Tavis: Always pleased to have Arianna Huffington on this program. She is, of course, the co-founder of “The Huffington Post” and a best-selling author. Her latest text is called “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.” She joins us tonight from New York. Arianna, I hate that you’re not here, but I’m glad to have you back on the program.
Arianna Huffington: Thank you so much, Tavis, great to be with you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, this town hall that everybody’s talking about the president had today, a town hall specifically about the economy, specifically about economic issues. Many of the questions asked raised in that conversation today kind of parallel, kind of mirror what you talk about in “Third World America,” yes?
Huffington: Yes, Tavis, it was really powerful and moving to watch people ask the president questions like one that I have here: “Mr. President, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle class Americans, and quite frankly, I’m exhausted.”
Just that word, “I’m exhausted,” it’s like how middle class Americans are feeling. It’s what I’m trying to capture in the book, that the middle class dream seems exhausted. So many middle class families are now basically facing downward mobility instead of upward mobility, which is the sort of essence of the American dream.
Tavis, as an immigrant, as someone who came to this country as so many others, hoping that we are going to find a better life, and I certainly did, I’m really, really very disturbed by the trajectory we’re on. Clearly we’re not yet a Third World America, but my point, and the reason I’m sounding the alarm, is that as the people at this town hall meeting today, one after the other, were making very clear, if we don’t course-correct quickly, we are going to be a Third World country.
Because for me, the essence of a Third World country is a country without a middle class, a country of extremes.
Tavis: To your point now, let me back up and get some definitions here, because I’m not sure anymore, with all due respect to politicians and authors and others who use this phrase “the middle class,” I’m not so certain, Arianna, I know what the middle class is in America anymore.
Huffington: Well, the middle class really, Tavis, is a matter of self-definition more than anything. It’s a matter of some elementary financial security. Do you feel that you can keep a roof over your head and put food on the table without worrying about it month after month or week after week?
People can use different sociological definitions, but that’s really the key. And of course when we talk about the middle class it doesn’t mean that working people, people who are now living in poverty, as we saw from the latest census numbers, over 14 percent right now, are any less significant or any less worthy of political attention.
The problem about the middle class, and at least there was always a middle class in America. There have always been poor people, but there was always that buffer, there were always people who were really the foundation of American prosperity and American democratic stability.
Tavis: Well, I wonder, though, and I don’t want to pre-judge your answer, but I suspect you’re going to tell me that it’s not about pitting the abject poor against the middle class. I understand we don’t want to pit these two categories, these two groups, against each other, but I wonder, having said that, the conversation really ought to be about the middle class as opposed to the very poor.
I’ve said many times that during those three presidential debates between Obama and McCain, the word “poverty,” as the economy was tanking, the word poverty never came up once. The president now, respectfully, still doesn’t ever – I shouldn’t say ever, but almost never uses the word poverty.
So we’re talking about the middle class, and I appreciate the text, but these numbers you referenced a moment ago from the Census Bureau last week, poverty is at the highest in this country now in 15 years, and with all due respect, we’re still talking about the middle class. Nobody’s talking about the very poor in this country.
Huffington: Well, I talk about them a lot in the book, because we don’t just have the people who’ve been poor for years. We also have now the new poor, the formerly middle class. So it’s not about pitting one class against the other, it’s really about recognizing that we are all in this together.
Frankly, even the very rich, even those who no matter what will be able to be rich, would they want to live in a Third World America, where they are living behind gates, with security guards with guns protecting their kids from kidnapping? Would they want to become Mexico or Brazil?
That’s not the America of our dreams. So what I’m saying in the book, Tavis, is that as well as having a real, robust debate about what government should do, we also need to recognize that we all have a responsibility to do our part and rebuild our communities and rebuild our lives, beginning with rebuilding our own financial literacy so we can move our own family onto safer financial ground.
Because this is financial warfare. The credit card companies, the mortgage companies that have been offering us, supposedly, a ticket to the good life, are really filling their contracts with tricks and traps, charging usury rates, 28, 29, 30 percent on our credit cards, and basically undermining the very idea of the American dream.
