It’s The End Of America. Again.
Americans may have celebrated July 4th with the usual hotdogs and fireworks, but Uncle Sam was a sick old man on his 235th birthday. Deficits and debt. A moribund economy. Appalling unemployment. Crumbling infrastructure. Endless foreign wars. We all know the litany of ills. It’s long and grim and the question for most observers is not whether Uncle Sam will continue to decline, but how far, and how fast.
The more excitable sorts, like the journalist Chris Hedges, foresee the end. Or rather, The End. “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history,” Hedges wrote, “when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” But even the sane are glum. “These trends will see a continued erosion of America’s ability to provide a good, middle class standard of living at home and to extend security abroad,” wrote policy analyst Clyde Prestowitz in Foreign Policy. “The really smart people have already put their money in gold bars and moved to New Zealand.”
Somewhat less dramatically, but no less certainly, Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail compared Canada and the United States. “It seems to me our problems can be solved,” Wente concluded, “and theirs can’t.”
Really, it’s hard to disagree. In an essay published at the beginning of 2010, James Fallows – esteemed journalist and speech writer in the Carter White House – noted that the problems besetting the United States “are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years” and Americans are not lacking in the money, technology, and creativity needed to deal with them. But changing course requires an effective political system, and the American system is a shambles. “This is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and selfrenewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.”
A year and a half later, “joke” is too kind a description. Reasonable discussion and compromise seem impossible, the Republican presidential contenders resemble a troupe of circus clowns piling out of one of those tiny cars, and the entire American political class spent precious weeks obsessed with whether a Democratic congressman had tweeted photographs of his penis and lied about it subsequently. He had. And he resigned. So the political system can deal with penis-tweeters, but issues of greater magnitude seem entirely beyond the capacities of the world’s oldest and most successful democracy.
Inevitably, crisis looms. At the end of this month, or early next, Congress must officially permit the U.S. Treasury to take on debt above a defined limit. In the past, raising the debt ceiling has been pro forma. If it’s not raised, the United States would default on its debts. The consequences would be catastrophic. You want Chris Hedges’ crazy prediction to be right? That’s one way to go about it.
And that’s exactly what many Republicans want to do. Others have at least threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling if the White House doesn’t make concessions, which is tantamount to putting a gun to Uncle Sam’s head. One would think Americans would frown on that. But something close to half the political spectrum considers it to be more than acceptable. It’s patriotic.
And it’s effective. President Obama has made huge concessions, offering trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for the closing of various loopholes which will raise a few hundred million dollars. “If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment,” wrote conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times.
But the Republican party is no longer a normal party. It has been taken over by fanatics and flakes, although Brooks, being Brooks, puts it much more eloquently. The Republicans may actually pull the trigger, he fears.
So that’s it for the world’s only superpower, right? It’s only a question of how far and how fast.
Maybe. But it’s worth remembering Uncle Sam has been in bad shape before. Many times, in fact.
“Throughout the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik to whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind,” wrote James Fallows.
Of course we don’t remember it ever being this bad. But that’s what psychologists call “hindsight bias.” It has indeed been this bad before.
Think back to the early 1990s. The U.S. would soon be a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan Inc. A best-selling look at the state of federal finances was entitled Bankruptcy 1995. And you want political dysfunction? When Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich squared off, the whole damned government was shut down. The mood of the era was captured perfectly in the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down, featuring Douglas as a laid-off engineer who has a really bad day.
The early 1980s? That wasn’t morning in America, sunshine.
The 1970s? A polyester hell. I wrote about that decade’s bleak expectations in my book, Future Babble. A short summary took the better part of a chapter.
Remember 1968? The eve of destruction. Political scientist Andrew Hacker published The End of the American Era.
Of course none of this proves Uncle Sam will bounce back today. But he’s been written off so many times before, it would be foolish to do it again.
As Winston Churchill once observed, “The Americans always do the right thing. After they have exhausted all the alternatives.”