How America Became a Third World Country (Kramer & Comerford)

Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford write at Tomdispatch:

The streets are so much darker now, since money for streetlights is rarely available to municipal governments. The national parks began closing down years ago. Some are already being subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. Reports on bridges crumbling or even collapsing are commonplace. The air in city after city hangs brown and heavy (and rates of childhood asthma and other lung diseases have shot up), because funding that would allow the enforcement of clean air standards by the Environmental Protection Agency is a distant memory. Public education has been cut to the bone, making good schools a luxury and, according to the Department of Education, two of every five students won’t graduate from high school.

It’s 2023 — and this is America 10 years after the first across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration went into effect.  They went on for a decade, making no exception for effective programs vital to America’s economic health that were already underfunded, like job training and infrastructure repairs. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Traveling back in time to 2013 — at the moment the sequester cuts began — no one knew what their impact would be, although nearly everyone across the political spectrum agreed that it would be bad. As it happened, the first signs of the unraveling which would, a decade later, leave the United States a third-world country, could be detected surprisingly quickly, only three months after the cuts began. In that brief time, a few government agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), after an uproar over flight delays, requested — and won — special relief.  Naturally, the Department of Defense, with a mere $568 billion to burn in its 2013 budget, also joined this elite list. On the other hand, critical spending for education, environmental protection, and scientific research was not spared, and in many communities the effect was felt remarkably soon.

Robust public investment had been a key to U.S. prosperity in the previous century. It was then considered a basic part of the social contract as well as of Economics 101. As just about everyone knew in those days, citizens paid taxes to fund worthy initiatives that the private sector wouldn’t adequately or efficiently supply. Roadways and scientific research were examples. In the post-World War II years, the country invested great sums of money in its interstate highways and what were widely considered the best education systems in the world, while research in well-funded government labs led to inventions like the Internet. The resulting world-class infrastructure, educated workforce, and technological revolution fed a robust private sector.

Austerity Fever

In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a set of manufactured arguments for “austerity,” which had been gaining traction for decades, captured the national imagination. In 2011-2012, a Congress that seemed capable of doing little else passed trillions of dollars of what was then called “deficit reduction.” Sequestration was a strange and special case of this particular disease.  These across-the-board cuts, instituted in August 2011 and set to kick in on January 2, 2013, were meant to be a storm cloud hanging over Congress. Sequestration was never intended to take effect, but only to force lawmakers to listen to reason — to craft a less terrible plan to reduce deficits by a wholly arbitrary $1.2 trillion over 10 years. As is now common knowledge, they didn’t come to their senses and sequestration did go into effect. Then, although Congress could have cancelled the cuts at any moment, the country never turned back.

It wasn’t that cutting federal spending at those levels would necessarily have been devastating in 2013, though in an already weakened economy any cutbacks would have hurt. Rather, sequestration proved particularly corrosive from the start because all types of public spending — from grants for renewable energy research and disadvantaged public schools to HIV testing — were to be gutted equally, as if all of it were just fat to be trimmed. Even monitoring systems for possible natural disasters like river flooding or an imminent volcanic eruption began to be shut down.  Over time the cuts would be vast: $85 billion in the first year and $110 billion in each year after that, for more than $1 trillion in cuts over a decade on top of other reductions already in place.

Once lawmakers wrote sequestration into law they had more than a year to wise up. Yet they did nothing to draft an alternate plan and didn’t even start pointing out the havoc-to-come until just weeks before the deadline. Then they gave themselves a couple more months — until March 1, 2013 — to work out a deal, which they didn’t.  All this is, of course, ancient history, but even a decade later, the record of folly is worth reviewing.

If you remember, they tweeted while Rome burned. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for instance, sent out dozens of tweets to say Democrats were responsible: “The president proposed sequester, had 18 mo. to prioritize cuts, and did nothing,” he typically wrote, while he no less typically did nothing. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted back: “It’s not too late to avert the damaging #sequester cuts, for which an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted.” And that became the pattern for a decade of American political gridlock, still not broken today.

Destruction Begins

March 1st came and went, so the budgetary axe began to fall.

At first, it didn’t seem so bad. Yes, the cuts weren’t quite as across the board as expected. The meat industry, for example, protested because health inspector furloughs would slow its production lines, so Congress patched the problem and spared those inspectors. But meat production aside, there was a sense that the cuts might not be so bad after all.

