Tag Archives: decline

SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is in Decline. Get Used To It.

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We knew this was coming.

The American Century, after all, was the 20th.

Things were bound to go downhill.

Like 4th century Romans and post-World War II Europeans, Americans are beginning to realize that they are no longer citizens of an unrivaled superpower. And they’re kind of freaking out about it.

Using a novel “purchasing power parity” measure, the World Bank estimates that China’s economy will surpass the United States later this year. By per capita GDP — and most useful indices — the U.S. still maintains its lead. Nevertheless, many Americans agree with the thesis of Marxist economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” thatAmerica’s boom days are behind us, unlikely to be seen again. As The Economist summarizes Piketty: “The middle of the last century was unusual in its growth rates as well as in the distribution of income; the good times most of us see as our due as residents of rich economies were in fact a fleeting anomaly.”

By historical terms, back to normal slogging is a yawner. But humans don’t live in historical terms. We compare where we are now with where we were 10, 20, 30 years ago, and where our parents were. Psychologically if not fiscally, you’re better off never having experienced prosperity than to have had it and lost it. Downward mobility as America’s middle class has experienced it over the last 40 or 50 years — a boom-and-bust cycle featuring shorter expansions and longer, deeper recessions and depressions — is a bummer.

“We’re walking small,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote on May 3rd. “And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.”

As Bruni points out, we have good cause for bad ennui: America’s shameful global ranking on education quality (#39), collapsing social mobility (it’s easier to get rich in Old Europe and Canada), and our crumbling infrastructure. China unveils its awesomely cool pressurized bullet train to the Tibetan plateau; when they’re not hours late, our Amtraks derail.

Not that there aren’t upsides. “Less assertiveness could mean less overreach. Less confidence could mean less hubris. And money isn’t everything,” Bruni allows.

Not that the U.S. doesn’t have at least as much money as it used to. Overall, the U.S. is richer. The trouble is, all our loot has gotten aggregated into the claws of too few people. As The Times’ Nicholas Kristof notes in a piece titled “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!”: “Over all, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006. But 99% of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99% of the American population. Exclude the top 1%, and the average French citizen did better than the average American.”

Of course, Americans have always worried that America was in decline.

A kind of depression has set in,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in 2011. “We’ve lost our mojo, our groove.”

Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech (which despite our faulty collective memory contains neither the word malaise nor its existential French cousin “ennui”), addressed what he called a “crisis of confidence…the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” (And that was before the Iran hostage crisis.)

The Atlantic’s James Fallows (age 64) addressed America’s longstanding we’re-screwed vibe in 2010:

“Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half-century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. ‘Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,’ Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. ‘Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,’ said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. ‘And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.'”

Context matters, and it’s smart not to panic.

Unless…

Unless we really are screwed now. The usually-ignored takeaway from The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that there really was a wolf.

In other words, it is entirely possible the events Fallows and Perlstein downplayed — environmental degradation, the military disasters in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, soaring energy prices and institutionalized political corruption that has gotten so much worse that Nixon now looks like a saint — really were as bad as the worrywarts fretted because, throughout the conscious life of someone Fallows’ age, the U.S. really has been in decline.

Aside from a lot of geopolitical and ecological (metaphorical) birds coming home to roost, the simple truth is that there’s only one world and the U.S. is being forced to share its stuff. Despite a foreign policy centered around disruption and harassment of emerging major regional powers such as China, India, Brazil and Iran, Americans had better get used to a smaller share of power and wealth.

Which isn’t the worst thing. It sucked at the time, but losing their colonial empires is the best thing that ever happened to Europe’s once great powers, both morally and economically. The question for Americans is: What do we do about it? Do we allow our slide into Third Worldism to continue? Or do we scale back the drones and stupid wars, reject the NSA’s Orwellian (and wildly expensive) security nightmare, tax the hell out of the rich, and rebuild the social safety net?

One thing’s for sure: we can’t vote our way out of this problem.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Is America’s Decline Inevitable?

This November: The Pessimist vs. the Cynical Pessimist

This week, decline is on my brain. Specifically, the decline of America.

“There’s not a country on Earth that wouldn’t gladly trade places with the United States of America,” President Obama says, denying Republican assertions that the U.S. is in decline.

(I don’t know about that. Would sick people in the 36 nations that have better healthcare systems than the U.S. want to switch places?)

Clearly we believe our country is in decline—polls show that Americans think that the next generation will live worse than we do. Pessimism about the future is reflected in a 2011 survey in which 57 percent of the public identified the U.S. as the world’s most powerful nation, but just 19 percent thought that we’ll still be #1 20 years from now.

Now The New York Times reports that life expectancy for white people without a high-school degree fell precipitously between 1990 and 2007. It’s shocking news. “We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” the newspaper quoted John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging.

“The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London,” reports The Times.

Bear in mind, the study includes the Clinton boom of the 1990s. And it doesn’t include the period after 2007, when the global fiscal crisis set off the current depression. It’s almost certainly worse now.

