The Common Good
June 2009

Our National Predicament

by Anne Colamosca | June 2009

Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country, by William Greider. Rodale Books.

Come Home, America, political journalist William Greider’s sixth book, is a passionate argument that today’s United States is deeply wounded and needs profound attention now. We must stop trying to run the world, he warns, or it will be too late to turn things around.

Greider, who made his reputation writing for The Washington Post, is currently the national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine. He draws on more than three decades of reporting, both in the United States and abroad, to demonstrate the nation’s deep economic and military failures. The book contains a moving personal journey and a remarkable, cogent argument that should be closely studied and acted on.

“Having grown up Republican and conservative in the managerial middle class, I shared the lingering hostility toward the Roosevelt era,” writes Greider. “I began to understand and admire the logic of the New Deal only belatedly, just as it was crashing. The joke was on me. At the very moment I was embracing the core principles of economic liberalism, the political system discarded them.”

What changed Greider? The unmitigated militarism of the United States, for one. The U.S. has been laying the trip wires for war virtually all over the world, writes Greider, “betting that other nations will be too intimidated by our military power to respond.” The end result: Continuing nuclear proliferation, billions of dollars spent on a bottomless military budget, and endless death around the world from what he sees as unnecessary political posturing by the U.S. Greider sees a missed opportunity “of historic proportions” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After 50 years of rivalry between the Soviet Union and the U.S., he says “conditions were ripe for more normal interplay among nations.” The 1990s would have been the time to make this profound change, but it never happened.

GREIDER MAY BE even more passionate about what he sees as the deep failures of globalization: “[T]he global system cannot endure this race to the bottom that expands trade by exploiting workers at both ends of the system.” He puts a lot of credence in an American public that was highly skeptical of the North American Free Trade Agree­ment and the U.S.-China Trade Agreement passed in 1999. Those who dared speak out against these trade treaties, including Greider, were instantly labeled “protectionists.”

Since the 1990s, the mainstream media has been quick to characterize those critical of so-called “free trade” as out of touch with the times. The high priests of “free trade,” two former Democratic Treasury secretaries—Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin—promised that globalization would create just as many jobs as it helped displace. Yet over the last 15 years, the U.S. has accumulated $6 trillion in trade deficit debt, hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs, and those who remain often have diminished power to control conditions in their own workplaces. Greider believes that in the end, these free marketers—who have repackaged themselves as “fair traders” for a new decade—will do little to make things better or stop the downward spiral for American labor. He points out that they have done nothing to take responsibility for the considerable pain they have caused.

After 35 years of reporting, Greider is betting that the American people will have the good instincts and energy to improve things. He is deeply leery of “the failures and misguided assumptions of those in governing circles.” Instead, he writes about many Americans who stood up for change and eventually became successful, though often at great personal cost. He cites as examples the populist revolt by farmers against bankers at the end of the 19th century, the labor movement in the 1930s, and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Greider himself has been personally heartened over the years by the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is inspired by community organizer Saul Alinsky.

“Again and again,” Greider writes, “in many large matters, what the people ‘knew,’ though it was belittled and brushed aside, turned out to be right, while governing elites were terribly, disastrously wrong.”

William Wolman was in charge of economics coverage at Business Week magazine for many years. Anne Colamosca is a former staff writer at Business Week and has written for many national magazines and newspapers. They are co-authors of The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and the Betrayal of Work.

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