative research, "Sometimes an in depth look at  one case or scenario can provide an efficient and reliable window  into an entire system or society, and offer important insights into  emerging social trends or problems".

The mercantile or  merchant class of old feudal societies always had its place...with  some socially imposed limits of course. In some societies they were  even relegated to a separate caste - with their own rights and  responsibilities; rules and regulations; strengths and weaknesses and  constraints and contributions.

Social and cultural  restrictions placed on businesses were put in place to make sure that  the ruling class, or the governing community, and the intellectual  class (or caste) were not in any way contaminated by business values  that put monetary interests above others. This helped the merchant  community, also referred to as "the trader caste or the business  class", pursue their production, manufacture, marketing,  negotiations, innovations, experimentations and economic priorities  without too many limits that might hinder their exploration and  creativity, while also ensuring (though not always successfully) that  the basic needs of the people were not ignored, and the basic  resources of the community were not exploited.

Making sure that the  business class did not become the administrative class, nor dominate  the intellectual class, helped protect and promote important  institutions, policies and laws connected to "social justice,  fairness and equality", so foundations of democracy, fairness  and important social values, beyond short term monetary interests or  gains, were not neglected or weakened.

  In any society where  "education, advanced research, health care, the judiciary, the  law enforcement system, politics and governance" are corrupted  by money and moneyed interests, there is likely to be "poverty,  disparity, crime, crookedness, corruption, cronyism, incompetency,  mediocrity, thuggery, violence and tyranny".

An old Japanese saying  goes, "Keep the merchant and his value system away from  government and free pursuit of truth and knowledge Then you will have  a strong society where even businesses operate efficiently, reliably  and ethically".

But when hairdressers  charge $ 50 or $ 75 dollars for a half hour haircut in the US, while  engineers and IT workers with Ph.Ds or Masters degrees are earning  $30 to $ 50 an hour for their professional work, you know you have  reached an unbalanced unfair development, and absurd social change.

When I searched around,  in my dwindling and declining middle class neighborhood near the  famous California Institute of Technology, also known as  Caltech (a reputed training and research institution  responsible for graduating some of the most talented researchers and  engineers in the US), for a hairdresser who'd do a simple coloring  and cutting (that millions of people do around the world), I was  stunned to be told that I'd be charged anywhere between $150 to $300  dollars for this service. Brain surgery by a highly educated  neurosurgeon might cost less per hour.

Today in the United  States I can eat at a very expensive restaurant for less than a $100.  I can go and consult a very good physician, with an MD and a license  to practice, for less than $100 an hour. I can find an engineer from  MIT who'd be willing to provide professional consultation for less  than $100 an hour. I can find an IT professional, with very good  qualifications, advanced training and specialized expertise, willing  to work for less than $100 an hour. But "low skilled or  semi-skilled workers", with diplomas from community colleges,  who do hair cutting, coloring and simple styling are now charging  $150 to $300 for haircuts and styling. Are they that much in demand?  Or...is the system “too skewed and”, as some Americans humorously  say, "too screwed up"?

One might be tempted to  say it is the latter. When societies focus excessively on appearance  and presentation, rather than content or substance, and pay  exorbitantly more to people who provide basic grooming, marketing and  entertainment than its educators, researchers, engineers, innovators  and competent rulers...such societies generally tend to be on a  decline.

When an actress who "pretends" to be teacher, a researcher, an  inventor or an electrician earns much more than an actual teacher, a researcher, an inventor or an electrician in a  society, then that society has lost its social priorities and its  fundamental commitment to "recognizing, rewarding and promoting relevant abilities, capabilities and contributions".

In  which enlightened and evolved society will a hairdresser charge $150  or $300 for a simple hair coloring and cutting, or for one hour  service, than an engineer with a Masters degree or a social  researcher with a Ph.D.? In which sensible society will such service  providers be able to get away with ridiculous charges without a  social critique?

