Surviving in Third-World America

Do you ever get tired of hearing that the U.S. is the only western industrialized country that (doesn’t have handgun control/doesn’t have a national health care program/has an infant mortality rate over __%/imprisons more than __% of its citizens/pick one)? After hearing so many of the pronouncements indicating that we trail the industrial West in good stuff and lead them in bad stuff, are you starting to wonder whether the U.S. really is a western industrialized nation any more? Is it possible that we’ve become, or are at least well on the way to becoming, a Third World country? After all, we are no longer the world’s wealthiest nation, nor its healthiest, nor its best educated. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer marking the boundary of the First World, maybe we are. And how long will it be before we mark that boundary from the wrong side?

I’m willing to leave the geopolitical and macroeconomic implications of all that to the politicians. What concerns me is what concerns just about any ordinary person–how to make it from day to day in a Third Wold, or nearly Third World, country. Obviously, the best way to research this question is to ask people who’ve done it, more or less successfully, all their lives–the ordinary, would-be middle-class people from various Third World countries. Or at least to learn as much as possible about them.

So, based on what we know about real life from Third Worlders, here are some basic suggestions:

* In unity there is strength. Extend your family as far as you can. Begin with real relatives, by blood or marriage, and then quasi-relatives (exes and steps and their families) and then what anthropologists call “fictive kin”–godparents and foster siblings and so on. Cultivate these relationships and use them for the benefit of all concerned.

* One of the most important ways to do this, of course, is to share living space, especially if somebody in the family has a large, fully-paid-for house. This gets everybody economies of scale in housing, utilities, and food. It also puts people who have both jobs and small children within easy reach of potential baby-sitters with neither.

* If you can’t extend your family, you can at least create one. Get married. Form close friendships. Join cooperatives of all kinds. Join the church/ synagogue/mosque/ coven/whatever of your choice. Making it will be hard enough in the company of others. Alone, you’re probably a dead duck.

The only possible exception to this rule is children. Third Worlders typically have them–lots of them, if possible–for retirement insurance. But Third Worlders generally are required to expend fewer resources up front on their kids than American child labor and compulsory education laws allow. Give this one some thought.

* Stay out of the official dollar economy as much as possible. The IRS, of course, frowns on “off the books” income and untaxed barter. But even they have not figured out how to tax you on the value your do-it-yourself activities add to your assets. The official money economy in Third World countries is rigged to underpay the non-rich to the point of starvation while extracting from them in prices and taxes more than they can possibly afford. The only way to survive in such an economy is to stay out of it, both for production and for consumption (including credit–borrow from family, borrow from friends, borrow from your business colleagues, and then let all of them borrow from you, but stay out of the official credit market if you possibly can. Likewise, don’t lend in that market–that is, keep your savings out of banks.)

* Play the lottery–but not very much. It is true, of course, that your chances of winning are slightly less than your chances of getting struck by lightning. But they are also only slightly less than your chances of attaining the American Dream in any of the official legal jobs likely to be open to you. Buying a ticket nearly doubles your chances. It’s hard to beat odds like that. But buying more than a couple of tickets a week is a bad investment of money you should be using elsewhere. By the way, if the prior history of American lotteries is any indication, this batch will be around only another fifteen years or so, so take advantage of them while you can.

* Use public amenities creatively, while there still are any. Their days too are numbered, but while they last, public schools, public libraries, public parks, public hospitals, and similar amenities are usually perks of living in a particular locality. Therefore, given your limited stock of housing dollars, you are usually better off spending them on cramped, shabby accommodations in an affluent town or neighborhood than on a commodious, well-appointed place in the slums. Besides, your well-off neighbors are more likely to have jobs for you–both long-term and free-lance–than slum-dwellers are. And they are usually canny shoppers, so the assortment of merchandise available to you in local stores will be higher quality at lower prices. You and your family will have a much better chance of making good business contacts too. In short, unless you have ambitions in local politics, it is better to be the poorest person in a rich neighborhood than the richest person in a poor neighborhood.

* Education will still pay off, but will be a lot harder to get, and won’t necessarily bring your income above the poverty line. Nevertheless, get as much of it as you can, and try to keep as much of it as possible in four-year colleges, which produce slightly more respectable credentials than community colleges. You may want to consider going outside the U.S., at least for your bachelor’s degree–it could be cheaper.

