Despite being a third world country, as judged many and varied social indicators of development, America is set to spend $8 billion on a new ‘space force‘ over the next 5 years.
China and Russia are currently competitors for military advantage in space, and it seems this has got America worried. In 2007 China successfully shot down one of its old weather satellites, orbiting 500 miles above the planet. In 2015, Russia launched a successful test of an anti-satellite missile.
Approximately 1800 active satellites currently orbit earth, half of them sent up by America, are vital to many of our day to day activities. We rely on satellites for the following:
Anything using GPS positioning for navigation – which includes various civil and military organisations
Financial markets depend on them for super-sensitive time-synchronisation
Various mobile phone applications.
Some television and video conferencing.
It would seem that satellites have somehow become the ‘foundation’ of our daily postmodern, globally networked lives.
What might space war look like…
Besides firing missiles into space, there are other options: lasers could be used to blind or dazzle satellites in order to disrupt their functionality, or cyber attacks could be ‘launched’ to hack into them.
As with most things warfare, it seems that the USA is already years ahead of its competitors. The USA first launched a successful strike against an obsolete satellite in the mid 1980s, and they are already ‘hardening’ existing satellites against attack – by positioning redundant satellites to act as back ups, for example, and they are looking into giving them their own defensive capabilities.
What are the possible consequences of Space War?
If there was an all-out space war, it could create a debris-cloud which would render space unusable for future generations, however, if global relations deteriorated to this point, we’d probably be more worried about the radiation sickness from the previously deployed nukes!
Relevance of this to A-level sociology…
Quite a useful example of the continued power of the Nation State in a global age…. seriously, how many nations have the power to shoot down satellites…. really just a handful, and no other body besides them!
Robert Bellah introduced the concept of civil religion to sociological debates surrounding the role and function of religion in society in the early 1960s. One of his best known works is his 1967 journal article ‘Civil Religion in America‘.
Robert Bellah argued that ‘civil religions’ had become the main type of religions in the 20th century, as mainstream, traditional religions declined. Civil religions effectively performing many of the same functions of ‘traditional religions’, just without the concept of a god or higher power.
He defined ‘civil religion’ as any belief system which didn’t rely on a conception of a God, or gods, but which still inspired a passionate mass response with members displaying a high degree of commitment to that belief system.
Historical examples of belief systems which might be regarded as ‘civil religions’ include Nazism, and other forms of nationalism, and at a more international level, Marxism. Such movements provided their adherents with an idea of the ‘true path’ to a ‘better life’, to be achieved through obeying certain moral codes as well as a degree of commitment to charismatic leaders. These movements also had plentiful symbols and rituals to generate a sense of shared identity.
Bellah argues that ‘Americanism’ is the civil religion of America. The civil religion of Americanism stresses a commitment to the ‘American way’: a belief in the ‘free market’ and a drive to make the most of available opportunities. It also emphasizes a commitment to God, but that God is an American first, rather than a Catholic, Jew or Muslim, and he welcomes everyone from all backgrounds who are willing accept commitment to the American dream.
According to Bellah, the American Civil Religion unites people across all sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds.
It is possible to see expressions of the American Civil Religion in many aspects of American life:
Most obviously is the daily ‘pledging allegiance to the flag of America that children do in schools.
We see it in yearly rituals such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
The national anthem being sung at the beginning of various sporting events, most notably the Super Bowl.
Numerous Presidential speeches and address praise America, with the phrase ‘God Bless America’ featuring frequently.
Are national sporting events manifestations of a civil religion?
Bellah argues that civil religion developed especially strongly in America because it is a relatively new nation, based on immigration from multiple countries. A civil religion which emphasizes both a belief in God, but with that God coming second to the idea of America itself, has served to quickly unite people with diverse beliefs into one nation under God.
Criticisms of the concept of civil religion
It is quite a loose concept in that it is possible to interpret any nationalistic activity as being part of a ‘civil religion’.
It is unlikely that people taking part in watching sporting events, or even ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag are as committed in their belief in America as traditionally religious people are to their religions.
To criticise Bellah’s concept of Americanism specifically it is clear that not all Americans have been united equally into the American nation. American Muslims have experienced particularly high levels of ostracism since September 11th for example.
