It probably wasn’t intentional.  The three sketches offered by CBS’s Sixty Minutes news program on October 6th seemed to have had nothing in common.  But taken together, a picture emerged of the rot lying at the core of the American culture’s apple.

The first piece, Disability USA, detailed the burgeoning ranks of people drawing Social Security disability, and the inherent fraud that accompanies so much of it.  If the numbers of truly disabled people had grown remotely as fast as those drawing disability benefits from Social Security, the country would be experiencing a public health crisis of epic proportions.  But that’s not what’s going on.  As several bureaucrats interviewed for the piece observed, disability is essentially replacing work.  People who can’t find work are turning to Social Security disability.   Of course, there is vast fraud in the system.  Fraud accompanies all well-intentioned government programs.  But this is fraud being perpetuated by all the participants–from the able-bodied who fake disability, to the lawyers and judges who help them do so, to the system bureaucrats who turn a blind eye to what is obviously going on.  

Fraud on such a grand scale becomes something other than fraud.  In this case, it is using a Social Security program designed to help people who can’t work because of physical impediments to resolve the growing problem of permanent unemployment/unemployability among low-skilled American workers.  Social Security disability has effectively become a program for workers displaced by technology or offshoring or immigration.  It is a wink and a nod to the country’s capitalists by the politicians, keeping the peace among America’s lower classes so that the capitalists might continue to exploit the advantages of cheap immigrant and foreign labor without having to suffer as much the hassles of America’s labyrinthine labor laws that come with employing Americans. 

The second piece, Black Hawk Down site revisited after 20 years, seemed innocuous enough.  It retold the tale of the day in Mogadishu, Somalia, when a US Army Blackhawk helicopter was shot down, precipitating a fire fight that ended in over a hundred American casualties, including nineteen dead.   After all the gut-wrentching reliving of the tale by some of the people who were there, it then goes to the crash site, where an American couple who own a security firm (what else?) in Mogadishu are digging out the wreckage of the crashed airplane like near-term archaeologists, in order to ship it the US for inclusion in the Special Forces museum.  

The Mogadishu disaster that day in 1993 was entirely the fault of the US military and the State Department.  The US had no business fooling around in Mogadishu in the midst of a civil war in which it wasn’t sure who were the good guys.  The helicopter that was shot down, precipitating the day-long firefight, was flying at rooftop level, well within range of small arms fire, confident that the bad guys, whomever they were, would leave Americans alone because, one supposes, they were Americans.  It didn’t turn out that way.  The Somali’s proved to have little respect for Americans or American lives, dragging one dead crewmember’s body through the streets of the city like a war trophy from ancient days.  The US should never have been fiddling around in Somalia without a plan as to what to do if the civil war combatants redirected their ire toward the US.  After the incident, Clinton wisely ordered the American military out of the country.  And while Clinton’s State Department was tragically myopic, the US military brass was not without fault.   It should have had contingency/battle plans for what might happen if a unit was caught out in the streets of the war-ravaged city.  It did not, and so the tragedy of political miscalculation was amplified with inept military planning.  The end result was needless casualties.   What else is new in the world of diplomacy by other means?

The last piece, A dangerous game of “cosmic roulette”?, also seemed innocuous enough.  The game of cosmic roulette referenced in the title is the chance of the earth getting slammed by an asteroid capable of catastrophic destruction, i.e., one which is half a mile or so in diameter or larger.  And of course, on a long enough time scale, the chance approaches 100%.  There is no roulette to it, except for the question of whether the human species will have gone extinct or not by the time it hits.  There are asteroids over a half mile in diameter within the general solar-system vicinity of earth.  One of them, or I should say, another of them, will, eventually, slam into earth.  It might mean the extinction of our species if we are still around, or worse, maybe the destruction of New York City(!).  And we won’t likely even know it until it’s too late.  The Sixty Minutes interrogator wanted to know what the scientists he was interviewing were doing about the possibility of a major metropolis being destroyed without us having any advance notice.   Such an asteroid is not susceptible to being blown up, unlike what might be seen in a Hollywood movie.  So what then might be done?  Pretty much nothing.  So what does it matter whether we know about it beforehand?  Knowledge that can’t be leveraged to action is useless. 

What is the common thread to all the story lines?  America has grown so rich that she is stupid.

The first piece (Disability USA) described a system set up to help people who are unable to work because of disability that was instead being used to resolve the problem of what to do with legions of unemployed Americans.  The expansion of the disability rolls is simply sidestepping the issue of chronic unemployment.  It is directing a portion of the US’s vast wealth towards placating people, without doing the hard things that might allow them to again be valuable contributors to society.  Without which we were so rich that such a thing were possible, people would be considered assets to be employed, rather than parasites to be placated.  That fraud is de rigueur for the system certainly leaves all involved quite uncomfortable, but proves nothing less than that people will do what they must to meet their existential challenges.

In the second instance (Black Hawk Down revisited), obsessing over one lousy helicopter lost in a mission that should never have been undertaken is a foolish emotional indulgence few other countries could afford or would undertake even if they could.  And it wasn’t so long ago that the US wasn’t so wealthy that it could indulge such silliness.  At least several hundred aircraft, many of them helicopters, were lost in the Vietnam War.  And where are they now?  Unless the Vietnamese disassembled them for scrap, they are at their crash sites, slowly being integrated into the jungle soil and foliage.   Nobody is looking to retrieve them for a war museum.  It’s not clear what sort of exhibit the twenty year-old wreckage of a Blackhawk might make, but the 1993 incident in which it crashed is hardly worthy of much reflection or notoriety.  Though the retrieval of the helicopter’s remains was conducted by private citizens, the fact it was done at all speaks volumes to how utterly, ridiculously rich is the society at large, and how such wealth displaces priorities, private and public alike.

The last instance (Cosmic Roulette) reminded me of when my son was undergoing his second bone marrow transplant for leukemia.  The transplant doctors ordered test after invasive test all along the way.  To each one I would ask–what sort of information will the test provide?  How will this information be utilized in fashioning his treatment strategy?  Is there a cheaper, less painful means of obtaining the same information?  If the information could not be used in making treatment decisions, I would simply not allow it.  Thus my son never got any bone marrow biopsies after the first week or so of the transplant.  There was nothing that could have been done had he relapsed, so it was pointless to subject him and my insurance coverage to the pain and expense. 

The same principle applies to worrying over whether an asteroid might crash into earth and render the species extinct.   If knowing about a potential collision can’t change the fact of the collision, what’s the point in knowing?  The scientists interviewed for the piece must have been genuine scientists (i.e., not celebrity hounds), as they admitted as much–that knowing more wouldn’t change the outcome–which is remarkable as the admission is diametrically opposed to their self-interested need for funding.   Their brethren in the global warming community have quit a bit more gall.  They routinely seek more money to study the problem of climate change out of one side of their mouths, while warning that the earth will inevitably get warmer, no matter what man does, out of the other. 

America, along with the rest of the developed world, stands at the apex of 10,000 years of human civilization and development.  It’s poorest people are so rich that they needn’t even work to provide the necessities of life (incidentally, having a job is seen these days as a great luxury, a flip from pre-Industrial days where only the peasants worked, and the higher classes lived lives of leisure).  But all this wealth is making us stupid, which means it can’t last long.  And all you need do to understand as much is tune in to what counts as well-respected news show to find the stupidity openly displayed.