Also, in which sensible  society will banks and lenders give huge amount of money to  individuals and groups for opening up fast food joints, restaurants,  hair salons, beauty spas, tattoo parlors...as they often do in Los  Angeles, in the name of "small business encouragement and  investments", while ignoring, neglecting and even punishing  inventors, innovators, scientific entrepreneurs and important social  policy developers and implementers?

In many parts of Los  Angeles you can see immigrants, who cannot speak a word of English,  getting loans to start "a pizzeria"; "a taco joint"  or "a nail salon"...but unable to get loans, with an  affordable interest, to invent a more efficient oven; develop a more  healthy taco or find more affordable ways of keeping one's nails  healthy and attractive.

Several faculty  colleagues of mine noted, "Many of our students wear better  shoes and clothes than us. They drive far more expensive cars than  us. They own more trendy gadgets than us. But many cannot read and  write their own mother tongue, English, well...even at the college  level. And they all have the attitude that if they pay they must get  an A. Some bully and coerce their teachers to get the grade they feel  they deserve, rather than work for it or earn it".

In some parts of the US  some students even shoot their teachers because they don't like their  "strictness", or "the teacher's demand for compliance  in classroom and competency in class work".

A university degree,  advanced education and higher learning should never be "an  economic necessity or a social entitlement". Advanced and higher  education should be mostly based on an individual's inner intellect,  talent, interest, passion and a calling, with a fairly objective and  an intelligently intuitive measure of an individual's abilities and  capabilities during recruitment, and an individual's learning,  competency and mastery at the time of graduation.

Those societies that  provide free higher education to everyone who applies, or is in need  of a college degree, irrespective of their talent, capabilities,  commitments, competencies, contributions and preparedness, ends up  with "copious numbers of graduates who cannot do much more than  sit in an office and shuffle papers while looking important".  Some end up wasting their time and talent doing jobs they do not  like, nor are prepared for. Some may also get degrees in unemployable  fields by pursuing social trends rather than their personal passions,  or what is socially relevant. And we all know that lack of interest  in one's work; lack of talent to do a particular job and/or lack of  appropriate incentive in one's profession affects "productivity,  creativity, competency, innovation and even integrity". And we  also know that good or excellent taxi drivers and plumbers do not  need college degrees, though some training in driving rules and  diverse plumbing techniques are always helpful.

America's inability to  establish policy distinctions and program differences between "trade  colleges" ; "technical institutes" ; "professional  schools" ; "four year Bachelor or two year Master programs"  and "institutions of advanced learning and research" have  created both "educated illiterates" and "uneducated  innovators who are poorly recognized and supported". This is a  contradiction that is likely to become a serious social problem, and  that developing countries must avoid.

For many people, coming  from extreme poverty, deprivation and desperation, the US is still a  paradise that they spend copious amount of hard time, creative effort  and precious resources trying to enter legally. Some put their life  on the line, literally, to enter the US illegally. For many such  people running water and indoor plumbing are a luxury. A small  apartment with 24/7 electricity, even in the ghettos of American  cities, is a luxury. A kitchen with a refrigerator, a microwave and  dishwasher is a luxury. A bathroom with a flushing toilet, around the  clock running water and a nice tub is a luxury. And for others a  gallon of milk, a dozen fruits and a kilo of vegetables at an  affordable price are a luxury. Then there are those who consider fast  or junk food for less than $ 5:00, that can feed two kids, a luxury.

For some, definitions of  safety and security in the United States are influenced by the  extreme violence, lawlessness and social dysfunctionalities in the  communities they emigrated from. Some immigrants consider the police  that constantly monitors them and their neighbors, creating fear and  total obedience in some, as a good thing...because they were once  surrounded by thugs, the mafia, goondas, cartels and highly crooked  officials in the old country.

As I noted in one of my  papers years ago, "What is accepted, tolerated, sought out,  embraced and even celebrated in the United States has a lot to do  with where an immigrant comes from, and what their personal or  professional conditions, ambitions and social priorities are".

