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Lewis Lapham: Laughing into Darkness

7:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Mark Twain at work

Is there a Mark Twain for the modern age?

Not being Navajo, there were no “first laugh” ceremonies in my household.  But who could forget their child’s first laugh?  It’s like having one of the mysteries of life presented to you out of nowhere, right in your own house.  That laugh comes from some unknown place deep inside. It may be a response to surprise (peekaboo… now, I’m here, now I’m gone, now I’m back again!) or who knows what, but it’s granted to us, imprinted on us, with a kind of inexpressible joy. The Navajos evidently consider a baby’s first laugh the moment you become a social being, enter the human community, and join the rest of us — and the person who induces that laugh has the honor of holding the ceremony.  Anyone who has ever gotten a classic “belly laugh” out of a baby certainly has a sense that an honor has indeed been bestowed and that a ceremony should be in order.

The laugh is assumedly there to take you through a dark world without a total loss of joy, to join you to the rest of us in the conspiracy of life, and to give you a little distance on what passes for reality.  It precedes anything we would normally consider humor, reflecting the deepest comedy at our core.  Anyone who has had a child undoubtedly noticed that the laugh also precedes the punch line, that the form of the joke is somehow a pleasure even before you understand why a chicken crossing the road is funny or what that rabbi, penguin, and president were doing in a bar.  It’s far deeper and truer.

So true that Lewis Lapham in the Winter issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, grabs his Mark Twain and steps directly into the darkness of our present gilded age with the verve that humor arms you with. As always, his magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic, in this case comedy. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

The Solid Nonpareil
Why No Mark Twain for Our Second Gilded Age?
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Comedy," the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain

Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852–1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”

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Hedges and Sacco: A Twenty-First Century American Sacrifice Zone

7:21 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

myFDL Editor’s Note: This book is the subject of our September 15 Firedoglake Book Salon! Come back to FDL then to chat with the authors. -Kit

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A World of Hillbilly Heroin
The Hollowing Out of America, Up Close and Personal
By Chris Hedges 
Illustration by Joe Sacco

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt cover: Sacco's illustration of a police car in a economically devastated town

Days of Destruction, Days Of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Firedoglake Book Salon Sept 15.

During the two years Joe Sacco and I reported from the poorest pockets of the United States, areas that have been sacrificed before the altar of unfettered and unregulated capitalism, we found not only decayed and impoverished communities but shattered lives.  There comes a moment when the pain and despair of constantly running into a huge wall, of realizing that there is no way out of poverty, crush human beings.  Those who best managed to resist and bring some order to their lives almost always turned to religion and in that faith many found the power to resist and even rebel.

On the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where our book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt opens, and where the average male has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti, those who endured the long night of oppression found solace in traditional sweat lodge rituals, the Lakota language and cosmology, and the powerful four-day Sun Dance which I attended, where dancers fast and make small flesh offerings.

In Camden, New Jersey, it was the power and cohesiveness of the African-American Church.  In the coalfields of southern West Virginia, it was the fundamentalist and evangelical protestant churches, and in the produce fields of Florida, it was the Catholic mass.

Those who are not able to hang on, fall long and hard.  They retreat into the haze of alcohol — Pine Ridge has an estimated alcoholism rate of 80% — or the harder drugs, easily available on the streets of Camden: from heroin to crack to weed to something called Wet, which is marijuana leaves soaked in PCP.  In the produce fields, drinking was also a common release.

In West Virginia, however, the drug of choice was OxyContin, or “hillbilly heroin.”  Joe and I went into some old coal camps, largely abandoned, and there it was as if we were interviewing zombies; the speech and movements of those we met were so bogged down by opiates that they were often hard to understand. This passage from the book is a look at some of those West Virginians, discarded by the wider society, who struggle to deal with the terrible pain of rejection and purposelessness that comes when there is a loss of meaning and dignity. Chris Hedges, August 2012

A Community on Overdose

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Stephan Salisbury: Life in the American Slaughterhouse

6:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A glock and 9mm bullet.

A Glock (Photo: SmarterIam / Flickr)

Is America an increasingly violent society?  Statistics seemingly tell us no.  From 2001 to 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime victimizations actually dropped 34%.

While this decrease is part of a longer-term trend (and there’s still startling amounts of carnage in this country), it begs the question of whether the United States is really less violent than previously and, if so, where all that excess violence went.

It’s notable that, since 2001, the U.S. has been exporting and facilitating violence of all sorts all over the globe.  Some of this violence is thoroughly sanctioned and some isn’t.  In Iraq, members of the U.S. military committed violent acts against untold numbers of Iraqis, including military personnel who served Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as insurgents, and civilians.  (The U.S. invasion itself touched off Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that killed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands and continues to this day.)  Though the numbers may not be comparable, much the same story could be told about Afghanistan, not to speak of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  Americans have also killed African pirates on the high seas and, just days ago, an Indian fisherman on a boat in the Persian Gulf.

Recently, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have been killing suspected drug smugglers in Honduras.  U.S. arms have been sent to Middle Eastern autocrats visiting violence on their own people and the U.S. military has trained African troops to more effectively kill African insurgents.  American weapons have flooded Mexico and supercharged drug violence there.  A war in Libya, involving the U.S. military, led to Tuareg fighters looting Libyan weapons stockpiles and committing acts of violence across the border in Mali (which was plunged into further violence due to a military coup by an American-trained officer).  Today, America’s commander-in-chief regularly selects individuals in a number of countries to be placed on a “kill list,” targeted, and assassinated.  And so it goes.

