The first 165 pages of Arianna Huffington's latest book, Third World America, read as a catalog of horrors, documenting in grim detail all the ways that America is in decline. Rising joblessness, declining middle class, lost manufacturing base, corporate tax cheats, fraying infrastructure, cratering housing market these are all spelled out in chapters that can read like someone is beating you up with bad news.
But Huffington says her purpose is the opposite: to offer a message of hope. In an interview with TIME, she focused on the last 68 pages, in which she lays out a combination of liberal legislation and psychological rebirth that she believes will get the nation back on track. She also has some choice words for President Obama. I began the interview by asking her about the hopelessness I felt after finishing the first half of the book. She told me to keep reading:
A.H.:There is an enormous amount that we can actually do to help each other. That's why I focus on what people are doing in their own communities people who are unemployed, people who have lost their homes, and yet they find it in themselves to reach out and do amazing things for others.
M.S.: You talk about "Hope 2.0." Your criticism is that people were imbued with too much hope in the political process and in Obama in 2008, and in fact they have to direct their energies elsewhere. Is that a fair summary?
Yes. Obviously we need to continue pressuring our elected officials to do the right thing. But that is not enough, especially given what has happened in the last year and a half. It is very clear that we can't just delegate all of our compassion and caring to government and expect it to solve all the problems. That's why I have some very specific steps on what people can do, and it begins with tapping into our own resilience. The truth is that some people are completely crushed by the economic crisis losing a job or losing a home. And some people discover parts of themselves they never thought they had, and re-evaluate their lives in very different ways.
How much of the misery that you catalog here do you see as malpractice by leadership in government, corporations and other places?
There was definitely malpractice that was going on for 30 years and finally the chickens have come home to roost, and the malpractice had to do with all the tricks and traps in ways we basically expected to finance our lives. We were led to believe that the fine print in our credit card or our mortgage contract was not really undermining what the ads were saying. That's why my second step is financial literacy, as Elizabeth Warren has been saying. What has happened is that even when the crisis took place the priority of our elected officials was saving Wall Street and not Main Street.
You are very critical of the President in a few places, but particularly on that score. He would argue that the reason he made those decisions was that he had to save Wall Street in order to save Main Street. Why do you think he made those decisions?
First of all, personnel is policy, and he picked the people with a very Wall Streetcentered view of the world Larry Summers, Tim Geithner. And the truth is, sure they could have saved Wall Street, but with strings attached, with clear indications of what they had to do in turn to save Main Street. But there were no strings attached. As I say in the book, this is beyond left and right. People who are strict capitalists recognize that this is basically undermining the free-enterprise capitalist system, which is based on the assumption that if you take excessive risk and make bad decisions, you pay the price, and they have not paid the price.
You argue for a lot of additional spending more government hiring, a national infrastructure bank. You also, however, mention issues of debt and deficit. Are we not now at the brink where we need to worry about how much we are spending?
Well, we have to worry, but we can't worry about it while the economy is on a downward trend. We have to recognize that we first have to provide jobs. The President has said that again and again. He said in the State of the Union that it was his highest priority, but where is the jobs summit? Where is the "Let's throw everything against the wall to create jobs"? Remember, the mind-set during the meltdown was "Let's all come together; we cannot let this happen," right? And they didn't know what was going to work, so they threw everything against the wall and they saved the financial system. I have never seen this urgency in saving the middle class. As a result, what we are facing now is a crumbling middle class, which is the foundation not just of American prosperity but of American democratic stability.