Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In Bush Era, U.S. Has Become A Third-World Country


The signs are all there, beneath the jingoist bluster and superficial prosperity. George W. Babbitt still swaggers on the golf course and talks a great game, but it's getting tougher to make the mortgage payments on his family's $300,000 house. For his commute, the gas-guzzling Hummer has been traded in for a "sensible" Ford Taurus with leather seats.

And then, below, mostly out of sight, are the people who never had it that good, and never will. The ones who have no hope of "retiring." The ones who don't know how they can afford to make their old car pass the emissions test. The ones who would declare bankruptcy but don't know if they can qualify under the tougher new (Republican) laws. The ones who know the best bargains on navy beans and Vienna sausages.

Life in America has always been deodorized excrement for a certain minority among us.

But that minority is growing, and the middle class is feeling the pressure.

George W. Bush isn't solely responsible for U.S. descent into Third-World stagnation. But his policies have festively crowned all the economic royalism that went before him.

Food inflation is running far ahead of "core" inflation, at 4.4% (much higher for staples) compared to about 2%; yes, largely because of factors somewhat out of this administration's control, like fuel/transportation prices and rising demand from developing nations like China. But amid this, our "leaders" have been codifying policies that ever enrich the most fortunate among us, rather than make it easier for struggling people to eat and live halfway decent lives. The burden of living in America -- for health care, for a living wage, for transportation, for education, for anything that elevates people above mere brutish existence, is ever shifted upon those least able to pay.

How has this administration responded to the marginalization of America's working class? With the all the greed and conceit one would expect of economic royalists. Bush is the anti-FDR, even going beyond Reagan on that score. FDR was excoriated as a traitor to his class; no one could ever accuse Bush of that. He has devoted his entire political life to destroying all that FDR did for people who never had a "lock" on the better things in life, like little George always had. But then, what would one expect from a spoiled rich kid who got his childhood kicks killing frogs with strategically inserted firecrackers?

There have been far too many "outrages of the day" to account for all of them, but Citizens for Tax Justice has summed up the irresponsible fiscal policies of the Bush administration thusly, on Sept. 13:

"President George W. Bush has added $3 trillion to the national debt so far, despite inheriting a balanced budget when he took office in 2001. Since then, Congress has been forced to raise the statutory limit on the total amount the federal government is allowed to borrow four times -- in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006. Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation to raise the debt limit a fifth time, to an unprecedented $9.815 trillion, to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its debts and being unable to borrow any more. In contrast, when Bush took office, the debt limit was $5.950 trillion -- $3.9 trillion less than the new amount."

This was done in part by foisting a new Reaganomics policy on the country, with big tax cuts for everyone with the ability to pay, and little or nothing for anyone else. And then, obviously, by starting a totally elective foreign war.

What this amounts to is a tax on our futures. And the people who put George W. Bush in office clearly don't intend to be the ones who pay it. Even if things turn a little rough for them, 1930s-style, they can "afford" the rent-a-cops, the political consultants, the local government functionaries, the National Guard units, and if necessary, the brown-shirted goons, to help them keep their "rightful, destined" positions in life.

Does any of this sound familiar? Mexico and many other Third World societies come to mind. I wonder: Will George W. Bush ultimately go down in history as OUR Third-World strongman? Our Batista? Our Franco? Our Mubutu Sese-Seko? Our Suharto? Our Ferdinand Marcos?

At the same time as the economic screws are being tightened, the political ones are as well. The effective suspension of some Constitutional rights in the country, among other things, is an eerie tandem to the economic trend.

It's going to get worse. The news from countries like China, that have been buying U.S. Treasuries and have waning confidence in the dollar, gets grimmer all the time. There will come a day when there's no one left to borrow from.

The economic model for a Third-World country goes sort of like: 10% have about 90% of the effective wealth; about 30%, a precarious middle-class life; and the remaining 60% live in poverty.

I can foresee Canada soon having an illegal immigrant problem, what with the current trends in America. Hell, I'm ready to pack up and go now. Vamos, al norte! Any journalism jobs in Winnipeg? They aren't even building any fences on that border, not yet.