Exporting violence is not, of course, simply a post-9/11 phenomenon.  It’s been an American tradition, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, from Haiti to Hiroshima.  When the U.S. exported war to Southeast Asia, it eventually engulfed Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in utter carnage.  One way civilians there were frequently killed resulted from what historian David Hunt has trenchantly called “the sin of running.”  A Vietnamese villager frightened by the roar of a helicopter or a door-gunner pointing an M-60 machine gun at her would bolt in fear or a young military-age man would take flight when armed American teenagers, who might detain, beat, or kill him, approached.  As Vietnam veterans would later tell me, “running” branded Vietnamese as guilty, and so as enemies, in the minds of many U.S. troops and led to startling numbers of noncombatants being gunned down.

Today, TomDispatch regular Stephan Salisbury examines police violence in America, which may, hardly noticed, be on the rise.  In poor neighborhoods, in particular, the “sin of running,” it appears, is alive and well.  For the last decade, we’ve barely noticed as the U.S. spread violence globally.  At home, we generally take note of only a few of the most egregious or spectacular cases of violence.  Luckily, Salisbury has delved deeper and offers a window onto the less-reported version of American violence that most of us fail to see.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the lack of good numbers on police shootings and why they are so poorly covered, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Nick Turse

Police Shootings Echo Nationwide 
Aurora Gets the Attention, But Guns Are Going Off Everywhere 
By Stephan Salisbury

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Tomgram: Karen J. Greenberg, Taking the Justice Out of the Justice System

5:20 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

Can you even remember the world before 9/11?  You know, the one where you weren’t stripped in the airport or body-wanded at the ballpark?  It’s as much a lost world as anything Conan Doyle ever imagined.  And it seems there’s no turning back.  An administration voted into office by a populace tired of George W. Bush-ism has, remarkably enough, added on to Bush’s wars, redoubled his “secret” drone campaigns, further expanded the special operations forces that have grown into a secret military inside the military, upped the level of secrecy that envelops the National Security Complex (whose further expansion it also has overseen), renewed the Patriot Act, supported further surveillance of Americans, dumped yet more money into the Pentagon, and in sum seems intent on recreating Bushism without Bush.

Now, barely noticed, basic American institutions are starting to wobble under the strain of our post-9/11 world.  With the Supreme Court ensuring that corporations would be prime actors in electoral campaigns and the coming of billion-dollar elections, national politics has become a bread-and-circuses media affair that could at best be considered a “semi-democracy.” Similarly — as Karen J. Greenberg, TomDispatch regular and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One Hundred Days, tells us — the courts, already under increasing financial pressure and suffering layoffs and slowdowns, have been losing the confidence of Washington.

Osama bin Laden must be spinning with pleasure in his watery grave.  Tom


Crisis of Confidence
How Washington Lost Faith in America’s Courts

By Karen J. Greenberg

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the unexpected extent of the damage Americans have done to themselves and their institutions is coming into better focus.  The event that “changed everything” did turn out to change Washington in ways more startling than most people realize.  On terrorism and national security, to take an obvious (if seldom commented upon) example, the confidence of the U.S. government seems to have been severely, perhaps irreparably, shaken when it comes to that basic and essential American institution: the courts.

If, in fact, we are a “nation of laws,” you wouldn’t know it from Washington’s actions over the past few years. Nothing spoke more strikingly to that loss of faith, to our country’s increasing incapacity for meeting violence with the law, than the widely hailed decision to kill rather than capture Osama bin Laden.

Clearly, a key factor in that decision was a growing belief, widely shared within the national-security establishment, that none of our traditional or even newly created tribunals, civilian or military, could have handled a bin Laden trial.  Washington’s faith went solely to Navy SEALs zooming into another country’s sovereign airspace on a moonless night on a mission to assassinate bin Laden, whether he offered the slightest resistance or not.  It evidently seemed so much easier to the top officials overseeing the operation — and so much less messy — than bringing a confessed mass murderer into a courtroom in, or even anywhere near, the United States.

The decision to kill bin Laden on sight rather than capture him and bring him to trial followed hard on the heels of an ignominious Obama administration climb-down on its plan to try the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM, in a federal court in New York City.  Captured in Pakistan in May 2003 and transferred to Guantanamo in 2006, his proposed trial was, under political pressure, returned to a military venue earlier this year.

Given the extraordinary record of underperformance by the military commissions system — only six convictions in 10 years — it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the United States has little faith in its ability to put on trial a man assumedly responsible for murdering thousands.

And don’t assume that these high-level examples of avoiding the court system are just knotty exceptions that prove the rule.  There is evidence that the administration’s skepticism and faint-heartedness when it comes to using the judicial system risks becoming pervasive.

Pushing Guilt Before Trial

Needless to say, this backing away from courts of law as institutions appropriate for handling terrorism suspects began in the Bush-Cheney years.  Top officials in the Bush administration believed civilian courts to be far too weak for the Global War on Terror they had declared.  This, as they saw it, was largely because those courts would supposedly gift foreign terrorist suspects with a slew of American legal rights that might act as so many get-out-of-jail-free cards. 