Is it possible to perceive the making of modern America as a sort of colonial project? One in which the new American capitalist class colonizes the so called American wilderness for the benefit of Capitalism? This is the argument Andrew Brooks makes in his recent book – The End of Development:
On 4 July 1776 the newly independent United States of America consisted of 13 colonies that were formally ceded by Great Britain in 1783. The United States then expanded Westwards, and by the time of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853, the modern boarders of the contiguous United States were established.
Formal territorial expansions were legally and politically essential. Annexation first provided new space for capitalism, then new Americans came, conquered and combined land, labour and capital to generate wealth. Fundamentally though it was the direct control and space and the westward advance of Europeans and their conflicts with other Americans that were the real means of making the nation.
The whole history of the United States is one of occupation and land seizure: rather than territorial colonialism abroad, there was unprecedented territorialism at home. Ironically, the American war of Independence (1775 – 1783), far from being a pure anti-colonial struggle, was rather a moment that enabled expanded imperialism led by the European Americans. Once the revolution had freed the settlers, they conquered the res of the North American continent and reorganized the space for capitalism. This meant removing the Native population to make room for an expanding immigrant population, as was advocated by Benjamin Franklin.
The popularization of the notion of ‘wilderness’ was a key ideological tool which promoted this expansion Westwards – the great interior of the new United States was portrayed as wild country which was the antithesis of civilization, full of wild savages, both of which needed to be overcome in order for progress to be made.
(Of course in reality, neither were true, many Native American Tribes had rich cultures which managed the land they had occupied for centuries in a sustainable manner).
In the 19th century, the American capitalist was a colonist at home, enjoying what the European capitalist had to travel to Africa or Asia to achieve: profits were accumulated through imported slaves, and later indentured Chinese labour on the Pacific Coast.
Profit was also accumulated via exploitation of Native Americans through trade. Indigenous peoples exchanged pelts for fish hooks, guns and knives, which benefited whites and forged a relationship of dependency.
Rifles changed the balance of power between tribes, causing warfare between native peoples, as well as intensifying hunting practices. Established cultures and ways of life that had existed for centuries were wiped out in a few short decades. For instance, muskets used by Metis hunters nearly wiped out buffalo in the Red River valley of North Dakota.
Fur trading was one of the first major economic activities, but American capitalism soon diversified and grew as it learnt the lessons of the industrial revolution in Britain, and it was a rapid industrialization as the USA was both unencumbered by old social relations such as Feudalism, and all the necessary resources to fuel industry were on home soil.
Ultimately, Brooks argues that any time Washington, Hamilton, Adams or Jefferson referred to the ‘Federal Union’ in their presidential address, they were really referring to the process of forging an American Empire – except they didn’t need ships to go and do it in far away places, they had plenty of ’empty’ territory right next door.
A summary of The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity, by Andrew Brooks (2017)
This blog post covers Part 1: Making the Modern World
Chapter 1: environmental determinism and early human history
The argument in this chapter is that nature (as in the natural environment) does not determine human society and culture, rather it is more accurate to talk of humans shaping nature, especially since the emergence of agricultural societies 12000 years ago.
From between 12-8000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged independently in 11 distinct places, and in each region, these societies domesticated crops and animals, thus adapting to and changing local environments in different ways.
Agricultural societies eventually came to dominate hunter gather societies because they are more resistant to environmental shocks, given their greater capacity to store food to see them through famine periods.
Early agricultural societies also allowed for the development of a specialized division of labour, and were organised along feudal lines, with a tiered hierarchy of ruling classes taking tribute from those working the land. Europe in the 15th century was only one such system among many historical antecedants.
Brooks rounds this chapter off by reminding us that Europe did not colonize the rest of the world because of some kind of manifest destiny based on a unique set of environmental and cultural advantages, there were plenty of other cultures existing around the world in the 15th century that had similar features to the European feudal system.
What Europe did have was an emerging capitalist system, it is this that sets it apart and explains its rise to globalpower from the 15th century onwards.
Chapter 2: colonizing the world
This chapter outlines a brief history of colonialism, starting with the early colonial projects of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, which provided the silver and gold which kick started the global capitalist economy.
Brooks goes on to outline European colonial expansion across the globe more generally, arguing that European big business, governments and religion all worked together to dominate The Americas, Asia and Africa – often exploiting existing power structures to establish rule: profit, politics, piety and patriarchy all played a role in reshaping the colonial world from 1992 to 1945.