Jokes aside, many right-wingers would urge me to go, today. But this is my country, too, and I'm old enough to remember when it was a better place. I can remember when people who made $8 an hour (or the inflation-adjusted equivalent) were interested in organizing unions, not being duped by Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. I can remember when many of them seemed to understand who it really was that was screwing them.

It's all looking way too Mexico, stolen elections and all. When they said it can happen here, they were thinking of far worse things. But the Third World looks bad enough.

Manifesto Joe is an underground writer living in Texas. Check out his blog at Manifesto Joe's Texas Blues.


John Peret said...


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Third World nations, I think we ought to re-examine the belief system that assumes that Third World nations are somehow "inferior" to the First World.
It's true, the U.S. has a higher GDP than any Third World nation. But is this the only metric for measuring how "advanced" a nation is?
Is money and material wealth and a prosperous stock market the only way to measure a nation?
I once traveled to a Third World nation and visited a poor village. The people there had very little in the way of possessions. And yet they were happy. There, families (and extended families) were very strong---in fact, the family bonds were much stronger and richer than what I've seen in the U.S. Life was laid-back and relaxed. Maybe no one there had a car or a camcorder---but I'd suspect no one was on Prozac, either.

Manifesto Joe said...

Fair point, Anon. Family ties are strong enough in Mexico that many immigrant workers from there, who are now here, faithfully wire lots of money home to relatives -- it's a major economic boon there. But obviously all those immigrants should have stayed home, where they could go hungry alongside their loved ones.

Sarcasm aside, I think maybe you miss the point, and perhaps Mr. Peret did, too. In the 1950s the U.S. came astonishingly close to being a prosperous egalitarian society. The labor force was 35% unionized. People largely worked 40-hour weeks and had two-day weekends, something their parents never had. Life spans grew longer, dramatically.

Since about 1973, the power elite of this country has gradually decided that this wasn't a social arrangement they wanted indefinitely. So, starting with a vengeance around 1981, the fingers of the U.S. working class began to be pried off those gains, one by one. Homelessness quickly increased, and the social safety net has been half gutted. There is a desperation among America's working poor that is destroying families -- and here, in a "developed" country, there is no agrarian past to go back to anymore. Extended families are rare now. Farming is mostly corporate, so there's no ancestral "land" to go back to.

And in the Third World, I would dare say that more people are living in places like the squalid shacktowns around Mexico City than in traditional, socially cohesive villages. These are the people who are willing to come here, at risk of life and limb, to do menial jobs. Globalization is displacing many people down there. The farmers in the countryside are having a hard time competing since NAFTA was enacted, and so, many are adrift. Many have the choice between a makeshift shack outside Mexico City or coming to Texas to bus tables. Many choose the latter -- about 12 million, at last count. It's one of the largest migrations in recent world history.

The point about the U.S. is that this country had a chance to have what Scandinavians and Japanese take for granted -- maybe not the individual wealth that one can attain, with luck and ruthlessness, in a "cowboy" capitalist economy, but widespread comfort and reasonably shared prosperity. The U.S. establishment turned away from that opportunity, and now the erosion is obvious.

By the way, Mr. Peret: Name me one other "developed" country in which over 15% of the population has no medical insurance. Not Third World just yet -- but time marches on.

Anon, I can appreciate your reverence for rustic romantic values. But many such people, the world over, are finding that they need beans and tortillas, or something of the sort, to stay alive. They need medicine to keep children from dying. They need decent homes to keep them out of the elements.

Americans have a long way to go to become a jumbo version of Guatemala. But, my point -- we damned sure seem to have some powerful people working on it.

Manifestojoe said...

I am the good angel that represents the hidden Christian element of that masked blogger we all know and love, Manifesto Joe. I will occasionally misspell and misuse words so I can relate better with his minions. Their you go! The purpose of my existence is to correct the blog record and wrest his tortured soul from the devil. God bless us all.

