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2010-09-10

Arianna Huffington on Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream

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Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post and the author of thirteen books. Her latest is Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.

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One out of every six Americans are in government anti-poverty programs. More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, 40 million receive food stamps, and ten million receive unemployment benefits. The prospects for a speedy recovery from the Great Recession appear dim. We speak with Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, about her latest book Third World America. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Are middle-class Americans becoming an endangered species? One out of every six Americans are in government anti-poverty programs. More than 50 million are on Medicaid. Forty million receive food stamps. And ten million receive unemployment benefits. The prospects for a speedy recovery from the Great Recession appear dim.

Now President Obama has argued that his administration made the right decisions to move the country forward. He told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday that he is going to keep working at it 'til he gets it right.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our options are limited. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that when we came in, the day I was sworn in, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. The next month, 600,000. The month after that, 600,000. And across the political spectrum, what people said we had to do was make sure we don't have a complete financial meltdown and make sure that we prevent this economy from going into a deep depression. We succeeded in doing that. The economy is now growing. And for eight consecutive months, we have added jobs.

    Now, I am somebody who tends to not have a lot of pride of authorship. If people out there had a whole host of ideas that would allow us to accelerate this job growth faster and put more people to work faster, I would be happy to steal ideas from anybody — Republican, independent or Democrat. Part of the challenge we’ve got is that we are working through a very difficult time. And are there ways that I potentially could have explained the circumstances of our situation better, communicated those more effectively? I’m sure that there are. And, you know, I’m going to keep on working at it ’til I get it right.

AMY GOODMAN:Well, our next guest might argue otherwise. One of her recent columns is called "Memo to America’s Middle Class: Obama Is Just Not That Into You." Arianna Huffington is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, author of thirteen books. Her latest is called Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. Arianna Huffington joins us here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON:Thank you. It’s great to be here in your new digs.

AMY GOODMAN:Well, it’s great to have you. Third World America — why Third World America?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I deliberately chose a title that is very jarring. You know, we don’t associate America with the third world. But I chose it because I really believe that we are on this trajectory, where the middle class is crumbling. And the middle class is the foundation not just of American prosperity, but American democracy and democratic stability.

And what I was seeing, since Cassandra has always been my favorite heroine growing up in Greece, is that there isn’t the sense of urgency that is needed if we really believe this is happening. And so, by using that title, Third World America, and by providing the data and the stories to back it up, I’m hoping that we will bring that sense of urgency that, as you saw from the interview with the President, is missing. You know, it was the sense of urgency that everybody had that famous weekend when they saved Wall Street, you know, when everybody, all the establishments — political, financial, Democratic, Republican — came together, and they said, "We simply cannot afford to allow the financial system to collapse. We don’t exactly know what will save it, but we’ll throw everything against the wall, because we can’t afford that." That has been completely missing. You know, we’ve had endless conversations about jobs are a priority, jobs will be our focus, but it’s not really happening. The President asks for all ideas. You know, we’ve all been screaming many ideas — you know, Republican, Democrats, you know — from the payroll tax holiday to a really serious infrastructure and jobs program, to a green bank, to an infrastructure bank, to tax credits for small businesses. You know, the ideas are out there. What is missing is that sense of urgency and the political will.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you talk especially about the inability so far of the administration to craft solutions to, for instance, the foreclosure crisis, to really help the millions of Americans that are facing foreclosure. Why do think it’s been so difficult to have that same kind of urgency for unemployment, for the housing crisis, as they have had for solving the bank meltdown?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, I’m so glad you brought up foreclosures, because it kind of sums up everything. The fact that the cramdown amendment that Dick Durbin, Senator Durbin, was shepherding through the Senate — the fact that that amendment failed, which would have allowed over a million families to stay in their homes, simply by being able to negotiate, to have a loan modification, that tells you everything you want to know about how broken our system is. That was after the banks had wrecked the economy, after they had been bailed out by taxpayers. They still had the power to kill this amendment.

