NEW YORK—Before I left for Afghanistan, the producer for my talk radio show asked me to return with a souvenir. "Bring me back an MRE [Meal Ready to Eat]," he requested. It was the fall of 2001, a few months into the U.S. invasion, and news accounts said Afghan skies were dark with millions of MREs dropped by U.S. warplanes to the starving masses.
I never saw an MRE. Neither did any of the Afghans I talked to. As far as we could tell, the only stuff that American planes dropped on Afghanistan were bombs. Scattered in the rubble, one could find the shards of said explosives, the well-known names of the defense contractors visible in black-stenciled English. Bombs: America's biggest export. Food: not so much.
I'm torn over what The Washington Post has so cavalierly dubbed "the economic apocalypse." When I was 21, I prayed for this. The United States of America was the world's biggest arms manufacturer and distributor, its filthiest polluter, the number-one defender of dictators and enemy of democracy, and earth's most insidious purveyor of laissez faire, to-hell-with-you capitalism. It still is. But now I'm 45. I'm vested.
I have equity, a retirement plan, a car. CDs and DVDs and gadgets to play them on. Lots of books. I have jobs—several of them, irony of ironies, that involve criticizing this rotten, corrupt and broken system. Events my younger self would have welcomed—multinational corporations laid low, billionaires reduced to penury, business-sucking Republicans forced by the failure of capitalism to pay lip service to the need for government regulation, the United States bankrupted into slashing its aggressive military—now scare the hell out of me. What if I can't make my mortgage? What if we disintegrate like the Soviet Union? What if I turn the valve and water doesn't come out? Middle-Aged Ted doesn't want to lose his stuff.
Or his friends. Some of them would die if they couldn't get their meds anymore.
Young Ted pipes up.
"What about the Afghans those Made-in-USA bombs blew up?" Young Ted asks. "Wouldn't they have been better off if Thomas Jefferson and his drinking buddies had never thought up the United States of America?"
"I'm middle-aged," snaps Middle- Aged Ted, "not senile. I know my Howard Zinn."
If the United States vanished from history, a couple million Vietnamese (and their kids and grandkids) would still be around. As would a million Iraqis and maybe a hundred thousand Afghans. The polar ice cap, melting so fast that nothing can save it, might still have stood a chance if the United States, which produces 22 percent of greenhouse gases (440 percent more than its fair share), had never been.
Americans aren't just cruel and inconsiderate to the rest of the world. They treat each other like crap, too.
As New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman points out, the last three decades have seen a "narrow oligarchy" arise in the Land of the Free to Die on the Street. "Income at the 99.9th percentile [over $400,000 a year] rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile [over $6 million a year] rose 497 percent," wrote Krugman. Most people saw their income shrink.
This is the rancid economic model—no unions, no safety net, no health care—the United States wants other countries to copy.
It's too late to save Bangladesh, polar bears, Moammar Khaddafi's young daughter, the 290 people on Iran Air Flight 655, or the men we tortured to death at Gitmo. But there's still the future to consider. If the U.S. government collapses and the markets implode and our consumer culture crashes, and Americans become too poor to invade other countries and drop bombs and impose murderous trade embargoes, and we can't overconsume and pollute like we used to—well, there's no telling how many species might be saved from extinction. Thousands, probably more like millions, of people who otherwise would have been killed in some pointless future U.S. war of aggression will live instead of die.
Young Ted has a point. "You're worried about your new LG flat screen," he sneers, "but you should be thinking about all those Iranians Bush or McCain or Obama is gonna blow up to keep the electricity on and that HDTV picture crisp and clear."
Middle-Aged Ted looks at Young Ted. "Make sure you hang on to that Dead Kennedys concert T," he advises him. "It'll be worth some serious coin on eBay someday. And how come you're so skinny? All you eat is pizza."
"Don't change the subject, old man," he shoots back. "The glory of Rome relies on the screams of the crucified in Judea. Oppression and injustice aren't hypocritical deviations from American principles. They fuel the entire system."
"Easy for you to say," I—um, Middle-Aged Ted—replies. "I remember being 21. I didn't have anything to lose. I was a college dropout, drowning in debt. Our apartment got robbed so often that, by the end, they were coming back for the lightbulbs. You made $620 a month and paid $425 in rent. Of course economic collapse didn't scare you. 'Mad Max' would have been an improvement."
For the first time, a look of sympathy crosses my svelte doppelganger's face. "Admit it, Middle-Aged Ted," he says. "You're scared you'll end up like those Afghans—dirty and poor and, sooner rather than later, dead from a bomb dropped by one of the many countries we worked so hard to piss off. You're so scared that you're afraid to cheer when the biggest force for evil in the world is teetering on the edge of oblivion."
You got me, kid. I admit it.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.