Workin’ It

Today E.J. Dionne reflected on the fears of America’s decline.  A sense of decline due to foreign fiascoes and an economic crisis was one reason why Obama was elected; his inability to convince people he’s changing course is one reason he’s having problems now.   Dionne lists this as both a threat to and an opportunity for Obama’s Presidency; there is still time to convince people he’s got a way to respond.

Anyone reading my blog for while will know American decline has been a frequent topic.    On May 28, 2008, less than three weeks into keeping this blog and almost four months before the economic crisis hit, I wrote a post titled  America in Decline. I listed nine reasons for believing we are in decline, number one being massive debt and number two the likelihood of future oil crises.   However, all nine of those reasons remain valid today, and more starkly obvious due to the financial collapse of ’08 and subsequent recession (or depression).

Many dismiss talk of decline, noting that people were talking that way back in the early 80s when the last great recession hit.  The narrative is that Ronald Reagan came, injected optimism and a sense of purpose back to the public, and through tax cuts and deregulation guided us out of the malaise and into “morning in America.”   The hope is that Obama can do the same, and rather than “decline” we’re just going through the business cycle.

The problem with that hope is that the declinists were right in the 70s and early 80s, and in the 30 years since then we’ve been doing all we could to avoid having to deal with the need for structural changes.   As Don Henley eloquently put it in 2000, “we’re working it.”   Here’s a couple bits from those lyrics:

Welcome, welcome to the U.S.A.
We’re partying fools in the autumn of our heyday
And though we’re running out of everything
We can’t afford to quit
Before this binge is over
We’ve got to squeeze off one more hit
We’re workin’ it, Workin’ it

Soon you will be dancing face-to-face
With the limits of ambition and the scars of the marketplace
Welcome to the land of flame and fizz
Where you will learn that packaging is all that heaven is

We got the short-term gain, the long-term mess
We got the suffocating, quarterly consciousness
Yes man, run like a thief

For thirty years, addicted to cheap credit, we were “workin it,” getting a bit more consumption and “something for nothing” under our belts before things went south.   The Reagan Administration brought an illusion of economic rebound by starting the debt binge.   And both parties went along for the ride, it was easy.

But what does decline mean?   In terms of the domestic economy, it means losing our industrial base, having the inadequacies of our banking and financial sector laid bare, and a recession that continues the decline of the middle class as the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans grows as large as ever.   Internationally it is a relative loss of power as the unipolar world of the 90s gives way to a multipolar world.   The bad news is that we’re no longer the clear top dog, and other states won’t give us the deference we used to expect.  The good news is that no one else has clear dominance; be it China, India, Brazil or the EU, every other “pole” has serious problems limiting its stretch.

The late A.F.K. Organski, a political scientist, but forth power transition theory which posits that periods when one power declines and others rise (in relative terms) are the most unstable and prone to crisis.   The country losing power is tempted to act more aggressively to hold on to its position, while those rising will act more confidently, and be willing to challenge the former dominant power.   This was connected to cyclical theories of war and crisis, loosely positing 60 – 80 years of hegemony by a dominant power, followed by 20 years or so of crisis.   It has been 65 years since 1945, which is a pretty good run for US dominance.   And given the economic gap between the US and USSR, even the Cold War was defined by the US as a dominant power structuring the world economy.

The temptation to be aggressive and assert power remains evident.   Pundits have been calling for a harder line in Iran or North Korea, even as the cost of the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan grow.  The US has been involved in almost continual armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War.   Neo-conservatives have argued that the US isn’t declining, but doesn’t have the will to use the power it possesses.

Yet, the folly of trying to remake the Mideast shows that it’s not just a relative decline in economic power hurting the US, but a decline in importance of traditional military power.   Terrorism, cyberwarfare, and insurgencies are the stuff of future military conflict — and economic relations have eclipsed military ones in terms of defining power.  Germany and Japan don’t want large militaries because it will gain them nothing.  Traditional militaries are not yet obsolete, but far less important than they used to be.   Abusing them like the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan only demonstrates America’s new weakness, and extracts very high costs in both price and prestige.   At a time when the economy is faltering badly, this accelerates American decline.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but we have to stop “workin’ it.”  We have to stop trying to keep the party going, turning away from the fact we’ve created a mess and its not going to be easy to fix.    I think we need to cut our loses in our foreign wars, and recognize that countries like South Korea, Japan and even NATO reallly don’t need us that much.  The world is changing, and we have to see reality clearly, and recognize that just as our capabilities have changed, so must our commitments.

I’ll let Don Henley end it, with some lyrics from “The Genie,” the from the album Inside Job which also has “Workin’ it.”:

And the past comes back to smack you around
For all the things you thought you got for free
For the arrogance to think that you could somehow
Defy the laws of gravity
These are lessons in humility
Penitence for past offenses
Consequences, consequences

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  1. #1 by plainlyspoken on December 14, 2010 - 04:28

    Very in interesting post Scott. It certainly gives one reason to contemplate the furute for the US.

    We have to stop trying to keep the party going, turning away from the fact we’ve created a mess and its not going to be easy to fix. I think we need to cut our loses in our foreign wars, and recognize that countries like South Korea, Japan and even NATO reallly don’t need us that much. The world is changing, and we have to see reality clearly, and recognize that just as our capabilities have changed, so must our commitments.

    What, if any, level do you foresee as a needed austerity plan for the government to move us out of the depths of the ills we have brought upon ourselves?

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on December 14, 2010 - 16:55

    The budgetary and tax system has become so messed up, complex, and riddled with special interest considerations that it’s almost impossible to imagine a fix that doesn’t start from the ground up. What are our priorities? What do we need to fund? What spending invests in our future, what spending is simply wasteful? I do think we need to re-define our foreign policy and become more focused on national defense, not trying to protect others and manipulate global affairs.

    Another difficult problem is the fact that government domestic spending does stimulate the economy; if it were cut to reduce the deficit, that could further dampen economic activity. Yet adding debt only enhances the problem. Ideally it would be spend on things that help the overall economy while cutting things that aren’t necessary. That’s easy to say in the abstract, but real difficult to truly determine, especially when well funded lobbies are working hard to say they belong in the former camp. Obama has an opportunity with a GOP House that he wouldn’t have had with a Democratic majority to explore some real changes. I think entitlement reform is necessary, but that faces huge political obstacles. Yet if the crisis worsens, the “unthinkable” suddenly becomes plausible.

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