09.11.10

America's Real Problem: We Failed the Middle Class

In an excerpt from her new book, Third World America, Arianna Huffington argues that despite her dire assessment of the state of America’s middle class we’re still innovative enough to overcome our problems.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that the wheels are coming off our national wagon, I believe deeply that America can still accomplish great things: that our greatness is not necessarily a thing of the past—indeed, that our best days can still lie ahead of us.

I realize that coming after the litany of all the ways America is falling apart, this might sound overly optimistic. Or delusional. Or the result of hitting the ouzo in despair. I understand that the initial response to the first four parts of this book might be to walk onto one of our crumbling bridges and contemplate jumping off.

But that’s not how the American psyche works. We’ve always been a positive, forward-looking people. A can-do attitude is part of our cultural DNA. And that mind-set is a prerequisite for turning things around. Without it, the seeds of change and innovation will wither in a soil that is an arid mix of negativism and defeatism. With it, we can shake off our cynicism and avoid the slow slide to Third World status.

As a country, we have an unparalleled track record for marshalling our forces and rising to meet great challenges. It is one of our greatest strengths. After Pearl Harbor, America’s naval force was decimated. But just three years later, as John Kao points out in his book Innovation Nation, “America had a hundred aircraft carriers fully armed with new planes, pilots, tactics, and escort ships, backed by new approaches to logistics, training methods, aircraft plants, shipyards, and women workers” along with “such game-changing innovations as the B-29... and nuclear fission.”

We had a similar reaction to the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik. “We responded with massive funding for education,” writes Kao, “revamped school curricula in science and math, and launched a flurry of federal initiatives that eventually put Neil Armstrong in position to make his ‘giant leap for mankind.’”

If the middle class is to thrive and continue to be the backbone of America, we need to create the conditions that will allow these dreams to flourish—and our country to move forward in wiser ways.

President Obama captured this essential part of the American character when he announced the kickoff of his Educate to Innovate campaign—a nationwide effort to move American students back to the top in science and math education. “This nation wasn’t built on greed,” he said. “It wasn’t built on reckless risk. It wasn’t built on short-term gains and shortsighted policies. It was forged on stronger stuff, by bold men and women who dared to invent something new or improve something old—who took big chances on big ideas, who believed that in America all things are possible.”

Many economists and historians are warning that our economic downturn has created a new normal—that the country will never be the same. Things are, of course, going to be different. But that doesn’t mean that they are predestined to be worse.

book-cover---third-world-america
Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. By Arianna Huffington. Crown. 288 pages. $23.99. ()

However, if we don’t get serious about the crises we face, they will be. America is rich with resources—both natural and human. “America—with its open, free, no-limits, immigration-friendly society—is still the world’s greatest dream machine,” says Tom Friedman. “The Apple iPod may be made in China, but it was dreamed up in America.”

We must stop squandering these resources. If the middle class is to thrive and continue to be the backbone of America, we need to create the conditions that will allow these dreams to flourish—and our country to move forward in wiser ways.

“You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps,” said World War I-era British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. And you can’t cross it in a series of little steps either. Instead, we have to reconnect with our bold national identity and once again take “big chances on big ideas.”

Stopping our descent into Third World status won’t be easy. It will take daring initiatives from both the private and public sectors—supercharged with an infusion of personal responsibility.

Excerpted from Third World America: How Our Politicians are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the America Dream. Copyright @ 2010 by Arianna Huffington. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

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Arianna Huffington is the co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of 12 books. She is also co-host of Left, Right & Center .