The Late Great United States: A Lament

Today, August 2, 2011, the US Congress managed to agree not to send the country headlong into bankruptcy.  While we may be glad that the threat of financial Armageddon was averted for the time being, it would be an understatement to call this a Pyrrhic victory, coming as it did at the cost of the last shreds of American credibility abroad and unity at home.  Indeed, perhaps someday this day will be remembered as a symbolic milestone in the decline and fall of the American Empire.  Certainly, whether you mourn or celebrate the end of American hegemony, it is an occasion that calls for a pause for sober reflection.  

It is a perhaps clichéd now to declare that we live in the twilight days of America’s world domination; indeed, I suspect that just as the 20th century is now seen as the “American Century,” the verdict of history will mark 2001, the turn of the century, as the turning point, the year when the engine of American economic growth sputtered to a halt, when America sought to flex its muscles in response to external attack and gained nothing from the exercise but the hatred of former friends, when a maverick Texan president decided to take the country on a glorious John Wayne expedition against the enemies of civilization that ended up as a ride into its own sunset.

Yet it was only the events of the past couple weeks that succeeded in bringing the fact of our decline home to me–the recognition that we live at the end of an era, on the cusp of uncertain and perhaps unhappy days.

 

To be sure, on paper we are still a mighty nation, teeming with people (around 300 million of them, and more immigrating every day) and money.  Although all empires must come to an end, the pieces are certainly there for us to pull together and eke out another several decades at the top of the pecking order.  Indeed, there is still no lack of commentators–particularly on the Right–claiming that our weakness is all in our heads, and that that all America needs is to shake off its self-doubt and reassume its destined role as Empress of the nations.  But whatever our resources may be on paper, history offers some sobering examples, such as the last days of the Persian Empire, in which an army of a million men melted before 50,000 Macedonian upstarts.  The lesson here is simple: without the capacity to act as one, any quantity of resources are useless.  And if the last few weeks prove anything, they prove that that capacity is far beyond our reach.  Sure, in theory, we could recover it, could agree to recognise one another as fellow citizens and engage again in rational debate.  But it hardly appears likely, especially when the demographic one might expect to be most pushing for charity and the pursuit of the common good–conservative Christians–seems most hell-bent on an atomistic society based on competing assertions of “rights.” 

I will not echo the tired chorus of Christian leaders that all this is the mark of divine disfavour for an ebbing faith, and that, but for our lack of faithfulness, America’s prosperity and power would know no bounds.   After all, I’m not at all sure that God is a fan of global hegemony–at least not by creatures–nor of boundless material prosperity.  Rather, I tend to think that if we’d been more faithful, we might in fact find ourselves living a bit more humbly and simply.  In any case, rather than seek the ultimate cause of our current malaise in the inscrutability of divine providence, let us seek rather the proximate cause–our own actions.  

 

Myriad vices could be listed, perhaps most of all our prodigality and taste for instant gratification.  But all these could perhaps be overcome, or at the very least, their noxious impacts blunted, by unity and resolution of purpose, a sense that we needed to transcend our differences and tackle such serious problems together.  Perhaps this was too much to expect of a populace as drunk on self-gratifying materialism as ours, but just maybe we could hope that our leaders would show such a spirit, especially when, by late 2008, after eight years of military, economic, and fiscal misadventures, America seemed to be derailing fast.  Perhaps the crisis would shake us out of complacency and division, and help us together seek a solution.

Whatever you think of his politics, Obama certainly offered America its most convincing opportunity at a fresh start, at a symbolic end to disunity, in decades.  The nation’s first black president, he symbolised a nation that could overcome enormous differences and prejudices; he was young, he was eloquent, he was, as much as one could expect, “outside the establishment.”  Even those deeply opposed to his policies should have welcomed the hope of transcending partisanship that he seemed to offer.  But the grand new experiment was torpedoed before it got off the ground.*

No sooner was Obama nominated than the so-called “Christian Right” promptly forgot (if it had ever remembered, which seems doubtful) the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Obama was promptly demonised as a threat to all that was good and wholesome and American, and the Right not only resolved, but publicly confessed, that its number one priority was no longer to govern the nation (a concept to which, indeed, it seemed ideologically opposed) but to undermine Obama.  The attitude seemed to be that of a child, who, jealous at not being offered some privilege, resolved to at least make life thoroughly miserable for its sibling who had.  Throughout the past two years, the rest of the world has watched in growing unease as the ensuing display of childish political squabbling has reduced America’s government to near-impotence.  