Brooks breaks down the history of colonialism something like this:
1500 – 1650 – Spanish and Portuguese colonialism – which involved the extraction of gold and silver, which was used to finance wars against Islam and other European nations. Spain also borrowed heavily from Holland on the basis of expected future returns from its mines in Latin America. This led to the establishment of financial centers in Holland, and increasing wealth. Span eventually went into decline as its wars were unsuccessful and its colonial returns decreased
1650 – 1900 – Dutch and British colonialism – A newly rich Holland and Britain took over as the main colonial powers – state building was essential to this – a combination of political power and the granting of monopolies to the Dutch and British East India companies (for example) led to the increasing dominance of these two powers.
Brooks also outlines how slavery and the industrial revolution were crucial to the rise of these two powers, and includes a section on the famine in India to illustrate how brutal their colonial projects were.
It’s also important to realise that increasing inequality was an important aspect of Colonialism – obviously between Europe and poorer parts of the world, but there were also some colonies which were more prosperous (such as Australia) and also, within the the mother countries and colonies, this period of history led to increasing inequality.
The chapter rounds of by pointing out that from 1900, the base of world power is already starting to shift from European centers to America.
Chapter Three: American Colonialism
This chapter starts with the ‘rise and fall of Detroit‘ which illustrates how industrial capitalism led to huge economic growth in America from the late 19th century to the 1960s, only to decline once industrial production moved abroad.
Brooks now argues that, following US Independence in 1776, American capitalists essentially focused on colonising the homeland rather than overseas territories, as there was so much land and so many resources within America – typically treating native Americans as non-people, who ended up in reservations.
There was some expansion overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries – most notably with establishment of the Panama canal, but the ideology of American isolationism prevented this from happening.
It was effectively WW1 which led America to become to the world’s global hegemon – through lending money to the Allies, it built up huge economic dominance, which only grew as Europe was thrown into turmoil during WW2, following which America rose to dominance as the country which would seek to ‘develop’ the rest of the world, which is the focus of part two of the book….. (to be updated later)
This 2008 Documentary seeks to answer the question of why there is still so much poverty in the world when there is sufficient wealth to eradicate it.
In order to answer this question, the video goes back to 1492, which marks the start of European colonialism and the beginning of the global capitalist system, making the argument that European wealth was built on the back of a 500 year project of extraction and exploitation of the Americas, and then Asia and Africa.
Using various case studies of countries including Venezula, Bolivia, and Kenya the video charts how brutal colonial policies made the colonies destitute while the wealth extracted led to the establishment of global finance, the industrial revolution, and the foundation of a global capitalist system which locked poor countries into unequal relations with rich countries.
Following Independence, a combination of unfair trade rules and debt, managed through global institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation have effectively kept these unequal relationships between countries in place, meaning wealthy countries have got richer while many ex-colonies have remained destitute.
This video is quite heavy going, and jumps around from continenent to continent a bit too much for my liking, which, combined with a lot of sub-titles (as many of the people interviewed are not English-speakers) does make it quite hard to follow. Nonetheless, this video does offer a systematic account of a Dependency Theory view of underdevelopment and development, including interviews with numerous politicians and activists from development countries as critical thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein, among many more.
The history of Detroit, USA from 1900 to the present day present offers an interesting case study in the benefits of industrial modernity in the early 20th century, and the problems caused by modernity’s decline from the 1960s.
Detroit underwent a rapid process of industrialization in the early part of the 20th century, which led to enormous prosperity and wealth being generated which was, by and large, shared by the majority of the city’s population. Detroit is synonymous with Henry Ford, and the particular model of industrial-capitalism which he basically invented – mechanized production and decent wages and benefits for his workers.
However, the second half the century saw Detroit spiral into a decline of de-industrialization, state-bankruptcy, inequality, and social unrest.
The Rise of Detroit: Industrialization from the 1900s to the 1950s
In its hey day, Detroit represents one of the most successful case studies in Industrialization in world history. The case of Detroit helps us to understand why Modernization Theorists in the 1940s and 50s were so keen on exporting Capitalist-Industrialization as a model of development for other countries: basically industrialization brought about many positive developments and so it seemed logical to export it.
