(This is the last in a series of posts on globalization and social/economic decline in America.)
Great nations decline badly.
Through history, empires and mighty nations have declined messily from their peaks, often destroying themselves and their neighbors as they fall. China, once the world's most powerful nation, endured 300 years of poverty, war and humiliation, culminating in the madness of the Great Cultural Revolution, before entering its recent revival. The Arab world, which invented mathematics and much of medicine, remains sunk in centuries of ignorance and superstition. The European empires disappeared in two ruinous 20th century wars. Most recently, the Soviet empire has withered into a bitter, corrupt and still dangerous kernel.
Now it's America's turn.
Previous posts in this series have reported the decline in this nation's capacity to support its people economically and in its ability to project power abroad: this decline has been the subject of articles and books by other writers and is increasingly accepted as fact. But we went further in stating that this decline is irreversible, mostly because the global economy has enabled the great corporations and their leaders -- traditionally the drivers of America's economy -- to escape not only American law and regulations but any responsibility for the nation, its people and its future. Operating globally, they have stopped being American. The nation will carry on without them but it will be weakened, in decline.
America's job now is not to reverse decline but to manage it. For a country that has always seen itself in exceptionalist terms, as the shining "city on the hill," even accepting decline will be hard, let alone managing it. This will require plain talk from the nation's leadership and uncommon maturity from the rest of us.
Given the current tone of political debate, this is a lot to ask. The presidential campaign, including the foreign policy debate, has managed to avoid almost every issue of real importance to this country's future -- the rise of China, the payments imbalances, America's slipping standards in virtually every international measurement of human well-being, not to mention global warming. If no candidate dares to deal realistically with these issues, a frank discussion of decline would be the political kiss of death.
With our dysfunctional domestic politics, we're going to need a lot of help from friend and foe, as they enter a world in which the U.S. is no longer the dominant power.
American decline has been a bi-partisan project. For thirty years, one administration after another, Republican and Democratic, has loosened the ties of corporate citizenship.
The Carter administration initiated the gradual deregulation of the economy that has ended in the mortgage crisis, the wholesale outsourcing of jobs and the ability of corporations to escape the reach of law. Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed that government is the problem, gave us trickle-down economics and made union-busting respectable.
Bill Clinton failed to grapple with the challenges of globalization, which first became visible on his watch, and so frittered away America's post-Cold war dominance. And then came George W. Bush, who squandered the chance for real American leadership presented to him by 9/11, and stumbled instead into two unfunded wars, a 13-digit debt, the housing bubble and, in time, the recession.
None of these actions was fatal in itself. Democratic politics supposedly enable one administration to undo its predecessor's mistakes. But decades of bad policies add up and become permanent.
There is no reason to expect decline to be reversed. All the pathologies -- the erosion of K-12 education, the loss of middle-class jobs, the growing class divisions, the rural-urban divide, the impoverishment of most American towns and cities, the weakened military and diplomatic position, the derisory politics, the malfunctioning government -- will require the return of a vital economy that, in a globalized world, has departed forever.
Theoretically, the federal government could take dramatic steps to reverse the decline, or at least to force global corporations to meet the obligations of citizenship. It could raise taxes, close loopholes, get serious about alternative energy, invest in job-creating research, blanket the nation with fiber-optic cable, enforce trade laws, penalize companies that outsource production, create a truly effective national health system, strengthen the social safety net. Most of all, it could enlist all Americans in a cohesive, coherent national campaign to mobilize the nation's resources in a renewal of the greatest.
It could do all this, but it won't. The lack of campaign finance reform guarantees that no administration dare take actions that upset the corporations and financial elite whose money gives them a veto power in American politics. These corporations, as we've seen, have a vested interest -- rather, a lack of interest -- in American decline. The recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has, in effect, made decline the law of the land.
So what now?
The first necessity is to change the tone of the debate. So long as we insist on being #1 and deny our new place in the world, we'll never come to terms with the reality of this new global structure.
A good start is to concede that we're no longer the global cop and to cut back on military spending and other costs of world leadership. As the Soviets discovered, being a superpower costs money. Moscow couldn't pay the bill and dropped out. Now we face the same financial limits.
But if we're not going to run the world, who is? Who can be the new balancer? Probably, nobody. This would mean the formation of new structures to keep the global peace and regulate the global economy. Again, this would take steadiness of leadership and powers of persuasion that are nowhere in sight.
To accept decline is not to accept social collapse. The United States remains a formidable economic and military nation. It's just that we can't do what we did, or live at our previous standards. It means waking from the American Dream.
Past empires, when they declined, lost much more than their power. Often, their societies crumbled along with their status. America is declining now. It lacks the will to stem that decline. Does it have the wisdom to accept it?