Read the subtitle of Arianna Huffington latest book, Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream, and you already know a lot about the author's understanding of America's economic and cultural collapse. It's a rigged game in which Wall Street gets all the breaks and the Main Street gets stuck with the bill. Stories of lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams, and a collapsing infrastructure help Huffington explain how the financialization of the economy has impacted millions of middle-class Americans.
Third World America does more than diagnose America's ills, however, or point fingers at Washington and lower Manhattan. Much of the book is given over to practical steps readers can take, such as practicing citizen journalism or moving your big-bank account to a credit union. We reached Arianna Huffington at the offices of the Huffington Post, where she is cofounder and editor.
You argue that as the American Dream slips away from the middle class, America's economy, educational system, infrastructure, and society are all sliding into third-world status. If we don't act, is the middle class really going to disappear? Where do you see America ending up in 20, 30 or 50 years?
I am an optimist. I really believe that we are capable of course-correcting. I did not really contemplate the possibility that we will remain deaf to the sound of the alarm, and not change our direction. In the end, we have solutions available to us. We just need to deploy them. And that's why even though I'm suggesting a whole stream of government solutions, I end the book with what we can do—what individuals can do right now—even if our political system remains as dysfunctional and incapable of optimal solutions as it has been.
Many of the solutions your book offers emphasize personal responsibility. Some of them even run counter to default liberal positions. Your "single-payer" proposal for education, for instance. It sounded similar to California Proposition 38, the failed school voucher initiative opposed by progressives and unions. Have prescriptions like these drawn opposition from progressives who might otherwise be your allies?
Well, I don't really know yet what the reaction is going to be—this is my first interview. But you are definitely saying something very important, which is that the book's solutions are beyond left and right, in the same way that the diagnosis is beyond left and right.
Many conservatives are aware that the heart of America, the foundation not just of our prosperity but of our political stability, is the middle class—and that if the middle class crumbles and the upward mobility that's been so central to the American dream is gone, we then become a very different country. We really do become a third-world country, defined by extremes—the very rich and the poor. The rich live behind gates with guards to prevent their kids from kidnapping, and then there are the rest. Who wants to live in a country like that?
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You can talk to many conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic recognize that that is a fundamental danger. And a lot of my very conservative friends, who sleep with a copy of Atlas Shrugged by their bed, recognize that capitalism cannot survive if there are basically no consequences for taking excessive risks. When instead of going bankrupt, instead of the sort of creative destruction that capitalism talks about, you find yourself being bailed out by the taxpayers with—trillions of dollars in zero-percent credit, provided by the Fed, on an ongoing basis.
As far as single-payer education goes, what is important, and the reason I called it "single payer," is that progressives love single-payer health care. This is the same principle. No one in single payer health care is proposing that the government actually provide the health care. By the same principle, why shouldn't the government provide the funds, and then multiple providers can actually provide the education?
But just as there is a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots in America, there is a cultural divide—two Americas with very different ways of looking at these problems and their solutions, and shaped by distinct streams of information.
I actually don't see what's happening in terms of a cultural divide. I see it as a real divide between the multiple establishments in this country and the people, especially the middle class. The middle class is responding in different ways to the sense of betrayal by the establishment. The Tea Party is one response. Progressives "checking out" is another response, as are the numbers of people who voted for Obama who are not planning to vote Democrat in 2010. There are many disparate ways of responding to what is happening.
There was a recent poll about the Tea Party movement that showed that a lot of them are making good money and often still have their jobs and their homes, but have nonetheless been affected by a sense of unfairness about our system. If you ask a second question to members of the Tea Party movement, it always comes back to the bailout. They may start with health care, with "Obamacare," or however they have rationalized their anger, but it doesn't take long before you get to "taxpayers saved the banks—look what's happening in the country."
The Republicans, who are beneficiaries the Tea Party Movement, are using it, but the anti-government rhetoric that has pervaded the public conversation has a lot of justification in it. I certainly recognize the need for government solutions, but look at what government has wrought! Look at the failure of government, again and again, to regulate. And even when they are regulating, to get it done right. Look at the way the bailout was administered, without any strings attached. The banks, which should have been a pariah after what happened, had the power to defeat the cramdown amendment. As Dick Durbin said in disgust after its defeat, "The banks still own this place."
Maybe the Tea Party Movement doesn't know that the cramdown amendment was defeated. It's not really about the exact details, though, but the pervasive sense that the game is rigged, that the fix is in.