I was riding the No. 174 bus out to the airport late the other night when the guy sitting across from me tried to sell me a pair of leather pants. He had a large black garbage bag full of wares. "You look like about a 32," he said. His sales pitch was insistent, desperate. But I just wasn't looking to buy leather pants, I told him. After I turned down the pants, he tried to sell me a dual-speed food processor. It was still in the box. The bus was running late. It felt like there was no air; there was a smell of stale urine, and sweat. Someone outside was yelling and pounding their fist against the window as the bus sped past. I watched a couple of young white kids on their way home from Folklife sell some blocks of hash to a middle-aged black man sneaking sips of liquor from a can in a plastic bag. I overheard someone say that two people had been shot at the Folklife Festival. The guy with the gun was a diagnosed schizophrenic and was on methadone to try to shake his substance-abuse problems. I wondered how he came to be carrying a gun.
My wife and I spent the last year traveling and working in various parts of Asia. Of all the memories that come back to me about those countries, one seems to stand out from the others. We had been pulled off our bus at the Malaysia/Thailand border by a security official. He was looking for a bribe, claiming there was something amiss about our passport stamps from Singapore, threatening to throw us in jail. We sat on our bags by the side of the road and waited until the change of shift. An hour later, the new security official stamped our passports, and my wife and I walked a mile or so through no-man's land from the Malaysian checkpoint to the Thai frontier town of Sadao. After the polite sobriety of Malaysia, the shift to the famous Thai cultural abandonment of Sadao is about as subtle as pole dancing. Hawkers, strip-joints, shysters, cock-fights, cheap booze and food, promises, hookers, people sleeping in alleys, maimed beggars, fireworks, explosions, the heat, the lights and everyone yelling all at once created the feeling that if we weren't very careful with our money, someone would be more than happy to relieve us of it. It was desperate and energetic, a 'be quick or be dead' type of place. When my friends back home in Australia ask me what it's like in an American city, the memory of this Thai border town is the first thing that comes to mind.
Australia is one of the most regulated countries in the world. The government is a strong presence in the day-to-day life of Australians — some say too strong. It's the legacy of our British upbringing, and in terms of enabling a functioning and enjoyable society, the government is a double-edged sword. Relatively high income tax rates greatly reduce disposable income and lead to disgruntled wage-earners. The public service is a huge and stumbling bureaucracy; its most notable purpose is providing employment for thousands of mid-level managers where sometimes no employment exists. But the pay-off with over-regulation and high taxes is the provision of social services such as public health care, high minimum wages, and substantial government contributions to retirement benefits. High progressive income tax rates reveal a society that at least partly believes in a more equal distribution of income. The wealthy should help support the poor, and there should be a safety net of sorts for those at the bottom of the ladder. Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France and Norway have the highest relative tax rates in the world, as well as the best social services. These countries feel that one of the key roles of the government is to provide for and support its citizens and to reduce the fear of poverty, preventing its citizens from falling into desperate situations.
At the other end of the tax scale from Sweden and Denmark, only four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pay less tax than America: Mexico, Korea, Greece, and Japan. Only Poland, Mexico, and Finland have a greater gap between the rich and the poor. Though national economic statistics and figures don't tell much about the actual experience of a place, this data supports the things I see around Seattle, riding the No. 174 out to Tukwila or the No. 2 through Belltown and up to Queen Anne. I always thought it was a harmless catchphrase for rappers to garnish their stories of 'hood wars with "Cash Rules Everything Around Me" or "The Dollar Is King." But after living in Seattle for the past seven months, I have come to understand these phrases are the inherent truth about survival and prosperity in American society. To some extent, capitalism is all there is. A government that favors minimal restriction of its people has the option to offer them minimal support, like a referee in a no-holds barred ultimate fighting contest. The pursuit of money rises to desperate, frantic proportions. It is not just the possibility of luxury and prosperity at stake, but the basic elements of food, shelter, health care, and safety.
As I remember my first impressions of this American city, the desperation I witnessed was palpable. The hawkers, shysters, cheap booze, people sleeping in alleys, and everyone yelling at once come flooding back. The desperation gives the city its energy and vitality, making it a 'be quick or be dead' place. There are hardly any cops anywhere. The road laws are ignored. Like the frontier town of Sadao in Thailand, the laissez-fare economy and society and lack of basic social provisions have come to define the attitude of the people and the atmosphere of the cities of America. There is no safety net. By looking at the way people move on the streets, the fierceness in the marketplace, it is evident that they know this intrinsically. I don't have to wonder what this knowledge would do to a group of people; I see it everyday.
The immigrants that have been flocking to America for the past 200 years came to be part of a country with great opportunity, where if you work hard enough and are smart enough, untold riches could be yours. Though much has changed in business and bureaucracy since the days of the Gold Rush and opportunism of the kind portrayed in Horatio Alger's dime novels, the capitalism of 2008 America is as rampant and powerful now as ever. It still tempts the faithful and the hopeful.
This examination of modern America is not entirely cynical or critical. One product of the free market, especially here in Seattle, is an example of the powerful good that can be achieved with private wealth. The philanthropic support of social works programs is a relatively modern phenomenon, and one that grows from America's free economy. According to the The Washington Post, 21 individuals each gave $100 million or more to philanthropy in 2006, including Warren Buffet's pledge of $31 billion to the Gates Foundation. The desire to give so generously shows an awareness of the huge disparity between the haves and have nots, and recognition of the government's unwillingness to become more involved in public services. Business is the government in America, where the most social progress occurs. The most remarkable social gains since the 1970s have been market driven. An example is the success of Whole Foods, which rewards sustainable, responsible farming through their own profitable practice, at a time when the government encourages toxic and unsustainable agriculture.
The line between business and politics is increasingly blurred. The staggering amount of money needed to run for public office is uniquely American, and only serves to raise the stakes in the dash for cash. Without money, there is little hope. The fact that assassinations have played such a pivotal role in American politics seems to say that many Americans have abandoned their civil responsibilities and rejected any common democracy for more individualistic governance. As Professor of American Studies at Washington State University Joan Burbick writes, "the armed citizen lives under a Mad Max vision, unable to commit to the civil structures that would promote economic and social justice, but willing to retreat into the citadel of the citizen consumer...."
In America, the citizen and the bureaucracy have in many ways abandoned each other, resulting in individualism, survivalism, and capitalism. This represents enormous personal and economic freedom, but also responsibility for such democratic abuses as the NRA. A patriot would say that American society offers limitless opportunity and encouragement to succeed, at least fiscally. A cynic would say that in America, the basic concept of humanity is largely ignored by the government, and one can only prosper through survival of the fittest — the quick and the dead, the hustle. As a tourist looking from the outside in, I am both thrilled and mournful of the fate of this country.