Friday, 5 August 2011

“Third World America” by Arianna Huffington (Collins)

Huffington-ThirdWorldAmericaHow our politicians are abandoning the ordinary citizen

Arianna Huffington, Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post, unflinchingly tracks the gradual demise of the American nation as an industrial, political and economic leader.

Arianna argues that the American Dream of a secure, comfortable standard of living has become out-dated and is under threat, and that the US is in danger of becoming a Third World nation. In the vein of her bestseller Pigs at the Trough, Third World America details who and what is killing the American Dream. With over 120,000 Americans filing for bankruptcy every month, Huffington suggests what needs to be done to stop the free fall.

The state of America’s Middle Class is fast in decline, and in Third World America, Huffington eloquently and passionately argues that the situation is getting worse, as more and more people drop out of it with little-to-no chance of making their way back. Despite a couple of weaknesses, Third World America is a well-written book; one with plenty of interesting and thought-provoking content, presented in an engaging and quick-paced manner.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that middle-class Americans are an endangered species and that the American Dream of a secure, comfortable standard of living has become as outdated as an Edsel with an eight-track player. That the United States of America is in danger of becoming a third world nation.”

What’s in the book? Third World America is split into five parts, each dealing with elements and causes of the troubles facing America today: job destruction, Wall Street vs. Main Street, the stimulus and infrastructure, lobbyists, and the Republican Party. The author closes the book with a chapter of suggestions of things liberals should pursue to help halt and reverse the decline in the vital American middle class.

“Despite the fact that many banks, car companies, and so on would be defunct without government intervention, the free-market fundamentalists continue to live in denial, trying to convince the world that if only left alone, free markets would right themselves.”

The evidence is all around, Huffington writes: America’s industrial base is vanishing, taking with it the jobs that formed the backbone of the US economy for more than a century. The American education system is in “shambles”, making it harder for tomorrow’s workforce to acquire the information and training it needs to land good twenty-first century jobs. American infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewage and water, transportation and electrical systems) is crumbling – sometimes with lethal results. The economic system, Huffington argues, has been reduced to “recurring episodes of Corporations Gone Wild”. The US political system is broken, Washington is “corrupt, cynical, and unmoored from reality”, with politicians in thrall to a small financial elite’s selfish agenda. And America’s middle class, the driver of so much of America’s economic success and political stability, is rapidly disappearing,

“forcing us to confront the fear that we are slipping as a nation – that our children and grandchildren will enjoy fewer opportunities and face a lower standard of living than we did. It’s the dark flipside of the American Dream – an American Nightmare of our own making.”

The strength of Third World America comes from Huffington’s writing style: it’s extremely accessible and streamlined. For the main, the level of detail for the national situation is excellent, and the author presents a solid, compelling liberal analysis of the state of America’s middle class. Huffington addresses the usual bogeymen and issues, to good effect. For example, corporate tax-dodging:

“According to the White House, in 2004... U.S. multinational corporations paid roughly $16 billion in taxes on $700 billion in foreign active earnings – putting their tax rate at around 2.3 percent. Know any middle-class Americans getting off that easy at tax time?”

The cost of health care in America: Huffington explains that, in 2009, a Harvard-Ohio University study found that 62% of all personal bankruptcies in 2007 had their root cause in healthcare problems. Not only that, of these people, 78% had health insurance at the time, if just wasn't enough to cover the cost.

“If we don’t come to our senses and get our deeply misguided priorities back in order, America could find itself a superpower turned Third World nation – dead from our own hand.”

So, what are the weaknesses I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Well, they are two fold, and both are significant. First off, I felt like I’d read a lot of this book before. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to read a lot of political journalism from the left (as well as the right), and there has been no shortage of reporting on the decline of the American middle class. But, nonetheless, a lot of what’s contained in this book isn’t new; and, in my opinion, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and Senator Al Franken (when he was still writing such books) did a better job covering these issues. Third World America is perhaps too breezy – in length and style – to have as much impact as Taibbi et al.

Secondly, Huffington seems oddly averse to including statistical detail in her case studies – I’m not talking about national statistics and so forth (there is a near-perfect balance, actually, when she discusses the national situation), but rather I mean when she turns her attention to individuals or individual families. These case studies are often first-person accounts by people effected by the downturn, mortgage crisis, and so forth. Because of the lack of details, these case studies feel a little sensationalist, meant to tap into a reader’s empathy, rather than analytical brain. For example, one family went from being secure, owning two cars (a weird bit of evidence to focus on, given the lack of any other), but within two months the family was destitute. In another case study, we know that a father had to sell his son’s PS3, Nintendo Wii and electric guitar. But in neither instance do we know how much they were earning, how much their mortgages were, or any other information that might explain their precipitous decline. This will make some readers inclined to see them as profligate, rather than real victims, which can’t have been Huffington’s intent. So, the individual, human-interest case studies fail by not providing enough information, and actually degrade the impact of the rest of the book, which is so much better. The case studies are effecting, certainly, but the persuasiveness is reduced by not creating a proper, full picture. That’s a more negative note than I wanted to finish on, but the weakness of the case studies did bother me quite a bit. Some simple numbers would have helped them deliver far more impact.

Ultimately, this is a well-written, liberal call to arms. It lacks the punch of more argumentative, in-depth volumes – therefore I can’t imagine this book converting staunch Republicans/Conservatives at all – but it will reinforce a liberal’s belief that the US is, at least in part, on the wrong track. Third World America would serve as a good introduction to the problems facing middle class Americans today, and a good jumping-off point before delving into the more meaty texts on the same topic.

I’d recommended if you want a quick, interesting book on issues facing America today from a liberal perspective.

Also try: Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2008) & Griftopia (2010); Al Franken, The Truth: With Jokes (2006); Eric Alterman, Kabuki Democracy (2010); Charles I. Pierce, Idiot America (2009); Justin Webb, Have a Nice Day (2009); Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (2009); Matt Frei, Only in America (2008)

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Bonus: Arianna Huffington on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell

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