As a result, despite a shining record of terrorism convictions in civilian courts in the 1990s — including the prosecutions of those responsible for the 1993 attempt to take down a tower of the World Trade Center — President Bush issued a military order on November 13, 2001, that established the court-less contours of public debate to come.  It mandated that non-American terrorists captured abroad would be put under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon, not the federal court system. This was “war,” after all, and the enemy had to be confronted by fighting men, not those sticklers for due process, civilian judges and juries.

The federal courts have, of course, continued to try American citizens and residents (and even, in a few cases, individuals captured abroad) in terror cases of all sorts — with an 87% conviction rate for both violent and non-violent crimes.  In fact, 2010 was a banner year for terrorism prosecutions when it came to American citizens and residents, and 2011 is following suit.  As could have been predicted, in the vast majority of these cases — all the ones that mattered — there were convictions.

You might think, then, that the courts had proved their mettle against mounting criticism and distrust of a system said to be insufficiently harsh. And initially, Obama’s Department of Justice defended civilian courts as resilient and flexible enough to try terror cases.

But that didn’t last.  Recently, the Obama administration has reinforced a policy (begun under President Bush) which offers an ominous new twist on American justice: punishment before trial.  It has, for example, relied upon various extreme methods of pre-trial isolation — including a version of restrictive orders known as Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs — that reek of punitiveness and have often caused severe psychological deterioration in suspects awaiting trial on terrorism charges. The most noteworthy case of this is Syed Fahad Hashmi’s.  An American citizen arrested while studying in England, Hashmi had allowed an acquaintance, Mohammed Junaid Babar, to stay in his apartment for two weeks. Babar, who testified against Hashmi and was later released, allegedly had socks, ponchos, and raingear intended for al-Qaeda in his luggage and allegedly used Hashmi’s cell phone to call terrorist conspirators. Hashmi, accused of “material support” for al-Qaeda, was kept under SAMs for three years without trial — until he finally pled guilty.

The urge to punish before a verdict comes in reflects the same deep-seated conviction that the U.S. court system is simply not to be trusted to do its job.  Two recent cases — that of whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Bradley Manning — illustrate how, in cases where national security is believed to be at stake, Obama-era pre-trial treatment has taken up the distrust of the courts, civilian or military, that characterized the Bush years.

Drake, an executive for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a whistleblower over what he considered mistaken policy decisions about an ill-performing data-sifting program which, among other things, he thought squandered taxpayer money. Subsequently, he revealed his disagreement with the agency’s warrantless wire-tapping program, which he believed overstepped legal boundaries. Charged initially with violating the Espionage Act and threatened with a draconian 35-year jail sentence, Drake finally pled this past June to a misdemeanor count of “exceeding the authorized use of a government computer.”

In Drake’s four-year saga, his pre-punishment took the form not of pre-trial detention but of the destruction of his livelihood. He was initially fired from the NSA and from the National Defense University position to which the NSA had assigned him. Once indicted in 2010, he was forced to resign from a subsequent teaching post at Strayer University. All told, the formal and informal hounding of Drake resulted in the loss of his jobs and pension, as well as $82,000 in legal costs. Ultimately, Drake was sentenced to a year’s probation and 240 hours of mandatory community service. By that time, he had been ruined financially and professionally, thanks to the government’s disparagement of him and the multi-year delay between its accusations and the lodging of formal charges against him. Drake now works at an Apple Store. In other words, well before the government took its chances in court, Thomas Drake was punished.

Another highly publicized case where punishment preceded trial has been the mistreatment of Army Private Bradley Manning while in military custody in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, awaiting charges.  The Obama administration believes he turned over a trove of secret military and State Department documents to the website WikiLeaks.  Following his arrest, Manning was kept in subhuman conditions.  He was forced to sleep naked and to strip for daily inspections, though as news about his situation generated bad publicity, he was eventually allowed to sleep in a “tear-proof” gown.

There is something deeply disturbing about the very different ways Manning and Drake were pre-punished by the government — both directly in the case of Manning and indirectly in the case of Drake — before being given due process of any kind.  Like bin Laden’s killing, both cases reflect an unspoken worry in Washington that our courts will prove insufficiently ruthless and so incapable of giving the “obviously guilty” what they “obviously” deserve.

The Courts Take Notice

As it turns out, the judicial system hasn’t taken the government’s new attitude lying down.  Various judges and juries have, in fact, shown themselves to be unfazed by both public and governmental pressures and have, in terror and national security cases, demonstrated signs of balance and of a concern for justice, rather than being driven by a blind sense of revenge.

In the past year, there has been an unprecedented number of high-profile terrorism trials. All have resulted in convictions, which have nonetheless not reflected the unstinting harshness that critics of court-centered counterterrorism insist upon.  In the case of Ahmed Ghailani, the sole Guantanamo detainee to face trial in the nation’s criminal justice system, the jury, having done its work of assessing the evidence, acquitted the defendant on 284 of 285 counts, including all the murder charges associated with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  On the single count on which he was convicted, however, Ghailani was given a life sentence without parole.

Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorism case — that of Tagawwur Rana — ended in a jury acquittal on its most serious charge.  Rana had been accused of cooperating in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which resulted in the deaths of more than 160 individuals. The jury found Rana guilty of material support, but not of helping to coordinate the attack.