An Indian woman once  said, "When my car broke down on a highway, and there were no  cell phones then, the telephones in booths on the road for emergency  services in the United States actually worked. An emergency crew  actually responded promptly when I called in the middle of the night  from middle of nowhere. Can you imagine something like this happening  in India?" The recent news about a young woman getting raped in  a bus near Delhi does not boost confidence about telephones, even  cell phones, working for anything...let alone to save a life in a  middle of a rape on a moving bus.

One can understand why so  many women from patriarchal communities and sexist cultures from  around the world desperately wanted to move to the US. They did so  mostly for security, safety, better opportunity and freedom (without  negative consequences).

Extreme uncertainty,  poverty, disparity, lack of mobility, lack of justice, lack of  opportunity, lack of protection, too much violence, too much  corruption, fear, desperation, lack of social values, etc. have also  driven many people to emigrate out of, or flee from, their countries.  Many have fled awful conditions to come to the US where public  services, living conditions, economic opportunities, social comforts  and community protections, for many decades, appeared "much  better", or "better than most things anywhere else".

As one African immigrant  noted, "The July 4th celebration with the firecrackers exploding  in the air are the only explosions I want to hear. In my country  there were too many bomb explosions and untimely deaths. I fled to  the US for peace and security".

A Saudi upper class woman  stated, "Where I come from driving is a luxury, voting is a  luxury and being equal to a man in your own home is a luxury for a  woman. I shall never return to the Middle East from the US until  things change dramatically for women there."

A Latino immigrant sadly  mused, "I had to walk one mile for water in my village, and  there were many days when I was hungry or had to beg for food. I came  to the US for plenty of cheap food, plenty of opportunity to find  economic security and mobility. And if possible find success."

If you come from Sudan or  Congo ; if you arrive in the US from the villages of Mexico or  Northern India ; if you migrate anywhere from Pakistan or Afghanistan  ; if you move away from extremely strict and rigid conditions imposed  on you as a woman in Saudi Arabia or Iran ; if you come from  challenging poverty in Ukraine, Poland or Romania ; if you come from  the horrible corruption in Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ;  if you come with all kinds of romantic views about Capitalism from  Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador....you will find America, even its poor  inner cities, a paradise, and American propaganda on "capitalism  as a perfect solution for every human problem" an attractive  Kool-Aid to consume.

Nothing brought this out  more clearly than my short drive to my hairdresser. That short drive,  like my search for an affordable hair stylist in Pasadena,  California, provided some social insights into the new emerging  America.

The traffic near my condo  was like in India, with cars weaving in and out without any warning.  Most cars, trucks and buses only stop at the red light, and even the  way they stop is sudden, in different directions and without  following the road lines and divides. The cars turn without warning,  and some have begun to use their horn to signal their presence or to  overtake. Some also use horns and alarms when reversing and parking,  adding to the city's noise pollution.

On several major roads  there were shops, shops and shops till the eyes could see. There were  no parks, no trees, no birds, no pretty architecture and no empty  space in-between ...though there were plenty of empty stores and  buildings.

There were also many  people crossing roads as they pleased, spitting on sidewalks as they  pleased, parking and driving as they pleased, eating, shopping and  talking incessantly as they pleased. It was not the kind of people's  energy that I usually welcome and enjoy in a city. It was the narrow,  self focused, sometimes narcissistic, trivial small world of the  "desperate, deprived, depraved, dysfunctional and the  enslaved"...in a mindless world of perpetual selling or buying  without balance, reason or thought.

These are early signs of  an emerging third world nation: unnecessary chaos ; avoidable  crises ; unreliable or sloppy frontline work ; poor or punitive  management ; growing incompetency in government and business services  ; lack of adequate punishment or penalty for wealthy lawbreakers or  fraudsters ; excessive isolation, segregation, mistreatment and  incarceration of the poor ; a dwindling and insecure middle class ;  an upper class that is not economically accountable and socially  responsible ; development and growth without planning...and planning  without adequate reliable implementation of sensible laws, policies  and programs.

It must also be borne in  mind that infrastructures and many social institutions in under  developed nations do not work, or they work in very shoddy unreliable  ways...or they work mostly for the rich.