All of this has reached its climax in the last few weeks of “negotiations” about the debt ceiling.  There is certainly more than enough blame to go around for the embarrassing spectacle that has played out, enough that most of the leaders involved ought to retire from politics in shame.  There have been plenty of cowardly retreats when a principled stand was called for, and stubborn assertions of principle when an intelligent compromise was called for; there have been bluffs that should have been called, and bluffs that never should have been made.  But the lion’s share must surely go to the Republicans, who had, after all, long since abandoned any pretensions at governing.  If you ever needed proof that elections mattered (and I had long dismissed them as a waste of time, since all the candidates were crooks anyway), this was it.  Last November’s “Tea Party” triumph has ushered into office a cadre of politicians committed to political tactics that represent either disgraceful depravity or else, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt, delusionality.  Their policy appears to have been to hold the entire nation at gunpoint unless it consented to capitulate to their ideals, ideals that seem to display only a passing acquaintance with reality.

 

What can we expect as a result of all this?  The near-term consequences, of course, are a fallout of even more intense acrimony and partisanship, and worst of all, of posturing and demagoguery, as both sides seek to convince the American people that it was all the other side’s fault.  The forthcoming election season promises to be the worst in modern memory.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world, incredulous at the display they have just witnessed, will lose all remaining respect for us, and think twice about becoming more entangled with us than necessary.  The rating agencies, having witnessed Exhibit A in political paralysis, and our complete inability to make costly decisions, will most likely conclude that our debt problems will continue to worsen, and will downgrade our credit rating accordingly.  The political wranglings and half-hearted solutions will continue for a few years, until the day of reckoning can be put off no longer, and severe economic contraction is the cost of addressing the debt problem.  And when that happens, it is all too probable that the partisanship we have witnessed recently will look like child’s play in comparison.

This long slow descent into economic doldrums, political paralysis, and financial insolvency is the way that most empires pass into their uneasy senescence.  Few go out in a sudden blaze of glory like Carthage, or the implosion of a house of cards, like the Soviet Union.  Most simply decay from within, and are gradually rolled back from without.  Even if you are unhappy with the ugly story of American hegemony, as am I, its looming end is surely a cause for unease.

For few great nations, in their decline, see the handwriting on the wall and simply determine to accept their fate and make a quiet retreat from the world stage.  Accustomed to nothing but success and prosperity, their people first resort to denial, fervently maintaining, with increasingly shrill nationalist rhetoric, that they are still destined to lead, and then turning to scapegoating, as one class turns on another, or the nation as a whole turns on its neighbours.  In some cases, such as the decline of Spain in the 17th-century, the nation is simply doomed to chronic political discord and economic depression as its slowly deflates over decades.  But the results of France’s decline in the 18th century, and Germany’s in the early 20th, provide far more worrying test cases.  The only promising predecessor is Great Britain, who managed to bow fairly gracefully off of the world stage from 1900 to 1950, handing on the torch to America, and assuming a dull but comfortable emeritus status.  But the ease of Britain’s transition owes much to the existence of a daughter-nation who could take up her mantle, and perhaps more to the fact that two World Wars allowed Britain to decline without losing her honour, and inspired enough continued patriotism to keep her from falling into the devastating internal discord that has torn so many other decaying empires.

In any case, I will make no prognostications for the future.  I will not join in with the alarmists who see Red China as the great new enemy, spreading a pall of tyranny over the world, nor the optimists that think that in the new global marketplace, all will spontaneously unite in the peaceful pursuit of commerce and prosperity.  But in any case, Americans and their leaders must wake up to the sobering truth that the days of their children will not be as the days of their parents, and the sooner we abandon false hopes for the future, the better. 