These cases and others like them have, of course, been fodder for all the usual critics who consider anything but a 100% conviction rate on all charges in all cases to be a sure sign not of the justice system’s strength, but of its fundamental weakness.  And yet, such cases have showcased just how effectively the system still works, in a more nuanced way than in the previous near-decade, as well as in a subtler and more just way than Washington has managed to approximate over that same period.  Despite the fears, pressures, and scare tactics that are entangled with all such terror cases, we now have living proof that juries can think for themselves, and guilt can be a partial matter, rather than a Washington slam-dunk.

Of late, federal judges on such cases also seem to have been signaling to the government’s representatives that they must be more restrained in their approach to national security cases, both in and out of court. In late June, for instance, during the sentencing of three of the men convicted of conspiring to bomb two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, and to launch a Stinger missile aimed at aircraft over Newburgh’s Air National Guard Base, Judge Colleen McMahon struck back at the government’s case.  “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt,” she said, “that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.  That does not mean that there was no crime. The jury concluded that you were not entrapped, and I see no basis to overturn their verdict.”

In the Drake case, Judge Richard Bennett was similarly distraught about the evident excesses in the government’s approach. At sentencing for the single minor count to which Drake agreed to plead, the judge bluntly refused to impose the $50,000 fine the prosecution was pushing for on the grounds that punishment had already been administered — prior to the court process. “There has been financial devastation wrought upon this defendant,” said Bennett, “that far exceeds any fine that can be imposed by me.  And I’m not going to add to that in any way.  And it’s very obvious to me in terms of some of the irritation I’ve expressed… not only my concern over the delay in this case… [but also the prosecution’s] inability to explain … the delay in this case… I think that somebody somewhere in the U.S. government has to say… that the American public deserves better than this.”

In the recent jury decisions, as in the growing expressions of judicial dissatisfaction, an optimist might find signs that the system is finally starting to right itself.  On the other hand, a pessimist might come to the conclusion that the government will, in the future, simply put even more energy into avoiding the court system.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, defines success in terrorism prosecutions not by assessing whether or not due process and fair verdicts are administered, but solely in terms of what they deem proper punishment for those accused of violating national security — especially when doing so minimizes partisan political clashes. By refusing to rein in its evident distrust of the judicial system when it comes to national security, the government is perpetuating a legal landscape that, to this day, lies in the shadow of Osama bin Laden.

Karen Greenberg is the executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One Hundred Days, as well as the editor of The Torture Debate in America.

Copyright 2011 Karen J. Greenberg

Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, On Americans (Not) Getting By (Again)

7:01 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

This post is adapted from the new afterward to the just published tenth anniversary edition of Nickel and Dimed (Picador Books).

It was at lunch with the editor of Harper’s Magazine that the subject came up: How does anyone actually live “on the wages available to the unskilled”?  And then Barbara Ehrenreich said something that altered her life and resulted, improbably enough, in a bestselling book with almost two million copies in print.  “Someone,” she commented, “ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism — you know go out there and try it for themselves.”  She meant, she hastened to point out on that book’s first page, “someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands.”

That was 1998 and, somewhat to her surprise, Ehrenreich soon found herself beginning the first of a whirl of unskilled “careers” as a waitress at a “family restaurant” attached to a big discount chain hotel in Key West, Florida, at $2.43 an hour plus tips.  And the rest, of course, is history.  The now famous book that resulted, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is just out in its tenth anniversary edition with a new afterword by Ehrenreich — perfectly timed for an American era in which the book’s subtitle might have to be changed to “On (Not) Getting a Job in America.”  TomDispatch takes special pride in offering Ehrenreich’s new afterword, adapted and shortened, for a book that, in its latest edition, deserves to sell another million copies.  Tom


Nickel and Dimed (2011 Version)
On Turning Poverty into an American Crime

By Barbara Ehrenreich

I completed the manuscript for Nickel and Dimed in a time of seemingly boundless prosperity. Technology innovators and venture capitalists were acquiring sudden fortunes, buying up McMansions like the ones I had cleaned in Maine and much larger. Even secretaries in some hi-tech firms were striking it rich with their stock options. There was loose talk about a permanent conquest of the business cycle, and a sassy new spirit infecting American capitalism. In San Francisco, a billboard for an e-trading firm proclaimed, “Make love not war,” and then — down at the bottom — “Screw it, just make money.”

When Nickel and Dimed was published in May 2001, cracks were appearing in the dot-com bubble and the stock market had begun to falter, but the book still evidently came as a surprise, even a revelation, to many. Again and again, in that first year or two after publication, people came up to me and opened with the words, “I never thought…” or “I hadn’t realized…”

To my own amazement, Nickel and Dimed quickly ascended to the bestseller list and began winning awards. Criticisms, too, have accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the book has been far better received than I could have imagined it would be, with an impact extending well into the more comfortable classes. A Florida woman wrote to tell me that, before reading it, she’d always been annoyed at the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she understood that a healthy diet wasn’t always an option.  And if I had a quarter for every person who’s told me he or she now tipped more generously, I would be able to start my own foundation.