Welcome to Third World  United States.

I also wondered as I  observed this community change, "How are all these people,  walking, talking, driving, spitting, shopping, buying,  selling...going to vote? Who are they going to vote for? What kind of  government or governance are they going to create?"

These questions went  through my head the same day the Federal government of the United  States went into a shutdown over a budget negotiation that was never  about sensible foresight or vision. The shutdown occurred because a  small group of elected conservative representatives merely wanted to  prove to their base, their funders and future collaborators, that  they could create enough theatrics to "bring their own  government to a standstill". The purpose of closing the  government down to repeal Affordable Care Act never succeeded, though  the actual shutdown continued for weeks.

As many analysts admit,  "This is not an unprecedented Federal government drama over a  policy disagreement as much as an actual weakening of the legislative  process. In the future nothing will get done: policy discourses and  legislative actions, that require prompt governmental decisions, will  get delayed, stagnate or deteriorate."

What many people forget  is that mafias, criminal elements, unethical people, selfish people,  tribalistic people, and those who beat up on the vulnerable, the  desperate, the trusting and the naïve, have always moved ahead in  the US historically, economically, socially and politically. But when  the middle class was large, mobile, and could reasonably succeed  without too many hurdles, injustices and problems, the ugliness, the  deceits, the illegalities, the insensitivities, the cruelties and the  social immoralities of the rich and the super rich were not  considered "a big problem". But as the middle class  dwindles, slips back, and are crushed by the illegal, unethical or  careless conducts of many institutions, professionals and those in  power, the awfulness of the elites, and the disparities among the  masses, become more apparent and troubling.

And what is  "authentically American" has not only undergone change, but  it has begun to be defined and directed exclusively by the elites  whose Americanism and patriotism have always been dominated by narrow  economic self interests.

A disappointed liberal  mused, "President Obama is surrounded by the same crooks,  cronies and crazies as Bush...though some of them claim to be  Democrats, liberals, centrists, moderates, Independents,  non-partisan, bi-partisan, blah, blah, blah...For the next century or  more the same old beliefs, same old boys with the same old toys and  the same old policies and programs will rule. When people lose  control over their own government, and policies no longer reflect  their interests, you know it is a society on the decline".

An American humorist  posted a statement over a sign near a bridge, "We cannot fix or  repair this bridge. But you can still drive on it...at your own peril  of course. And we wish you a nice day."

I chuckled when I read  that post, and sensed, no matter what the social and economic  deteriorations going on all over the US, the American sense of humor  is not in decline. That provides room, if not for optimism, for some  enthusiasm.

And in countries like  India social and economic standards have been so low for centuries  that for majority of the people low quality life and poor quality  environment have become the norm.

As the Indo-American joke  goes, "The US is declining. Please honk your horn in warning if the crumbling American bridge is shaking. Reconstruction  might be delayed. On the other side India has declined. Please honk  your horn in celebration after the shaking desi bridge has  fallen. Rebuilding may be relayed".

About  the author

Dr.  Meera Srinivasan has a Ph.D. from the University of Southern  California, and has taught at several private and public universities  in the US at the Bachelors and Masters levels. She earned her B.Sc.  in Statistics from Bombay University, and her Masters in Medical and  Psychiatric Social Work from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social  Sciences. She also has a post-graduate training in counseling from  Australia. She has many academic papers and published articles to her  credit. She has also presented in numerous conferences and seminars.  She has lived in four countries (India, Thailand, Australia and the  US), and has traveled to over thirty nations. Her commitment to  social research, social development, mental health and social justice  have played a big role in her personal life, professional work and  public activism. She has won several awards for her professional  contributions and community work. She has been praised very highly  for integrating cultural and social diversity, in a complex and  nuanced way, to her mental health and social work theories, analysis  and practice.

Also  read
1. Social Interpretation of Navratri for self awareness and self development by Dr Meera S
2. Differences on Women’s rights and choices between the U.S., India and the Middle East by Dr Meera S
3. Demystifying Caste