Bernard Finel examines American Delusions

Summary: Today guest author Bernard Finel discusses one of the major themes of the FM website:  our broken thinking (aka dysfunctional observation-orientation-decision-action loop).  This was originally posted at his website on 17 January 2012.

“American Delusions” by Bernard Finel

One of the biggest problems with our domestic political discourse is that much of the American body politic is operating under a set of persistent and destructive delusions.

Health Care

During the health care debate, of course, one of the major points of opposition to Obama’s health care reform was the argument that the United States has the “best healthcare system in the world.” Now, yes, we have the most expensive health care system in the world. If we spent as much on health care per capita as other developed countries, we’d be spending roughly $1 trillion a year LESS. Which would be fine if we were getting $1 trillion worth of better health care, but, ya know, we aren’t. We’re either in the middle or bottom-middle of the pack in terms of health care outcomes. But even if we were near the top of the pack, we are not getting anywhere near $1 trillion worth of extra value from our system. But see, the “best healthcare system” in the world delusion blinds us to the fact that we need real and deep structural reform in the healthcare sector.


Whenever we talk about defense spending, we get a similar delusion at work. This one is the insecurity delusion, where the United States, despite spending more on defense that the rest of the world combined, is somehow perceived to be walking a razor’s edge with regard to national survival.

I never quite know if the people who promote this line of argumentation really believe it, or whether they’re ignorant, or have just been bought off. But whatever. Anyone who believes that cutting our defense budget say, 10 or 20%, will put us at risk of aggression from China, Iran, or Venezuela, is simply ignorant of the real distribution of global military power. Even the most aggressive defense budget cuts will leave us a 5-1 spending advantage over China. A 50-1 advantage over Iran. And a 150-1 advantage over Venezuela. But still, the delusion hold.

Social mobility, Inequality of income and wealth

When we talk about income inequality, an efforts to address that issue are met with delusions about social mobility, as in, the claim that while we may have high levels of income inequality, we have high levels of social mobility as well. But, ya know, we don’t have that either. From “The Great Gatsby Curve“, Paul Krugman, blog of the New York Times, 15 January 2012:

Alan Krueger, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers — who is not only a colleague of mine at Princeton, but gets a lot of my mail and vice versa — gave a very informative speech on inequality last week that should have received more press than it did. Much of it was stuff that inequality mavens already know, but he had one striking result that was what I suspected but hadn’t seen demonstrated: a clear negative relationship between inequality at a point in time and intergenerational social mobility.

Below is what he dubs the Great Gatsby Curve. On the horizontal axis is the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality. On the vertical axis is the intergenerational elasticity of income — how much a 1 percent rise in your father’s income affects your expected income; the higher this number, the lower is social mobility.

As he shows, America is both especially unequal and has especially low mobility. But he also argues that because we are even more unequal now than we were a generation ago, we should expect even less social mobility going forward.

Very illuminating — and disturbing.

I quote in full because I think this is a crucially important point. The United States is not just becoming more unequal, but this inequality is becoming increasingly institutionalized.  We are becomes a class society, with the the negative consequences associated with that.

And yet, any effort to talk about income inequality outside of “quiet rooms” is met with accusations of socialism because, supposedly, trying to restore some balance to the distribution of wealth in the United States might get in the way of our vaunted social mobility. But that is a delusion. It is almost certainly the case that rising income inequality is linked to diminishing social mobility. At the very least, the correlation suggests that, and while correlation does not equal causation, lack of correlation does imply lack of causation. In other words, the fact that social mobility had not increased while income inequality has suggests that, at the very least, social mobility does not result from high levels of income inequality.

Conclusions and forecasts

I know a lot of people are sanguine about this sort of thing, on the assumption, I guess, that sooner or later delusions come up against reality and are shown to be empty.  But I don’t know about that. As a practical matter, I think it is just as likely that as crises emerge we will hold ever tighter to our delusions, many of which are simply articles of faith for the true believers. The worse our health care crisis becomes, the more people will dig in to claim we have the best system in the world. The more we turn into a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, the more people will claim we have most social mobility in the world.