Even more gratifying to me, the book has been widely read among low-wage workers. In the last few years, hundreds of people have written to tell me their stories: the mother of a newborn infant whose electricity had just been turned off, the woman who had just been given a diagnosis of cancer and has no health insurance, the newly homeless man who writes from a library computer.

At the time I wrote Nickel and Dimed, I wasn’t sure how many people it directly applied to — only that the official definition of poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7 an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families,” which found an astounding 29% of American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes — though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. Twenty-nine percent is a minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the early 2000s came up with similar figures.

The big question, 10 years later, is whether things have improved or worsened for those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.

Post-Meltdown Poverty

When you read about the hardships I found people enduring while I was researching my book — the skipped meals, the lack of medical care, the occasional need to sleep in cars or vans — you should bear in mind that those occurred in the best of times. The economy was growing, and jobs, if poorly paid, were at least plentiful.

In 2000, I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much off the street. Less than a decade later, many of these jobs had disappeared and there was stiff competition for those that remained. It would have been impossible to repeat my Nickel and Dimed “experiment,” had I had been so inclined, because I would probably never have found a job.

For the last couple of years, I have attempted to find out what was happening to the working poor in a declining economy — this time using conventional reporting techniques like interviewing. I started with my own extended family, which includes plenty of people without jobs or health insurance, and moved on to trying to track down a couple of the people I had met while working on Nickel and Dimed.

This wasn’t easy, because most of the addresses and phone numbers I had taken away with me had proved to be inoperative within a few months, probably due to moves and suspensions of telephone service. I had kept in touch with “Melissa” over the years, who was still working at Wal-Mart, where her wages had risen from $7 to $10 an hour, but in the meantime her husband had lost his job. “Caroline,” now in her 50s and partly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, had left her deadbeat husband and was subsisting on occasional cleaning and catering jobs. Neither seemed unduly afflicted by the recession, but only because they had already been living in what amounts to a permanent economic depression.

Media attention has focused, understandably enough, on the “nouveau poor” — formerly middle and even upper-middle class people who lost their jobs, their homes, and/or their investments in the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic downturn that followed it, but the brunt of the recession has been borne by the blue-collar working class, which had already been sliding downwards since de-industrialization began in the 1980s.

In 2008 and 2009, for example, blue-collar unemployment was increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment, and African American and Latino workers were three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Low-wage blue-collar workers, like the people I worked with in this book, were especially hard hit for the simple reason that they had so few assets and savings to fall back on as jobs disappeared.

How have the already-poor attempted to cope with their worsening economic situation? One obvious way is to cut back on health care. The New York Times reported in 2009 that one-third of Americans could no longer afford to comply with their prescriptions and that there had been a sizable drop in the use of medical care. Others, including members of my extended family, have given up their health insurance.

Food is another expenditure that has proved vulnerable to hard times, with the rural poor turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates. And for those who like their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wisconsin, a 51-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he was supplementing his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed, baked, and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver was doing a brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating with vinegar and spices.

The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to increase the number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space — by doubling up or renting to couch-surfers.

It’s hard to get firm numbers on overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to census-takers, journalists, or anyone else who might be remotely connected to the authorities.

In Los Angeles, housing expert Peter Dreier says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” According to a community organizer in Alexandria, Virginia, the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers has two bedrooms, each containing an entire family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

No one could call suicide a “coping strategy,” but it is one way some people have responded to job loss and debt. There are no national statistics linking suicide to economic hard times, but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported more than a four-fold increase in call volume between 2007 and 2009, and regions with particularly high unemployment, like Elkhart, Indiana, have seen troubling spikes in their suicide rates. Foreclosure is often the trigger for suicide — or, worse, murder-suicides that destroy entire families.

“Torture and Abuse of Needy Families”

We do of course have a collective way of ameliorating the hardships of individuals and families — a government safety net that is meant to save the poor from spiraling down all the way to destitution. But its response to the economic emergency of the last few years has been spotty at best. The food stamp program has responded to the crisis fairly well, to the point where it now reaches about 37 million people, up about 30% from pre-recession levels. But welfare — the traditional last resort for the down-and-out until it was “reformed” in 1996 — only expanded by about 6% in the first two years of the recession.

The difference between the two programs? There is a right to food stamps. You go to the office and, if you meet the statutory definition of need, they help you. For welfare, the street-level bureaucrats can, pretty much at their own discretion, just say no.

Take the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, Delaware residents who had always imagined that people turned to the government for help only if “they didn’t want to work.” Their troubles began well before the recession, when Joe, a fourth-generation pipe-fitter, sustained a back injury that left him unfit for even light lifting. He fell into a profound depression for several months, then rallied to ace a state-sponsored retraining course in computer repairs — only to find that those skills are no longer in demand. The obvious fallback was disability benefits, but — catch-22 — when Joe applied he was told he could not qualify without presenting a recent MRI scan. This would cost $800 to $900, which the Parentes do not have; nor has Joe, unlike the rest of the family, been able to qualify for Medicaid.

When they married as teenagers, the plan had been for Kristen to stay home with the children. But with Joe out of action and three children to support by the middle of this decade, Kristen went out and got waitressing jobs, ending up, in 2008, in a “pretty fancy place on the water.” Then the recession struck and she was laid off.

