10 Ways America Has Come to Resemble a Banana Republic
In the post-New Deal America of the 1950s and '60s, the idea of the United States becoming a banana republic would have seemed absurd to most Americans. Problems and all, the U.S. had a lot going for it: a robust middle-class, an abundance of jobs that paid a living wage, a strong manufacturing base, a heavily unionized work force, and upward mobility for both white-collar workers with college degrees and blue-collar workers who attended trade school. To a large degree, the nation worked well for cardiologists, accountants, attorneys and computer programmers as well as electricians, machinists, plumbers and construction workers.
In contrast, developing countries that were considered banana republics—the Dominican Republic under the brutal Rafael Trujillo regime, Nicaragua under the Somoza dynasty—lacked upward mobility for most of the population and were plagued by blatant income equality, a corrupt alliance of government and corporate interests, rampant human rights abuses, police corruption and extensive use of torture on political dissidents.
Saying that the U.S. had a robust middle-class in the 1950s and '60s is not to say it was devoid of poverty, which was one of the things Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was vehemently outspoken about. King realized that the economic gains of the post-World War II era need to be expanded to those who were still on the outside of the American Dream looking in. But 50 years after King’s "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963, poverty has become much more widespread in the U.S.—and the country has seriously declined not only economically, but also in terms of civil liberties and constitutional rights.
Here are 10 ways in which the United States has gone from bad to worse, and is looking more and more like a banana republic in 2013.
1. Rising Income Inequality and Shrinking Middle Class
In a stereotypical banana republic, income inequality is dramatic: one finds an ultra-rich minority, a poor majority, a small or nonexistent middle class, and a lack of upward mobility for most of the population. And according to a recent study on income inequality conducted by four researchers (Emmanuel Saez, Facundo Alvaredo, Thomas Piketty and Anthony B. Atkinson), the U.S. is clearly moving in that direction in 2013.
Their report asserted that the U.S. now has the highest income inequality and lowest upward mobility of any country in the developed world. They found that while the picture grows increasingly bleak for American’s embattled middle-class, “the share of total annual income received by the top 1% has more than doubled from 9% in 1976 to 20% in 2011.” And earlier this year, a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD also found that the U.S. now leads the developed industrialized world in income inequality.
2. Unchecked Police Corruption and an Ever-Expanding Police State
Journalist Chris Hedges made an excellent point when he said that brutality committed on the outer reaches of empire eventually migrates back to the heart of empire. Hedges asserted that with the increased militarization of American police, drug raids in the U.S. are now looking like military actions taken by American soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq. And, to be sure, there have been numerous examples of militarized narcotics officers killing innocent people in botched drug raids or sting operations gone wrong.
To make matters worse, narcotics officers who kill innocent people rarely face either civil or criminal prosecution; they essentially operate with impunity. And in addition to the abuses of the war on drugs, the U.S. government has far-reaching powers it did not have prior to 9/11. Between the drug war, the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and warrantless wiretapping, the United States is employing the sorts of tactics that are common in dictatorships.
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported many fascist regimes and banana republics that engaged in torture. But it didn’t openly flaunt such tactics itself. That changed after 9/11. Post-9/11, the U.S. crossed a dangerous line when the CIA used waterboarding on political detainees with the blessing of the George W. Bush administration. Waterboarding and other forms of torture are not only bad interrogation methods that do nothing to decrease or prevent terrorism, they are a blatant violation of the rules of the Geneva Convention. As Amnesty International observed, “In the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism.”
4. Highest Incarceration Rate in the World
According to the London-based International Center for Prison Studies, the U.S. has 716 prisoners per 100,000 residents compared to 114 per 100,000 in Canada, 79 per 100,000 in Germany, 106 per 100,000 in Italy, 82 per 100,000 in the Netherlands or 67 per 100,000 in Sweden. Even Saudi Arabia, which has an incarceration rate of 162 per 100,000, doesn’t imprison nearly as many of its residents as the United States. One of the main reasons the U.S. has such a high incarceration rate is its failed war on drugs, which has emphasized draconian sentences for nonviolent offenses.
The prison industrial complex has become quite a racket. From prison labor to construction companies to companies specializing in surveillance technology, imprisoning people is big business in the United States—and the sizable prison lobby has a major stake in keeping draconian drug laws on the books. Further, the drug war has included harsh asset forfeiture laws that, in essence, place the burden of proof not on the courts, but on people whose assets have been seized.
5. Corrupt Alliance of Big Business and Big Government
Trends forecaster Gerald Celente has asserted that the U.S. has become a “fascist banana republic” and now lives up to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism: the merger of state and corporate power. Celente, a frequent guest on the cable news network RT, has repeatedly said that systemic corruption in the banking sector has not decreased since the financial crash of September 2008 and the bailouts that came after it, it has gotten worse, and too-big-to-fail banks now operate with impunity.
That union of corporate and state power fits Mussolini’s definition of fascism, which was followed by a long list of dictators in banana republics. In a democratic republic, banks and corporations are not above the law; in a banana republic, they are—and with the legislation and reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal (which did a lot to prevent banks and corporations from enjoying unchecked power) having been undermined considerably (most notably, by the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), the U.S. is looking more and more like a banana republic.