I’d say education is the answer. But have you ever tried talking people off the ledge of these delusions? They just don’t want to hear it.

About the author

Bernard Finel currently serves as Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His views are his alone and do not represent the position of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.

Before that he was senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC.  Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.

At his website he writes about politics, national security, crime and justice, and social commentary.  He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

Other guest posts on the FM website:

  1. An Appalling Threat to Civil Liberties and Democracy, 8 August 2010
  2. Who is to blame for our civil-military dysfunction?, 5 September 2010
  3. On Strategy (specifically in Afghanistan), 15 September 2010
  4. Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12), 23 September 2010
  5. Obama vs. the Generals, 1 October 2010
  6. Toward a National Renewal for America, 4 October 2010

A few of his other articles:

Other examples of American delusions

  1. Untruths, Wholly Untrue, And Nothing But Untruths“, Paul Krugman, New York Times, 13 January 2012
  2. A standard Republican narrative of history“, Noah Smith, 16 January 2012
  3. How conservatives lie about government“, Michael Lind, Salon, 24 January 2012 — “From Social Security hysteria to “Obamacare” madness, right-wing propaganda is increasingly divorced from reality”

For delusions of the Left about Climate Change see the FM Reference page about Science & Climate.

For more information about our health care system

  1. Beginning of the end of the Republic’s solvency. Soon come the first steps to a reformed regime – or a new regime., 14 August 2009
  2. Hidden truths about American health care, 19 January 2010
  3. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  4. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  5. The core truth about our health care system, 3 April 2010

For more information about inequality of wealth, income and power in America

  1. A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008
  2. Inequality in the USA, 7 January 2009
  3. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  4. The latest figures on income inequality in the USA, 9 October 2009
  5. An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009
  6. Graph of the decade, a hidden fracture in the American political regime, 7 March 2010
  7. Modern America seen in pictures. Graphs, not photos. Facts, not impressions., 13 June 2010
  8. A pity party for America’s rich and powerful, 8 September 2010
  9. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there, 13 December 2011

6 thoughts on “Bernard Finel examines American Delusions”

    1. While freedom of the press may be impinged upon, its very often not necessary to do so, since the press is happy to focus on non-stories that attract eyeballs (and therefore advertising dollars). Important issues therefore do not need to be censored, but merely replaced and obscured with an endless stream of celebrities, talking heads and other distractions.

  1. Are we limiting this discussion to the particulars of Dr. Finel’s article, or can we add to it? Because as I see things, there are some other grand delusions which play into what Bernard is pointing out. Those are:
    • Government is a business.
    • Free market competition is the best and only way to do anything.
    • That the American economy is truly a free market (parts of it may be).

    I’m probably violating a rule here by not having data at hand to back this up, so can we use this as a jumping off point?

    1. Certainly. Anything related to the subject of the post — not just its particulars — is welcomed. Supporting data is nice, and will add strength to your comment, but is not required.

    2. Here is a for-instance regarding defense contracting related to my last two bullets: Within the last year we’ve heard statements from SecDef Leon Panetta and Deputy SecDef Ashton Carter that we will protect our defense industrial base. We also have a statement from Ashton Carter (then Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L) that no more consolidation between the prime contractors will be permitted, in order to preserve competition.

      In what meaningful sense can any “competition” occur under those circumstances? What’s at stake for those companies, since it seems our government officials have pledged to keep them all afloat regardless? Why would they ever feel obligated to honor their contracts? My point being, this is clearly not a free market, just gross corporate welfare. A good bit of that money then ends up being spent to lobby their biggest customer and regulator for more business.

      So if a true free market really is the best way to do business (root hog or die), why not try it? If it’s not, why not create a state arsenal and be done with this? Is there something potentially worse than this self-licking ice cream cone?

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