Kristen is bright, pretty, and to judge from her command of her own small kitchen, probably capable of holding down a dozen tables with precision and grace. In the past she’d always been able to land a new job within days; now there was nothing. Like 44% of laid-off people at the time, she failed to meet the fiendishly complex and sometimes arbitrary eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Their car started falling apart.

So the Parentes turned to what remains of welfare — TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF does not offer straightforward cash support like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which it replaced in 1996. It’s an income supplementation program for working parents, and it was based on the sunny assumption that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough to get them.

After Kristen applied, nothing happened for six weeks — no money, no phone calls returned. At school, the Parentes’ seven-year-old’s class was asked to write out what wish they would present to a genie, should a genie appear. Brianna’s wish was for her mother to find a job because there was nothing to eat in the house, an aspiration that her teacher deemed too disturbing to be posted on the wall with the other children’s requests.

When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,” Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.”  There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

How the Safety Net Became a Dragnet

The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has indeed been criminalized in America.

Perhaps the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation.

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges…”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container.

The report lists America’s ten “meanest” cities — the largest of which include Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando — but new contestants are springing up every day. In Colorado, Grand Junction’s city council is considering a ban on begging; Tempe, Arizona, carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent at the end of June. And how do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “an indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.

He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one — for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.

“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.

One anti-sharing law was just overturned in Orlando, but the war on illicit generosity continues. Orlando is appealing the decision, and Middletown, Connecticut, is in the midst of a crackdown. More recently, Gainesville, Florida, began enforcing a rule limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day, and Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t pay fines for things like expired inspection stickers may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.

More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.”

Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible court summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

The second — and by far the most reliable — way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor succumbs to racial profiling, but whole communities are effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you’re “littering”; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect. And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement.  Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world.  Today, exactly the same number of Americans — 2.3 million — reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

It is not clear whether economic hard times will finally force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment. With even the official level of poverty increasing — to over 14% in 2010 — some states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation, and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes,” but charging prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list — a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty — though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books, most recently Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This essay is a shortened version of a new afterword to her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition, just released by Picador Books.

Excerpted from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 10th Anniversary Edition, published August 2nd by Picador USA. New afterword © 2011 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Excerpted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Tomgram: Dilip Hiro, The Waning of America

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

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This has been the week of American decline at TomDispatch.  On Sunday, Michael Klare considered that decline in the context of the rise of China as an energy superpower.  I gave a muted cheer-and-a-half for it on Tuesday.  Today, Dilip Hiro, who has been following the subject for this site, lays out what our power outage means in geopolitical terms.  The last time Hiro (author most recently of After Empire: The Birth of a Multi-Polar World) appeared at TomDispatch, he noticed a striking stylistic sign of American decline in action, what might be called the Obama flip-flop.  In one case after another, from Central America to China, Israel to Afghanistan, the Obama administration would pressure a foreign leader to bend to Washington’s will, threaten dire consequences, and then, when he refused to back off, move into a placatory mode.  Strangely — a sign of domestic power outages as well — it hasn’t been hard to spot a similar style in action at home.

This was evident recently in the case of the “mosque at Ground Zero” (even if it’s neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero).  If you remember, the administration’s position on this, when it was still a simmering controversy, was clear enough and enunciated by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs more than once: it was “a local matter” and not appropriate for the president to weigh in on.  That was a perfectly reasonable, even understandable, political decision.

Then, on Friday August 13th at a traditional White House Ramadan Iftar dinner, President Obama shifted course and offered a strong statement of support for the Park 51 center.  (“But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”)   Again, fine.  This seemed to be another kind of decision (described by Washington insiders as “a willingness to jettison calculation when core beliefs are in play”).  The only thing it couldn’t have been was a decision taken without knowing that, as the first “Muslim” president, you would be roundly attacked by all the usual suspects.

When those attacks promptly and expectably arrived the next morning, however — à la Hiro’s analysis — the president backed off.  He “clarified” his statement.  (“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.”)  It mattered little how the White House explained his clarifying remarks — they could only be taken by his enemies as a visible sign of weakness and so, under the circumstances, were politically incomprehensible.  And that flash of weakness, pure blood in the water for the sharks circling to his right, may have been the actual spark that turned the fire of the mosque debate into a five-alarm blaze.  Keep that style in mind and consider that it’s as noticeable to other countries as to Obama’s domestic opposition.  Tom


America Is Suffering a Power Outage 
…and the Rest of the World Knows It
By Dilip Hiro

“Make poverty history!”  A catchy slogan, and an admirable aim, it was adopted by world leaders at the United Nations summit in New York on the eve of the New Millennium. A decade later, it is America which has made history — even if in the opposite direction. The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that, in 2009, one in seven Americans was living below the poverty line, the highest figure in half a century. Last month’s 95,000-plus home foreclosures broke all records. 

These were only two of the recent glaring signs of the sagging might of the globe’s “sole superpower,” now heavily indebted to Beijing. Other recent indicators include its failure to corral China into revaluing its currency, the yuan, against the dollar, and to compel Russia, China, India, or even Pakistan to follow its lead in suppressing the oil and natural gas trade with Iran.  With Washington failing to impose its monetary or energy policies on the rest of the world, we have entered a new era in history.

America’s Struggling Economy

It’s crystal clear that jobs and the economy have emerged as the key preoccupations of American voters as they approach the November 2nd midterm Congressional elections.