Even the two major presidential candidates seem to think that the U.S. doesn’t have much of a future. During his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, President Obama was asked what his big idea was for his next term. Interviewer Steve Kroft mentioned the Marshall Plan and sending a man to the moon as examples of big ideas.

Obama ducked.

“I think there’s no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead,” replied Obama. “That’s the central American idea. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people.” A nonsensical answer. Yes, we should strive to get back to the lower gap between rich and poor that existed during the 1960s—but lower income inequality didn’t create the space program.

All Obama has to offer is a vague desire to restore the American Dream. Sorry, Mr. President, but getting back something we used to take for granted is the opposite of a big idea.

Though depressing, Obama’s pessimism is dwarfed by Mitt Romney’s.

Romney’s 2011 tax returns reveal that not only did he bet against the value of the American dollar—a staggeringly unpatriotic move for a presidential candidate—he received a quarter of his income from investments in other countries.

Romney, putting his money where his mouth isn’t, is literally betting his millions that the U.S. economy will head south. That the dollar will lose value. That foreign equities will outperform U.S. stocks. He even bought shares in the Chinese state oil company, which has contracts with Iran

He’s worse than a hypocrite. He’s an economic traitor.

Whether better, worse, or the same as today, the U.S. has a future. Who will lead us into that future? The person or movement that can credibly articulate a positive vision of a United States that doesn’t stand still, but actually moves forward–you know, like Obama’s campaign slogan. But who and where are they?

This presidential campaign is shaping up as a race between a pessimist and a cynical pessimist, and in such a contest the mere pessimist is likely to win. But it isn’t good for us in the long run.

“Never have American voters reelected a president whose work they disapprove of as much as Barack Obama’s,” observes the Associated Press’ Bill Barrow. “Not that Mitt Romney can take much comfort—they’ve never elected a challenger they view so negatively, either.”

Obama has the edge in the polls, partly because he presents a less somber vision despite his lack of big ideas. (It helps that Romney is a terrible politician.)

“This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We’ve got the best scientists and the best researchers. We’ve got the best colleges and the best universities,” said the President in his “not in decline” remarks.  (Never mind that there’s no point going into debt to attend school if there aren’t any jobs when you graduate.)

Well, the United States IS rich. Staggeringly so. The problem is that our wealth has become so unevenly distributed that there is no longer enough consumer demand to support the population. It’s a like a marriage in which both spouses can make it work—if they change their attitudes. If we began focusing on the problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising income and wealth inequality—i.e., economic injustice—and then fix them—we’ll be OK.

I don’t think we’ll be OK.

The U.S. doesn’t have to be in decline. Some liberal elites, like Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and investor Warren Buffett, understand the need to redistribute wealth. They’re one side of a split in the ruling classes. Unfortunately for the system and for many Americans, they’re losing the argument to greedpigs like Romney.

(Ted Rall‘s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at NBCNews.com’s Lean Forward blog.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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The Anti-American Manifesto

A revolutionary manifesto for an America heading toward economic and political collapse. While others mourn the damage to the postmodern American capitalist system created by the recent global economic collapse, I see an opportunity. As millions of people lose their jobs and their homes as the economy collapses, they and millions more are opening their minds to the possibility of creating a radically different form of government and economic infrastructure.

But there are dangers. As in Russia in 1991, criminals and right-wing extremists are best prepared to fill the power vacuum from a collapsing United States. The best way to stop them, I argue here, is not collapse—but revolution. Not by other people, but by us. Not in the future, but now. While it’s still possible.

The Anti-American Manifesto was widely discussed among progressives and leftists and remains a basis of discussion for people seeking to create the space to discuss politics outside of electoral irrelevance — a revolutionary movement.

I admire Rall. He is prolific writer of good sentences. He is a prolific drawer of bitterly ironic cartoons. He is a serious reporter. He is honest about his own failings and wandering ideology. And he has dusted off the r-word at exactly the right moment in American history. He wants a revolution. And I agree with him. A revolution is exactly what the United States needs. The amount of cultural/economic/political change needed to save the world in the brief time we have left is unimaginable without a revolution. You can argue that the ruling class is evil, you can argue that the ruling class is incompetent, you can argue that the ruling class is both. But it has never been more clear that the ruling class is impervious to reform through established channels and the rest of us can look forward to incalculable suffering unless we get rid of it. “Revolution doesn’t happen within the system,” Rall says. “Revolution is the act of destroying the system.” Yup. —TruthOut

You have to give points for audacity to begin a book advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. In his new book The Anti-American Manifesto, political cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall does just that. Perhaps most dangerously, he makes revolution sound like the only reasonable thing to do. Like the child who proclaimed the emperor had no clothes, Rall’s book has the effect of rendering self-evident what is hardly ever mentioned in public, though we all privately know it to be true: this system is broken beyond repair. —Socialist Worker

Political Manifesto, 2010
Seven Stories Press Trade Paperback, 5″x7″, 286 pp., $15.95

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