Today's installment:
1)"In the 1950s the U.S. came astonishingly close to being a prosperous egalitarian society. The labor force was 35% unionized. People largely worked 40-hour weeks and had two-day weekends, something their parents never had."

For the most part this is OK. However, Americans worked less and they owned less. As American appetites for consumer goods grew slowly at first in the 60's and 70's and then exploded from the 80's and beyond, Americans had to find a way to pay for all of those things that once did not exist and that have now become essential to American life. The answer: work harder and learn to live with debt. Now we get to the part that is not OK. In looking back nostalgically at that simpler time of Ward, June and the Beaver, it is tempting to wish we could go back. This is a theme that has been repeated on a smaller scale since the beginning of time. In fact, I have it on pretty good authority that Cain and Abel were pretty pissed about Adam and Eve screwing up the paradise deal they had before the boys came along. But the premise is the real danger. The correlation between having a small portion of the workforce unionized (even if it is a large percentage "compared to today," it is still a small percentage. So don't start. I am trying to save your eternal soul.) and the overall prosperity of the country has as no validity. There is nothing tying the two issues together. It is like saying people who eat salt are more likely to pick their noses. Yes, people who eat salt pick their noses, and people who pick their noses eat salt. Does one cause the other? I will let you think about that while I mop up the rest of your messes.

You do inadvertently bring up one point. Many people (like me) work two jobs now or they work the equivalent number of hours in their primary careers. Since you seem married to the 40 hour work-week, would it be OK with you if everyone was only taxed on the income from the first 40 hours they worked? After all, anything over 40 hours is essentially volunteerism. But the funny thing I notice is the harder you work, the more money you have. How about extending the "safety net" only to individuals who have worked a minimum of say 70 hours per week in the period being considered. Call it keeping everyone honest. After all, the tax dollars providing that safety net (and the roads you drive on, the freedom you know where I am going) are paid by those people you call wealthy toiling away 80, 90, even 100 hours per week. It makes a person working only 40 hours seem positively lazy compared to the hard-working rich, doesn't it?

"Life spans grew longer, dramatically."

Yes they did...due to penicillin, the expansion of refrigeration of food products, additional oversigt by USDA and FDA over food safety and the end of a time when wounded soldiers came home to die. What were you implying cause the change in mortality? Working less? And lets talk about this issue of working less you harp on from time to time. Don't you like to work hard and accomplish things? Or would you rather just sit around and play on the computer while your neighbors work harder and harder to support you. Ah yes! That WOULD be utopia, wouldn't it?

"Homelessness quickly increased, and the social safety net has been half gutted." Wrong. The social safety net is fully gutted. Homelessness is largely a mental health issue, and homelessness became a much larger issue when Reagan (sound of angels singing fills the room) put the brakes on federal spending for long term mental health patients. The result: huge numbers of mentally ill patients were push out of the medical system and into the streets. Was this proper? Unfortunately, yes. We are a union of states not a homogenous nation soley governed by a benevolent central government. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated." and James Madison said "[T]he powers of the federal government are enumerated; it can only operate in certain cases; it has legislative powers on defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction." And Benjamin Franklin said "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." He also said " I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it."

Later when arguing a bill for charity relief, Grover Cleveland stated "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit."

This is the bottom line: we all want to see the poor in a better state financially, and nobody wants to see individuals suffer, but the federal government is not the place to look for individual assistance. State, and better yet, local government agencies are far better equipped logistically to deal with these issues, and the types of relief offered will reflect the will and mores of the local population. Your insistance that individuals who need a safety net should get it from a sprawling, inefficient central government is not wrong. It is just futile and misplaced. Look closer to home because that is not what the federal government was ever designed to be. It was not ever intended to be benevolent.

"There is a desperation among America's working poor that is destroying families -- and here, in a "developed" country, there is no agrarian past to go back to anymore. Extended families are rare now. Farming is mostly corporate, so there's no ancestral "land" to go back to."