By the late 19th century Detroit’s industry included leading shipbuilding, pharmaceutical and railway businesses. Detroit was successful because it was strategically located near to natural resources and markets via railroads and steamboats, and from the mid 19th century there was no place that better represented American progress and power.
Detroit was the Motor city that helped drive the United States forward, and the most well-known company which was based there was the Ford Motor Company – in 1932, its Rouge River industrial complex was the largest integrated factory in the world, with its own docks, railway lines, power station and plant, and over 100 000 workers, and 120 miles of conveyor belt.
Raw materials including iron ore and coal arrived by barge and rail and completed for Model Bs rolled off the end of the vertically integrated production lines.
In 1932 Henry Ford’s son commissioned the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint scenes of the nearby Ford factories, which can today be viewed in the Detroit Institute of Art. Rivera’s murals captured the heat, energy and dynamism of the factories, but also the political and social tensions of time. Rivera was a communist, while Ford was a staunch opponent of labour organisations, and Rivera’s murals show workers working in harmony with machines, but also hint at the struggles between management and employees, which would become much more marked in the following decades.
Through industrialization, both the human bodies of the workers and the landscape came to serve the needs of industrial capital, and women and men experienced this in very different ways, with men working in the factories, and women, by and large, staying at home, restricted to the private sphere.
The Ford family grew incredibly wealthy through their mastery of technology and production lines and their extraction of surplus value from the labour of workers. Mass production was perfected by Ford – his famous Model T was launched in 1900, and by 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts.
Ford not only transformed the economic organisation of society, he also helped transformed its social organisation – he invested much of his profit into social welfare – by establishing an art institute and the Henry Ford Hospital, for example, while the relatively high wages he paid to his workers helped them to increase their consumption and enjoy new leisure opportunities, helping to forge a new consumer culture. This compromise between capital and labour is known as Fordism.
In the 20th century, Detroit became a booming metropolis. The Ford Factory was only the largest of 125 motor factories in the city in the early 20th century, and there were many other industries to. The population of Detroit soared from under 80 000 in 1870 to over 1.5 million in 1930, making it the fourth largest city in America at that time.
The assembly lines and the rhythms of work gave new arrivals a purpose and set in motion a relentless movement towards modernity and progress. Mass production would lead mass employment and in turn enable mass consumption. Detroit was the world’s greatest working-class city in the most prosperous nation on earth. The automotive industry and the giants such as Ford and General Motors and Chrysler that dominated Detroit were what California’s Silicon Valley and the tech monopolies of Apple, Google and Twitter are to today’s era of smartphones, software and social media.
The Great depression of the 1930s struck a devastating blow as automobile sales fell rapidly, but the city was revitalized by the Second World War as car factories were rebooted to produce tanks and planes for the US military and its allies. Detroit became the ‘arsenal of democracy’.
Following victory the whole American economy was booming and a second great period of Fordism surged forwards as mass automobile ownership spread across the United States. Great chrome Cadillacs and luxury Lincolns sailed off the production lines in the 1950s like polished ocean cruisers….
However, from the late 1960s onward, a combination of the growth of industrial competition from abroad and underlying social and ethnic tensions in Detroit would lead the city into a spiral of de-industrial decline…..
The Decline of Detroit
Beneath the gloss of mass consumption Detroit always hid inequalities.
On July 23 1967 police busted an illegal after-hours salon in a black neighborhood. 85 people were arrested and tempers rose between the detainees and the officers. A five day riot ensued which was quashed by 17000 police, national guard and troops resulting in over 7000 arrests.
Black people were expressing their resentment over limited housing and economic opportunities and a history of racial discrimination and violence. Detroit increasingly became a black majority city as the white working classes moved to the suburbs (80 000 left in 1968 alone), leaving Detroit city in a decline of mass unemployment and rising crime.
A downward spiral continued into the 1970s as American manufacturers faced increasing competition from abroad and moved production to cheaper locations to cut cost, leaving further unemployment in their wake.
Detroit city further suffered because remaining managers and workers moved out to the suburbs or smaller towns just outside of the city – because tax revenue was heavily reliant on property taxes, Detroit city lost a considerable amount of its tax revenue, while the administrative centers around Detroit were well funded by the relatively well off workers who had moved to them. Detroit became a divided city – with wealthy, well funded suburbs and a declining, underfunded central city authority with massive social problems.
