The Case for Pessimism
This article is from our special November issue, which focuses on the future of America. Also in the issue is John Podhoretz’s Case for Optimism and a COMMENTARY symposium featuring 41 American thinkers and writers who answer the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future? We will be posting two symposium contributions daily on our blog. Click here to read the most recently posted symposium contribution.
In September 2009, Barack Obama and Muammar Qaddafi both addressed the United Nations. It is a pitiful reflection upon the Republic in twilight that, when it comes to the transnational mush drooled by the leader of the free world or the conspiracist ramblings of a pseudo-Bedouin terrorist drag queen presiding over a one-man psycho-cult basket case, it’s more or less a toss-up as to which of them was the more unreal.
Qaddafi spoke for 90 minutes, and in the midst of his torrent of words, his translator actually broke down and cried out, “I can’t take it anymore.” The colonel gravely informed the world body that the swine flu was a virus that had been created in a government laboratory, and he called for a UN inquiry into the Kennedy assassination on the grounds that Jack Ruby was an Israeli who killed Lee Harvey Oswald to stop the truth coming out about Kennedy being killed to prevent an investigation into the Zionist nuclear facility at Dimona.
On the other hand:
“I have been in office for just nine months, though some days it seems a lot longer,” President Obama mused. “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with the status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences.”
Now, forget the first part, which was just Obama’s usual narcissistic “but enough about me; let’s talk about what the world thinks about me” shtick. It was the second part of Obama’s remarks that reveals the danger we find ourselves in, two years later, even with Qaddafi toppled and in hiding and Jack Ruby’s Israeli roots still unexplored.
The thing is, for better or worse, we are defined by our differences, and if Barack Obama didn’t understand that when he was at a podium addressing a room filled with representatives of Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Venezuela, and the whole gang of evil, the rest of the world certainly did as soon as Qaddafi appeared. Obama and Qaddafi may both have been the heads of state of sovereign nations, but if you’re on an Indian Ocean island when the next tsunami hits, try calling Libya instead of the United States for help and see where it gets you.
The global reach that enables America and a handful of other nations to get to a devastated backwater on the other side of the planet and save lives and restore the water supply in a matter of days isn’t a happy accident or a quirk of fate. It is something that derives explicitly from our political system, our economic liberty, our traditions of scientific and cultural innovation, and a general understanding that societies advance when their citizens are able to fulfill their potential in freedom.
In other words, America and Libya are defined by nothing but their differences, even though the very thought of “differences” seemed to pain the president on that day. “No nation,” he announced to the assembled warmongers and genociders, both actual and would-be, “can or should try to dominate another nation.”
As far as I’m aware, neither Qaddafi’s translator nor anyone else screamed “I can’t take this anymore” and fled the room. But someone should have. Whether or not any nation should try to dominate another, they certainly can. And they have. Nations have sought to dominate others and have succeeded at it with ease all over the planet and throughout human history.
So who’s next? According to the International Monetary Fund, China will become the planet’s leading economy in the year 2016.
If the IMF is right, in five years’ time, the preeminent economic power on the planet will be a one-party state with a Communist Politburo and a largely peasant population, no genuine market, no human rights, no property rights, no rule of law, no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of association. It will mark the end of a two-century Anglophone dominance, and—even more civilizationally startling—for the first time in a half millennium the leading economic power will be a country that doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet.
Whether or not this preeminent China should dominate other nations, it certainly can. And it certainly will.
If you think like President Obama and believe nations are not defined by their differences, then China’s great leap forward is not that big a deal. But if you think, like someone who has given it a moment’s thought, that nations are defined by their differences, it is a very big deal. Most immediately, it means that the fellow elected next November will be the last president of the United States to preside over the world’s leading economy. This should be a source of shame to every American. It is not. Not yet. Instead, we battle over trivialities.
Washington spent most of the summer of 2011 gripped by the debt-ceiling showdown. Cable-news correspondents stood outside the White House and the Capitol all day long, reporting the comings and goings of the movers and shakers. Everyone was agog as to whether the president and the administration would reach a deal before the clock chimed midnight on August 2, whereupon the president’s lavishly weaponized Canadian-manufactured black coach in which he toured Iowa would turn back into a pumpkin.
Now, just to put this so-called debt-ceiling battle, in which the Republicans were supposedly battling to secure budget cuts that would destroy the social safety net, in perspective: there was a dispute between Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Congressional Budget Office about the so-called scoring of the plan that eventually passed and was signed by the president. Boehner said the plan called for $7 billion in cuts for the 2012 budget. The CBO said the plan only reduced the 2012 deficit by $1 billion.
Which of these numbers is correct?
The United States government currently spends one-fifth of a billion dollars that it doesn’t have every hour, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Ramadan. A fifth of a billion dollars every single hour—so the $7 billion that John Boehner calls “a real enforceable cut for financial year 2012” represents what the government of the United States currently borrows every 37 hours. In the time between the Friday announcement of the plan and the Sunday morning talk shows’ discussion of it, the government borrowed back every dime of those painstakingly negotiated savings.
