Last month, I wrote about the government. I asserted that we need to get business interests out of government or we’ll keep making decisions based on next quarter’s profits instead of the health of the next decade. This month, I want to talk about a whole industry that seems to be falling victim to short-term thinking, at least in America and Europe.
You know how it usually works: you get back from a few days away to find your email inbox full of invoices, frantic requests for assistance and other things clamouring for your immediate input. Makes trying to find things to blog about a bit tricky… unless you find something like this email from Morgan Hubbard of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst nestling among the others:
I’m a grad student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I recently debuted Uncertain Futures, an online exhibit on the cold war history of American science fiction. It’s heavy on visuals and media, and I’d like to think it’s breezy and narrative enough to hold a reader’s attention. Is this something Futurismic might like to mention?
It certainly is, Morgan – and not just because of its conveniently timed arrival! Go take a look, folks; it’s good accessible scholarship married to striking yet usable web design. Not just an insight into science fiction’s past, but maybe an insight into the long-overdue future of the academic paper in a multimedia landscape…
Thanks again, Morgan!
Experience teaches that writing a convincing near-future sf story is not easy–let alone convincing editors that you are not writing satire–but this really struck a writerly nerve: “Most Americans can’t imagine a future that’s not pretty much like the recent past, maybe with a few wind turbines and solar panels added.”
Jon Talton used to write for The Arizona Republic. Now, as Rogue Columnist, he writes stuff his old bosses wouldn’t tolerate. (He’s published a decent series of crime novels set in AZ, too.) His columns sometimes read like jeremiads, but in the spirit of a couple of Paul’s recent posts about the future of the American empire, here are some snippets from Jon’s latest. What the hell; it’s Friday the Thirteenth.
I can see a few other outcomes:
1. The man on the white horse. When chaos reaches a certain level most people will eagerly embrace, say, Gen. David Petraeus. He’s shown little MacArthurism in him. But if both political parties and most institutions have lost legitimacy, the military might be forced by events to step in. Or the elites, desperate to save their bacon, might draft this universally admired soldier as president. The move might gain further power as thousands of discharged combat veterans drive the streets of America unable to find work. This will be our Rubicon moment….
[Blogger’s rude interruption: I’m reliably informed that Americans love it when John Wayne rides in to save the day, and in fact many believe it happens on a regular basis, perhaps recently.–Desultorily Philippic Tom]
3. Devolution. This would be another orderly way for a bankrupt and hamstrung federal government to accept reality, particularly if faced with ever greater instability and gridlock. Keep control of national defense, foreign policy, the constitutional basics. And leave the rest to the states, including most taxing and regulatory authority. If Arizona wants to be a law-of-the-jungle toxic dump where the devil takes the hindmost, see how that works out….
4. War with China. …China is happy to watch America exhaust itself in the Muslim world, hoping that will do the trick, leaving America to do a sudden global withdrawal as Britain did. But conflict is not impossible to imagine. If it happened, any of the above scenarios might face a losing America. A greater, if fleeting, imperial moment might await a winning America. But it won’t be the America we once knew.
5. Muslim revenge. The longer we intrude in the Middle East and Afghanistan, keeping armies there, depending on oil from dictatorships, allowing an intransigent Israel to do as it wishes, playing with fire in Pakistan and ignoring all those millions of angry, unemployed young men — the closer we get to a horrific reckoning.
None of this may happen. I certainly don’t want it to happen. But these outcomes are no longer out of the question.
Agree or not, Jon raises issues that sf might arguably and legitimately deal with. Hmm, what was the exact date the world began to look towards China, rather than the U.S., for leadership out of the recession? Am I just a jingoistic ignorant might-as-well-be-a-klansman for even asking if that’s a good or bad thing?
Things are changing pretty fast, has anybody noticed? The author of Russian Spring, with its early cover painting of the Lenin statue greening over, might do a William Windom Star Trek turn: “Don’t you think I know that?!?!” How would a book like Stand on Zanzibar, which I read till it fell apart in my turbulent twenties, read today? (I’ll let you know if I ever track down a copy.) It would be interesting to see stories about how some of Talton’s speculations can be avoided.
Via Richard Gowan of the Global Dashboard gang, here’s one Michael Mandelbaum extolling the theme of his new book, Frugal Superpower. In a nutshell: The US can’t afford to sustain its “democracy-exporting” model of foreign policy unless it wants affairs at home to go from bad to worse. And that’s bad news, even for those of us who aren’t particularly keen on that foreign policy model… because, like it or not, US foreign policy contributes to global stability.
It has to operate within limits that arise from a consensus in the wider public about what is desirable and what is feasible. During the Cold War, for example, America maintained a large and costly military presence in Europe because this was widely agreed to be necessary to protect American interests by deterring a Soviet attack. The limits that govern foreign policy are not formally encoded in a foreign policy charter and are seldom even set out explicitly. They are more like customs in small-scale societies or good manners in larger ones: they are tacitly, but broadly, understood.
Because of the country’s financial constraints, those limits will be narrower than they have been for many decades. The government will still have an allowance to spend on foreign affairs, but because competing costs will rise so sharply that allowance will be smaller than in the past. Moreover, the limits to foreign policy will be drawn less on the basis of what the world needs and more by considering what the United States can–and cannot–afford.
I’m not so sure about Mandelbaum’s grim assertions that the dogs of discord will be unleashed as a result of budgetary belt-tightening; the dogs of discord are already gleefully chewing through the leash, despite the immense (and sometimes predominantly unaccounted for) recent expenditure on US interventionism overseas. And this is exactly the sort of thing the United Nations was put together to deal with, after all… maybe we could go back to, y’know, letting it do its job? I’m guessing those notorious council veto options may hamper that particular idea for a while, but still…
Tough disruptive times are on the cards for the whole planet, this much is certain; whether they’d be any less tough with the US still throwing its weight around is, in my humble opinion, still open to debate.
John Robb has just re-posted “USA Inc.“, a speculative future-history essay he wrote back in 2007, meant to be read as if “written from the perspective of a think tank that’s operating in support of the status quo economic elites in 2025.” He saw the recession coming, predicted an increasing entrenchment of US forces in unwinnable open-source guerrilla conflicts, and riffed on these themes to predict a future where massive government debt leads to the privatisation of… well, pretty much everything. [image by szlea]
Roads, waterworks, military bases, schools, parks, and much more were quickly sold at appropriate prices. Attempts by government’s to retain ownership and rent them as multi-year leases were initially successful, but as the crisis deepened the market cooled to these schemes. Within a year of the start of what is incorrectly but popularly termed “The Great Theft,” outright sales of assets to global investment funds, corporations and individuals were by far more common. The speed of this transfer in ownership has been unmatched by any example prior or since. By 2015, less than three years after the panic began, upwards of 60% of all public assets from the national to the local levels were formally in private hands.
Note that Robb says this is not a future he desires or advocates, but that it seems nonetheless more plausible as events develop; for extra chewiness, compare and contrast with Tim Maly’s “The Free Freeways” Futurismic essay about the seccession of the US highway system.
I think I can safely predict that a lot of you will say Robb’s USA Inc. could never happen, and those of you who are American citizens would be better qualified to make that judgemnet than I… but I’d be very interested to hear your reasoning. Is Robb’s style of doomsaying just a symptom of the inherently self-critical character of American politics, and hence an indication that the problems he’s flagging up are already being grappled with at a subliminal level?
Or is the feeling that it couldn’t happen merely a form of knee-jerk wishful thinking and denial – “too big to fail” scaled up to a whole nation?