Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Slouching Toward Rio

On the March 5th "Car Talk", Click and Clack took a caller from Rio de Janeiro who was concerned about being accosted by gun-wielding holdup men and wanted advice on bullet-proofing his car. The Tappet Brothers claimed no expertise on the matter, but invited listeners to weigh in online on their bulletin board. [You can view the responses on the Car Talk site by searching "bullet proof," but first, you'll have to register.]

Are we slouching toward Rio? The film "City of God" depicts the dismal poverty and despair of Rio's most notorious slum. Think of it as a preview of a society that erects barriers against its poorest members rather than addressing their education, health care and family support structure.

According to NPR, Brazil is now the world's second largest market for bullet-proofed cars. South Africa has introduced a flame-thrower car. And government buyers can browse online for armored vehicles (541 products when last I checked), adding them to their shopping cart if they're putting together a fleet.

As becomes clear from the listener responses, there's no shortage of after-market suppliers prepared to outfit vehicles for high-security uses. If you are wealthy enough, you can build a Kevlar cocoon, much like that enveloping our country's leaders.

But as became apparent from the Humvee armor debacle in Iraq, the Hummers bravely rolling into our cities from suburbia won't offer much protection without expensive retrofitting. As Joel Kramer of Growth & Justice argues, protection of private property is one government service that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Perhaps paying for bulletproofing, gated communities, private schools and bodyguards beats paying higher taxes. But that is heading down a road fewer and fewer can travel.

Some dinner companions over the weekend put it something like this: "As other global economies achieve parity with ours, the American middle class will continue to shrink. There will be 9 billion people in the world and only 3 billion jobs. Here, we will have the very rich, plus the doctors, lawyers and other professionals who minister to them and then those who protect them from all the rest of the people who can't get a good education, a good job or decent health care."

Is this just more liberal negativism? Or is it a possible consequence of ascendent government and economic policies?

As a Minneapolis kindergarten teacher recently warned: "If the water's leaking into my side of the boat, then pretty soon it's going to leak into your side of the boat, too."

Just look at Rio.

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