Water drips from a leaky roof. The heat brings on a "moldy, rancid odor." A child volunteer is tasked with killing giant roaches. Welcome to the Detroit public school system, which, according to a recent New York Times report, is "run down after years of neglect" and "teetering on the edge of financial collapse." And yet, last Thursday, this was the closest thing to a "good news" story about Michigan on the front page of that newspaper. A companion piece covered the even more dismal "water crisis in the poverty-stricken, black-majority city of Flint," a penny-pinching state "austerity" measure turned public health emergency that has left children there with elevated levels of lead in their blood, putting them at risk of lifelong adverse health effects.
How did it come to this? An America dotted with feral cities left to decay into ruin? Man-made catastrophes spawned by harebrained austerity schemes? A country of crumbling roads, unsafe bridges, failing schools, a woefully neglected mental health system whose ample slack has been taken up by a disastrous criminal justice system? Take your pick when it comes to rotten institutions and rotting infrastructure, since the list goes on and on. Presidential candidates are vowing to "make America great again" or talking about "reigniting" its "promise," but perhaps a counterfeit, sepia-tinged trip to the beginning of the road that got us here isn't really the solution to twenty-first-century America's problems. TomDispatch regular Ann Jones has a different idea. In her latest piece, a joint TomDispatch/Nation article which will appear in print in the new issue of that magazine, Jones takes a welcome detour to a place where welfare isn't a dirty word, the social safety net isn't the preferred place for budget cuts, and axe-wielding children are -- believe it or not -- fostered, not feared: Scandinavia.
A world citizen who has journeyed across Africa, spent years living in the Afghan war zone, and was most recently a Fulbright Fellow in Norway, Jones examines how a couple of Nixon-era decisions led the U.S. down the road to ruin, while Scandinavian nations charted a different course, embracing principles of uplift, equality, and humanity. Yes, some American-esque values seem to be seeping into the Scandinavian scene of late, from the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden to a Danish town attempting to stick it to Muslims by way of pork meatballs in school lunches. But even far-right parties in these Nordic nations champion a robust welfare state and a generous social safety net. So let Jones, an intrepid journalist whose latest book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, is already a classic of Iraq and Afghan War reporting, help explain why Norway, Denmark, and Sweden invariably top global indexes when it comes to affordable housing, education, health, life expectancy, and overall citizen satisfaction, while the United States has ended up with failing cities, crumbling schools, and poisoned water. Nick Turse
American Democracy Down for the Count
Or What Is It the Scandinavians Have That We Don't?
By Ann Jones
Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America's disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.
It's true that they didn't work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren't away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends -- which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.
Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafes unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.
Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America's wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?
Ducking the Subject
One night I tuned in to the Democrats' presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America's crooked version of "casino capitalism" that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to "look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people."
He believes, he added, in "a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires." That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they've worked at producing things for the use of everyone -- not the profit of a few -- so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.
But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, "We are not Denmark." Smiling, she said, "I love Denmark," and then delivered a patriotic punch line: "We are the United States of America." Well, there's no denying that. She praised capitalism and "all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families." She didn't seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.
The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can't get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing "if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent." (As George Carlin said, "The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.")