The 2007/08 financial crisis shook the auto industry to its core – but companies such as Chrysler and General Motors were bailed out by the Federal government, and have since recovered – Across metro Detroit half a million people still work in manufacturing, 130 000 in the auto industry, and they earn 75% above the state average salary.
Detroit city, on the other hand, did not fare so well during the financial crisis and in 2013 underwent the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
To emphasize the inequality in Detroit:
In Livingstone county, which is 96% white, the median household income is $73000
In Detroit City, which is 82.7% black, the median household income is $26, 000 and nearly 40% of people live in poverty.
Detroit south of the 8 Mile boundary – made famous by Eminem’s 8 Mile movie, is considered to have one of the highest murder rates in the country, and there are over 100 000 empty properties.
There are some positive development projects going on in Detroit, but the stark difference between rich and poor in the wider region is plain for any observer to see.
Lessons from Detroit
Detroit is important because it is a signal case for what is happening in many industrialized countries around the world – across the rust belt in America and mirrored in Southern European countries and northern England as well.
It reminds us that impoverishment is not just limited to the global south.
Modified from Andrew Brooks (2017) The End of Development (I’d classify this as alefty take on development!)
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961) outlined what is commonly accepted as the Functionalist view of education as it relates to modern societies in the late 1950s.
Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socializing-agency: school acts as a bridge between family and society as a whole, preparing children for their adult roles in society.
Within the family, the child is judged by particularistic standards. Parents treat the child as their own, unique, special child, rather than judging him or her by universal standards that are applied to every individual.
However, in the wider society the individual is treated and judged in terms of universalistic standards, which are applied to all members, regardless of their kinship ties.
Within the family, the child’s status is ascribed: it is fixed by birth. However, in advanced industrial society, status in adult life is largely achieved: for example individuals achieve their occupational skills. Thus it is necessary that the child moves from the particularistic standards and ascribed status of the family to the universalistic standards and achieved status of adult society.
The school prepares people for this transition. It establishes universalistic standards, in terms of which all pupils achieve their status. Their conduct is assessed against the yardstick of the school rules; their achievement is measured by performance in examinations. The same standards are applied to all pupils regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race, family background or class of origin. Schools operated on meritocratic principles: status is achieved on the basis of merit (or worth).
Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that the school represents society in miniature. Modern industrial society is increasingly based on achievement rather than ascription, on universalistic rather than particularistic standards, on meritocratic principles which apply to all its members. By reflecting the operation of society as a whole, the school prepares young people for their adult roles.
Education and Value Consensus
As part of this process, schools socialise young people into the basic values of society. Parsons, like many functionalists, maintained that value consensus is essential for society to operate effectively. In American society, school instils two major values
The value of achievement
The value of equality of opportunity.
By encouraging students to strive for high levels of academic attainment, and by rewarding those who succeed, schools foster the value of achievement itself. By placing individuals in the same situation in the classroom and so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality of opportunity.
These values have important functions in society as a whole. Advanced industrial society requires a highly motivated, highly skilled workforce. This necessitates differential reward for differential achievement, a principle which has been established in schools. Both the winners (the high achievers) and the losers (the low achievers) will see the system as just and fair, since status is achieved in a situation where all have an equal chance. Again, the principles that operate in the wider society are mirrored in the school.
Education and Selection.
Finally, Parsons saw the educational system as an important mechanism for the section of individuals for their future role in society. In his words, it ‘functions to allocate these human resources within the role-structure of adult society’. Thus schools by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefor seen as the major mechanism for role allocation.
Evaluations of Parsons
The main criticisms of Parson’s work comes from Marxism.
Marxists criticize the idea that schools transmit shared values, rather they see the education system as transmitting the values of the ruling class, as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.
There are hundreds of economic, political and social indicators of development, ranging from ‘Hard’ economic indicators such as Gross National Income (and all its variations), to various poverty and economic inequality indicators, to the Sustainable Development Goals, which focus much more on social indicators of development such as education and health, all the way down to much more subjective development indicators such as happiness.
In this blog post I consider what the most useful indicators of development are for students of A level sociology, studying the excellent module in global development.
