Sunday, October 24, 2010

Controlled descent (Sunday Reflections for October 24, 2010)

National midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Typically less than half of those eligible cast ballots in such elections and that is likely to be true this time, as well. Not voting can reflect satisfaction with the way things are, frustration with the system, or disinterest. Polls report an unusually higher number of likely voters who are angry. Not surprisingly incumbent Democrats are especially anxious and the party may lose control of one or both houses of Congress.

The distressed state of the economy is the dominant campaign topic. Unlike previous disagreements over wars or social issues, however, there is no clear “for or against” divide. The result has been a muddled election campaign with a lot more emotion expressed than clear ideas. The economy is a mess; it doesn’t seem to be getting much better; so somebody needs to do something—but what?

Not surprisingly the party in power gets the blame for such problems. The likely gain in Republican congressional seats will not set a clear alternative direction, however. Instead, it will likely result in more Washington muddle for the next two years, which in some people’s minds is a good thing. They may be right, but I doubt it.

As a country we are in new territory, and while we don’t really like where we are at, neither do we know of another place to go. We certainly don’t have anyone confidently saying, “Follow me. I know the way out of here.” In fact, the real problem is that we don’t know where we are. We’ve run off the map.

Many view the modern study of history as beginning with Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was published in England, in multiple volumes, during the time of the American Revolution. Gibbon’s work reflected the Enlightenment’s fascination with the classical origins of Western culture. Its focus on the end of Rome’s empire was also a cautionary tale. With unrest and revolution in the air, there was considerable interest in learning how great nations can also go greatly wrong.

That interest has continued and been the topic of many subsequent books and college courses. One of the more obvious conclusions of such studies is that no empire lasts forever. Another conclusion, however, is that empires and great nations do not all end or decline the same way. There is considerable difference, for example, between ancient and modern empires.

The ancient world was characterized by a succession of dominating, long-lasting empires, like Egypt, Persia, Greece, and, of course, Rome. The modern world, on the other hand, has seen countless competing empires come and go relatively quickly. Some have fallen suddenly and often violently. Others, however, have come to an end more gradually and orderly, often transitioning into new, smaller entities. Nazi Germany is a spectacular example of the former while Great Britain demonstrated the possibility of the latter.

Not surprisingly, there has been much speculation on whether the United States has begun its decline. One of the first and still best scholarly examinations of this was historian Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), which covered the period from 1500 onward. If there is one word that explains the decline of the powers Kennedy looks at, it is “overstretch.” Ultimately, the dominating power of all of these nations ended because their (mostly) military endeavors eventually outran their resources.

Kennedy does not say there was necessarily anything these countries could have done to prevent this outcome. Indeed, he says, it is simply not given for any nation to dominate the world indefinitely. Awareness of that truth, and awareness of how decline happens, implies that nations can have some say in preparing for and managing their inevitable yielding of the world power stage to another.

The current recession has revealed that we are in a state of denial about our future. The recently burst housing bubble was the result of government economic policies trying to compensate for decades of flat household income growth with cheap and easy credit. In fact, this was only the latest of a series of such bubbles, each one trying to create wealth via investment schemes rather than with actual economic growth. The result each time is that a few savvy folks make out like bandits while far more lose their shirts.

As a consequence, the disparity in income and wealth has been growing alarmingly. Not since the 1920s has such a small percentage of the population controlled such a large portion of the nation’s wealth. The rich are also doing a remarkable job of hiding this fact. A recent survey showed that American’s have no clue just how rich the rich really are—and how relatively poor they are as a result.

Voter anger is not surprising given these circumstances. Unfortunately, politicians are all too ready to exploit that anger for their own purposes by directing it at manufactured bogeymen. This only makes the problems worse, however, and plays right into the hands of those able to exploit those problems for their own benefit.

We need to face the fact that the United States’ political and economic place in the world is changing. The global dominance it has experience since the end of World War II is ending, as it inevitably had to. Just as Europe and Japan rebuilt themselves after that war, so now many formerly poor and often exploited countries are joining the modern global economy.

Our slice of the global economic pie is shrinking but only because the pie itself is getting bigger. It’s essential we understand this difference between perception and reality. Thus far, though, we haven’t been doing a very good job with that. Trying to hold back this tide will only result in disaster, as we have seen. Instead, we need to learn how to ride with it.

We need to rediscover who we are as a people and recommit ourselves to our historic values: preservation of personal freedom and opportunity combined with care and support for those in need. We need to channel our anger, not into hatred or vengeance, but into a resolve to right what is wrong. We need set a new course that reflects our changed circumstances, that will lead us all together to a better tomorrow.


David said...

I concur. Remember this?

There you go man, keep as cool as you can. Face piles and piles of trials with smiles. It riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave and keep on thinking free.

Doug said...

Sorry Dave, I'm afraid I don't.

David said...

You don't remember In The Beginning?

Doug said...

Ha ha, okay David, yes of course. I need to rediscover more of the music of my adolescence. Well, maybe.

David said...

Yeah, I guess we're all grown up now (wink). Anyway, I'm having fantasies that the voting will be a big surprise.

I had made a comment here that reminded me of the song.

Anyway, I sure enjoy your writing Doug(I just read this Sunday's blog). Thanks again.