On the other hand, if the CBO’s scoring is correct, and it reduces the 2012 deficit by just $1 billion, then the cut represents what the United States borrows every five hours and 20 minutes. Don’t bother waiting for the Sunday talk shows, because the savings will all be borrowed back in the time it would take you to read this issue of Commentary. But let’s give John Boehner the benefit of the doubt and concede that for a month of shuttling back and forth between the Capitol and the White House, he got a “real enforceable cut of $7 billion.”
In September, the president swanned into Congress for a nationally televised address on jobs and proposed, off the top of his head, another $477 billion in spending—a half trillion dollars we don’t have, that the world has no desire to lend us, and the majority of which will be “electronically created” by the United States Treasury selling its debt to the Federal Reserve under the policy called “quantitative easing.”
The politico-media class of this country seems to think it entirely normal that we should spend two months in tense, difficult, painstaking negotiations over how to go seven billion steps forward—and then breezily spend 20 minutes going 447 billion steps backwards. The inconsistency between the bottomless pit that supposedly awaited us on August 2 and the airy coverage of September 8 tells us a great deal about the unlikelihood of meaningful course correction in this country.
The other day a friend of mine watched the film The People Versus Larry Flynt, which tells in part of the battles between the title pornographer and a conservative activist named Charles Keating, who owned Savings and Loan. The film’s final card portentously informs us that “Charles Keating was part of the Savings and Loan scandal that cost American taxpayers $2 billion.” The People Versus Larry Flynt came out in 1996. That was a mere 15 years ago. And yet, just as we find it hard to comprehend that the average peasant in medieval England had to get by on six pennies a day, we now find it difficult to imagine an age lost in the myths of antiquity when there were scandals that cost American taxpayers a mere two billion dollars.
What a primitive society that must have been, barely advanced out of subsistence agriculture! Today, the government of the United States borrows $2 billion every 11 hours. We could have 220 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of the Obama jobs bill. We could have 500 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of one Obama stimulus package. We could have 850 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of this year’s budget deficit. We could have vast armies of Charles Keating clones rampaging across the fruited plain, and they would barely make a dent in America’s finances.
Here’s another example of the kinds of dollars that are being thrown around now. The Obama administration’s $38.6 billion clean-technology program was supposed to “create or save 65,000 jobs.” Half the money has been spent, $17.2 billion, and we have 3,545 jobs to show for it. That works out to an impressive $4,851,904.09 per green job created. A world record! People say America can’t be number one anymore, but mister, we’re number one at this. The previous world record was held by Spanish taxpayers who subsidized every job on a solar panel assembly line to the tune of $800,000 per post. I’ll bet Spain thought that record was safe for a couple of years. Not so fast, amigos. The American taxpayers took it and sextupled it—not $800,000 per green job, but $4,800,000 per green job. I’d like to see those cheeseparing Spaniards reclaim that record any time soon!
Nobody spends like this. Nobody except us. Nobody uses the T word—trillion—except us. It’s easy to look at debt-to-GDP ratios and conclude there’s nothing to worry about, but when you’re squandering $4.8 million per artificial non-job, it’s not the comparative numbers that will kill you. It’s the sheer dollar sums.
There were three great citadels of Western civilization: Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. It took a fourth, London, Washington’s immediate predecessor as the dominant power, to disseminate the ideas of Athenian democracy and Roman law and the Hebrew Bible to the farthest corners of the earth. America has signs of decline that follow the examples of all four.
Rome once built aqueducts, and then it stopped building aqueducts, and then the aqueducts it had built started to decay. At the dawn of big government, in the 1930s, we built the Hoover Dam. Then we stopped building dams. In September, in the town of Port Angeles in the state of Washington, there commenced the destruction of two century-old dams in order to “liberate” the Elwha River. So now we’re dismantling dams.
You can see this at work—or rather, not at work—every time you’re on the isle of Manhattan. The Empire State Building was put up in one year and 45 days in the middle of a depression. Ground Zero is still a building site after a decade. 9/11 is something America’s enemies did to us. The 10-year hole in the ground is something we did to ourselves.
Now consider the people who went rampaging through the streets this summer in London. These are the children of dependency, people who have been marinated in stimulus within an inch of their lives, and they’re good for nothing but lobbing concrete through store windows so they can steal the latest models of electronic toys. They tore apart a city that, within living memory, governed a fifth of the earth’s surface and a quarter of its population. When you’re imperialist on that scale, you make a lot of mistakes. But nothing the British did to any of their subject peoples in far-flung corners of the globe compares with what they did post-imperially to their own population.
These are the great-grandchildren of a tiny island that stood alone against the Germans during the Blitz in that terrible year after the fall of France. If those Britons of mid-century were to come back, they would assume they had landed in some bizarro alternative universe—until, like Charlton Heston rounding the corner and seeing the shattered Statue of Liberty poking up out of the sands, they realize that the Planet of the Apes is their own. The evil of big government is not that it is a waste of money, but that it lays waste to people.
