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Bill Moyers: The Great American Class War

9:50 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Stencil: No War but Class War

Bill Moyers on Class War in America

If you’ve heard the phrase “class war” in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it’s been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich.  Back in 2011, for example, President Obama’s modest proposal of a “millionaire tax” was typically labeled “class warfare” and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the “class warfare path.”  Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging “class warfare” by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare.  In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict.

In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen!  And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase “class war,” which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment.  After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which “class struggle,” “working class,” and “plutocrat” were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of.  It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America.

It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life.  All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money’s really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet’s famed comment: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society.  The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what’s left of American democracy from — another of those banned words that should come back into use — the plutocrats.  Tom

The Great American Class War
Plutocracy Versus Democracy
By Bill Moyers

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

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Laura Gottesdiener, The Backyard Shock Doctrine

7:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

A Dream Foreclosed

Laura Gottesdiener’s new book

African Americans had every reason to celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008. History was made. Then reality set in. Economically speaking, the Obama era has been a five-year nightmare for Black America.

The unemployment rate for blacks now stands at 13.7%, almost twice the rate for all eligible workers. Under other circumstances, 13.7% unemployment would be a national crisis; it would dominate the headlines and the nightly news and the editorial pages; 13.7% unemployment would have any politician in office fearing for his or her career. In Washington, there would be blue-ribbon commissions, congressional hearings, and expert panels. But because we’re talking about 13.7% of eligible black workers, there is no outrage. Except for the anger and pain felt within the black community, that jobless rate is a silent scandal.

The wealth of African Americans is in similarly dire straits. Many black families saw their personal wealth, significant amounts of it invested in their homes, evaporate in the economic collapse of 2007-2009, triggered by a housing meltdown in which African Americans were disproportionately targeted for shoddy subprime mortgage loans. As of 2010, the median net wealth of black families was $4,900; of white families, $97,000. A third of black households had zero or negative wealth. Gains made across generations were wiped out like that.

Consider these statistics the vital signs of Black America in the Obama era. As Laura Gottesdiener writes in her debut at TomDispatch, there may be no more vivid illustration of their collective economic distress in these years than the foreclosure crisis pocking the inner cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, among other places. Gottesdiener’s new book, A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, is a people’s history of the financial crisis that jolted this country and has never ended.  It has been hailed by Naomi Klein as “riveting” and Noam Chomsky as a “most valuable study… with historical depth and analytical insight.” Andy Kroll

The Great Eviction
The Landscape of Wall Street’s Creative Destruction
By Laura Gottesdiener

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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 TomDispatch.com. 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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Barbara Ehrenreich: Looting the Lives of the Poor

6:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Gordon Gekko, the infamously cutthroat capitalist and lead character in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, captured the heady years of the 1980s with a single, indelible line: Greed is good. Today, it is Edward Conard, a friend and former colleague of Mitt Romney’s at the private equity firm Bain Capital, who has offered a new mantra for the 1%, a cri de coeur for the Gekkos of the twenty-first century: Inequality is good.

Barbara Ehrenreich - photo by David Shankbone

Barbara Ehrenreich - Photo by David Shankbone

In his new book Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, Conard argues that gaping income inequality is an indication of a healthy economy, not a sick one. The more unequal we are, Conard told the New York Times Magazine, the better off we all will be. Why? Because economies grow and thrive when smart people devise solutions to our thorniest problems by inventing or perfecting goods and services. Conard singled out a group of twentysomethings sitting at a Manhattan coffee shop one afternoon, deriding them as lazy “art-history majors.” Those people should be out creating businesses and taking risks, he insisted, because that’s how societies prosper. And the way to encourage that risk-taking is the promise of obscene wealth for those who succeed (and, implicitly, dismal poverty for those who don’t).

How obscene should that wealth be? In 2008, the top 1% commanded 21% of all income in America. Conard says our society would improve if only that figure were doubled.

