eyes on the U.S.

From Near And Far, Bidding Farewell To The American Dream

That uniquely New World attitude that anyone can achieve success appears to be fading into history. Seen from Peoria to Paris, the so-called "Great Gatsby Curve" paints a picture of the United States with growing inequalities and stagnat

Foreclosing on the dream of a better life (Kevin Dooley)
Foreclosing on the dream of a better life (Kevin Dooley)
Claire Gatinois

Is the American Dream obsolete? Has the promise that people can "make it" in the United States better than anywhere else on the planet become nothing more than an illusion? That cruel conclusion, which seems almost to dishonor the world's biggest economy, was punctuated this February inside Barack Obama's White House.

On page 177 of the President's annual report to Congress on the state of the economy, there is mention of the "Great Gatsby Curve." F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, which so masterfully paints a picture of bourgeois vanity in 1920s America, has given its name to a graph on which data measuring the degree of income inequality is charted on the horizontal axis, and the link between a father's income and that of his descendants – a barometer of social mobility – on the vertical.

What does this curve tell us? No matter what the frame of reference of the person examining it, its bottom line is unambiguous: the United States – not supposedly fusty Europe -- rates lowest in terms of this relationship in the distribution of riches and social mobility. Yes, Paris Hilton's America ranks way below the Scandinavian countries, but also below France, New Zealand, Japan, the United Kingdom, and others.

French economist and historian Thomas Piketty has already demonstrated out how America's wealth is as distorted as it is vast. But should you discuss this particular matter with an American citizen, you will be told that "the rich are rich because they deserve it." The quasi Communist idea of taking from the rich to give to those in need is not a fair reward for talent.

If an American is tenacious enough, shouldn't he or she be able some day to make it to the top of the heap? "No pain, no gain," as they say. But the Great Gatsby Curve says No. So much so that in the United States, as elsewhere, "having talent" may just be another way of saying "having inherited money."

Buffett, Barack and Mitt

The American system of education, at one time considered to be "the great equalizer," is partly responsible for this state of affairs. A recent study conducted in Michigan and quoted by the New York Times shows that the discrepancy in performance levels between rich and poor students has risen by 50% since the 1980s – which means that wealth, more than race, is what makes the difference in school.

What now? The hopes of American workers of "making it" are waning. But the crisis and high unemployment, both factors that have a compressing effect on salaries, cannot explain everything. On page 65 of the President's report is the "other most commented-on graph": a curve showing that, since the 2000s, American workers are being increasingly badly paid as businesses amass larger and larger profits. The result, as Evariste Lefeuvre of the Natixis corporate and investment bank in New York points out, is that the profits of American companies amounting to 13% of GDP are at a historic high.

That this subject is addressed by the President's report in an election year is no accident. By focusing on social inequality, the document offers supposedly irrefutable arguments that open the door for the Democrats to push a redistributive fiscal agenda that flirts with populism.

After praising the "Buffett Rule," which takes its name from American billionaire Warren Buffett's call for the super-rich like him to be taxed more, President Obama goes on to attack high business profits – an audacious, even dangerous thing to do in a country where freedom of enterprise is sacred. So as not to make it too much of a shock he put another face on it, so it looked like a reduction of taxes on profits from 35% to 28%. What's actually behind it, however, is a plan to get rid of most of the fiscal loopholes used by multinational companies to pay less taxes.

While this plan has no chance whatsoever of being approved by the Congress, with its Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it has however managed to reveal that American companies hardly ever pay their full tax share – a revelation certain to unleash its share of bitterness. And indeed: just two days later, on February 24, the USA Today daily published a feature on extreme poverty in the United States, reporting that the number of families living on less than $2 a day had more than doubled in 15 years, going from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.5 million in 2011.

But the argument most favorable to Barack Obama may well lie with the man he could be facing in the general election: Republican candidate Mitt Romney. A former bigwig in the investment firm Bain Capital, Romney is a walking example of American fiscal injustice. He pays 15% tax on the fortune he made thanks to his investment fund – which puts him in the category of businessmen who pay lower tax rates than their own secretary.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Kevin Dooley

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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