The economic “recovery” is proving anemic. An already weak gross domestic product (GDP) growth figure, 2.4% for the second quarter of 2010, was recently revised downward to 1.6%, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, consisting of the globe’s 30 richest countries, has predicted a paltry 1.2% U.S. expansion in the fourth quarter of the year.

Soon after retiring as vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, where he served for 40 years, Donald Kohn summed up the dire situation in this way: “The U.S. economy is in a slow slog out of a very deep hole.”

Consider one measure of the depth of that hole: between December 2007 — the official start of the Great Recession — and December 2009, the American economy made eight million workers redundant. Even if the job market were to improve to the level of the boom years of the 1990s, it would still take until March 2014 simply to halve the present 9.6% unemployment rate and return it to a pre-recession 4.7%. Little wonder that James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, warned of the American economy creeping closer to the black-hole years of deflation experienced by Japan in the 1990s.

By now, the Obama administration’s $862 billion stimulus plan has largely worked its way through the system without having had much impact on job creation. And keep in mind that the high official unemployment rate is significantly less than the real figure. It doesn’t take into account part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs, or those who have stopped seeking employment after countless failed attempts. In the end, the administration’s policy makers seem to have failed to grasp that a recession caused by a banking crisis is always much worse than a non-banking one.

China Roars Ahead

Just as the Obama administration revised those anemic GDP growth rates downward, China’s economy was passing Japan’s to become the second largest on the planet. While the Chinese GDP is steaming ahead at an annual expansion rate of 10%, Japan’s is crawling at 0.4%.

China’s leaders responded to the 2008-2009 recession in the West that led to a fall in their country’s exports by quickly changing their priorities. They moved decisively to boost domestic demand and infrastructure investment by sinking money into improving public services.

While Western governments tried to overcome the investment slump at the core of the Great Recession indirectly through deficit spending, China raised its public expenditures through its state-controlled banks. They provided easy credit for the purchase of consumer durables like cars and new homes. In addition, the government invested funds in improving public services like health care, which had deteriorated in the wake of the economic liberalization of the previous three decades.

Altogether, these measures boosted the GDP growth rate to 9% in 2009, just when the American economy was shrinking by 2.6%. Such a performance impressed the leaders of many developing countries, who concluded that China’s state-directed model of economic expansion was far more suitable for their citizens than the West’s private-enterprise-driven one.

On the ideological plane, the spectacular failure of the Western banking system on which the private sector rests revived socialist ardor, long on the wane, among China’s policymakers. In response, they decided to bolster state-controlled companies, proving wrong Western analysts who bet that public-sector undertakings would lose out to their private-sector counterparts.

The upsurge in government spending and generous bank lending policies led to increased investments by state-owned companies. Whether engaged in extracting coal and oil, producing steel, or ferrying passengers and cargo, such companies found themselves amply funded to upgrade their industrial and service bases, a process that created more jobs. In addition, they began to enter new fields like real estate.

Overall, the Great Recession in the West, triggered primarily by Wall Street’s excesses, provided an opportunity for Beijing to stress that, in socialist China, private capital had only a secondary role to play. “The socialist system’s advantages enable us to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings,” said Prime Minster Wen Jiabao in his address to the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March.

The Sacred Yuan and Gunboat Diplomacy

In March and early April, there was much sound and fury at the White House about China’s currency, the yuan, being undervalued, and so giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage over their American rivals. This assessment was faithfully echoed by a compliant media.  Pundits anticipated a U.S. Treasury report due in mid-April condemning China’s manipulation of its currency, a preamble to raising tariffs on Chinese imports. Nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, the Treasury delayed its report for three months. When released, it said that, while the yuan remained undervalued, China had made a “significant” move in June by ending its policy of pegging its currency tightly to the dollar. Hard facts belie that statement, highlightingthe former sole superpower’s impotency in its dealings with fast-rising Beijing. Between early April and mid-September, the yuan appreciated by a “significant” 1%.

More worrying to White House policymakers is the way Beijing is translating its economic muscle into military and diplomatic power.  The controversy surrounding the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan in March is a case in point. Following a report in May by a team of American, British, and Swedish experts that a North Korean torpedo had destroyed the vessel, the U.S. and South Korea announced joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. China protested. It argued that, since the planned military drill was very close to its territorial waters, it threatened its security. Later that month at a South Korea-Japan-China summit, Chinese Premier Wen refrained from naming North Korea as the culprit and instead emphasized the need to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Washington ignored Beijing’s advice. It went ahead with its joint naval maneuvers in early July. Six weeks later, it announced another such drill in the Yellow Sea for early September. Incensed, Beijing responded by conducting its own three-day-long naval exercises in the same maritime space.  Breaking with normal protocol, it gave them wide publicity. Unexpectedly, nature intervened.  A tropical storm approaching the Yellow Sea compelled the Pentagon to postpone its joint maneuvers.

By then, Beijing had locked horns with Washington, challenging the latter’s claim that the Yellow Sea is an international waterway, open to all shipping, including warships. This is an unmistakable sign that the Chinese Navy is preparing to extend its reach beyond its coastal waters. Indeed, plans are clearly now afoot to extend operations into the parts of the Pacific previously dominated by the U.S. Navy.