Needless to say, there is no shortage of Conard critics. The more respectful ones ask: Teachers do not fit Conard’s entrepreneurial ideal — are they no use to society? What about judges? Government regulators? Others dismiss Conard as an out-of-touch millionaire living in a fantasy land. For instance, Conard claims that wages for American workers have climbed in recent decades; in fact, as liberal economist Dean Baker notes, wages have barely kept pace with inflation. “We’ll leave it to his shrink,” Baker quipped, “to determine whether the problem is that Conard is deluded or dishonest.”

It’s not hard to imagine how members of the working poor would react to Conard’s message. Here he is urging them to take the leap and design more efficient soda cans or search engines, when, as TomDispatch regular Barbara Ehrenreich makes strikingly clear, the working poor who dare share food with the down-and-out or kick up their feet on a subway seat can land in a debtor’s hell created for them by state and local governments and law enforcement agencies. Unlike Conard, Ehrenreich, the author of the bestselling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, had an actual urge to help those in trouble. She’s just launching the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which will “will pay laid-off and/or underemployed journalists who are themselves caught in the maw of economic hardship to produce compelling stories.” (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Ehrenreich discusses how the poor get soaked and her latest project to fund investigative journalism on poverty, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Andy Kroll

Preying on the Poor
How Government and Corporations Use the Poor as Piggy Banks

By Barbara Ehrenreich

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Rebecca Solnit: American Dystopia, Fiction or Reality?

6:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

From Ship of Monsters, a Mexican science fiction film. Screen grab by James Vaughn.

In my childhood years of the 1950s, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic landscapes were a dime a dozen. In the Arctic, the first radioactivated monster, Ray Bradbury’s famed Rhedosaurus, awakened in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and began its long slouch toward New York City; in the Southwestern desert, near the Trinity testing grounds for the first atomic bomb, a giant mutated queen ant in Them! prepared for her flight to the sewers of Los Angeles to spawn; in space, the planet Metaluna displayed “the consequences of a weak defense system” by suffering nuclear-style incineration in This Island Earth; and in 1954, the irrepressible returned big time when Godzilla, awakened by atomic tests, stomped out of Japan’s Toho studios and later barnstormed through American movie theaters. (All those “family” films, by the way, were successes.)

And if you were in the mood in those days, you could even pile into your car and do it in real life. In the mid-1950s, after all, the Atomic Energy Commission was promoting “atom bomb watching” as a tourist attraction for vacationers in Nevada. There were even bleachers on a hill (“News Nob”) 10 miles from ground zero for reporters checking out atomic tests. In some ways, none of us have ever left that hill.

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Barbara Ehrenreich: American Poverty, 50 Years Later

6:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

We call it “the nation’s capital,” but that’s increasingly a misnomer. Consider Congress, where as last year ended 250 members, or 47% of our representatives, were millionaires, and the estimated median net worth of a senator was $2.56 million. Or consider the city of movers, shakers, and lobbyists they live in. In Washington D.C., “the top fifth of earners in the District make an average of 29 times the income of the bottom fifth.” In average annual household salary that translates as $259,000 versus $9,100. For the capital’s top 5%, that number is $473,000, “far above the $292,000 averaged by their counterparts in other large cities.”

Washington as the people’s capital? More reasonably, it’s the capital of American wealth in a country in which the super-rich, after taking some lumps in the Great Recession, are again outpacing everyone else. As TomDispatch regular Barbara Ehrenreich points out, half a century ago Michael Harrington pointed a finger at the world of American poverty, calling it “the other America” — and that label stuck. Today, in a country where Hispanic and African American wealth was nearly wiped out by the bursting of the housing bubble, the elderly have increasingly seen their savings evaporate, and the poor are ever less “other” and ever more us, a new Harrington might consider labeling the world of the wildly rich, that 1% and their eternal bonuses, as “the real other America.”

It’s all too fitting that the leading Republican presidential candidate is a quarter-billionaire. He may be running as a Washington outsider, but unlike most Americans, he’ll be right at home in the new Washington.

