When historians begin to analyze what brought about the decline and fall of the most-powerful and affluent empire in the history of Earth, they will turn to the works of Barbara Ehrenreich as much as to Xenophon, Vegetius, and Gibbon. Ehrenreich's output will offer a view focused on a specific aspect that is lacking in the works of these great historians – that of the common citizen adversely affected by the covetous blunders of their leaders. That is indeed the focus of Ehrenreich's latest, This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation.
This empire's common citizens live in what was once a wondrous land, a land which was converted – with the citizenry mired complacently in media-cemented acceptance – into a mirror image of Alice in Wonderland, which gradually grew curiouser and curiouser as it was involuntarily interfused with the authoritarianism of 1984 and the inexhaustible cupidity of Charles Dickens' Hard Times. It's a place where a group the size of Gulliver's Lilliputians – minuscule both in terms of numbers and in the quantity and quality of their moral values – have created a Brobdingnagian-sized problem for the balance of their society and for their world. Mad Magazine couldn't have conceived of a more topsy-turvy "civilization," and yet it exists in reality.
There is only one place where people are offered health insurance for their animals – even by their employers – while their children go without medical care from any source, and that place is the United States of America. A sample of the insanity is that a child who died for a lack of $80 dollars to pay a dentist to remove an infected tooth cannot legally see a veterinarian who regularly performs similar surgery on household pets at a lower cost as a last resort to save his life.
Another example of how unbalanced America has become is related in the tale of the employees of Circuit City, who were fired for "earning too much" by a CEO who was taking home millions of dollars in remuneration. Or in the tale of the attempted swindle of Wendy's by two opportunists that involved a planted severed finger, unsafe equipment, and escaped employer consequences.
Such is the country the neoconfidence men led by George W. Bush have created. Seeking only to enrich their wealthy benefactors, there is no concern whatsoever for the welfare of those who pay the costs of such bountiful beneficence delivered to the overtly opulent through reduced wages, lost jobs, and eliminated health care benefits.
So how did a land which once thought "we're all in this together" become a place where the people are designated "us and [*shudder*] THEM"? Ehrenreich positions the successful opening salvos aimed at the less-affluent with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was the first candidate to successfully bedazzle the electorate with his high-sounding phrases, utterances which – if one merely reads them instead of listening to a trained-actor's delivery – are almost completely devoid of intelligent meaning. (A serious editor could reduce Reagan's speeches into their true language of boosting the prospects of the prosperous, yet without those services, the people succumbed to the Incubus of Inequity and surrendered what remained of their self-interest in support of hostile economic opponents.) Ehrenreich notes the issues these political scripts as presented kept the public too busy to "whip up rage at the economic overclass" as said overclass continued to promote a future of pie-in-the-blue-sky over the present reality of increasing deprivation.
As this lower-to-middle economic class no longer has much in the way of assets to acquire, Ehrenreich notes that George W. Bush has since utilized the beachheads established by Reagan to the point that the "uberrich" have begun their own version of Operation Barbarossa on the "merely rich." This can be seen in the billion-dollar bonuses "awarded" to a few hedge fund managers last December while their "merely rich" clients were losing their investment portfolios in the likes of Countrywide and Bear Sterns. A few of these are becoming as destitute as the mere peasants they formerly disdained while they gleefully fleeced the lowly out of retirements and even homes to provide the means for taking a huge bonus out of company coffers.
As important as these losses are to those who paid those costs, Ehrenreich presents her analysis of the collapse of the American economy as being due to the consumer-driven economy having run out of discretionary capital. Despite working longer hours, American workers are realizing less after-tax and after-necessity dollars than before. Money that once went to fund flying to a resort vacation is now being used to pay for medical care which is no longer provided by the employer. (This does, of course, assume that there is still a job to provide income, as one contract employee of Genentech discovered one day.) Money that once leased a Hummer to haul around town in is now sucked up by the variable rate mortgage taken out to pay for it until it was repossessed.
Because the economic lowly have had few defenders, some of the uberrich have taken to imposing slavery on their foreign-born employees (p21) rather than pay even minimum wage. In this "master/slave" dichotomy, Ehrenreich sees current-day America. She presents example after example of how our national birthright and liberty are being usurped through the slanted economic gaming table by the extremely wealthy to fund adventures in globalization seeking to impose similar conditions on the rest of the world, of which Ehrenreich notes at least half lives on an amount roughly equal to $2 a day. In fact, if one were to tip only 10% for the server who delivers the $150 “Richard Nouveau” burger offered by The Wall Street Burger Shoppe (it's on the bar menu), which is located just across Wall Street from the New York Stock Exchange, that server would have enough to support herself and 6.5 third world survivors for a single day – provided, of course, that she wasn't a resident of New York City, or even the Western World. But for the customer who dines upon it, money’s no object when it comes to showing the other hedge-funders you’ve completely lost touch with reality, right?
There is so much more that Ehrenreich offers as proof this nation has gone insane with greed: employees expected by their bosses to wear adult diapers on the job in order to "improve productivity", military personnel who are going bankrupt while serving tours of active duty, and more than I have space to relate to you. But then, with This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation coming out in print, Barbara Ehrenreich has spared me that chore.
If you care about where America now is in relation to where it used to be, then This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation is highly recommended for your perusal.