 

Whatever happens, “the grass withereth, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord stands forever.”

And yet, we may still mourn the fading of the flowers.

*See follow-up post for clarification

10 thoughts on “The Late Great United States: A Lament

  1. "Even if you are unhappy with the ugly story of American hegemony, as am I, its looming end is surely a cause for unease."Indeed.Thanks, Brad. Your final paragraphs are to my mind the most important. Whatever the causes of the decline of the US (and they are myriad and complex, as all such things usually are, and you have identified some important strands), the implications are unsettling. It is an interesting (and highly relevant) political and ethical question: how does a nation (or, in my interests, a civilisation) face its own decline faithfully? How useful is the analogy to an individual approaching old age? What are the limits of the analogy?

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  2. Jess Monnette

    Brad, You open your article with, "Today, August 2, 2011, the US Congress managed to agree not to send the country headlong into bankruptcy." What do you mean by bankruptcy? I presume that you mean "default" or "insolvency." Default and insolvency were not a risk for the US government if the debt ceiling had not been increased. Default, is a failure to timely pay one's obligations to his creditors. Even if the debt ceiling was not increased, the US government could continue to pay all creditors (including debt holders, government employees, social security etc.) with present tax revenue. The only question was whether or not the US government could continue anticipated future spending the way that it planned. Put another way, if the ceiling was not increased, default would not have occurred but planned spending would have to be cut or taxes increased to pay for that spending. It seems to me that from a debt rating perspective the credit rating agencies (and our creditors) would have seen a refusal to issue more debt and reduce spending as an evidence of financial responsibility. No one believes that a person who choose to continue partying and pay his creditors with more borrowed money is a better debt risk than the person who quits the partying and starts paying down his debt.

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Byron–thanks for a very helpful and illuminating analogy; I confess I hadn't really thought of it in those terms before. There seem to be two main points, though, at which the analogy breaks down. The first, of course, is that most individuals approaching old age have few people still directly depending on them; there will be plenty of responsibilities from which they have to disentangle themselves, to be sure, but these can generally be managed fairly smoothly, unless there is a very sudden and dramatic decline in health. Nations/empires, on the other hand, unfortunately have millions of dependents, people whose whole way of life depends upon the empire. And this makes ageing gracefully much more difficult; ultimately, as resources shrink, some people will have to be left high and dry, with devastating consequences. (The terrible history of sub-Saharan Africa since Britain's awkward exit forty years ago is a good example.)The second is that it is rather easier for an ageing individual to provide for his succession. He will have children, most likely, to pass on various responsibilities to, and employees or associates. But empires, accustomed to throwing their weight around, and eager to retain as much direct control over things as possible, generally don't have that many close friends they can depend on to take on the responsibilities they have taken on. So things often degenerate into a mad grab for the inheritance. (But of course, perhaps I have simply been blessed to witness fairly graceful transitions of ageing individuals I've known; perhaps, statistically, the realities in the cases of individuals are often as depressing as they are for nations).

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Jess–thanks for offering some thoughtful engagement with a post that you no doubt considered to be confirmation that I was in fact the loony leftist you've always suspected I was.You're right that the term "bankruptcy" isn't strictly accurate. I fished about a bit for a better one, but couldn't find an alternative that had the rhetorical effect I was looking for. In any case, I think it is still a fairly accurate metaphor. For, while you are right that we could've continued to pay creditors in the strictest sense of the word, it isn't accurate to act as if all that would've happened is we woulda had to stop buying as many goodies. Most of the US government's payments are contractual obligations of a kind–indeed, obligations of a much more serious kind than a normal company's contractual obligations. Social security recipients in particular are creditors of a sort. Had the debt ceiling not been raised, the US would have failed to meet its financial obligations, in a way that would have been seen, both at home and abroad, as equivalent to a default, even if bondholders still got paid. And the results of such a breach of faith, and a drying up of a large portion of the country's GDP, would have been catastrophic to the economy. Without a fairly quick solution, the effect would've been like that of a national bankruptcy.Obviously, in the long run, it is much more financially responsible to reduce borrowing and reduce spending, rather than to keep borrowing to finance spending. No one's denying that. Obama was pushing for more dramatic spending reductions than were passed, in fact. However, while that is true in the short run, it does not follow that the smartest thing in the short run would've been to break crucial financial obligations and send the economy into a free fall to avoid taking on more debt. And I guarantee you none of the credit rating agencies wanted that.

