Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: 'Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream' by Arianna Huffington

Review by Susan Gardner
Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream 
By Arianna Huffington 
Hardcover, 288 pages, $23.99 
Crown Publishers 
September 2010
Some people look at laws and ask, "Why?" or "Why not?" I look at laws and ask, "Who paid for them?"
Arianna Huffington sure as hell knows how to craft a message. Even better, she knows how to time it.

With Third World America, the Huffington Post founder delivers a "Kapow!" right at the beginning of election season, with an exquisitely accessible compendium of what a generation of conservative policy has done to America, leaving it teetering on the edge of a Third World status, with a stripped and demoralized middle class, a crumbling infrastructure and a political system more stacked than ever in favor of the rich.
It's no mean feat to tie together in one reasonably brief narrative breeched levees, credit default swaps, mine disasters and personal stories of those losing houses, hope and dignity in today's America. But she does it smoothly, with a wide-angle view of a landscape where, as one unemployed IT director put it, "no one's job is safe, and never will be, ever again."
The first four sections of the book in one sense are a litany of downers, documenting the subprime crisis and the slippage middle-class income earners have been experiencing and how, in Huffington's words, "the core idea of the American Dream—work hard and advance up the ladder—has been gutted. Now the American Dream is to try to not fall, or do all you can to slow your rate of decline." Quick bullet-pointed (and scary) statistics are cited through the sections, which alternate between explaining the situations and telling the stories of individuals who've watched their lives slip away and are clawing just to stay in place. And failing. This fear, this insecurity, is not just a matter of how we've lost our way as a country that looks out for each other (although she salutes that throughout). It diminishes us, makes us less as a country, less as a people and less as individuals.
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.
This state of affairs, she points out, has come about because of the rule of "capitalism without conscience." Deregulation, poor oversight and a revolving door have created an atmosphere where the same people shape shift through government, media, corporate boards and agencies ostensibly assigned to hold industries accountable. "Establishment Washington," she writes, "is the political equivalent of a small theatrical repertory company production: production after production, you always see the same actors—they just keep switching parts."
These same tired players, always covering their asses and diffusing responsibility through a wide and intentionally opaque system, have created a culture in which response to any travesty is "no one could have predicted ...." Or, as she puts it:
See if this sounds familiar: An ambitious and risky undertaking is carried out with hubris and features the weeding-out of anyone who raises alarm bells, little to no transparency, an oversight system in which no central authority is accountable, and the deliberate manufacturing of ambiguity and complexity so that if—when—it all falls to pieces, the "Who Could Have Known?" defense can be trotted out.
Am I describing Iraq? The subprime mortgage market? The Enron-led financial scandals of the early 2000s? The BP oil spill? The Upper Big Branch mine disaster? The Lehman Brothers and AIG-led financial meltdown of 2008?
The correct answer: All of the above.
There are not a few bad apples responsible for the mess we're in. It's not enough that an agency head here or there takes a fall, or one Duke Cunningham goes to jail. The problem, quite simply, is that the entire system is rigged and in dire need of revolutionary change. She asks:
...given the chance to rebuild America's economy, is the current system, even with a few hundred billion dollars' worth of patches, the one we would want to build?  Of course not. Even Greenspan conceded there was a "flaw in the model." But there's not a flaw in the model—the model itself is flawed. It's not that capitalism isn't working. It's that what we have right now is not capitalism. What we have is corporatism. It's welfare for the rich. It's the government picking winners and losers. It's Wall Street having its taxpayer-funded cake and eating it, too. It's socialized losses and privatized gains.
But she doesn't leave readers with a mere apt description of the problem; the final portion of the book is devoted to very specific systemic changes, including:
  • Public financing of campaigns (which she terms "the mother of all fixes"—without which all the others are frankly impossible, given candidate reliance on corporate funding).
  • Government 2.0: getting as much information online and accessible as possible so that citizens can drill down through data, interact with government agencies, suggest solutions and hold their leaders responsible.
  • "Single-payer education," defined as "the federal government, in conjunction with the states, would provide an education allotment for every parent of a K-12 child. Parents would then be free to enroll their child in the school of their choice."
  • Job creation and aid to states and local governments.
  • Redefine "national security" to be about much, much more than the bloated and redundant defense budget (focus on infrastructure, repair, building, education).
  • Keep people in their homes during the foreclosure crisis through cramdown legislation and mediation between banks and homeowners.
  • Rein in the credit card companies.
  • Usher in oversight and stiff regulation of the "Wall Street casino."
  • Hold the media's feet to the fire as watchdog and storyteller through use of new technology by citizens.
Huffington, as one of the few liberal voices with access to television and radio, will hopefully be spreading these ideas—complete with spot-on messaging and her trademark passion—during election season. She speaks clearly, sees broadly, summarizes succinctly and, for those of us already acquainted with a lot of the information here, takes care to load the back of her book with notes and citations so that each subject can be followed up in more depth. She's always had the immigrant's unabashed love for America and its ideals, combined with her more newly found belief in progressive values. She's funny, insightful and amazingly unafraid to take on the powers that be. And she challenges more than just the establishment. She challenges us, as individuals ourselves, to buck up and fight on in this bracing and searing book.
In 2004, hope was ignited by an unknown state senator standing up and proclaiming that we are not blue states and red states, but one people who can only solve our problems together.
In 2008, hope was about crossing our fingers and electing leaders who we thought would enact the change we so desperately need.
Hope 2.0 is about creating the conditions that give them no other choice.

That last part? It's for us. We are the condition creators.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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