Saturday, November 10, 2007

United States of Brazil

The title of this essay was, in fact, the original legal name of the Estados Unidos do Brasil, just as Mexico is legally the Mexican United States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). What I mean is not to evoke these countries but to suggest the general drift of the historical and socioeconomic current propelling the nation we know as the United States of America. We are slouching toward Brazil, or worse, Bolivia.

These are double-edged, complicated ideas for me. I have visited relatives in Brazil many times, counted among my personal acquaintances and friends a number of Bolivians, including one president. To me, these countries are not distant, abstract instances of Latin American stupidity or laziness or [throw in your pejorative here].

Rather, they are expressions of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called "el continente de despojo" (the continent of dispossession) in his famous work Open Veins of Latin America, which recounts the sad, sad tale of my parents' ancestral society in a continental context.

"Latin America," like "Hispanic," is an abstraction as seen from outside the reality. There is a common historical, linguistic, religious and to some extent ethnic heritage uniting the score of nations south of the Rio Grande. However, Latin Americans think of themselves as nationals of a country before they think of themselves as citizens of "la patria grande" (the larger homeland), Hispanic or Latin America.

Where all citizens of the region share an important commonality is in the sense of belonging in the Third World, a place where
  • telephones often malfunction (to the point of being a great excuse for not keeping in contact);
  • wages of government officials, technicians, and every kind of service worker a middle class person is likely to need, are so low that nothing gets done without greasing a palm;
  • middle class status itself is a privilege bestowed on a few, or often enough, a slide down the slippery Maypole of social stratification;
  • as few as one or two percent of the population owns and controls the overwhelming majority of the land and productive resources;
  • vast majorities live in a crushing, degrading poverty that makes the average U.S. slum look luxurious;
  • clear pluralities or majorities do not have regular access to electricity or running water, three meals a day, new clothes, an actual formal building for shelter or regular employment, let alone benefits such as health care;
  • governments, elected and not, are really committees formed by and for the top of society's heap;
  • reform has historically been crushed ruthlessly (since 1945, in some countries earlier) with ample U.S. aid and abetting; and
  • on and on and on ...
I have to stop to stop myself from becoming a crashing bore or become so angry I cannot write any more.

My point is that the Third World conditions that exist in Latin America are, in general, way below what most Americans would deem a normal part of life. Even so, Latin America offers among the best of the conditions affecting the four-fifths of humanity to which no one who is reading this even remotely belongs.

The keen observer will have noted already that many of these conditions are no longer entirely foreign to the United States, as they largely were during the second half of the 20th century. Our country is a place where:
  • telephones began to become erratic since the breakup of Ma Bell;
  • the average, inflation-adjusted wage in 2006 was 22 percent below that of 1973;
  • the middle class is stagnating, as indicated by declining median household incomes for the five years of this century;
  • unemployment duration is becoming lengthier and the safety net for those who slip out of the middle class are frayed to nonexistent;
  • the top 20 percent of households ($92,032 a year or higher) took home 51 percent of all income, while the bottom 20 percent ($20,035 annually or less) took home about 3.4 percent (2006 figures) -- and that's just income, on the wealth side, the top 1 percent of households owned 33.4 percent of all privately held wealth, with the next 19 percent owned 51 percent -- thus, the wealthiest 20 percent of the people owned 84 percent of all private property, leaving only 16 percent for the rest (2001 figures);
  • the increasing proportion of poor households in the USA experience food insecurity, lack of or spotty access to health care, inability to pay bills such as rent and other essentials, substandard housing, irregular employment, law wages, lack of career advancement prospects, poor education and more;
  • the current government came to power against the wishes of the majority in the year 2001 and has ruled to benefit a tiny, tiny elite; and
  • ask the Wobblies, the Molly Maguires, Sacco and Vanzetti and the Black Panthers if U.S. political repression is harsh, or ask the blacklisted people during McCarthyism, or those lynched in the 1930s ...
What disturbs me is not so much the U.S. reality, which has always meant that each social advance in our history is soaked in blood, but that the trend is now downsliding.

The poor are becoming poorer, the rich richer, the middle class is dwindling. With that comes a deterioration of an admittedly charmed style of life.

The telephones are bad? I just read about a lady of 75 in Virginia who went to the telephone company's offices with a hammer and started smashing computers after being utterly unable to get the attention of "customer service" staff for 3 months when her phone was mistakenly cut off. She's in jail when the telephone company executives who cut everything to the bone should be in irons.