And also, I say in the book, how is that even in their own interest? You know, how many millions of homes do banks want to own? And what are they going to do with them? Especially as we know that property values immediately go down, all the surrounding properties suffer, when a home is foreclosed. Not to mention what it does to families. You know, all the stories, the heartrending stories that I write about, of families moving with school children in motels or with grandparents — with the latest Pew numbers yesterday about how many children are now being brought up by grandparents — in homeless shelters. This is like a kind of a gateway calamity that affects everything.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, this is — you wrote Pigs at the Trough. That was under the Bush years. This is the Obama years, and you’re writing Third World America.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, that’s why in section five, which is really, for me, the most important section of the book, because it’s about solutions. And, you know, we can sit here and go through the first four sections of the diagnosis of the problem and what’s wrong, but in the end, I feel we need to recognize that we need to move from hope to Hope 2.0. And Hope 2.0 is about us. It’s about what people can do, what communities can do. Of course we are going to keep calling on the government to do the right thing, but right now we have to just change the wind, because politicians will keep putting their fingers up and see which way it’s blowing, and it has to be blowing in a different direction.

And so, I really feel that it starts with a lot of very personal decisions. And a lot of them are not political. They have to do with tapping into our own strength and resilience, because I see, from the people I talk to, how many are crushed by the loss of a job, the loss of a home, and how others find that resilience in them, and not only survive, but manage to rebuild their lives in an even deeper way. I mean, I write about Brenda Carter, who lost her job after thirteen years in HR. And, you know, she had to just literally collect all her belongings from her — and I remember my editor said, "We have to cut 20,000 words. Let’s cut all this thing about what exactly she took out of her office — her plants, her pictures. We don’t really need that." I said, "No, we do need that, because everybody understands that." You know, you’ve built your life, you have your little office, and you have everything there, and suddenly you have to take it all down after thirteen years. She filed hundreds of job applications. She never got another job. So, what did she do? She started cooking praline candy and selling them, first door to door, then online. She got a real estate license. She improved her tack ability. So she’s rebuilding her life after months of depression. So that’s like key, to not let ourselves be defeated by what’s happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But let me ask you about this Hope 2.0, because it seems to me that part of the problem is that so many of the popular movement activists who had Hope 1.0 and who, when Obama came into government, either, one, became part of the — you know, got appointments in the administration, or, even worse, I think, became sort of targets by the administration whenever they were raising too much of a ruckus. They were called in by the administration, that gave them access, whether it’s the immigration rights advocates, whether it’s the labor unions, and basically said, "Hey, you’re not helping. You’re not helping our situation to get reform." So they have, in essence, been disarmed. The activists have been either co-opted or increasingly the administration becomes the break on their ability to mobilize a popular movement. What can be done about that?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, first of all, I can understand the reluctance to criticize when the alternative is John Boehner as speaker or Sarah Palin as president. I mean, obliviously, I don’t share the reluctance, and it hasn’t stopped me or you from calling things as we see them, but I can understand that — do we really want to hand the country back to the Republicans? Do we really want to hand the country to those whose only solution is to prolong all the tax cuts, including to the richest Americans, etc., etc.?