I’ve thus selected the indicators below to try and represent:
the most commonly used indicators collected by some of the major development institutions, both multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, as well as NGOS.
The indicators you need to know for the ‘indicators of development topic – most obviously GNP, the HDI and the MDGs.
Other indicators which are useful to know for different sub-topics within the global development course (health, education, gender, conflict, the environment etc…)
Taken together these indicators should provide enough breadth of measurements to gain a very good (for A level standards) insight into the level of development of a country, without resulting in information overload and mental meltdown…
Most of the above indicators below have been developed and are monitored by either the World Bank or the United Nations, but I’ve also included others, such as the Global Peace Index, which are collated by other agencies, so as to broaden out the data sou
The indicators I consider in more detail below are as follows.
Total nominal Gross Domestic Product
Gross National Income per capita (PPP)
The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day
The percentage of people living below the poverty line within a country.
Nominal GNI is useful for giving you an idea of the ‘economic clout’ of a country compared to other countries. The real global power players (in terms of military expenditure) are all towards the top of this.
These figures, however, tell you very little about the quality of life in a country…. for that you need to divide the figure per head of population and factor in the cost of living in the country….
Gross National Income Per Capita (PPP)
Gross National Income Per Capita – is GNI divided by the population of a country, so it’s GNI per person.
(PPP) stands for Purchasing Power Parity – which alters the raw GNI per capita data to control for the different costs of living in a country, thus modifying the GNI figure in U.S. dollars to reflect what those dollars would actually buy given the different costs of living in different countries.
GNI per capita (PPP) gives you a general idea of what the general economic standard of living is like for the average person in a country, however, there are serious limitations with this indicator – the main one being that it does not tell you how much of that income actually stays in a country, or how income is distributed. Quality of life will thus be a lot better for some people, and a lot worse for others than these gross statistics indicate.
The Percentage of People Living on Less than $1.25 a day
There are still around 800 million people around the world living on less than $1.25 a day (PPP), the figures for some of these countries are below:
The Democratic Republic of Congo (88%)
Looking at absolute poverty statistics like this gives us a much fuller understanding of the lack of development in certain countries – in DRC, you can clearly see that poverty is endemic (absolute poverty is a significant problem in many Sub-Saharan African countries), and we can also see that absolute poverty is still a significant problem in India (mainly rural India) and while the 6% is quite low in China, this 6% represents 10s of millions of people, given the large overall population size.
Proportion of population living below the poverty line within a country
The UN sustainable development goals states that one of its aims (under goal 1) is to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. (Source – The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals)
The United Nations collects this data for countries will lower human development, but not for countries with high human development, and so here we are reliant on data from national governments or other agencies – and the problem here is that different countries measure their ‘poverty line’ in different ways, so this means making cross national comparisons are difficult. Some sources are below:
Selected Stats on the Proportion of People Living Below the Country’s own poverty line:
Most low income countries with high absolute poverty rates register percentages of between 30-60% living below their own poverty lines.
The USA has 15% of its population living below its poverty line (a household income of around $24000 per annum)
The UK also has around 15% of its population living below its poverty line, although its line is higher than the US – around $30000.
So how useful is this ‘relative measure of poverty’ as an indicator of a country’s level of development?
They give us far more insight than the GNI per capita PPP figures, because they tell us about income distribution. Can you really call a rich country developed if 15% of its population aren’t earning enough of an income to fully participate in that society?
We also need them as an addition to the absolute figures of poverty – absolute poverty doesn’t exist in the wealthiest countries, but clearly relative poverty does.
HOWEVER, the differences in how relative poverty figures are calculated does make it difficult to make comparisons.
Also, some figures in the UN’s data just don’t seem believable – some ex-communist countries (such as Kazakhstan) report that only 5% of the population live below the country’s poverty line – either than line is extremely low or there’s maybe a little bit of mis-reporting going on?
The Human Development Index
The Human Development Index is compiled annually by the United Nations and gives countries a score based on GNI per capita, number of years of actual and expected schooling and life expectancy, or in the words of the UN itself – the HDI is ‘A composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.’
Percentage of children enrolled in secondary school
The Gender Inequality Index
The United Nations defines the Gender Inequality Index as ‘A composite measure reflecting inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market’.
More specifically, it gives countries a score between 0-1 (similar to the HDI) based on:
The Maternal mortality ratio: Number of deaths due to pregnancy-related causes per 100,000 live births.