They do it because investors demand profits? The investors' greed should be limited. By the government that shouldn't be in the pockets of the highest bidder.

Let things slide, work off frustrations with Comedy Central or the Fox network's over-the-top cartoon humor shows, chill ... and by the time you take a good look, there will be Brazilian favelas in New York, you will have to bribe the cable man, that is ... if you still have a respectable job with rapidly vanishing health insurance and pension benefits.

Don't think it can't happen. In 1907, Argentina had the 7th economy in the world. "Rich as an Argentine" was a popular phrase in the United States, which was not yet the towering, all-powerful and super-rich nation we have known since 1945.

There is nothing divinely ordained about U.S. wealth or institutions that attempt to achieve greater socioeconomic equality. Both are severely at risk.

It is likely that, much as the 20th century was aptly dubbed "the American century" by Walter Lippmann, the 21st may be the Chinese century or -- my guess -- the European century. Very little can be done about that. What goes up, must come down.

Absent social and political forces to level not just the playing field but to some extent the scores of the game, however, the United States shows all the earmarks of drifting toward a Third World social structure. This need not happen.

When European nations lost their pre-eminence and vast colonial empires starting in 1945, they introduced the most generous "cradle to grave" systems of social insurance ever known in history. Some may need their sails trimmed a bit, but on the whole, these are viable and necessary systems that the USA, as an advanced nation, should have.

Else, welcome to Brazil.


Julie Pippert said...

I do think, as you put it, that there is a "slide down the Maypole" occurring. It's easy not to notice when you continue to easily and comfortably enjoy the same privilege with which you grew up. Middle class in the 70s in the US was seemingly a nice balloon...fat in the middle. I know it wasn't really and it was more complicated but to maintain that standard of living requires what used to be considered rich.

My husband and I struggle---with a decent salary and low expenses!---to remain on the last eeky squeaky rung of the middle class.

I look at the retirement our parents generation enjoys and know that will not be ours.

The upside is a sway in thought process, values and ideas. We are much less materialistic, but because we have to be.

You've seen all my rants against poor customer service.

This is an interesting post with some intriguing parallels and points to ponder.

Using My Words

jen said...

And now what? What do we do? How do we vote our way out of this?

And how did the US contribute to the poverty in L.A.? The united fruit company, maybe? that whole panama debacle? Ecuador? And the beat goes on.

terrific post.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Cradle to grave" welfare states have basic income taxation rates that start as high as 45%, not to mention Value Added Tax. Do you really think Americans would continually elect legislators who enact same? And how would the U.S Constitution corroborate with a system of nationalized health care that picks and chooses who should receive what. For instance, I have heard of smokers and the obese in England being refused surgery on the basis of their addictions not being under control.
It does seem as though the U.S is headed down some kind of slippery bottomless pit. I believe that there is a golden opportunity waiting for some genius to engineer something between what we have now and the "cradle to grave" system. I won't hold my breath in anticipation.
Meanwhile, I am very glad, C, that you are out there watching, listening and writing.
To those who think the homeless suffer more in one place than another and having worked directly with such populations both in Europe and in the U.S, I beg to differ. Depths of human suffering are immeasurable and entirely subjective. I promise you, the homeless in the U.S receive catastrophic care and are turfed back out on to the street the minute they can move themselves. Their only hope is that a private charity come to their aid and quickly.


Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jen said...

Anne wrote: Depths of human suffering are immeasurable and entirely subjective. I promise you, the homeless in the U.S receive catastrophic care and are turfed back out on to the street the minute they can move themselves. Their only hope is that a private charity come to their aid and quickly.

and to that i say: Amen! and yet i can't agree with private charity as the solution because charity is fickle, and all the charity can come and go and we still have a responsibility to our community and our leaders continue to deny that.

jondewitt said...

I agree that income disparity between the wealthy few and the impoversished many is growing year by year. The United States is headed for its second Gilded Age, the bad old days of the late 1800s, early 1900s that Theodore Roosevelt described as a "riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual ...turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak." Thousands of men, women and children, many recent immigrants, lived in dark, fetid, unsanitary tenements five to eight stories high, honeycombed with rooms, many without direct light or air and most providing shelter for one or more families. Single lodgers paid five cents a night for floor space. Leaders of New York's High Society, "The 400," built enormous mansions as summer retreats in Newport, Rhode Island such as that of William Henry "The Public Be Damned" Vanderbilt described as sumptous beyond belief, "a glittering jewel box, overwhelmingly ornate, briming with metal gold, crystal, mirrors and, above all, marble."