Third World, Here We Come

Susan J. Douglas

How, like, totally embarrassing. In the wake of the big blackout, critics charged that the United States has a “Third World” power grid. Third World! News stories featured Iraqis giving us advice about how to survive with zero or, at best, intermittent power. Now we’re hearing how our roads, bridges, and water pipes are also “Third World,” while we struggle to rid our computers of worms and viruses.

But here’s what’s been missing from these stories: this is Team Bush’s overarching goal (well, in addition to bullying the entire planet)—to turn the United States into a Third World country. There will be a hill someplace, as there are in so many developing countries, where Bush and his 122 really rich friends will live in a gated compound. Down below will be everyone else. Roosevelt had his New Deal, Johnson The Great Society, and Team Bush has Third World Wonderland. Ah, utopia.

Now, here’s my hunch. Someone in the White House—my guess is Dubya himself—has looked at certain world rankings, seen how various Third Worlders are beating us out on the immiseration front, and said, “Dammit, we can do better than that!” I mean, really, this can be the only explanation for why, in the wake of 9/11, Bush and the House Republicans nixed an energy bill that would have provided funds for upgrading said electrical grid. (I know, they wanted to drill in Alaska, but that’s part of Third World dreamin’—trash whatever open acreage you have left.)

Take rates of deforestation as a start. By the late 1990s, Brazil was the world’s top deforester (not without help from major U.S. interests), followed by Indonesia and Bolivia. We weren’t even in the top 40! Worse than that, the United States between 1990 and 1995 was the world’s top reforester. Team Bush can’t have that: time to turn all our parks and wilderness areas over to the logging interests and call it a “healthy forests” initiative, just like Idi Amin might have done. The news is even more hopeful when you get to water pollution: in emissions of organic pollutants, only China beats us—we beat India! With the just-leaked news that Team Bush plans to allow thousands of older power plants, factories and oil refineries to upgrade without installing any new anti-pollution devices, we can get there from here. We can!

Then there’s education. Are we really going to let Niger rank number one as the least literate country with the lowest enrollment in primary schools? (Thinking that our foreign aid money could help such countries educate their kids instead of using it to launch wars is so “New Frontier.” Team Bush says, “If you won’t help them, join them.”)

Dismantling Head Start as a federal program would help us catch up. Only three out of five preschoolers who are eligible for Head Start can get in the program anyway, so it won’t take much to get the number down to zero. Terminating after-school programs that serve 500,000 kids is also crucial to moving up in the rankings, so Bush is all over this one. And with so many of the states laying off teachers and shortening the school year, we may soon be able to give Kuwait and Uzbekistan a run for their money.

But why, asks Team Bush, should our kids be only inadequately educated when they could be poor and unnecessarily sick too, like in Zambia? The child poverty rate is on the rise again, and in some U.S. counties, three out of five kids are poor. In some cities, 40 percent of kids are poor (you’d think it of Brownsville, Texas, but not Providence, Rhode Island.) Team Bush knows how to move this along—cut Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in America. Our child poverty rate now exceeds that of Turkey.

We aren’t going to stop there, are we? What about infant mortality, a great index of Third Worldism? In 2001, our rates were worse than those of South Korea, Slovenia, Malta, Singapore and Greece. We can improve on this, too, if more people lose—or never get—health insurance, and if we slash prenatal care for poor women even more.

But the true mark of a Third World country is that it is run by a small, wealthy elite, has barely any middle class, and tons of poor people. By 2000, the 400 wealthiest taxpayers had seen their income quadruple since 1992, while their tax burden plummeted. But there are still too many middle class people around. Not to worry—maybe Team Bush can privatize Social Security, a ton of pension funds, and Medicare can be “privatized.” Or, hell, just do them in, while eliminating estate taxes on the rich. And 2.5 million jobs have already evaporated under the Third World Wonderland plan. Why let Colombia hog the number-one spotlight with lowest percent of the population in the workforce?

Third World countries also often have few civil rights, limited free speech, and high police surveillance of dissidents and intellectuals. Thankfully we have John Ashcroft to handle that side of things.

So let’s not hear anymore shocked discussion about our “Third World” power grid when it is clearly part of a grander, bolder vision. Just think of where we can be 20 years from now, even 10, if we can have the infant mortality rate of Afghanistan, the unemployment rate of Macedonia, the nitrogen oxide emissions of Mexico City, the infectious disease rate of Ecuador, and, yes, a power grid just like the one we’ve helped make in Iraq.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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