Measuring U.S. Decline

The hypothesis of U.S. decline is, given the wealth of supporting evidence, easy to make, but how does one go beyond merely citing one’s favorite set of mistakes to actually measuring decline?

Trends constitute an obvious and valuable start, assuming they can be perceived. The failure of the old USSR to moderate alcohol consumption gave a measure (in the event, the absence of a positive trend) of Soviet decline that was understood (at least by Gorbachev) even at the time, albeit not effectively acted on, though he tried. The current U.S. trend since Reagan toward a two-class society and–this century–with the absolute decline of middle class prospects, seems an even more serious warning of decline. Trends can be vague and thus are typically easy to overlook. Moreover, being linear and thus missing crucial tipping points altogether, they have their limits.

Yet trends are a critical component of reality, and identification of the direction of key societal trends would facilitate greatly our understanding of where the U.S. is headed. A simple set of candidate trends meriting constant tracking might include the following, each followed by an intuitive (not a measured) description of the direction of the trend:

  • Wealth Distribution – flowing steadily into the hands of the extreme rich;
  • Transparency in Government – mostly disappearing under two-party support for the emerging Imperial Presidency but with significant resistance recently (e.g., Snowden, Senators Wyden and Udall);
  • Civil Liberties – severely weakened by the Neo-Cons and Obama’s protection of Bush and Cheney; further weakened by the Supreme Court; efforts to defend civil liberties by the Occupy Movement, Wisconsin civil servants, Moral Mondays protesters show some popular concern;
  • Environment – on top of weak regulation, the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico without any BP executives being held responsible and the evident move toward the Keystone Pipeline to enrich the Koch Brothers frame a sellout of America’s natural birthright by both parties;
  • Government Regulatory Performance – virtually destroyed in the financial field and greatly weakened across the board, state-level protests and the election of Elizabeth Warren notwithstanding;
  • Foreign Policy Management – erratic, short-sighted, self-defeating under both parties with the appearance of intentional abuse of power for private gain: the CEOs of arms manufacturers, oil companies, and mercenary firms—and al Qua’ida–being the clear winners of the Iraq invasion disaster; relations with Pakistan being bungled even as the war in Afghanistan is being lost, U.S. preeminence in the Mideast moving to China’s advantage, and negotiations with Iran over a period of two decades essentially amounting to the U.S. raising a stone only to drop it on its own feet;
  • Protection of the Needy – the needy are not only increasingly being marginalized and abused by the elite but much of the elite is bragging about such behavior;
  • Who Pays – problems always exist and someone must pay; closely related to several of the above trends is the question of who pays: is austerity, when called for, fairly apportioned and are those responsible for problems (e.g., Wall St. financial criminals, crooked mortgage lenders, robo-signing judges, polluting corporate CEOs) held personally responsible; protection of the rich and payment by the victims has—since 2007–been elevated from a “problem requiring attention” to national policy. America takes care of its rich.

If a glance at these trends suggests a steady decline in the quality of American governance across the board over the last three decades with an acceleration in that decline more recently, then it seems clear that American society urgently needs to decide on the trends it cares about, track the direction of those trends, and address failings.

A refinement to trend analysis would be to look for trends that are obvious but distant, asking if the system is capable of dealing with clear but future danger. Global warming is the obvious example, and the U.S. head-in-the-sand approach bodes ill. Rather than leading the world into a new business area and healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, Washington has become the primary obstacle to addressing a problem that politicians estimate can be postponed until “after their watch.” With the impact of an expanding third class (in addition to the super-rich and everyone else) of the permanently unemployed on crime, productivity, health, and general social stability now a black thunderhead on the national horizon, how we treat the long-term unemployed has become an increasingly significant trend as well. Treatment of minorities, normally defined as religious or racial minorities in the U.S., would perhaps be one traditionally important trend that is moving in a positive direction (aside from attitudes toward Muslims), except that in reality the long-term unemployed are becoming the new marginalized minority.

A companion technique to trend analysis, perhaps underutilized, is to find clear-cut disasters and study how the system reacts. In the U.S., three major pillars support the system: the central government, the usefully strong states, and society. If all three appear to learn nothing from an obvious failure of governance, it seems fair to conclude that the system is seriously dysfunctional.

The two most obvious self-generated U.S. disasters of the past generation were the invasion of choice to subjugate Iraq and the 2007 Recession. The invasion, begun amid a global terror threat, provoked a terrorist reaction still raging a decade later. The 2007 Recession, manufactured at home by a vengeful and fraudulent effort to transfer wealth wholesale from the 99.9% to the 0.1% was the worst failure of the financial system since the Great Depression. Clear failures indeed, but in both cases the system essentially reacted by papering over responsibility and going for more of the same, which—in both cases—is surely exactly what we will get. In the case of financial corruption, state-level reform efforts were strikingly noteworthy in intent but failed due to lack of Federal support.

A third major failure was the inability of the U.S. to prevent a major crisis in relations with politically active Islam, exemplified by 9/11, despite a decade-plus series of increasingly severe warning attacks. To date, the Washington establishment essentially has remained in denial about the degree to which this long terrorist episode constituted chickens coming home to roost. Consequently, the self-defeating policies of gunboat diplomacy in the past (sending Marines to Lebanon in 1982 not really as peacekeepers so much as in support of Israeli militarists, Black Hawk Down, failing to support civil society in post-Soviet Afghanistan, etc.) are not just repeated but magnified at present (focusing still on military solutions to social problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq).

In sum, one can begin to test the decline hypothesis with three easily identifiable sets of clues: trends per se (i.e., “what direction are we headed?”), reaction to obvious failures (i.e., “Do we learn?”), and reaction to negative trends that pose only a distant but very clear threat (i.e., “Do we care about our children?”). A superficial review suggests a seriously deficient U.S. record at the Federal level but also notes the special strength of a system containing regional governmental structures with enough power to serve as a secondary locus for reform. How successful this is likely to be, however, is called into question by the inability of states to play any role in preventing a war of choice and the failure of even the strongest state-level financial reform efforts to have much impact. The hapless state response to the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico, when state governments came face to face with omnipotent BP and the desperate position of states trying to stop the poisoning of ground water by fracking add to the sorry record. Similarly, in no case did popular efforts, such as the Occupy Movement, achieve a noteworthy victory. The theoretically powerful three-legged structure of U.S. governance (Federal, state, and democracy activism) appears, to put it mildly, crippled.

Taking the broad view of what is happening in the U.S. by examining the well known individual problems with even a little analytical rigor in the context of all the others brings into focus the extent of the problem facing the U.S. but also suggests that we have more than enough evidence to draw strong conclusions about the urgent need for a fundamental redirection of American governance.


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