I am not sure where you are going here. Are you suggesting the solution to the country's working poor is for them to become subsistence farmers? Does this somehow go back to Thomas Jefferson's ideal of "the journeyman farmer?" I have some sad news for you: farms are businesses. There. I know that hurts, but in the greater scheme, there is no more nobility in being a farmer than there is in owning a prosperous and successful landfill. One product of the mistaken notion that farmers are somehow better people than the rest of is is the rampant expansion of farm welfare. It is time to end subsidies for all agricultural enterprises and let the markets decide the most efficient use of the land. How do you like that...I want to stick it to the corporations! (And the mom and pop farms and hobby farms and the Amish.) There is no reason taxpayers should subsidize the existenance of these businesses.

Besides setting the record straight and thereby setting you up for eternal bliss in heaven with our Lord God, I have two jobs that provide me a measure of wealth. They have left me weary and unable to continue until later. I am afraid I must leave you with one foot in the fire.


Marc McDonald said...

To the previous poster:
You raise a lot of points, but one thing I'd like to address is your assertion that there's no connection between organized labor and a nation's "overall prosperity."
Do you know this for a fact? Even at 35 percent participation, unions can have an enormous impact on the economy and working people's lives. In fact, the remaining 65 percent of workers are hugely influenced by the unionized part of the workforce, as non-union companies will take their cues on wages and benefits from the 35 percenters (if nothing else, in order to prevent their own workforces from organizing).
The fact is, the unions played a key and crucial role in the building of the Great American Middle Class that arose in the 40s and 50s (and is now on the verge of extinction---along with, not coincidentally, the labor union movement).
Since Reagan, unions have been pretty much crushed by hostile legislation from Congress. The fact is, 70 percent of workers not organized today say that they would join a union if they could (and the reason they give for not doing so is that they're afraid of being fired).
Fear: it's the secret ingredient in our economy. Everyone is shit-scared. I guess the point I'd like to raise here is that I could understand a fear-based culture in some place like Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany.
But this is America, for chrissakes! Is this really the way we wish to run our society--where all working people live in fear?
Before the unions, there was indeed "prosperity" in America. But all the wealth was controlled by a tiny rich elite. Unions served to spread the wealth around a little.
Today, we've returned full circle to the Robber Barron era in which the rich own everything and there is no middle class.
In fact, I'd argue that things today are even worse, as we've gone beyond the excesses of the Gild Age into an oligarchy that is nothing less than socialism for the rich. This is clearly unsustainable and if we continue on this path, armed violent revolution by the people will be the inevitable result.

Manifesto Joe said...

This is the original Manifesto Joe here -- accept no substitutes, especially those who can't spell.

I'm late replying to you, my would-be alter ego, because I had to work two 8-hour shifts during what is the WEEKEND for most people. (Thank you, AFL-CIO.) I work odd hours and days, but it's 40 hours a week most weeks, and I get time and a half for overtime. I have never had to pleasure of belonging to a union, but I couldn't expect those conditions as my right if unions hadn't made huge gains in this country during the middle part of the past century, and hence presented the threat of organization to anti-union employers. The companies saw that they had to change. The standard before the 1930s was a six-day week, often 10-12 hours a day, with no time and a half.

Unlike you, I only have one job, and it's demanding enough. Oddly, I'm making more money now than in past jobs in which I worked many more hours per week, up to 60 or 65 hours of mentally demanding work.
Now I have a bit more spare time, and I use some of it to "play on the computer."

Since you have presumed a lot about me, as I have noticed that presumptuous right-leaning folks generally do, I'll return the favor. You are in a lower tax bracket than I am, and you work two jobs because you are one among many sad cases in the U.S. of those economically marginalized, Third-World-style. Welcome to America, post-Reagan. I will also presume that you are too young to recall when America was a different place for most of us.