But what is happening right now is that we really need to put that aside and just rebuild a grassroots movement, and also look at what we’re doing in our own lives, right down to how do we build our own financial literacy? You know, many people really go into these mortgages, go into these credit cards, without a full understanding of the tricks and traps hidden in there. So there are very specific steps that need to be taken. And there is one other thing, which is, what are we doing to give back in our community? So, what I’m saying is, as well as our political activism, what are we doing to be much more hands-on in the lives of our communities? Because even unemployed people are doing amazing things, and that’s where my optimism is coming from. You know, Seth Reams, who lost his job as a concierge in Portland, Oregon, and started this group called wevegottimetohelp.org, and so now, you know, literally, people flood his little operation with calls for asking for babysitting help, for help to move from their apartment, whatever is needed. So that kind of culture is also something we need to build.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned green jobs earlier. Today in the Washington Times, their main story is about, well, saying, "Noticeably absent from President Obama’s latest economic-stimulus package are any further attempts to create jobs through 'green' energy projects, reflecting a year in which the administration’s original, loudly trumpeted efforts proved largely unfruitful." Why? Why did he back off? First he fires Van Jones, or they get rid of Van Jones, and then green jobs is out the window, when it can be one of the most productive forms of employment.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, that’s really the fundamental problem. The audacity to win was replaced by the timidity to govern. And there is timidity everywhere. I mean, there are really no bold measures. And at a time of this huge economic crisis that we’re facing, we cannot just deal with things in this incredibly cautious way. I mean, the stimulus is a very good example. You know, I write in the book that Lloyd George said it best — you know, the English prime minister — when he said that you cannot jump across a chasm in two leaps. And that’s what they try to do, you know, and so falling into this abyss, which may be a double-dip recession. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but it’s not good. And they’re beginning to recognize it’s not good and changing the rhetoric, at least. But the point is that at the time many people predicted it. Even Christine Romer, we now know, had really advocated in her different scenario a stimulus high enough to actually make it work, because now, what the right is doing is saying, "You know, we gave all that money, and it hasn’t worked." So the inadequacy of the solution is now being used to undermine the very idea of government stepping in and helping — unless, of course, it’s to save Wall Street.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about education, because you touch on it quite a bit in the book. You say that our high schools have become dropout factories. We have one of the lowest graduation rates in the industrialized world. Over 30 percent of American high school students fail to leave with a diploma. And even those who do graduate are often unprepared for college. Now, the Obama administration has made a big issue of education with its Race to the Top, and you seem to support some of the initiatives. You certainly back the idea of being able to fire teachers who are not performing and doing away with outmoded union protections. But you also have a — you condemn its emphasis on testing as a means of determining whether public schools are improving. I’m interested in your take on this, how the Obama administration is doing on education, and also their big emphasis on charter schools, on the creation of charter schools. Do you think that that is a way to reform public education in the United States?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, first of all, I think that what the Obama administration and Arne Duncan are doing with education is the best thing they’re doing. They’re acknowledging the crisis. They’re acknowledging that what we’ve done has not worked. And it’s sort of coinciding with the release of this amazing documentary that I write about in the book called Waiting for Superman, that profiles Geoffrey Canada and the work he’s doing here in Harlem, and again, the amazing work of saying we’re going to put children first, we are not going to allow anything, including the tenure of bad teachers, or anything at all, to stand in the way. And that’s the kind of determination we need, because otherwise, what this documentary powerfully captures is the fact that getting a decent education now, if you’re in one of those completely dysfunctional public schools, is a matter of lottery. You know, are you going to be lucky enough to win one of the slots in a another decent school? And that’s like amazing, that this entire American Dream has come down to chance.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Robert Gibbs’s comment on the professional left. Do you think he’s talking about you there, among others?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Oh, I don’t really know exactly who he’s talking about, but I really think that this whole idea that has been perpetuated by the media, and by the White House, of dividing every issue into one that has a left and right position is incredibly undermining our ability to find real solutions. And at the Huffington Post, we now have a tagline that we call "Beyond left and right." That’s different than bipartisanship. That’s different than "Let’s comes together and split the difference and just compromise and pass something." That’s general consensus on things like Afghanistan, for example. When George Will came out against escalating in Afghanistan, we trumpeted it as a headline beyond left and right, because the media keep positioning anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan as some kind of peacenik lefty who doesn’t understand the realities of national security, when people from across the political spectrum, including the Cato Institute, are recognizing that what we are doing is fighting an unwinnable war that is not helping us in terms of our national security. And, in fact, we are buttressing a corrupt regime at the expense of what we can do at home. Two billion dollars a week. So there I was the other day on Morning Joe, and Joe Scarborough and Ed Rendell, who were on, both agreed we need to stop that. So, I mean, we need to say clearly that these are not all left-right decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is holding his first news conference since the end of May today at the White House. What would you ask him?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, I would ask him where is the fierce urgency of now, that he likes to quote, because that’s what is needed, because people are suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Arianna Huffington. Her new book is called Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.

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