The Adolescent birth rate: Number of births to women ages 15–19 per 1,000 women ages 15–19.
Proportion of seats held by women in the national parliament expressed as percentage of total seats.
The proportion of the female population compared to the male population with at least some secondary education
The comparative Labour force participation rate for men and women.
Selected countries according to their rankings for the Gender Inequality Index
1st – Slovenia
11th – Finland
39th – The United Kingdom
55th – The United States
56th – Saudi Arabia
97the – Bhutan
127 – Ghana
130th – India
The obvious strength of this is that we get to compare the life chances of women in a country to those of men. What’s (maybe) surprising is that while there does appear to be a general correlation between high GNI per capita (PPP), high human development and low gender inequality, the correlation is not perfect: as is evidenced by the USA being just one place above Saudi Arabia and Ghana being just a few places above India, despite these two pairs of countries having quite divergent levels of ‘human development’.
Composite Versus ‘Single Variable’ Indicators
Some of the indicators above are ‘composite’ indicators – which are formed when individual indicators are combined into a single index, giving countries a simplified score, such as the Human Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Index and the Global Peace Index; others are ‘single variable’ indicators – such as the Child Mortality Rate, which just measure one thing.
My reasons for considering both composite and single indicators of development are that while composite indicators crunch more data into a single figure, and thus allow you to make more ‘in-depth’ snap-shot comparisons, single numbers simply don’t give you a sense of the real difference between countries, so these are necessary to highlight the extent of the difference between countries in terms of economic, social and political development, or lack of it.
(1) of course, studying development comparatively may or may not, in itself be useful!
Given the correlation between Peacefulness and economic and social development, I’d say there’s a strong argument that the level of peacefulness in a country is one of the most valid indicators of that country’s level of development; it’s also important for the potential of other countries to develop further, given that violence in one country can so often retard development in other countries.
Unfortunately for America, it doesn’t do well on measures of peacefulness. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI), it ranks a dismal 114th out of 163 countries, down 8 places from the previous year, and bucking the general trend which is for more wealthier countries to be more peaceful (Scandinavia + Canada are towards the top!)
The Global Peace Index includes several indicators to establish its rankings, and so there are many reasons for America’s low peacefulness (and high violence) ranking – the high homicide rate being linked to the national addiction to guns, and neither does its high military and nuclear expenditure, or its involvement in drone-killings abroad.
One recent event, which won’t have been included in the 2017 GPI data, is America’s enhanced role in Saudi Arabia’s current war in Yemen – Following Donald Trump’s recent state visit to Saudi Arabia, The United States is set to become more complicit in this war. Saudi Arabia ranks 132nd on the GPI, Yemen 4th from bottom at 159th.
Amnesty International calls the conflict in Yemen the ‘forgotten war’ – it’s basically a conflict involving one group of Yemenis known as the Huthis who support the former Yemeni president, and a second group who, along with the Saudis, support the existing president. The conflict has been going on since 2015, with civilians caught in the middle.
Amnesty cites the following human toll of the conflict so far:
4 600 Civilians have been killed, 8000 injured
3 Million people have been displaced
18.8 million people currently rely on humanitarian assistance
According to Time, Donald Trump recently agreed $110 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia:
‘The weapons sale was one of the largest in history, totalling close to $110 billion worth of tanks, artillery, radar systems, armoured personnel carriers, Blackhawk helicopters, ships, …Patriot missiles”
The $110 billion figure is almost certainly exaggerated, as it includes the renewal of some existing deals with are ongoing (so no new money changing hands), and some potential, yet to be agreed, future arms-deals, but whatever the exact figure there is sufficient evidence of closer war-links between America and Saudi Arabia:
According to Al-Jazeera, what we do know is that Trump is ramping up arms-sales to the Saudis:
‘Trump is green-lighting sales of precision-guided, air-to-ground missiles that Obama had withheld because of concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and civilian casualties. In addition, Trump is moving forward to replenish and expand the Saudi supply of battle tanks and armoured vehicles, replacing equipment damaged in the Yemen conflict. Separately, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon both announced major sales in connection with Trump’s trip but this seems more in the nature of a promise than a finished deal.”