Tavis: So even if the American people were to get your message in “Third World America” loud and clear and the folk in Washington were not to get it – and obviously they’re tone-deaf at the moment; they’ve got a tin ear at the moment – so what does it mean if Washington doesn’t ever get this?
Huffington: Well, you know what, Tavis? That’s a fantastic question, because I’m not letting government off the hook and I have a whole list of things that I believe government should do, starting with bringing a sense of urgency to the problem of joblessness, to the problem of foreclosures, to the problem of bankruptcies.
But at the same time, documentary is not a spectator sport, and you cannot just sit by the sidelines and wait for government to save us. So what I love – and if your viewers are only going to read one chapter of this book, I want them to read chapter five, because it’s all about solutions. It’s about what we can do.
It’s about us beginning to move our money from big banks, beginning to tap into our own resilience, and also doing something for others. I’ve been so inspired by what people are going, the creativity and the compassion that they are bringing to the problems we are facing, ranging from lawyers who have lost their jobs in Philadelphia who are coming together to help people avoid foreclosures, to a concierge in Portland, Oregon who lost his job, has filed over 500 job applications, still has time on his hands, so he actually created a site called WeveGotTimeToHelp.org, and he’s helped hundreds of people move from an apartment, provide childcare – whatever it is.
Imagine if we have an explosion of that kind of giving. Not only are we going to be able to start solving problems at the community level, but also people who are losing jobs, who are losing homes and who are therefore moving into a depression will be able to recognize that they can still contribute, they can still have a meaningful life, while at the same time trying to get a job.
Tavis: While I’ve got you here, let me ask you about some other issues that are in the news that all connect back to this book beyond the town hall meeting on the economy the president had earlier today. In no particular order, these Bush tax cuts – what will, or what should, happen?
Huffington: Well, it is absurd, Tavis, that at a time like this we’re even debating extending tax cuts to those making more than $250,000 a year. It’s also so hypocritical, coming from Republicans who are deficit hogs, to suddenly be completely cavalier about adding $700 billion to the deficit.
That’s really the disconnect in the Republican proposals, which are laughable. But while we have laughable Republican proposals, we unfortunately have inadequate Democrat ones. As Lord George, the British prime minister said, you cannot jump across a chasm in two leaps. That’s what we tried to do with the stimulus bill; we tried to actually solve the joblessness problem and the foreclosure problem with measures that were inadequate.
Tavis: I’m on “The Huffington Post” every day reading it, so I know that “The Huffington Post” had pieces up regularly talking about why Elizabeth Warren should have gotten the position as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
She got an appointment from the president, we all know, just days ago. The way he went about doing that has caused some consternation and some concern. Your assessment on the position that she now has, which is not the head of that bureau, so to speak?
Huffington: Well, I am actually very optimistic about this appointment. She is not the permanent head; she’s the interim head, which has advantages, because it recognizes the urgency of the problem.
So instead of sidelining her, going through a lengthy confirmation process, she can start working right now because of a clause in the bill that allows that to happen. She’s also going to be direct adviser to the president, and this, Tavis, happened over the objections of his economic advisers – Larry Summers, his Treasury secretary Tim Geithner.
So finally he’s doing something against what they want, and that’s really good, because one of the problems with the White House has been the way that they have really been listening to Summers and Geithner, whose view of the world is very Wall Street-centric, and they really believe that if you save Wall Street everything else will be all right, and it turned out to be not the case at all.
Tavis: The new book from Arianna Huffington is called “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.” She is, of course, the co-founder of “The Huffington Post.”
Huffington: And in fact, Tavis, I would love to invite your viewers to come to our special section of “Third World America” on “Huffpost” and share their stories of struggle and overcoming obstacles, because by finding each other and connecting with each other we have a much better chance of solving these problems.
Tavis: I’m sure the viewers will take you up on that. Arianna, always good to have you on this program.
Huffington: Thank you, Tavis.
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