This book will make you aware of what you’re not getting from your government, why you’re not getting it, what you’re entitled to, and how to get it. It will also show you that you’re not alone. If we do this right, politicians in Washington will become more concerned about the people they represent. That’s what real America should be. Real people, real wallets, real soul, real ideas—and that’s what you’ll find in the following chapters.
Excerpt from the Introduction to Jacked :
Once upon a time, families talked about politics over dinner, hit TV shows like M*A*S*H openly questioned war, and people didn’t fall in love over the Internet. In the early 1980s, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was the working person’s anthem, and it was cool; at the 2005 Grammy awards, Green Day’s timely album, American Idiot, got six nominations. Some-where along the way, we changed. Pride and cynicism switched positions—particularly when it came to politics.
It’s not that politics became less important; it’s that more Americans checked out of the conversation. That’s one reason for the declining voter turnout over the past couple of decades, and the fact that many people tend not to trust either of the major parties.1 If you can’t connect to your leaders or feel they “get” you, it’s only natural to disconnect from what they’re saying. Maybe that’s why more people recognize the judges on American Idol than the judges on the Supreme Court. It’s easier to relate to would-be singers with dreams than to guys in robes—or pundits in suits, for that matter. Plus, it takes time to follow these issues as you’re battling traffic, working a job you hate to pay off the school loans that got you there, or stretching your social security checks.
But politics still touches our everyday lives in so many different ways. So taking the nature of our frantic lives into account, I ’ve tried to talk about American politics by starting with something we can all relate to—our wallets. Wallets are roadmaps of our daily realities: they hold photos of the people we love, chunks of our identity, and plastic cards that evoke our financial worries. The cards inside your wallet tell a story. They also tell the tale of the government’s impact on you.
This book traces those impacts. The driver’s license chapter connects the price you pay at the gas pump to our country’s policies on energy and Iraq. The health insurance chapter talks about Medicare, Medicaid, and those ridiculous insurance premiums we all hate. The credit card chapter examines personal debt, credit card company profits, and the skyrocketing national debt. The student identification chapter looks at mounting educational expenses and reduced governmental support for what is supposed to be the country’s most valuable asset—its brains. And so on. I’ve tried to untangle the web our government weaves around and through our frantic lives. So this book is for anyone who struggles to pay bills, needs healthcare, is looking for a job, or feels their company is not keeping its promises to them. It’s for anyone who has questioned the government’s role in it all.
Soon after the idea for this book first hit me, I realized I didn’t want to write it from a desk in New York City or Washington, DC. I once worked in a world (called Wall Street) that disregards pretty much everyone outside of its own sphere. This isn’t exactly the greatest way to understand what’s really going on in our country. So I traveled the United States by plane, train, automobile, and ferry. I went through the rubble of Hurricane Katrina in places CNN hadn’t lingered, toured subsidized housing blocks for the elderly who can barely stretch the social security they get, and sat with Latino students determined to get their educations.
As a result, I got an education, too. Crisscrossing thirty states over three months, I met many fascinating Americans. They had an astounding diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, but one thing in common. A wallet. (Well, some had money clips or rubber bands or purses, but you get the idea.) They might not all have had the same amount of money, but they sure had plenty of cards: from credit cards to organ donor cards, from library cards to Candy’s Car Wash (“Buy 10 get 1 free”). I talked to people in cities and tiny rural towns in the middle of nowhere; in red and blue states; to the old and the young; to those educated by college or by life; to the poor and the well off. I followed Bush’s path through the Gulf Coast, spent time at UAW headquarters in Detroit, spoke with authors in Alabama, tile contractors in northern Washington, jazz musicians in New Orleans, and military officers in California. Over lots of coffee and beer and pie, with tour guides and health-care workers, single parents and struggling seniors, the politically active and those who are too busy worrying about other things, I learned more about this amazing country than I thought possible.