Somewhat worryingly, is the rather blase attitude displayed to all this by the American politicians involved:
According to Time:
Policy advisor Jared Kushner high-fived National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster as he entered the room where they held talks with Saudi officials. Aide Gary Cohn told pool reporters the deals represented “a lot of money. Big dollars. Big dollars.”
According to Al Jazeera:
“The Saudis are in a war in Yemen and they need weapons. You want to win, you need weapons,” Senator John McCain, a Republican, told Al Jazeera. “We are in a war.”
More worringly still, according to the Ron Paul Liberty Report, the U.S. military is also directly involved in the Saudi – Yemen conflict through advising the Saudi’s on identifying and picking targets to bomb in Yemen and through fuelling Saudi war planes, (first few minutes in the clip below…)
Of course not everyone in America believes that the United States should be involved in the Saudi’s war against Yemen, so I’d hate to tar all Americans with the same violence-brush, but unfortunately for the rational peace lovers, the neoliberals in power are using the machinery of the America state (ironically for neoliberals) to escalate violence in the Middle East.
SO if we are to include peacefulness in our assessment of how developed a country is, then on the most recent evidence of the Saudi arms deal, we’d have to conclude that the United States has regressed even further than the Global Peace Index suggests.
Identifying media bias through content analysis is a key skill in sociology. The American media is often accused of having a right-wing bias which means they will present a pro-capitalist, pro-business world view as normal and desirable and promote a neoliberal policy agenda. (1)
Below I analyse one newspaper article (about why 66 million Americans have no savings at all) to illustrate how agenda setting, or what and what isn’t included in the article, results in a subtle right-wing, neoliberal bias.
OK – It looks like it might be a lefty topic, because it’s about the precarious financial life of the poorest sections of American society, but there’s no class-based analysis focusing on how it’s mainly low-paid and temporary jobs in the context of 30 years neoliberal economics resulting in productivity gains, but increasingly unequal national income distribution meaning the very rich get richer, while most of the rest of us, especially the poor, get relatively poorer.
Having alerted us to these ‘shocking statistics’ (oh those poor, poor Americans), we are then told that this low-savings rate is spread among all households –
‘the problem is hardly confined to the poor. Yes, more than half of all households with an annual income under $30,000 have no emergency savings. But fully one in six households with an annual income between $50,000 and $75,000 had no emergency savings either’.
The article then goes on to talk about how Gen Y is better at saving than Gen X – the tone of which seems to blame 40 to 60 somethings for having too high consumption levels and not saving enough… (‘if your damn kids can save, then why not you too’?) – here ignoring the following two important contextual facts:
(A) Gen Xrs were encouraged to consume in the context of a growing economy, then the neoliberal crash came in 2007, and here we are: hyper-precarity;
(B) OK Yes – Gen Yrs may appear to be better at saving, rather than avoiding debt, but why are they saving? I bet once you take out all of those saving to go travelling (and hence consuming) or saving for a mortgage (you now need a bigger deposit than your parents), you’d have similar rates of debt being racked up across the generations.
The article ends with the classic neoliberal trick of individualising the whole problem:
“The biggest barrier to saving is not being in the habit of saving,” says McBride. “You have to set some money aside with every paycheck.” Making it automatic can help, he advises. But no matter how you do it, start now.”
Ignoring the fact that for the typical person with no savings (mots of them are in low-paid jobs) there simply isn’t enough money left at the end of the week to put something extra by!
In summary: why don’t people save according to the narrow agenda of this right-wing, neoliberal article?
40-60 somethings got into the habit of consuming too much.
It’s a problem which effects all levels of income
20-30 somethings are much better at saving than their parents
Irresponsible parents need to learn from their kids and just save more….
What’s not considered/ emphasised
There are 10-15% of American households which are in no position to save for emergencies
This is because 30 years of neoliberal policies have created precarious and low-paid jobs, which has meant productivity gains, the gains from which have gone disproportionately to the top 1%.
Generation Yrs are shit-scared of their futures and so are more likely to save compared to their parents.
We need state-intervention to redistribute wealth away from the richest 1% and back to the lowest paid workers who actually created this wealth through their labour power.
(1) I didn’t intend to write this today, it just sort of happened, I was actually looking up stats on inequality in America, and I got quite annoyed when I read (and thought) about the content of this article.
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