By Mort Malkin
There was a time the US was rich. We extracted coal from the ground, cut timber from our forests, and caught cod off New England and salmon from Alaska’s waters. We grew corn and wheat on the Great Plains, raised tobacco in North Carolina, made steel in Pittsburgh, autos in Detroit, movies in Hollywood, jokes in the Catskill resort hotels. The US was an exporter of the first order. Our balance of trade was positive, and the Dollar became the standard currency the world around. The US was wealthy in and of itself, and did not need colonies.
The paradigm continued through the day before yesterday. IBM started the electronic revolution, producing the first generations of mainframe computers. Steve Jobs was the first genius behind the Macintosh personal computers. Bill Gates parleyed Microsoft Word programs and public relations sharkery into an embarrassment of billions — he had to form a foundation and give away a few dollars.
Early on, there were warning signs. Despite our rich oil reserves, we were using ever more of the basic black. Trains, boats, and homes that once depended on coal were converted to oil. More cars were on the road, and the new interstates encouraged more truck traffic. Even though there were fewer kerosene lanterns, we were using oil faster than we were pumping it out of the ground. By 1970 the US was at Peak Oil — the point when total production reached its limit and began to decline. But, what could you expect with two powerful iron beasts in every garage. We kept using more oil and producing less ever since.
Connected to Big Oil by the belly button, the Chemical Industry was not declining. Despite Dr. Hubbert and Peak Oil, we entered the era of “miracles through plastic.” First there were nylon, dacron, and polyester for clothing and clotheslines. Then, plastic containers numbers 1 through 6 came into being for food. Not to worry — acid juices and fat containing dairy products are only slightly soluble in the plastic.
At the same time, Cyclopean Chemistry had bigger beasts to burden us with.
A far larger market, for pesticides and herbicides, was just waiting for us so we could start the next agricultural revolution (revulsion?). The trouble was that if a chemical was fatal to the insects, wouldn’t it also be a little toxic to children and pregnant women? CyclopsChem could always use delaying tactics with the USDA and FDA for a few years and then, when the particular chemical became to much of a risk in the US, it could be promoted for use abroad. Why shouldn’t the third world enjoy the benefits of capitalism? DDT had a long run in the 3rd World and Agent Orange was popular in Southeast Asia (courtesy of the Pentagon). You may remember.
Of late, the US balance sheet of assets and liabilities has reversed. We Americans may have more stuff (largely made in Asia ), but we are not rich. Everything is on credit — we are the greatest debtor nation in the world. Further, we are starting to act like a 3rd World country. A recent example from the chemical industry provides a good example: the EU decided that the herbicide atrazine was too risky and was banned, even in Eastern Europe. In 3rd world USA, though, it is still used widely on food crops to suppress weeds. [We certainly don’t want weeds to take away any of the nutrients from our neat rows of Swiss chard and artichokes.]
The same is true of genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy. European farmers and gardeners, several African nations, and many groups of growers in India won’t buy GE seeds from the American agriculture industry. Any packaged products containing GE ingredients sold in Europe must be so labeled. But, the 3rd World US public says little and buys products, half of which contain GE corn oil or high fructose corn syrup. No labeling required in the land of unregulated capitalism.
The political right is proud of America going its own way — they call it American exceptionalism. But, it is more accurate to call it Third World Nationhood. An example is US health care, a de facto privilege of wealth or Congressional employ. Meanwhile, the real 1st World countries consider health care as a right of all citizens. The results tell the tale. Our world rank in infant mortality (a key measure of national health) is around 30th, a few numbers worse than Cuba. Nor do we rank much better on the scale of healthy life expectancy among nations.
The US has lost its number-one-hood in disparate other areas as well. American ingenuity was once so dominant, the words were the definition of each other. Now, they are almost an oxymoron. Wait, there is one place where we excel. The ingenuity of our Wall Street investment banks in creating “derivatives” has been innovative beyond imagination. Only American capitalism — the French call it “sauvage capitalism” — could have created: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, iron butterfly spreads, strangle options, and rolling turbos. All of these derivatives are still unregulated just as are hedge funds and CEO compensation. The US is number one in such creative illusions, dominant enough to bring the world’s economies to the brink. That’s power.
Symptomatic of both financial ingenuity and third worldity is the wide disparity of dollar wealth in the US. The rich are becoming super rich, and the ever larger numbers of the poor are further locked in poverty. It is much the same as the dictatorships and banana republics of the 20th century.