As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.
Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1 percent. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of US Army muscle around to keep the other 99 percent at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my twenty-four-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”
I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1 percent for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1 percent, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.
Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now and (heaven help us) where we’re going.
On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey