Growing up, I remember walking to school in Athens past a statue of President Truman. The statue was a daily reminder of the magnificent nation responsible for, among other things, the Marshall Plan.
Everyone in Greece knew someone who'd left to find a better life in America. That was the phrase everyone associated with America: "a better life."
I was sixteen when I first came to this country, as part of a program called the Experiment in International Living. I spent the summer in York, Pennsylvania, staying with four different families. I went back to Athens and then soon went to Cambridge and London. But part of me remained in America.
When I came to live here in 1980, I knew that this time would be for good -- and that there was no other place I'd rather live. Thirty years later, I still feel that way.
But something went wrong -- terribly wrong -- and put our country on a very dangerous path that threatens to transform us into Third World America.
It's a jarring phrase, I know, one that is deeply contrary to our national conviction that America is the greatest nation on earth -- as well as the richest, the most powerful, the most generous and the most noble. It also doesn't match our day-to-day experience of the country we live in -- where it seems there is, if not a chicken in every pot, then a flat-screen TV on every wall.
So why did I call my new book, which is being released today, Third World America?
For me, it's a warning, a way of saying that if we don't change course -- and quickly -- that could very well be our future.
Wherever I looked, and in so many of the stories we covered on the Huffington Post, I kept seeing all the ways the middle class was getting the short end of the stick.
It was the way that Washington rushed to the rescue of Wall Street but forgot about Main Street. It was the daily drumbeat of depressing statistics: One in five Americans unemployed or underemployed. One in nine families unable to make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans on food stamps.
Upward mobility has always been at the center of the American Dream -- a promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll do well, and your children will have the chance to do even better.
Well, that promise has been broken, and America's middle class is under assault. The American Dream is becoming a nightmare.
What became clear while writing the book is that the decline of the middle class was no accident. Middle-class America didn't suddenly lose its mojo. It was the result of tricks and traps. Tricks in the ways we financed our homes. Traps in the ways credit-card companies used hidden fees and fine print and skyrocketing interest rates to get their hands on our money, driving more and more people into debt.
Here's the bottom line: The fix is in. The game is rigged. The dice are loaded. And it starts in Washington, where special interests run the show -- and where lobbyists outnumber elected officials 26 to 1. Unfortunately, there are no lobbyists for the American Dream.
Our financial system is similarly rigged -- it's become a bad carnival game where the rich always get the grand prize and the average American walks away empty-handed. We've gone from an economy where we make things to an economy where we make things up: default credit swaps, derivatives, CDOs and the like have turned Wall Street into a casino. Actually, a casino is fairer: At least you know the odds going in.
Given this, you might be surprised to hear that writing Third World America ultimately left me feeling hopeful. But it did. It's because, as I was traveling around the country or discovering online sites where people affected by the economic crisis are gathering and connecting (places like HowIGotLaidOff.com, RecessionWire, Project Bounce Back and We've Got Time to Help), I was again and again struck by the resilience, creativity and acts of compassion taking place all across America.
They convinced me that we can turn things around, as long as we demand more from our political and business leaders -- and more, much more, from ourselves.
I'm in no way letting Washington off the hook. Indeed, the last section of the book, which is filled with the specific steps we -- as individuals, as families, and as a country -- need to take to save ourselves from a Third-World future, starts with what must be done to fix a democratic process that is badly broken and to put millions of Americans back to work.
At the same time, this moment in history demands that we stop waiting on others -- especially others living in Washington -- to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times.
There is no doubt: Times are hard. The "new normal" is a punch in the gut, a slap across the face and a pitcher of icy water dumped on our heads. It's a chill running up our national spine.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to shut off the lights, curl up in a ball, and slap a victim sticker on our foreheads? Or are we going to shake off the blows, take a deep breath, hitch up our pants and head back into the fray? Are we going to wallow in despair or rage against the fading of the American Dream?
The preamble of the Constitution starts with "We the People." And we have never needed the active participation of each one of us more urgently than now. We can't save the middle class and keep America a First-World nation without each of us making a personal commitment and taking action -- without each of us doing our part. We can't just sit on the sidelines and complain. It's up to us: We the People.
Americans have always been a positive, forward-looking people. A can-do attitude is part of our cultural DNA. And that mindset is a prerequisite for turning things around. Without it, the seeds of change and innovation will wither in a soil of negativism and defeatism. With it, we can shake off our cynicism and avoid the slow slide to Third World status. As a country, we have an unparalleled track record for marshalling our forces and rising to meet great challenges -- see our response in the wake of Pearl Harbor or the Soviets' launch of Sputnik. It is one of our greatest strengths.
In looking at the leader in the mirror, we are just following that very American urge to take matters into our own hands and get things done. Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." And, in the end, all problem solving is personal. So we have to ask ourselves: What are we going to do to help ourselves -- and one another?
That's why writing Third World America was actually just the beginning of a larger journey, one that continues with our Third World America section, where you can find out more about what you can do to help yourself, help your family, and help make a difference in the lives of others.
It's a place for you to share your stories of struggle and success; a place to connect with others looking to take action; a place to learn about ways you can use your skills, time and money to have a positive impact on those in need.
I'm also going to be traveling around the country for the next few months, speaking about the practical steps we can all take to help each other through the hard times and strengthen our communities. And we are crowdsourcing part of the tour. Click here to find out where I'm going to be speaking and how you can get your group, school, organization or town on the schedule. We've already had dozens of great submissions (see a slideshow of some of them here), so be sure to add yours to the mix.
Winston Churchill reportedly said, "America can always be counted on to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all other possibilities." Well, we have exhausted a hell of a lot of possibilities, and for millions of the unemployed, the underemployed, the ones whose homes have been foreclosed, and the ones who've declared bankruptcy or can't pay their credit card bills, the process has already been deeply painful.
It's time now to do the right things.
Watch this video to learn more about the positive steps we can take to rebuild the middle class and restore the American Dream:
P.S. Fixing America's broken educational system is vital to rescuing America's middle class. And that fix has to start with reforming how we treat our nation's teachers. So be sure and check out this post from Academy-Award winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. His new film, Waiting for Superman, opening later this month, is a devastating look at America's educational system and what needs to be done to turn it around.