America’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

Perhaps only an immigrant could write Third World America—or, an observer, like Tocqueville, with whom Arianna Huffington shares uncanny perceptions and insights about our country. Last year I felt that Nicholas Kristol’s Half the Sky—a work about empowering women globally—was the most important book I read. This year isn’t over yet, but at the moment my vote goes to Third World America, which, if widely read, may have the power to jolt many people out of their lethargy. Before I began reading the book, I feared that it would simply be a litany of everything that is broken in the United States. But the strength of Huffington’s argument resides not only in her detailed reportage of serious problems in our country but her valuable proposals for fixing what is wrong. Is that still possible? I don’t know, but some part of me remains hopeful, more hopeful than I was before I read Third World America.

Broadly, Huffington focuses on the inequities created as a result of the enormous transference of wealth from the middle to the upper class during the past two decades, made possible by the complicity of politicians, lobbyists, corporations, bankers, Wall Street brokers, and the media. The lobbyists formulate legislation that favors lax regulation or none at all, and then the conservatives begin their distortions of fact and their fear-mongering. Laws are put into place that favor corporations over individuals, guaranteeing that consumers have few options, as their jobs disappear overseas because of business efficiencies that support the bottom line. People often vote against their own best interests, and—because the amount of misinformation is massive—have no true understanding of what is happening to them. Corporations have taken over our democracy. Huffington writes that with the “merging of state and private power, we’re getting to the point where the only difference between senior congressional staffers and lobbyists and influence launderers whose ranks they’ll soon join is the size of their paychecks.” Money at the top doesn’t trickle down, since it’s only moving in the opposite direction. One political party has only short-term goals, the other tries to focus on our future.

Through dozens of detailed examples describing the consequences of the country’s corporate takeover, Huffington connects the dots, providing shocking statistics and relating them to a wider context. Consider the following sequence concerning the mortgage debacle: “The vast majority of homeowners face foreclosure without legal counsel.” Recently, in New York’s Nassau County, “92 percent of homeowners [facing foreclosure] did not have a lawyer.” This situation wasn’t supposed to happen, but “in 1996, the budget for the Legal Services Corporation, the primary agency that provides help for low-income Americans in civil cases, was cut by a third.” The 1994 Republican “Contract with America” had already “severely limited the ability of homeowners to get legal protection from predatory lenders.” President Obama’s recent attempts to convince Congress to assist homeowners who are losing their homes have largely been unsuccessful. The $789 billion stimulus plan contained nothing “for foreclosure-related legal help”–but the banks got plenty.

Huffington shows how foreclosure has a ripple effect, with the consequences beyond the families who have lost their homes: “they are forced to move in with relatives, or into a motel, or live out of a car, or on the street.” Houses sit vacant, bringing down the value of adjacent homes. Crime increases; property taxes decrease. Worse, the collateral damage on children will extend for decades into the future. “The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that 1.5 million children in the United States are homeless.” That’s one out of fifty. Children’s educations are interrupted; “homeless children are four times as likely to get sick and twice as likely to have learning and developmental problems as non-homeless children.” No surprise here. Bill Murdock, “who works with homeless schoolchildren,” says that he has seen “eight-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry.” As Huffington concludes, “The human consequences of the financial collapse are largely missing from our national debate.”

Why does the media ignore the ramifications of such overwhelming statistics? Huffington provides an answer. Rather than probing the reasons for all the crumbling around us, the media is much more concerned with covering sensational stories such as the Balloon Boy’s—remember the boy who supposedly flew off into the sky alone in a hot-air balloon but was actually in his attic?–whose story was covered for days. Fortunately, Huffington doesn’t hesitate about cataloging all of the future horrors that face the country if Americans continue to be hoodwinked by politicians and the media. In a chapter called “America the Beautiful Dilapidated,” she provides the details, just in case we haven’t been paying attention (and most Americans have not). Power blackouts, unsafe water, collapsed bridges, raw sewage leeks, patched highways, deteriorating train tracks, dams, and levees, and–scariest of all—dysfunctional schools. Taken together, these problems provide a pathetic sight, “A guided tour of Third World America,” familiar to many of us who have spent time in the poorer countries of the world.

Huffington is right in calling our broken country “an American nightmare of our own making,” adding that “We are fast becoming a nation collectively waiting for the next shoe to drop.” She doesn’t mean terrorism. “Washington is filled with talk about national security: troop levels, airport screenings, Pentagon budgets, and terrorist threats. But there is another kind of national security: the one that keeps us feeling confident that the economic rug isn’t going to suddenly be pulled out from under us, and that our way of life isn’t going to suddenly implode—the kind of national security that gives us hope for the future. For that national security, especially when it comes to America’s middle class, the threat level has definitely moved from yellow (‘elevated’) to orange (‘high’)—and we are afraid that red (‘severe’) is looming up ahead. For more and more of its citizens, America has become a national insecurity state.” The sub-title of her book explains it all: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.

A week ago, President Obama was confronted by an angry citizen during an economic form. The man asked if the American Dream is still within citizens’ reach. Readers of CounterPunch (and those of us who write for it) have been asking variations of the same question for many years. And recently–now that the war in Iraq has wound down a bit and Bob Woodward has detailed the President’s hope that our involvement in Afghanistan may have a similar reduction beginning next year–it’s a no brainer to ask if both wars were an overreaction to 9/11. And the logical extension of this argument: we don’t need to be attacked by terrorists, if we continue to ignore these festering domestic/internal issues, we will destroy ourselves.

But maybe the middle class won’t disappear—Huffington’s greatest fear. Maybe America won’t have to go on the auction block. Maybe the “corporatism,” which Huffington identifies as our current form of government, can return to capitalism. Maybe even conservatives can begin to see beyond themselves. Huffington provides a laundry list of ideas—some her own, some proposed by others—which, if taken collectively, might, just might begin to get the country back on track. But her warning is dire. If we wait for politicians to act, nothing will happen except that things will get worse; we’ll inch closer to the day of reckoning. Fortunately, some of her suggestions are things we can begin doing immediately as individuals, such as closing our accounts at the big mega banks and transferring that money to smaller, regional banks and credit unions. “Third World America is not a done deal.”

And there’s so much more, if people—and she doesn’t mean Tea Partiers, who only think about themselves—work collectively for the greater good. She lists specifics such as single-payer education, a national infrastructure bank, green job incentivization, tax credits for small businesses, opening the doors to high-skilled immigrants, reducing foreclosures by mediation, even auditing the Pentagon. All of these will require massive pressures on our elected leaders, but we can implement these goals through “citizen journalism”: “Our slide into Third World America may not be televised…but it will be blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook, covered with a camera phone, and uploaded on YouTube. And by shining the spotlight on it, we may be able to prevent it.” Democracy, Huffington states, can no longer be “a spectator sport.” We need to get the economy growing again because economic growth (and she is quoting M. Harvey Brenner here) is “the single biggest factor in life expectancy.”

Third World America is a bold, revolutionary book—a call to arms—and Arianna Huffington is likely to be vilified by every member of the status-quo establishment: most politicians, but especially Republicans, bankers and Wall Street types, who only think about how to make the next dollar theirs and not yours. Make certain that Third World America is widely read and discussed. Read it soon; give it to your friends; assign it to your book clubs; and then get involved.

The Doomsday clock is still ticking for America—not because of the arms race but because of terrible economic decisions.

Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream
By Arianna Huffington
Crown: 276 pp., $23.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.