They were to be doled out based on a formula for meeting the arbitrary target of $85 billion in reductions in 2013, and no one knew precisely what would happen to any given program. In April, more than a month after the cuts had begun, the White House issued the president’s budget proposal for the following year, an annual milestone that typically included detailed information about federal spending in the current year. But across thousands of pages of documents and tables, the new budget ignored sequestration, and so reported meaningless 2013 numbers, because even the White House couldn’t say exactly what impact these cuts would have on programs and public investment across the country.

As it happened, they didn’t have to wait long to find out. The first ripples of impact began to spread quickly indeed. Losing some government funding, cancer clinics in New Mexico and Connecticut turned away patients. In Kentucky, Oregon, and Montana, shelters for victims of domestic violence cut services. In New York, Maryland, and Alabama, public defenders were furloughed, limiting access to justice for low-income people. In Illinois and Minnesota, public school teachers were laid off. In Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi, Head Start shortened the school year, while in Kansas and Indiana, some low-income children simply lost access to the program entirely. In Alaska, a substance abuse clinic shut down. Across the country, Meals on Wheels cut four million meals for seniors in need.

Only when the FAA imposed furloughs on its air traffic controllers did public irritation threaten to boil over. Long lines and airport delays ensued, and people were angry. And not just any people — people who had access to members of Congress.  In a Washington that has gridlocked the most routine business, lawmakers moved at a breakneck pace, taking just five days to pass special legislation to solve the problem. To avoid furloughs and shorten waits for airline passengers, they allowed the FAA to spend funds that had been intended for long-term airport repairs and improvements.

Flights would leave on time — at least until runways cracked and crumbled.  (You undoubtedly remember the scandal of 2019 at Cincinnati International Airport, when a bright young candidate for Senate met her demise in a tragic landing mishap.)

And then, of course, the Pentagon asked for an exemption, too. We’re talking about the military behemoth of planet Earth, which in 2013 accounted for 40% of military spending globally, its outlays exceeding the next 10 largest militaries combined.  It, too wanted a special exemption for some of its share of the cutbacks.

Meat inspectors, the FAA, and the Department of Defense enjoyed special treatment, but the rest of the nation was, as the history books recount, not so lucky. Children from middle-class and low-income families saw ever fewer resources at school, closing doors of opportunity. The young, old, and infirm found themselves with dwindling access to basic resources such as health care or even a hot dinner. Federal grants to the states dried up, and there was less money in state budgets for local priorities, from police officers to lowly streetlights.

And remember that, just as the sequestration cuts began, carbon concentration in the atmosphere breached 400 parts per million.  (Climate scientists had long been warning that the level should be kept below 350 for human security.) Unfortunately, as with the groundbreaking research that led to the Internet, it takes money to do big things, and the long-term effects of cutting environmental protection, general research, and basic infrastructure meant that the U.S. government would do little to stem the extreme weather that has, in 2023, become such a part of our world and our lives.

Looking back from a country now eternally in crisis, it’s clear that a Rubicon was crossed back in 2013. There was then still a chance to reject across-the-board budget cuts that would undermine a nation built on sound public investment and shared prosperity. At that crossroads, some fought against austerity. Losing that battle, others argued for a smarter approach: close tax loopholes to raise new revenue, or reduce waste in health care, or place a tax on carbon, or cut excessive spending at the Pentagon. But too few Americans — with too little influence — spoke up, and Washington didn’t listen.  The rest of the story, as you well know, is history.

Mattea Kramer is Research Director at National Priorities Project, where Jo Comerford is Executive Director. Both are TomDispatch regulars.  They wrote A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

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Copyright 2013 Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford

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5 Responses

  1. And I thought the the USA was a third world country. From what I have seen lately, the USA is turning into a fanatical religious state, specially anointed by their god.

    I am sorry to say, the USA is not the hallmark of liberty and freedom that it once was, rather a harsh police stated, with inbred racism and cronyism. The law is for the rich and powerful and the poor are mere surfs for fanatical pseudo religious ruling class, who believe in the divine right to be wealthy.

    I mourn for the passing of the America i used to know and shudder at what it has become.

    • I would say that the cultural third-worldism you are talking about led pretty directly to the physical third-worldism that is coming about around us.

      Back when the rich could get away with murder, they demanded the short-term benefits of running an unregulated boom-and-bust economy whose deflationary cycles kept the poor in tenements and shanties, kept their children hungry (which we now know lowers adult IQ), and maintained college education as a private club for their own brats only. Empirically, the rich were better off after they were forced by the effects of their ’29 Crash to share power with the masses; infrastructure spending, the GI Bill, child nutrition programs, etc actually gave the rich big long-term benefits in getting better workers and consumers. But the rich will only pursue long-term benefits when they are forbidden from pursing short-term benefits. So regaining their ancient power over government has restored the characteristics of Gilded Age America. Except, of course, that on the other end of the imperial curve we now have huge military commitments that some of the rich refuse to give up to make their neo-Victorianism consistent. And now the rich don’t even need to build factories in the US because modern capital is so mobile and Asia is so ready thanks to its educated, high-savings citizenry.

      So I guess we now live in the worst of all worlds.

  2. ‘Twould be interesting if the United States ever became a “Third World” country, given that it would have fallen from the “First World” to that of a non-aligned nation.*/** The suggestion that a “Third World” nation is not advanced has much to do with how post-WW2 nations not part of the “First” or “Second Worlds” were viewed as ideological (or illogical) battlegrounds. Ideologies became the defining factor for division and categorisation, not necessarily economic or technological standing, however coincidental. If that had been the case, various and many parts of each of the “First” and “Second Worlds” would have qualified as being “Third World,” most notably rural communities that had a lack of priority for electrification, telephonication, transportation, and other “modern” advances.
    We might view the United States as the premier and primary country in terms of revolution, always at the ready to transform itself in terms of how it sees itself and changes accordingly. The unfortunate thing about revolutions is that they are unpredictable, making planning and programming difficult even in the best of times with the best of minds. Various plans and programmes are thought to be viable and worth investment, and, upon maturation, they appear to have been juvenile at best. This is – of course – the curse of youthful thinking for all times and places.
    We can see this at work each and every day in the market place with each passing fad, every retail outlet representing merely unused garbage and unrecyclable waste. Nevertheless, people are caused to voice their approval for an almost unlimited number of choices, as much for kinds of toothpaste as for social and national programmes as for ideas that consume the fruits of peoples’ labours, their values and incomes, susceptible to becoming negative. Thus, power projection is based on this sort of attitude about Life, that of attempting to force the experiences and experiments of change upon others, near and far, hither and yon, here and there … everywhere. As the little breathless kid (the paradigm of the consumer mentality) on the AT&T commercial makes clear: everything is about more. Even the odd fellow who is the group leader (and paradigm for learning and wisdom) has no insights to offer beyond encouraging behaviours that avoid intelligent and deliberate thinking and acting.
    The United States as a “Third World”country? One can only dream! As nonaligned, the country as a whole can turn inward to solve its most pressing problems rather than projecting them onto others who fail to understand their significance, first, and, second, to have any need for them. The Trillion$ spent on World dominance can be retained at home to make a country that is truly something of which to be proud, at which others can marvel and try to emulate. Creating havoc in neighbours’ properties only causes the perpetrators to assume responsibility for any adverse outcomes, rendering the initiators increasingly impotent at home before becoming so abroad. The next phase of the American Revolution should be interesting … removing all of the negative values and deficits of wisdom, allowing a more mature and responsible introspection and outlook.


  3. The USA is actually two countries …

    ~75% of the population, living on less than 25% of the land, is fairly progressive and not religious.

    ~25% of the population, living on ~75% of the land is mostly white, racist, fake religious (complete hypocrites), socially conservative and losing power fast.

    The basic problem is the Constitution and subsequent rules in congress were written to allow the regressive minority to set the agenda. This was somewhat OK while everyone in congress was willing to negotiate compromise. Now the minority is seeing their power being taken away so they have decided to use a scorched earth policy to hang on as long as possible. As the Boomers die off, the minority power base will rapidly shrink.

    The majority has been slow to respond to the power grab from the minority, partially because of delusional disbelief (witness Harry Reid actually swallowing the BS from the republicans about the filibuster).

    Because power constantly shifts around the globe and in countries, I am somewhat optimistic that eventually the majority will get control back and many of the worst problems caused by the minority will get fixed.

    Note that California has finally neutered the republicans and the state is on its way to fiscal health with adequate services for most citizens.

  4. While the whole “first world” versus “third world” categorization has its own problems and issues, I would like to thank Prof. Juan Cole for providing an independent and informed perspective on American politics and socio-economics, as well as of the Middle East. Akhtar H. Emon

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