‘A Century of War’: Sean Stone’s documentary looks at American middle class ‘in despair’

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The four-part documentary 'A Century of War' seeks to answer what led to the collapse of America’s industrial and manufacturing sector, and what steps could be taken to revive it in a post-industrial society.

The documentary was created by Sean Stone, co-host of RT America's Watching the Hawks.

In the first two parts of the feature, titled "Prometheus' Gift” and “Collapse at Home: Devastation Abroad,” Stone takes viewers on an encyclopedic journey through the industrial and manufacturing age of 1900s up to the present day.

“What happened to the American century? What happened to the American ideal of progress?” Stone asks. “While we see the projections of American power abroad, the homeland suffers from industrial de-evolution.”

Through a series of excerpted interviews with John Perkins, a former chief economist with Chas. T. Main; former Wall Street insiders Nomi Prins and Catherine Austin Fitts; and former Microsoft insider Ramez Naam, Stone seeks to answer how industrialization and manufacturing left America, the infrastructure decayed, and the US population became weighed down by debt.

“The United States is in a situation comparable to the British Empire before the First World War,” said William Engdahl, whose book A Century of War inspired the documentary. “The decline had begun years back, perhaps 20, 35 years back, but it proceeded very slowly because it was artificially covered over through the inflow of money from Asia and other places.”

By way of example, the motor industry used to employ nearly 2 million people in Detroit alone, but now the city has a population of just over 600,000 and had to declare bankruptcy in 2013.

“Now with the financial crisis, the collapse of the home mortgage market, Americans and middle-class Americans are finding themselves in a desperate situation. America’s role in the world is the not the pillar of democracy and freedom that it once seemed to be,” said Engdahl.

According to Stone, that translates to more than one in three Americans having a part-time job. The manufacturing economy, where union protections ensured good pay for jobs and ensured that the minimum wage kept pace with the rise in inflation, has declined precipitously.

Since the 1970s, US workers have continued to be more productive and the US economy is still on top of the world, but workers are not really seeing any of those gains.

“What’s happened is that wages for men have basically been stagnant for several decades,” David Madland, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Stone. “At the same time you have core costs of basic middle class goods like healthcare, housing, higher education that have gone up much, much faster. They will try all sorts of changes to afford what they think is a middle-class life with people working longer hours, more women going into the workforce and going deeper and deeper into debt. What you have is a toxic mix of more hours, more stress and more debt.”

An example is given of New York City, where the average rent is $4,500 a month, or $54,000 a year. The average family income in America is $55,000 a year.

“People talk about there not being inflation here. But actually Americans have the highest inflation in the last 20 years of any country in the world,” said economist Michael Hudson. “The inflation has been the stock market and the real estate market.”

During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration built many bridges, roads, water supply lines, and brought electrification to the majority of the United States, Stone shows.

Those policies continued through the 1950s, under the Eisenhower administration, with the construction of the interstate highways. In the 1960s, under the Kennedy administration, the country began an ambitious space program “giving birth to tremendous scientific in medicine, computer technology, and travel,” according to Stone.

However, alongside the public programs instituted by the US government, a parallel military economy was growing.

“The elites in the US at the close of the WWII realized that the Depression was ended as a result of the war, and so many of the elites felt that what we should do was maintain something of a war posture or a military posture in order to subsidize the nation and not fall prey to a depression.”

“What was built on that is what we call the ‘military industrial complex,” said former US Senator (D-Alaska)Mike Gravel.

More than half of the US budget is spent on the military, or 54 percent, according to figures from the Office of Management and Budget, and involves more ties between government and corporations.

John Perkins, former chief economist with Chas T. Main and author of Confessions of the Economic Hitman, said “we have a new empire. It is not an American empire, it is a corporate empire.”

Stone argues the Vietnam War was so costly to America it had to be covered up under the Nixon administration by removing the gold standard that backed the value of the dollar, and replacing it with a dollar based on the value of oil.

“Much of the US budget was financed not by taxes but by foreign balance of payment deficit. The more Americans spent abroad, these dollars ended up in foreign countries, a lot paid out for oil, and oil countries ended up buying treasury bills as did Europe, Germany, France, Japan,” said Hudson. “In effect, central bank reserves were based on American military spending, so foreign central banks were financing the surrounding of their countries with military bases. So surrounded that they didn’t really have a choice if they wanted to politically break, they would end up like Iraq, Libya or now like Syria having a regime change and an invasion. Basically countries were financing their own subjugation.”

Stone asks, “If globalization has been the mechanism by which corporations have found cheaper labor and goods to grow their influence and sales, then is globalization the problem? What can US do to protect itself from transnational predators?”

Progressive political commentator Thom Hartmann said the doing away with tariffs gave the US an inability to protect its domestic industry.

“Tariffs represented 100 percent of the income of the federal government from the George Washington administration to the Abraham Lincoln administration,” said Hartmann. “We used tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing and keep manufacturing in the United States. The average tariff around that era was 30 percent.”

In the third part of the documentary, titled “Harnessing Technology for What End?” Stone argues for exploring energy alternatives to the oil-based economy.

He presents arguments for supporting investment and interest in hot and cold nuclear fusion as remedy. The US government squashed scientific research in cold fusion in the 1980s.

“We have this irrational fear of nuclear power. It is far safer than people imagine,” said Ramez Naam. “If you look at the Fukushima disaster, that was a 40-year -old reactor, not built to modern specs, not built to modern design. Modern reactors can’t have that happen to them.”