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

Delusions of a Prodigal Nation

We’ve all heard the news about the GOP’s new “Pledge to America,” which states, more or less, “We pledge allegiance to the Tea Party, and to the millions of voters for which it stands, and promise to do whatever it says.”  No, it doesn’t really say that, but of course, it’s no secret that the Republicans are tripping over themselves to try to align themselves with, rather than against, the foaming unstoppable wave of right-wing fury the Tea Party represents.  The basic message of this movement is to say, “No to taxes” categorically, “No to government spending” loudly but vaguely, and “No to deficits” as an afterthought.  Taxes, we are told, are at unacceptable levels–never mind that they are lower than they have been in decades (whereas the highest marginal tax rate under the conservative Eisenhower was 91%, now it’s only 36%!).  And never mind that income inequality has shot to unprecedented levels, with the richest Americans increasing their incomes even in the midst of recession, and with the top 20% now accounting for 49.4% of all income, making it hard to see on what basis one would oppose higher marginal tax rates.  

So, we must balance the budget without increasing taxes, we are told.  This will be easy, the Pledge to America assures us, with a vague wave of its hand promising $100 billion in spending cuts by getting rid of “wasteful government spending.”  But that won’t be enough–assuming that Congress does defy the Tea Party and let the Bush tax cuts expire for the top two income brackets, then, if we don’t want to raise any more taxes, we will need $255 billion per year in spending cuts to achieve a balanced budget by 2015, which is pretty much a fiscal necessity.  How hard is it to cut $255 billion per year?  A new study by the Center for American Progress reveals the bleak answer.  

As my friend Byron Smith summarizes (thanks to his blog for the link):

“Cuts include: three quarters of agricultural subsidies; ninety-five billion from defence (including significant reductions for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and reductions in standing nuclear capacity; in all almost a 15% reduction); reductions to social security payments; no new highways; subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear research reduced by 90%; significant reductions to international aid, correctional services, customs and border enforcement, health research, NASA, National Parks, FEMA, agricultural research, EPA and much, much more.”

Of course, even this may not dissuade right-wingers who want the government out of all these things.  But thinking that, in principle, it’d be better if the government didn’t spend money on these things does not mean that it’s at all sane to try to get the government out of all these things at once.  If you have a caffeine addict who’s in a depressed slump, then while you’re trying to get him back on his feet, it’s best not to try to make him go cold turkey on caffeine at the same time.