Ehrenreich’s post today is the beginning of something new. With it, she launches the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (developed with colleagues from the Institute for Policy Studies and the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism). Beginning this spring, it will pay laid-off or underemployed journalists to produce original work on what she calls the “greased chute” of poverty. Stay tuned, you’ll hear more about it at this website or you can check out it out early at EconomicHardship.org. Her latest piece is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and will appear in -

Rediscovering Poverty
How We Cured “The Culture of Poverty,” Not Poverty Itself

By Barbara Ehrenreich Read the rest of this entry →

The War Against the Poor, by Frances Fox Piven

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Stop The War On The Poor (Photo: eoringel, flickr)

Stop The War On The Poor (Photo: eoringel, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It was a beautiful, sunlit fall morning when the patrol, many in camouflage jackets, no more than 40 of them in all, headed directly into enemy territory.  Their ranks included one sailor in uniform, three women, and a small child named Viva in a stroller.  Except for Viva, all of them were vets, a few from the Vietnam era but most from our more recent wars.

As they headed for Wall Street, several carried signs that said, “I am still serving my country,” and one read, “How is the war economy working for you?”  Many wore Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirts under their camo jackets, and there was one other thing that made this demonstration unlike any seen in these last Occupy Wall Street weeks: there wasn’t a police officer, police car, or barricade in sight.  As they headed out across a well-trafficked street, not a cop was there to yell at them to get back on the curb.

In the wake of the wounding of Scott Olsen in the police assault on Occupy Oakland last week, that’s what it means to be a veteran marching on Zuccotti Park.  Scott Kimbell (Iraq, 2005-2006), who led the patrol, later told me: “Cops are in a difficult position with vets.  Some of them were in the military and are sympathetic and they know that the community will not support what happened to Scott Olsen.”  Just before Broad Street, a line of waiting police on scooters picked up the marchers, for once feeling more like an escort than a gang of armed avengers, while media types and photographers swarmed in the street without police reprimand. Read the rest of this entry →

Immunity and Impunity in Elite America, by Glenn Greenwald

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Glenn Greenwald (Photo: lannan, flickr)

Glenn Greenwald (Photo: lannan, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What if, last Friday, President Obama had stepped to the podium at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room and begun his remarks this way: “Good afternoon, everybody.  As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end — for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world.  After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011.  Today, I’m here to tell you that I’m breaking that pledge.  It will not happen.  Instead, I’m leaving 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops in that country indefinitely.”

Of course, the president made no such claim (nor, if things had turned out differently in Iraq, would he have done so).  Nonetheless, according to news reports, such an outcome — thousands of American troops in Iraq, possibly for years — was the administration’s first choice, while military commanders were evidently eager to leave tens of thousands of troops behind.  It was the outcome that Washington had been negotiating for and lobbying Iraqi politicians about all year.  Because the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to give U.S. troops legal immunity, full withdrawal (with the possibility of reinsertion later) became the administration’s default position, and President Obama was left to take unreserved credit for fulfilling an election campaign pledge to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of 2011, the outcome he hadn’t wanted.  (“Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year…”)  Keep this in mind as well: given the State Department’s militarization there — it plans to run a mercenary “army” of perhaps 5,000 hired guns from its monster Baghdad embassy in 2012 — and a recent, little-noted statement by Iraqi cleric and American opponent Muqtada al-Sadr, the American war will not necessarily end next year either.

Mainstream papers reported all this, including the preferred plans for staying in Iraq, even while hailing the president’s decision to leave and keep his pledge, with no hint of the striking hypocrisy involved.  (The New York Times front-page headline read: “Last U.S. Soldiers to Exit From Iraq in 2011, Obama Says, Fulfilling Vow to End Eight-Year War — Dispute With Baghdad Is Cited.”)  Whether anyone outside the mainstream media is impressed with this sort of presidential maneuver anymore is an open question. Certainly, Glenn Greenwald wasn’t and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  With his scathingly on-target regular columns at Salon.com, it would be no exaggeration to say that Greenwald has had a hand in making many of us immune to American political and financial hypocrisy of every sort.

Now, he’s written a new book, just out today, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, that — again, who could be surprised? — is surely the book for the Occupy Wall Street moment in this country.  Read the rest of this entry →

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

7:01 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

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 TomDispatch.com.

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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