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  5. Haven't read his book, but based on the video clip, he basically sidelines climate change based on two considerations: (a) slowing rates of population increase and (b) space-based solar energy. The latter is at this stage a purely hypothetical source of power, decades away from realisation in even prototype form, and many, many decades away from the possibility of dominating the energy landscape. He speaks of this being achieved by 2100. By then, our climate trajectory will have already been long set. The former (population growth) takes less courage to predict, but from the brief statement made in the clip, it is unclear that he is even distinguishing between deceleration and decline. I assume he would not be making such an elementary mistake, but even so, he claims that deceleration will "reduce pressure and demand for energy", entirely ignoring the high likelihood of our current trajectory (even as it decelerates) taking us somewhere upwards of nine billion by the middle of the century. Perhaps (giving him the benefit of the doubt), he may be talking about a slight demographic decline in the latter half of the century. If so, then once again, that will be too late for the decisive period of climate trajectory-setting, which is happening right now and in the next couple of decades. And even then, this ignores the far more important question of consumption levels, which are growing much, much faster than population as more of the world gets plugged in. And such a demographic decline brings with it its own problems, as Japan is currently experiencing: an aging population relying on the care and taxation of a declining workforce. But returning to climate change, if we have not made very significant shifts away from fossil fuels on a much shorter timescale than space-based solar could ever achieve, and if we have not made very significant reductions in consumption levels within the next few decades, then both the climate and the broader stability of all global ecosystems will have already been affected to such a degree that the idea of space-based solar will sound like a bad joke or distant memory from a by-gone era (along with such ideas as cheap water, abundant energy, reliable food, living oceans, wild megafauna and so on). A report published recently points out that on our current trajectory of growth (not just population, but especially consumption), global consumption will be so high as to require 27 planet earths to sustain us all by 2050. That, I probably don't need to tell you, is not going to happen. Something will have to give by then.By the way, he may well turn out to be right about the brevity of China's rise. It is very difficult to predict just what is going to happen in a nation where things are changing so rapidly (economically, socially and ecologically) on such a vast scale. It truly is an experiment without precedent. But then again, if he is into cyclical history (which I am not), then surely there is a far stronger argument for the reemergence of Chinese dominance than Turkish, which has only been an empire once. China has had thousands of years experience and the last few centuries have been almost the only time in world history where China has not been the economic and technological centre of the world (this is obviously simplifying things massively, but it's a quick sketch to question his comments about Turkey).As for Mexico, climate change is going to hit it hard in the coming decades. And whether it survives the next fifteen or twenty years as a sovereign nation based on its present levels of social inequality and instability is an open question. The parts of the US that were placed back under Mexican rule in the diagram in the video are also parts that are more than likely to be suffering increasingly chronic water stress over coming decades (i.e. some of the least sustainable parts of the contiguous US).That's my 2p on the video, but as I said, I may be doing him an injustice in not having read the book.

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  6. AJ

    Thanks for the response, Byron. I will ponder. By the way, I don't care what anyone says: football, baseball, and basketball smoke soccer! 🙂

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  7. Brad Littlejohn

    I'm going to be a lot less charitable than Byron and say I wouldn't know how to even begin to interact with this guy, because it's such a load of crock! Turkey going to re-emerge as a dominant Middle Eastern empire? Mexico a threat to US dominance in North America? " A new global war will unfold toward the middle of the century between the United States and an unexpected coalition from Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and the Far East"? Presumably in his book, if he's not completely off his rocker, he addresses issues like global warming and the debt crisis, but I can't imagine how he'd get around them. In any case, he doesn't exactly have a sterling prediction track record: "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Friedman studied potential for a U.S.-Japan conflict and co-authored The Coming War with Japan in 1991." Ha!

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