America’s decline, and how to prevent it

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2010

Internet serendipity strikes again! Hot on the heels of my questions about the political fragmentation and polarisation of the United States comes a long but lucid article from one James Fallows at The Atlantic, in which he discusses the nation’s seemingly perpetual worries about its own decline, and the reasons he believes that the US is still the envy of the world in most respects. [via MetaFilter; image by Henry Brett]

It really is quite lengthy, but well worth the time. There’s too much to attempt a succinct summary, so I’ll skip through to Fallows’ main point of concern – namely that the thing that most needs fixing is the US system of governance. But how could that be achieved without a coup or a complete constitutional rewrite?

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.


I started out this process uncertain; I ended up convinced. America the society is in fine shape! America the polity most certainly is not. Over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament—Democrats by unintentionally giving governmental efforts a bad name in the 1960s and ’70s, Republicans by deliberately doing so from the Reagan era onward. At the moment, Republicans are objectively the more nihilistic, equating public anger with the sentiment that “their” America has been taken away and defining both political and substantive success as stopping the administration’s plans. As a partisan tactic, this could make sense; for the country, it’s one more sign of dysfunction, and of the near-impossibility of addressing problems that require truly public efforts to solve. Part of the mind-set of pre-Communist China was the rage and frustration of a great people let down by feckless rulers. Whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership, it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away. America is not going to have a Communist revolution nor endure “100 Years of Humiliation,” as Imperial China did. But we could use more anger about the fact that the gap between our potential and our reality is opening up, not closing.

Lots of food for thought in there… not to mention enough starting points for a dozen Harry Turtledove novels (albeit minus the lizards). How do you think the US might rescue itself from this political cul de sac?

David Brin: is America’s loss the world’s gain?

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2009

Marshall Plan propaganda posterY’know, I really like David Brin, even though I don’t always agree with what he says; he’s got a contrary stripe a mile wide, and he’s one of the few self-identifying conservative thinkers in science fiction who’s willing to break ranks with populism and call out the failings of his own side – something that is just as rare on the liberal side of the fence, IMHO.

Brin’s guest-blogging at Sentient Developments again, and his latest post is provocative reading, regardless of your personal politics. The thesis is roughly as follows: America may have spent itself into economic and political decline, but in doing so it leaves as its legacy a world lifted out of poverty thanks to the counter-mercantilist trade flows set up by the Marshall plan. [image by kafka4prez; orginal copyright status uncertain, so please contact for takedown if required]

You should go read the whole thing (there’s probably ten minutes worth of text there, so it’s one of his smaller rants), but here’s a few highlights for the impatient:

While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy — the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.


At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall’s time kept fealty with this compact — to such a degree that the world’s peoples by now simply take it for granted.

Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs! But they aren’t. They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n’ roll.


Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

A world saved. A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect. And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or “central kingdom.”

If that happens — (as I portray in a coming novel) — will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom? Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

I’m as guilty as the next man of casting American influence in a negative light, and Brin’s analysis provides an intriguing counterpoint to that nay-saying: an argument to the effect that history may remember that influence more positively than our proximity to it currently permits.

What do you think America will be remembered for in fifty years’ time? (And keep it cordial, folks; nation-bashing and racism will be deleted without hesitation, so keep a historical perspective, please.)

Revealed: Pentagon predicts wars of the future

Tom James @ 11-03-2009

viperfull_2The proud journos at TPMMuckraker have managed to acquire the titles of various Pentagon Office of Net Assessment reports through a Freedom of Information request. Here’s what’s been on their minds:

The Great Siberian War Of 2030

The Revival Of Chinese Nationalism: Challenges To American Ideals

The Future Of Undersea Warfare

Chinese And Russian Asymmetrical Strategies For Space Dominance (2010-2030)

That last one is relevant to the recent news of a military (but possibly not weapons-carrying, what with the Outer Space Treaty [thanks commenter Kian]) Chinese space station.

The whole list is here.

As the actual content of the reports is still classified we can amuse ourselves by wondering what Biometaphor For The Body Politic [March 2006] refers to. It sounds like a description of someone explaining the Facts of Life with handpuppets.

[via Danger Room][image also from Danger Room]

American lifestyle must change, says neuroscientist

Tom James @ 21-10-2008

According to neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, head honcho of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA the concept of the American DreamTM is a “biological impossibility.” From the Wired article:

“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” said Whybrow

Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we find ourselves anxious and depressed.

This seems to be related to the newly-emerging discipline of behavioural economics, as pioneered by Richard Thaler and others. Here is a good introduction to behavioural economics on

Behavioural economics seem to reflect the fact that economists are coming round to the intuitively obvious idea that human beings really are not super-intelligent, near-psychopathic, wholly self-interested beings like homo economicus.

[image from Orin Optiglot on flickr]

United States of Mind: Is geography personality?

Tom Marcinko @ 15-09-2008


A new study says personality traits vary by region in the U.S (pdf). Here’s the map for niceness. Minnesota’s score does not surprise me (assuming there’s anything to this at all, of course). The study also maps openness, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness (and it’s surprising to see my adopted state of Arizona scoring so high there). Color maps next time, please, professors. Actual marketing people need these.

[Tip: Andrew Sullivan; image: Rentfrow et al.]

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