By Atul Singh
Three years ago, Pablo Pardo of El Mundo remarked to this author that he found America fascinating. The reason he gave was revealing. He said America was a “Third World country without malaria.” It had the dynamism, energy and sense of possibility, along with the inequality, religiosity and corruption that one usually finds in the so-called Third World — or developing world — along with malaria.
Since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the remark Pardo made in jest keeps returning to this author’s mind. A self-proclaimed billionaire has risen to the highest office of the land through the support of the working classes on whom he preyed on for decades. Many focus on Trump as the problem, but he is only a symptom of a deeper malaise. He is merely a personification of the anger Americans feel toward their elites. They resent the poverty, the inequality and the role of money that now define America but which they long associated with the developing world.
Each time this author flies back to the US, the country feels poor. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) smells of weed, is often dirty and invariably has some homeless people catching a few moments of respite as they nap to the rocking of this rather noisy train.
In San Francisco, Berkeley and the less salubrious parts of the Bay Area, homeless people, discarded needles and the smell of urine are par for the course. This author has seen a person urinating in BART and another defecating on the street. In Berkeley, tents about by flyovers and abandoned warehouses. The number of these tents seems to increase every week.
Yet we know that the San Francisco Bay Area is also home to Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies flush with cash. Apple is worth over $1 trillion, Google is getting there and the area is teeming with billionaires driving their Teslas. The trees on the streets of Palo Alto are lit 365 days a year and Atherton is a bit like a modern-day Versailles. In some ways, the Bay Area is now a metaphor for the rest of America.
Poverty in the midst of wealth defines the country. In 2016, as per the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, 12.7% of the population (40.6 million Americans) live hand to mouth. Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanic Americans suffer rates of 27.6%, 26.2% and 23.4% respectively.
Furthermore, as this author’s father points out, the poverty in America appears far more degrading than even in the developing world. In Kenya, the villages might be insular, but they have community. In India, the slums have their slumlords, but the poor often lean on each other to get by. Poverty elsewhere is a factor of destiny. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is the individual’s fault. In America, the poor are isolated, abandoned and stigmatized. They are the hollow people with empty eyes and crushed souls.
Many foreigners, including experts, are shocked by the peculiarly dehumanizing nature of poverty in America. Yet most Americans think of poverty as an Asian, African or Latin American phenomenon. In this vast country, huge swathes of land are perfect suburbia with big houses, manicured lawns and the proverbial white picket fences. So, the 18.5 million Americans who live in extreme poverty are invisible not only to the Trump administration, but also the inhabitants of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, the posh towns of Silicon Valley.
In the midst of this poverty, stock markets are booming. The S&P 500 has risen more than 300% since March 2009. House prices are rising at twice the speed of inflation and pay. College fees have gone up by 213% since 1987-88. Health-care costs are spiraling out of control, increasing by $1 trillion from 1996 to 2013 and reaching over 18% of GDP last year. Millions still lack basic health care. And wages are not just flat, they are falling for most workers. Life may be great for those who own stocks, houses and other assets, but it is turning nasty and brutish for millions of Americans who struggle from paycheck to paycheck.
Private splendor and public squalor
For most of its history, the US had lesser inequality than Europe. Feudalism and class system in the Old World meant that the enterprising could sail to the New World, find a piece of land to till or some trade to ply, and eat better than their relatives they left behind. Today, that may not necessarily be true. The average European certainly enjoys a healthier diet, superior education and better health care than their American cousin. Inequality has increased in Europe too, but it has gone stark, raving mad in America, with a level higher than in Russia.
Quantitative easing, the de facto printing of dollars, has benefited the rich. It has made them even richer, as have favorable tax rates that were cut further earlier this year. Even as Congress cut $1.5 trillion in taxes, Speaker Paul Ryan boasted how a Pennsylvania secretary would make an extra $1.50 a week. Ryan conveniently forgot to point out that the tax cut allowed the Koch brothers to make an extra $27 million per week. Given such avarice, it is only natural that American infrastructure is deteriorating. Today, most travelers can observe that ports, airports, highways, schools and libraries in the US are not in the same condition as in Finland, Germany or even China.
Other figures in the US are more akin to Latin America than Europe. For instance, gun crimes and mass shootings are a part and parcel of life in America. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, beating El Salvador and Turkmenistan in second and third place. And black males are the main victims of this inhuman incarceration policy, with one in three ending up in jail once in their life. In July 2016, this author wrote about America’s dark soul. Violent policing and mass incarceration have created a fundamentally unjust, expensive and counterproductive criminal justice system but, as in many developing countries, any reform of the system is not on the political agenda.
Given such trends, it is no surprise that social mobility is declining in the US. Even the Financial Times — no Marxist newspaper — has observed that the rise in incomes for the rich and the fall in opportunities to move up for the poor have led to the “decline of the American dream.” If current trends continue, the terrible American nightmare of eking out a hardscrabble existence might slay the myth of the great American dream.
At the same time that public libraries and national parks take a beating, mansions in the Hamptons near New York and in Woodside near Silicon Valley are becoming increasingly resplendent. This is a phenomenon that has long been a characteristic of developing world cities like Nairobi and Mumbai. Here, the Kenyatta and the Ambani families live in opulence, cheek by jowl with les miserables in sordid slums. The ancient Romans took the view that private splendor and public squalor were a signal of torn social fabric. By that Roman view, America’s social fabric, like that of Kenya’s and India’s, lies in shreds.
Self before service
Not too long ago, Americans did national service and the rich paid their taxes. Meeting other Americans, seeing the rest of the world and serving the nation led to some sense of solidarity. When the farm boy from Iowa met the city slicker from New York who ran into the cool surfer from California who in turn played cards with a moonshine drinker from Mississippi, Pax Americana was born.
Avaricious elites, their self-serving courtiers and entrenched interest groups have now bailed out on America. They send lower income people to the meat grinders of Iraq and Afghanistan. When many of these veterans return with post-traumatic stress disorder, they often end up on the streets. As in the developing world, American patriotism has become a slogan and, worse, a tweet. It means talking tough à la George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump and emulating them by avoiding any social or military service. Instead, Americans prize the finishing schools of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs as entry points to high office.
With the collapse of national service and glamorization of entitled privilege, public institutions have suffered. Too many of the best and the brightest simply do not want to serve. They intend to get ahead. Many have drunk the Kool-Aid that they can change the world through an app. In this world of singularity, being rich is glorious and money is the only metric that counts.
Even when idealistic Americans enter public life, they find themselves prisoners of a broken system. For instance, congressmen in the House of Representatives face elections every two years. Therefore, they are constantly fundraising. As a result, congressmen have little time to draft legislation or hold the executive accountable. Their need for campaign contributions from donors led them to vote for the bailouts of the big banks after the financial meltdown of 2007-08 without much introspection, scrutiny or debate. American politicians may start off with good intentions but soon end up addicted to Vitamin M — with m standing for money. They put self before service simply to survive.
This role of money in politics has reached such proportions that it has made America “the best democracy money can buy,” much like the banana republics it once used to run. This excessive power of money has also atomized the US much like Kenya, India or any country in the developing world, which Americans once called the “Third World.” Citizens have turned consumers. In this new Lululemon world, even yoga and meditation are for sale. It is pay to play in this excessive celebration of the self, with little common identity or social solidarity left. Such is the sorry state of affairs that America is now the new heart of darkness.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Atul Singh is the Founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of Fair Observer.
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