* Don’t plan to retire. You will probably never get a private pension, and the value of your Social Security grant will almost certainly diminish rapidly. So be prepared to look for the odd jobs you are still physically capable of doing, most notably childcare and other home help for employed family members.

* Stay healthy. If you can’t stay healthy, at least try to stay out of the official health-care system, which you probably can’t afford, and which probably can’t do much for you anyway. Better you should spend your health care dollars on (a) studying self-care; (b) alternative practitioners recommended by people you trust who have not yet died of their own health problems; or (c) if you must use “official” practitioners, use the lowest professional level available to you–that is, better a Physician’s Assistant than a physician; better a Nurse Practitioner than a PA; better a Registered Nurse than a NP; better a Licensed Practical Nurse than an RN. The lower down on the professional scale you go, the more personal attention you are likely to get. Whenever possible, stick with practitioners you pay out of your own pocket–they’re cheaper, they are accountable directly to you rather than some insurance company, and they still realize you have the option of not coming back next time if they screw up this time.

* Stay morally connected. Be active in religious, neighborhood, civic, and volunteer organizations. They will remind you–when it is very easy to forget–that there is more to life than survival, and that, even if the big corporations that control the few remaining permanent full-time secure jobs consider you less than the dust beneath their big wheels, there are plenty of people around you to whom you are not merely valuable but essential.

* Similarly, if you have some sort of artistic or intellectual talent and can’t get the official purveyors of culture to take notice of it, don’t let that stop you from putting it to work in blogs, local newsletters, murals, amateur theatricals or whatever, which are probably the only art your friends can afford. Who knows–someday it may get noticed by the official critics. But even if it doesn’t, you have given and received pleasure.

* You may have to do a lot more groveling than you are used to. It is possible to be marketably obsequious and still keep your self-respect, simply by maintaining your objectivity behind your mask (see W.E.B. DuBois.). We Americans have long believed that people who have attained wealth and prominence must be more deserving than the rest of us. As long as ordinary people had a reasonably decent chance of achieving some wealth and prominence of their own, that was a harmless delusion. Now, however, it is dysfunctional and can even be deadly. The only way to survive psychologically and morally in a Third World United States is to be absolutely certain that, as a human being and a citizen, you have the same ultimate value as any other human being and citizen. Do not allow yourself to become part of any institution that undermines that conviction, unless it pays you relatively well. And withdraw your attention and your allegiance from the artifacts of commercial culture that undermine your sense of your own value as a human being. Nobody, after all, is paying you to watch television, so your family loses nothing if you stop watching.

* Do your homework–speculative fiction is rich in models for the world we are moving into, from the novels of John Brunner (The Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider) to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” to Robert Heinlein’s future histories. Not to mention, of course, Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. See also Strieber and Kunietka’s Warday and Nature’s End. These are just my particular favorites–there are lots more where they came from. If there is one thing we have learned in the past fifty years, it is that if the warped mind of a speculative fiction writer can imagine a shape for a future dystopia, the grasping hands of a political or economic establishment can implement it.

* Furthermore, there are plenty of ways to learn more about how today’s real-life Third-Worlders are managing. Among the goodies available in public libraries are magazines and newspapers from such places, many of them in English (which is, after all, one of the official languages of India, the Philippines, and many African countries.) Much of the fiction of modern India, the West Indies, and Africa was written in English, and much of it is richly informative.

* And note, by the way, that used books are probably one of the cheapest forms of recreation available. The only thing cheaper are the public domain books available for free on your computer or iPhone.

* Learn to like rice and beans. Together they make up the complete protein necessary for good nutrition, as well as containing lots of fiber. With a little celery, onion, and garlic, they can provide most of your nutritional needs for literally pennies a day. They’re probably healthier than whatever you’re eating now.

* Don’t drink the water. Not unfiltered, anyway, and not bottled—that’s just a waste of money and of valuable natural water imported from many places that need it badly themselves, like Florida. Pick up a used scouting handbook and find out all the cheap and quick methods to purify questionable drinking water. Note that, if you live in the country, the air may smell better, but your drinking water may already be dangerously contaminated with pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff. Urban problems will be different, but just as serious.

I am not suggesting that the ThirdWorldization of the United States is a good thing, or only trivially harmful. On the contrary, for most ordinary people, it can mean perpetually living on the edge of catastrophe and occasionally slipping over it. But it is time we started getting prepared for it, while we still can.

Red Emma



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