"Like Déjà Vu All
June 9, 2003
ERNEST HEMINGWAY once wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The novel is one of the classics of the American literary tradition, in part because it reveals so much about American character and American values.
Early in Twain’s novel, the young boy, Huck Finn, and his friend, Tom Sawyer, decide they will try to become robbers. One day Tom readies an attack on a fabulously wealthy caravan. But when they charge, Huck recounts, “There warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic.”
So Huck asks Tom what happened to the caravan, and Tom has a ready answer. “He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.”
Twain’s narrative reveals much about the current administration in Washington. On 20 March the American nation went to war, supposedly to counter the threat posed by Iraq’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. But during the conflict and in the aftermath of victory, searches throughout Iraq failed to turn up a single instance of such weapons. Thinking back to Twain’s episode, it feels, as the American baseball player Yogi Berra once said in a maladroit statement that has become famous, “like déjà vu all over again”. Though no one would posit a relation between the brutal Saddam Hussein and a peaceful Sunday school class, the parallel between President George W Bush and Tom Sawyer is a bit close for comfort.
In Mark Twain’s novel Tom is an innocent, merely playing games, although later in the novel the cost of his games turns heavy for the enslaved Jim, since one of those games derails Jim’s flight to freedom and leaves him physically injured in the process.
President George Bush, on the other hand, is no innocent. In a carefully stage-managed event, the President “enchanted” the nation on 1 May by landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, where, flight-suited, he raised his arms aloft and declared victory in Iraq. Photographers snapped, the television cameras rolled, and the sun shone brightly on the successful Chief Executive.
Instead of that magicianship, the President might have addressed something other: the catastrophe lurking in the rising American unemployment rate, which stood at 4.1 per cent when he took office and stands at six per cent today.
For that same 1 May marked something else besides a victory in Iraq. Almost totally unreported in the USA, the day set a low-water mark in the history of American manufacturing employment. When the President was inaugurated in January 2001 there were 18,291,000 manufacturing jobs in the USA. By 1 May, when he landed on the deck of that aircraft carrier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, that the number had dropped to 16,251,000. Even boyish Tom Sawyer could do the math. In the presidency of George Bush, over two million US manufacturing jobs were lost. Eleven per cent of US manufacturing jobs dissolved in just over half a presidential term.
Clearly, the President was not about to declare himself the magician who had made the jobs disappear. He preferred a different role, the enchanter transforming devastation at home into victory in Iraq. The President who had promised to build a stronger US economy now, aboard the USS Lincoln, promised “to rebuild Iraq” instead.
Manufacturing jobs are well-paying jobs. They have provided generations of Americans, especially those without a college education, a way into the middle class. In a recent study, economist Lori Kletzer found two-thirds of the workers who lose such jobs earn less in their next job, with one fourth earning over 30 per cent less.
Increasingly, it looks like the USA will be a split-level nation: one tier of high paid workers like lawyers and accountants, another of low paid service workers, people earning the minimum wage for stocking the shelves at the discount store Wal-Mart or changing the linen in a local motel.
Surprisingly to many, the movement of jobs has not been the unalloyed good for the developing world, as was predicted. While per person income in Latin America rose by 75 per cent in the two decades from 1960 to 1980, in the era of free trade during two decades from 1980 to 2000, it rose by only seven per cent. In Africa, per person income has declined by 15 per cent in the last 20 years.
Although the situation is better in South Asia, South Asia is one of the two areas of the world (Latin America is the other) which have a current account deficit, meaning more money flows out of the region, and to the developed world, than flows in. India’s current account deficit in 2000 was $2.9 billion, or 0.6 per cent of its GDP; Pakistan’s was $2.2 billion, or 3.6 per cent of its GDP.
The two-tiered economy is entrenched in much of the developing world, in imitation of the developed world déjà vu all over again. There are still 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day a figure that has diminished by only 200 million in the past 20 years. Globally, inequality is increasing. In 1960 the richest 20 per cent of the world earned 30 times as much as the poorest 20 per cent; by 1994 that disparity had risen to 78 times as much. In 1980 median income in the richest 10 per cent of countries was 77 times greater than in the poorest 10 per cent; by 1999 that gap had grown to 122 times. According to a recent study by economist Branko Milanovic, the wealthiest one per cent of the world’s citizens get as much income as the bottom 87 per cent less than 50 million wealthy people getting as much as 2.7 billion poor people.
But back to the USA, where President Bush has neither acknowledged nor addressed the grievous loss of manufacturing jobs. His main economic initiative has been a tax reduction package, which according to recent figures gives 29 per cent of the tax benefits to the richest one per cent of Americans more than the entire bottom 80 per cent will get. That works out to 74 million households getting a tax cut of $100 or less, while those families with $1 million in investment and salary income will get a cut of $93,500. The rich getting richer, the poor getting nothing this too is déjà vu all over again.
Ever the enchanter, the US President, responded to such figures by claiming they were merely partisan wordplay. “Oh, you’ll hear the talk about how this plan only helps the rich people. That’s just typical Washington DC political rhetoric, is what that is. That’s just empty rhetoric.”
Huck Finn was not, as Tom Sawyer claimed, a “numskull”. He had it exactly right: when enchanted, the thing to do is “go for the magicians”. Americans need to see through the “magic” of Mr Bush, who tries to substitute war in Iraq in place of addressing problems at home. Citizens of the world need to see Mr Bush as a “magician” as well, one who substitutes manufactured crises in place of addressing the problems that beset the developing world.
Huck Gutman, who teaches at the University of Vermont, was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University.