One of the things I learned is that no matter what their conditions, Americans are inspiring. The people I met help keep this country strong. They give it labor and breath. When you peel away their surface differences, they have similar dreams, too, even if our laws, political priorities, and social conditions make some of these dreams harder to achieve than others. The more I listened, the angrier I got about recent decisions made in Washington; the more I felt that our government is letting us down. Nowhere did I feel this more than in Waveland, Mississippi.
Just a Wave in Waveland
In the midst of my travels, I arrived at Waveland, Mississippi, the last Gulf Coast town before the Louisiana border, 17 feet above sea level. It used to have 7,000 inhabitants. That was before it caught Hurricane Katrina’s eye and was trounced by a 32-foot water surge. When I visited there in mid-January 2006, its population was 1,000. Right before the exit off Inter -state 10, there’s a smaller town called Diamond Head. I stopped at a Burger King there, for the millionth Diet Coke of my cross-country trip. Its notice board read: Almost back to normal and getting better.
But before you reach the shoreline, the damage becomes more and more apparent. Pieces of signs line the highway where the wind blew them months before. Animal carcasses litter the shoulder, lying dead for days, because debris gets take-away priority. Scrawled on a tiny olive-green deserted home off Route 603 are the words “The South will rise again.” Heading farther west on Route 90, that’s hard to believe. That’s when it hits you. It’s like “War of the Worlds” after the scary aliens zap your home. But they don’t die in the end; the humans don’t return victoriously to reclaim their street. In the heart of Waveland, there is simply nothing left. Silence has won the battle.
There are no houses, no frames, no bedrock—just pieces of walls, slivers of wood, shards of glass, wheels of toy trucks, bits of refrigerators, all mixed with fallen trees stripped bare of leaves by wind and water. Street after street after street. It’s the kind of destruction that numbs you, stops you cold. I couldn’t keep the tears back or my throat clear. And there, in the land of the new nowhere, I spotted an old man in overalls standing beside his battered navy blue Ford pick-up, wiping his forehead.
I brought my car to a stop at what would have been two house lengths away from him, if there were any houses left. Hands on hips, he seemed to be taking a break. I couldn’t think of a good way to start the conversation, so I just blurted out,
“Hi, do you have a minute—to chat?”
He said sweetly,
“Sure, I’ve got lots of time. This stuff is pretty slow-going.”
Like he has done every day since the storm, Gordon Coleman is sorting through the wreckage that was his home. Haggard and stooped, he prides himself on the new foun dation he’s created, the only plot of land on his street showing any signs of a comeback. He’s managed to clear enough to rebuild the base. An old wheelbarrow stands on the other side of his truck. He uses it as part of his daily one-man removal program. There is a smile in Gordon’s crinkled gray eyes. The dirt caked under his fingernails is dirt of determination. He shrugs his shoulders and says,
“You just gotta go on.”
wo days earlier, President Bush drove by this town en route to New Orleans. He had given a speech at a boy’s school in nearby Bay St. Louis, praising the progress made in the region. Whatever planet that was on. A group of Wavelanders were eager to meet him, and had made posters welcoming him and eager to help. But Bush didn’t stop in their town—all they got, as they put it, was a “wave in Waveland.”
A few weeks later, Bush didn’t even mention Mississippi in his 2006 State of the Union address. He barely discussed the nation’s largest natural disaster at all. A month after that, Katrina victims—many of whom lost their homes and hadn’t received insurance or government claim money—were being kicked out of their temporary accommodations.2 While all of this was happening, Bush paid lip service to the progress being made in the area and spilled more words and spent more money on the Middle East.
A month later, I returned to Gordon Coleman’s lot on Hillcrest Road in Waveland. It was a beautiful sunny April afternoon, dry and clear. The Ford was parked at the back of his property. It looked like it hadn’t been driven for awhile. The wheelbarrow was gone. So were signs of Gordon. I asked one lone woman working on her yard nearer the shore if she knew of his whereabouts—she shook her head ‘no,’ looking at me as if I was crazy.
The damage our government is doing is not reserved just for situations as dramatic as Katrina; Bush’s same brand of “disconnect” can be seen in his decisions about our wallets and what they are to us.