6. High Unemployment
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the U.S. decreased to 7.4% in July 2013. But that figure is misleading because it fails to take into account the millions of Americans who have given up looking for work (that is, they have been unemployed for so long the BLS no longer counts them as part of the work force) or workers who have only been able to find temp work.
And according to economist/researcher John Williams, the unemployment crisis in the U.S. is much more dire than the BLS’ 7.4% figure. Williams’ research counts the millions of Americans the BLS excludes, and his newsletter, Shadow Statistics, reported that in June 2013, the U.S.’ actual unemployment rate was a disturbing 23.3% (which is only slightly less than the unemployment rate in 1932). Also, BLS figures don’t take into the account the fact that most of the new jobs created in 2013 have been low-paying service jobs. Clearly, much of the American population is growing poorer while the 1% are doing better than ever.
7. Inadequate Access to Healthcare
The United States continues to be the only developed country that lacks universal healthcare. And since the economic meltdown of September 2008, the number of Americans who lack health insurance has increased. According to a study the Commonwealth Fund conducted in 2012, 55 million Americans lacked health insurance at some point last year—and that 55 million doesn’t even count all of the Americans who are underinsured, meaning that they have gaps in their coverage that could easily result in bankruptcy in the event of a major illness. Americans have some of the highest healthcare expenses in the world but are plagued with much worse outcomes than residents of Canada, Australia, New Zealand or any country in Western Europe. From medical bankruptcies and sky-high premiums to a lack of preventative care, the American healthcare system is a disaster on many levels.
The U.S. took a small step in the direction of universal healthcare with the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, but many proponents of health insurance reform have been quick to point out that it doesn’t go far enough. According to Robert Reich, “Obamacare is an important step, but it still leaves 20 million Americans without coverage.”
8. Dramatic Gaps in Life Expectancy
In many banana republics, it is common knowledge that the poor die much younger than the wealthy minority. The disparity in life expectancy rates dramatically illustrates the severity of the growing rich/poor divide in the United States. Life expectancy for males is 63.9 years in McDowell County, West Virginia compared to 81.6 years in affluent Fairfax County, Virginia or 81.4 in upscale Marin County, Calif. That is especially alarming when one considers that life expectancy for males was 68.2 in Bangladesh in 2012 and 64.3 for males in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, in 2011.
The news for many American women isn’t very good either. According to the United Nations, American women on the whole fell from #14 worldwide in life expectancy in 1985 to #41 in 2010. And in September 2012, the New York Times reported that nationally, life expectancy was down to 67.5 years for the least educated white males compared to 80.4 for more educated white males. The Times also reported that life expectancy was 73.5 years for less educated white females compared to 83.9 for more educated white females.
9. Hunger and Malnutrition
In the 1950s and '60s, hunger was a word one associated with developing countries rather than the United States. But with millions of Americans having slipped into poverty during the current economic downturn, the number of people who are now poor enough to qualify for food stamps has increased from 17 million in 2000 to 47 million in 2013. Only one in 50 Americans received food stamps in the 1970s; now, the number is one in seven.
According to Share Our Strength, 48.8 million Americans now suffer from food insecurity. In 2010, Ariana Huffington came out with a book titled Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. That title was no exaggeration; the U.S. is, as Huffington said, “on a trajectory to become a Third World country,” and the fact that food stamp use has more than doubled since 2000 bears that out.
10. High Infant Mortality
Earlier this year, the organization Save the Children released the results of its 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers Report. The report found that “the United States has the highest first-day death rate in the industrialized world” (babies dying the day they are born) and that the European Union has “only about half as many first-day deaths as the United States: 11,300 in the U.S. vs. 5,800 in EU member countries.”
“Poverty, racism and stress are likely to be important contributing factors to first-day deaths in the United States,” said the report. Save the Children also reported that the U.S. had a rate of three first-day deaths per 1,000 births, the same rate the organization reported for developing countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Peru and Libya. Meanwhile, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Costa Rica were among the Latin American countries that had only two first-day deaths per 1,000 births. So, a baby born in El Salvador or Mexico has a better chance of living to its second day than a baby born in the United States.
What will it take for the United States to reverse its dramatic decline? Robert Reich, in a video released on Labor Day 2013, called for six things: 1) a living wage for more American workers; 2) an earned income tax credit; 3) better childcare for working parents; 4) easier access to good schools and a quality education; 5) universal health insurance; and 6) union rights.
Those are all excellent ideas. The U.S. also should replace the war on drugs with a sane drug policy (something Attorney General Eric Holder recently addressed), abolish the prison industrial complex, rebuild the U.S.’ decaying infrastructure, abolish the Patriot Act and the NDAA, restore the Glass-Steagall Act and break up too-big-to-fail banks. Obviously, accomplishing even a third of these would be an uphill climb. But unless most or all of those steps are taken, the U.S. can look forward to a grim future as a banana republic.
Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications.