As America sinks into a multi-trillion-dollar debt pit, it is fascinating to listen to so many of my friends on the right fret about potential cuts to the Pentagon budget. The problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is not that we are spending insufficient money, but that so much of that money has been utterly wasted. Dominant powers often wind up with thankless tasks, but the trick is to keep it within budget: London administered the vast sprawling fractious tribal dump of Sudan with about 200 British civil servants for what, with hindsight, was the least worst two-thirds of a century in that country’s existence. These days I doubt 200 civil servants would be enough for the average branch office of the Federal Department of Community Organizer Grant Applications. Abroad as at home, the United States urgently needs to start learning how to do more with less.
As I said, these are more or less conventional symptoms of geopolitical decline: Great powers still go through the motions but increasingly ineffectually. But what the Council on Foreign Relations types often miss is that, for the man in the street, decline can be very pleasant. In Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the average citizen lives better than he ever did at the height of Empire. Today’s Europeans enjoy more comfortable lives, have better health, and take more vacations than their grandparents did. The state went into decline, but its subjects enjoyed immense upward mobility. Americans could be forgiven for concluding that, if this is “decline,” bring it on.
But it’s not going to be like that for the United States: Unlike Europe, geopolitical decline and mass downward mobility will go hand in hand. Indeed, they’re already underway. Whenever the economy goes south, experts talk of the housing “bubble,” the tech “bubble,” the credit “bubble.” But the real bubble is the 1950 “American moment,” and our failure to understand that moments are not permanent. The United States emerged from the Second World War as the only industrial power with its factories intact and its cities not reduced to rubble, and assumed that that unprecedented preeminence would last forever: We would always be so far ahead and so flush with cash that we could do anything and spend anything and we would still be Number One. That was the thinking of Detroit’s automakers when they figured they could afford to buy off the unions. The industrial powerhouse of 1950 is now a crime-ridden wasteland with a functioning literacy rate equivalent to West African basket-cases. And yes, Detroit is an outlier, but look at the assumptions its rulers made, and then wonder whether it will seem quite such an outlier in the future.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
'Crisis Of Decadence'