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Third World America -- How to Prevent our Crisis From Becoming a Disaster

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Arianna Huffington's Third World America demonstrates why, in the midst of fear-based criticism of immigration policy, we still need the objectivity and insights of immigrants like Arianna, who came to us from Greece by way of the UK. Decision makers who have been stuck too long in the mire of American politics and power brokering seemed to have a hard time stepping back and taking a big picture look at what's happening in America today.

The book is also an excellent analysis of a crisis in progress -- what I have frequently called a slow burn crisis, one whose warning signs are all present if you look for them -- and then it suggests some solutions which may be difficult for a spoiled upper class to accept, but which are almost certainly critically necessary to prevent the current crisis from becoming a disaster.

I was particularly fascinated by Arianna's mention of the Marshall Plan as a U.S. program that inspired her. The Marshall plan dragged Western European countries out of the mire remaining following World War II, and set them on the road to the prosperity they currently enjoy. The extension of the Marshall plan, what eventually became the U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID), has done the same thing for countries worldwide, taking them from Third World status to becoming global leaders, helping to raise up all economic classes for their mutual betterment.

The reason I find this so poignant is that I was born in France in 1951, the son of a young US government economist, Joel Bernstein, who was on assignment by the U.S. State Department to work on the Marshall plan. This was, in fact, his return to France, having been there just a handful of years earlier to participate in the liberation of Paris while serving as an artillery officer during World War II. He later became a high-ranking official in USAID, and I was raised in five foreign countries, so I got to see the effects of this type of intercession upfront and personal.

My father and I used to argue about the efficacy of U.S. foreign aid. I pointed out that the USAID approach to building or rebuilding a country didn't always work for some of the same reasons Arianna identifies in her book as potential obstacles to restoring strength to the US middle class. There are always greedy individuals who will use funds intended for good purposes for their own personal gain. Not everyone assigned to work on assistance programs is competent, and simple human error can undermine the efficacy of any crisis response. But my Dad pointed out that though matters sometimes evolved beyond America's control, when the programs did work they achieved amazing results, from the Marshall plan forward. Two countries in which I was raised - Nigeria and South Korea -- represent some of the worst and the finest, respectively, that can result from US government aid abroad.

So I would like to conclude what started, in my mind, as a book review, with a suggestion that our country need turn no further than to the experience of USAID. With a budget of under $2 billion, a pittance compared to the amounts being wasted as I write by our so-called economic recovery program, the agency today continues its vital mission overseas. A visit to USAID's website provides descriptions of programs which could easily be turned inwards to the benefit of American citizens. This is precisely the type of solution that I believe is called for in Third World America.

What this country needs, now, is a U.S. Agency for Internal Development.