Monday, December 12, 2011

Dealing with decline

Niall Ferguson and many others have made the point that the United States, like other once-dominant nations before it, is in for a very difficult period of adjustment. That is, if the combination of its massive public debt and shifts in the global economic center of gravity play out as expected, and America's international preeminence is relentlessly eroded.

The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is around 100%, and it's well known that public debt levels above 85% of GDP are a drag on growth and also carry other, more dire, risks - as recent credit downgrades portend and as recent events in Europe have illustrated.

Of course America never had an actual empire like many of the preeminent nations of the past, and so will be spared the dramatic indignity of surrendering territories and dealing with mass immigration and other such phenomena that are associated with the end of an empire. Though long-held perceptions and expectations are not easy to put aside, the lack of an empire will make the process far easier, not only in practical terms but also in terms of saving face. The decline in power and influence could be seen as a voluntary return to policies of relative isolationism and non-interventionism.

The French writer Henry de Montherlant - an aristocratic conservative - faced head-on and accepted the patent reality of the decline of France in the inter-war years, though he felt the pain of it keenly. Others, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, continued to believe in France's greatness, even after the debacle of 1940, even after the disastrous Algerian war, even now ...

The style and antics of the present French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is explicable only in the light of France's glorious past, and the mismatch between his pretensions and the reality of France's current position in the world is a source of amusement to many.

Britain's decline has been, if anything, even more painful and traumatic than that of France. In the post-World War 2 period, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann reflected the attachments and preoccupations and regrets of the English middle class. Behind the mock xenophobia and comic aggression of this little piece (from a performance in New York) lies ... Well, you be the judge.

A final thought: it strikes me that unsympathetic observers of David Cameron's actions at last week's Brussels summit will see him and his eurosceptic supporters - quite unjustly, of course, at least in respect of Cameron himself - as having been motivated by something like the sentiments being satirized here by Flanders and Swann.


  1. A few small graces might save the US from our widely predicted decline. Here is why I think the US is not "out of control" and spiraling downward as Europe seems to be.

    First, this nation was founded upon -- in fact it's in our DNA -- anti-tax sentiment. The level of taxation required to sustain Euro-style socialism is anathemic to us; if forced to choose between the services and the taxes, we will sacrific the services every time.

    Moreover, European socialism itself is considered vile and morally soft in a nation built by enterpreneurial emigre pioneers. Even the classic yeoman farmer in the USA understands he's a businessman. We are more like the Germans than the French -- hard work and reward for effort are admired, and anything less is considered freeloading. Ie, socialism to us is institutionalized freeloading.

    As for the Brits, as contrast, their endemic problem always has been the hereditary nature of their concept of merit. If your great-grandfather was an officer in 19th century colonial India, you merit an education and if not, you're a lifelong underling. They value aesthetics and decorum so much that they would rather build a good-looking automobile than a competent one. And upon this concept of inherent value is built a mild socialism that ignores the hard work and reward for effort necessary to sustain growth and progress.

    And finally, the natural instinct in the American commonfolk is for strict non-interventionism -- "leave us alone and we will leave you alone," essentially. But after Pearl Harbor and WWII, leaders who think otherwise have been able to persuade the US voter that it's better to be a superpower. Of course the leaders have been picking our pockets in the name of "defense" for decades. And they've taken us into some awful adventures -- all against the grain of the US psyche -- ever since the Spanish-American War. But it takes almost no special effort to raise a demonstration against war in the USA, and the reason is, we want to be left alone as private (undrafted) citizens. Much as we love our superpower status, the proper way to read that is "don't tread on me." Ultimately it will not be difficult to downsize our adventures: beneath the surface, we detest such things as trumped up wars for profit and glory. Historically we have punished the leaders of such adventures at the polls.

    We hate corruption, we do not respect privelege, and we thoroughly and resolutely distrust all politicians. We are not followers. We are ungovernable by anyone but ourselves.

    There is such a thing as an "American character" and it is rooted in resistance to domination. Unless those who would corrupt this character somehow succeed, the better angels of our nature will preserve us from the excesses of corruption and moral terpitude found elsewhere on the planet.

    The coming decade won't be pretty to watch. As the battles play out, however, notice the theme that resonates will be freedom from foreign influence, beholden to no one. There is a "myth of ourselves" at work which, if I am right, eventually wins the day.

  2. GC, is it really true that "Even the classic yeoman farmer in the USA understands he's a businessman"? My understanding is that the American farmer is even more dependent on taxpayer funding and protection than the typical EU-funded farmer.

    The rest of what you say I agree with. The US still has a strong belief in education, science, technology, and invention. And it has not yet completely screwed up its economy. Ditto Germany, Canada and Australia.

  3. GC, what you eloquently sketch out here is, as you say, a myth, but a potent and beneficent myth. The question is whether that myth, that set of values, has as strong a hold on the population of the United States as it has had in the past, and whether there is any significant trend in this regard. I accept your implicit assumption that values are crucially important to economic success. But it works the other way too, and a failing economy could lead to a loss of faith in free markets, entrepreneurship, etc.

  4. Let me just chime in also on - and signal my agreement with - Alan's positive comments about America, Canada, Germany and Australia.

  5. Alan, the farmer's understanding isn't lost (though it might be compromised) in the world of subsidies and price protections. For good or ill, that's part of the business and he understands that too. If we look more closely, the small farmer -- the yeoman of yore -- is almost extinct and the subsidies are skewed towards the ConAgras, Monsantos and Ralstons of the world. The fact that the family farm has become an endangered species indicates how far the "free market" has been distorted by government intervention -- which points us back to the moral/political issues at hand, of course.

  6. The civic myths and sets of values outlined above are alive and well, I think. Except in the leftish population that wants to occupy Wall Street -- quite to our point here. The question is whether these nominally traditional values will prevail, and I think they will. What the OWS "movement" and the "tea party" have in common is, they both oppose the corruption at the center of the system. That bodes ill for the corrupters.