Back when we were fat, when we ruled the world, Americans knew how to tell if a country was "Third World."
The country was invariably led by a bellicose dictator who said things like "enemies of the state" and who constantly claimed greatness for himself.
The country manufactured either nothing, or next to nothing. If there were factories in the country, or refineries, or mines, they were owned and run by people from other countries, who were grateful that the host country was violently anti-union.
Government officials were rapacious thieves who squabbled endlessly over nothing, and couldn't be trusted alone with any woman between the ages of 8 and 80.
The water system was unreliable.
The population was always armed to the teeth, and, if they weren't murdering each other over food, they were perpetually organizing "revolutions" that invariably swapped one sleazy dictator for another sleazy dictator.
They were all "client states." In those days, that meant the country was either under the influence of the United States or the Soviet Union. The influencing countries rigged their elections, and propped up the dictator.
In general, that country was divided by race, religion or region. If one of the mountain tribes managed to get their man in as dictator, he'd promptly begin butchering the nonmountain people. The same was true of their ethnic minorities, all of whom hated and killed each other. As for religion, ALL of their religions were extreme, and the country had no tradition of suburban churches with well-swept parking lots whose pastors preached on the need to be kind to one's neighbor. Their pastors preached hate with a little touch of God.
The country didn't have a middle class, and not much of a working class, either. What they had was a huge, miserable mass of poor people, and a very small ruling class who stashed their money in Switzerland so they could flee if the Russians financed another coup, and the dictator was pushed out of power in favor of another dictator chosen by the Russians.
They had either a LOT of political parties or only one. Either there were 17 political parties with names like "The Center Left Right Socialist Christian Democratic Party," or there was one party called "The Blue Party" that was financed by either the Americans or the Russians, and whose principal business was to cheer on the dictator, who had recently begun wearing full uniform even if he had never served in the military.
The dictator's wife was much younger than he was, and very good-looking. Her pre-first lady life usually included stints as a prostitute/actress/dancer. The first lady didn't talk much, and owned thousands of designer dresses and shoes, all of them very expensive. Indignant writers for the better magazines often wrote feature stories expressing amused disapproval of a woman who wore Chanel while the people of her country starved.
There were news sources, but the biggest one was always hysterically partisan, running stories about how the despised ethnic minorities ate their own young and were conspiring against the majority. People risked imprisonment and death to listen to a "foreign" radio broadcast or get their hands on a newspaper from another country.
They LOVED their military. You couldn't buy milk in the capital city, and they hadn't repaired any of the damage from the last hurricane, but they were a good market for arms dealers. Their schools didn't have textbooks, and their roads were ruts, but they bought a lot of missiles. Their military parades lasted for hours, and their military ceremonies were solemn and very precisely executed.
The money wasn't worth anything, not even inside the country. Americans thought the people of that country were stupid, or racially inferior to Americans. If they weren't, why all the fighting, why the dictator, why the lack of auto plants and single-family homes? Why the endless pictures of children with flies walking around on their eyes?
You can vote and legislate your way to flies on the open eyes of children. You can fight your way to that, too. Wait.
To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com. Dion's latest book, "The Land of Trumpin'," is a collection of his best columns about life on the way to the Third World. It is available in paperback from Amazon.com, and for Nook, Kindle, iBooks and GooglePlay