China’s naval high command now openly talks of dispatching warships to the waters between the Malacca Strait and the Persian Gulf, principally to safeguard the sea lanes used to carry oil to the People’s Republic of China.

Washington’s Iran Policy Challenged

As China’s third biggest supplier of petroleum (after Saudi Arabia and Angola), Iran figures prominently on Beijing’s radar screen.  So far, Chinese energy corporations, all state-owned, have invested $40 billion in the Islamic Republic’s hydrocarbon sector. They are also poised to participate in the building of seven oil refineries in Iran. When, earlier this year, European Union (EU) companies stopped supplying gasoline to Iran, which imports 40% of its needs, Chinese oil corporations stepped in. That was how in 2009, with a $21.2 billion dollar two-way commerce, China surpassed the EU as Iran’s number one trading partner. It is estimated that China-Iran trade will rise by 50% in 2010.

Like Russia, China backed a fourth set of United Nations economic sanctions on Iran in June only after Washington agreed that the Security Council resolution would not include provisions that might hurt the Iranian people.  Therefore, the resulting resolution did not outlaw either investment or participation in the Iranian oil and gas industry.

Much to Moscow’s chagrin, on July 1st, President Obama signed the Comprehensive Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA) into law.  It banned the export of petroleum products to Iran and severely restricted investment in its hydrocarbon industry.  It also contained a provision that authorized the White House to penalize any entity in the world violating the act by restricting its commercial dealings with U.S. banks or the government.

Two weeks later, Russian oil minister Sergey Shmatko struck back. He announced that his country would be “developing and widening” already existing cooperation with the Islamic Republic’s oil sector. “We are neighbors,” he emphasized. Russian oil companies were, he added, free to sell gasoline to Iran and ship it across the Caspian Sea, which the two countries share. The Kremlin also warned that if Washington chose to penalize Russian companies for their actions in Iran, it would retaliate. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Cherkin, stated categorically that Russia had closed the door to any further tightening of the sanctions against Iran.

As promised publicly and repeatedly, in August the Russians finally commissioned the civilian nuclear power plant near Bushehr, which they had contracted to build in 1994. It meets all the conditions of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia will provide it with nuclear rods and remove its spent fuel which could be used to produce weapons.

Little wonder, then, that Russia and China appear on the list of the 22 nations that do “significant business” with Iran, according to the White House. What surprised many American analysts was the appearance of India on that list, which reflected their failure to grasp a salient fact: “energy security trumps all” is increasingly the driving principle behind the foreign policies of a variety of rising nations.

Soon after the enactment of CISADA, India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stated that her government was worried “unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries [could] have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and, more importantly, on our energy security.” Her statement won widespread praise in the Indian press, resentful of foreign interference in the hallowed sanctum of energy security. Delhi responded to CISADA by reviving the idea of building a 680-mile marine gas pipeline from Iran to India at a cost of $4 billion.

More remarkably, Washington’s policy has even been sabotaged by political entities which are parasitically dependent on its goodwill or largess.

In a black-market trade of monumental proportions, more than 1,000 tanker trucks filled with petroleum products cross from oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran every day. On the Kurdish side, the profits from this illicit energy trade go to the governing Kurdish political parties which have been tightly tied to Washington since the end of the First Gulf War in 1991.

An even more blatant example of defiance of Washington in the name of energy was provided by Pakistan which would be unable to stand on its feet without the economic crutches provided by America.  In January, Washington pressured Islamabad to abandon a 690-mile Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project that has been on the planning boards for the past few years. Islamabad refused. In March, its representatives signed an agreement with the Iranians. And a month later, Iran announced that it had completed construction of the 630 miles of the pipeline on its soil, and that Iranian gas would start flowing into Pakistan in 2014.

An Irreversible Trend

In whole regions of the world, U.S. power is in flux, but on the whole in retreat. The United States remains a powerful nation with a military to match.  It still has undeniable heft on the global stage, but its power slippage is no less real for that — and, by any measure, irreversible. Whatever the twenty-first century may prove to be, it will not be the American century.

Those familiar with stock exchanges know that the share price of a dwindling company does not go over a cliff in a free fall. It declines, attracts new buyers, recovers much of its lost ground, only to fall further the next time around. Such is the case with U.S. “stock” in the world. The peak American moment as the sole superpower is now well past — and there’s no overall recovery in sight, only a marginal chance of success in areas such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the United States remains the only major power whose clout counts.

For almost a decade, Washington poured huge amounts of money, blood, military power, and diplomatic capital into self-inflicted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Meanwhile, the U.S. lost ground in South America and all of Africa, even Egypt. Its long-running wars also highlighted the limitations of the power of conventional weaponry and the military doctrine of applying overwhelming force against the enemy.

As the high command at the Pentagon trains a whole new generation of soldiers and officers in counterinsurgency warfare, which requires the arduous, time-consuming tasks of mastering alien cultures and foreign languages, "the enemy," well versed in the use of the Internet, will forge new tactics. Given the growing economic strength of China, Brazil, and India, among other rising powers, U.S. influence will continue to wane. The American power outage is, by any measure, irreversible.

Dilip Hiro, a London-based writer and journalist, is the author of 32 books, the latest being After Empire: The Birth of a Multi-Polar World (Nation Books).

Copyright 2010 Dilip Hiro