I will presume further that you are one of millions of people in the U.S. who have been tragically duped into blaming the wrong people, and institutions, for your difficulties. As Mr. McDonald wrote, you raise a lot of points, so they must be taken one at a time, selectively. The very reason that the federal government, cumbersome and inefficient as it can often be, took over much of the role of providing a social safety net, starting mostly in the 1930s, was that states and localities had done a woeful job of helping the less fortunate among us. A catastrophic illness, or that of a family member, could turn a middle-class family into paupers before then. The answer for many such people was an institution known as the county poorhouse. This was basically a minimum-security prison camp where paupers went to work the fields in exchange for a bunk and lousy grub two or three times a day. No doubt you would like to resurrect this benevolent institution, along with chain gangs and the 72-hour work week. Let's not forget the gold standard.

I was largely saddened, rather than angered, reading the convoluted reasoning, the misplaced anger, the "intellectual" cherry-picking, and
the smug sanctimony of your comment. You are a chicken for Colonel Sanders, embracing naive libertarian notions, the very ones that have marginalized people like you, again, Third-World-style. The millions like you constitute one of the biggest reasons why I wrote this piece. You have been complicit in turning the U.S. back toward Third-World standards -- by swallowing ideological feces and not trying to fight back instead.

I should resent you using my pen name, but I don't think the readers who really matter will ever confuse the two of us. Good luck blogging -- you're going to need it.

Manifesto Joe said...

Postscript from the real Manifesto Joe: "The hardworking rich" (????? I got a good laugh out of that one, during the second read.) "Thomas Jefferson's ideal of the journeyman farmer". Did you mean to say "yeoman farmer"? (Google it.) If you mean to blog seriously, go back to school, or read some historically accurate books. Your ideas are nonsense, but at least do the homework first.

Manifesto Joe said...

A second postscript for the would-be MJ: (You left such a huge mess to mop up.) I get the impression that you, the "angel" who has presumed to save my soul from perdition, would have actually frowned upon Jesus getting VERY physically pissed at the money changers at the temple. What a spoilsport, that there Jesus, interfering with the FREE market. Musta been some kinda Jew LIBERAL. Hell, them fellers wuz merely doing business, just like "journeyman" (yeoman?) farmers, or even them high-fallutin' corporate ones. Hell, a feller's got ta make a livin' somehow. Sorta like runnin' a Starbucks franchise in a megachurch.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Yeoman farmer, not journeyman farmer. Evidently the point was made so consider it the most woefully misspelled word ever instead of a mistake. Without Googling it, I will move on.
To clear things up, I am a commenting on a blog, not writing blogs. The standard is clearly lower so please get used to my flinging unsubstantiated rhetoric and broad political statements without regard to facts. Wait…maybe I could write a blog…...hmmm…...
“Perdition.” I just like saying that! Perdition. Perdition. Perdition.
Now it is starting to sound silly.
You have taken my barbs with class and humor and only minimal whining. As a reward, I will no longer use your pen name. Hereinafter I shall be (drum roll) Man-I-Fester Joe. (Besides, I forgot the password for the other one.) Ciao


Manifesto Joe said...

Those were barbs? They smelled like something else.

Karlo said...

The extreme borrowing to finance unsustainable spending with huge amounts given to the military reminds me a lot of the early Nazi era. The Nazis solved the resulting problems through price controls, prison camps, and eventually, through expansion. What'll be the US solution?

Unknown said...

Great discussion following an insightful article with which I am in sympathy.

I suspect that there was more than a bit of chauvinism involved in the coining of the term "third world", much of it American arrogance. The terms imply "First World" superiority. But as the dollar is increasingly shunned, the US would be advised to shuck the hubris. It hasn't done them any good.

Secondly, by whatever name it is called, the US itself is to blame for having capitulated to China the balance of trade. This was not an overnight development. I still want to know what Bush Sr and Richard Nixon capitulated to Chinese leaders back in the seventies. It is not coincidental that the US lost its manufacturing pre-iminence in a period of GOP dominance that began with the Nixon administration and continues with George W. Bush. During that time period there were only two Democratic regimes -Carter and Clinton. Carter was hounded from the get go. Clinton managed to reverse at least one pernicious trend --the rich getting richer at everyone else's expense. Alas, that trend has resumed under the twisted Shrub. Obscene income inequalities are a defining characteristic of "Third World Status". By that standard, the US is there.