In Israel in the mid-1990s, an idea called normaliut seized hold of its populace. What it meant was that Israel wanted to live like any normal Western society. That was the real attraction of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. In a sense, it offered not merely a treaty negotiated in Oslo but the possibility to be Oslo, the chance for Israelis to live as Norwegians, to live as any other advanced Western nation. Instead, Israelis are on the military call-up list until 55—or about the age a Greek hairdresser gets to retire on full salary. Israel’s example suggests that if you think you’re an advanced Western democracy, but you don’t get to live like one, eventually the conflict between what you are and what the difficult circumstances ensuring you are not obliterated from existence require of you, you get worn down over time.
Israel implemented the terms of the Oslo accords, and in return Israelis got an Arafatist terror squat on their Eastern flank, suicide bombers on their buses, Iranian proxies to their north and west—and, in the wider world, isolation, demonization and delegitimization accompanied by a resurgent and ever more respectable anti-Semitism. The dream of normaliut didn’t work.
In 2008, the U.S. electorate also voted for normaliut. Americans voted to repudiate the previous years, dominated by terror attacks and Code Orange alerts and anthrax scares, and thankless semicolonial soldiering in corners of the map no one cared about. They were under the sway of a desperate hope that wars can simply come to an end when one side decides it’s all a bit of a bore. In reality-TV terms, the Great Satan wanted to vote itself off the island.
But as Israel understands by now, sometimes who you are is more important than anything you do. And sometimes who you are is an offense to those indifferent to anything you might or might not do. America will discover, as Israel did, that a one-way urge for normaliut will lead to a more dangerous world.
When you have government on the scale Europe enjoys and America has moved toward, there are hard choices to be made: as postwar Britain came to understand, you can have Scandinavian-style entitlements or a military of global reach, but you can’t have both. The current “supercommittee” or the next will find it easier to cut military commitments for which the public has little appetite than to shrink in any meaningful sense an ever more deeply ingrained transgenerational dependency culture.
And without a military or global reach, we will find the spaces in the Pax Americana left unoccupied like an underwater house in a Nevada real-estate development quickly filled by anti-American menaces. Last year, Die Welt reported that on a recent visit to Tehran, Hugo Chavez had signed an agreement to place Iranian missiles at a jointly operated military base in his satrapy, Venezuela. That’s how it begins. In the years ahead, distant enemies of this country will seed new proxies in Latin America as Iran did to Israel with Hamas and Hezbollah.
It starts with the money, but it doesn’t stop there: as all dominant nations learn, when money drains, power drains.
Nowhere can we see the effects of that truth better than in East Asia. China is already the world’s biggest manufacturer. It is already the world’s biggest exporter. It is the postcolonial patron of resource-rich Africa. It is the post-downturn patron of cash-strapped Mediterranean Europe. It is the biggest trading partner of India, Brazil, and other emerging powers. We should not be surprised that in such a world, getting on with America will matter less and less.
There have been moments, without question, when this has proved to be unexpectedly good news for us. Washington and its geriatric EU allies wanted the Copenhagen climate change deal in 2009, the biggest exercise in punitive liberalism ever mounted, an embryo exercise in global government. Brazil and India joined with China to block it. It’s a mark of the perversity of the age that it takes the Politburo to save global capitalism.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so good. In 2010, the Royal Australian Navy participated in its first naval exercises with Beijing. A few weeks later, Britain and Germany declined to support the United States in its efforts to get China to increase the value of its currency. Why would they? Even for America’s closest allies, the dominance of both the Pentagon and the almighty dollar has become conditional.
We will not like this post-American world, which will not even bring us normaliut. America will discover, as Britain has in twilight, that, long after imperial grandeur has faded, imperial resentments linger. We will not be left alone to fade into second-rate status. We will be taunted and humiliated and haunted and chased on the way down.
And yet, even in my deepest and most pessimistic vision, I can see a different future for the United States. For as the past few years have taught us, the great thing about the United States is that it is not Europe. When the economy headed south in 2008 and 2009, everywhere around the planet, people besieged their parliaments, asking them, “Why didn’t you, the government, do more for us?” They did it in Iceland. They did it in Bulgaria. They did it in Lithuania. They did it in Greece. They did it in the United Kingdom. They did it in France.
The United States is the only country in the world where a mass movement took to the streets in 2009 to say we could do just fine if you, the government, stayed the hell out of our pockets and the hell out of our lives. That fact, that populist refusal to be Europeanized, represents the best hope for this country. Those now-caricatured, much-maligned Tea Partiers moved the meter of public discourse significantly back in the direction of sanity. And that includes Barack Obama.
In 1975, Milton Friedman said this: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”
Just so. Every time Barack Obama stands at his teleprompter and is forced to pretend that he’s interested in deficit reduction, we have taken a step toward that Milton Friedman reality. You have to create the conditions, as the Tea Party and the town hall meetings did, whereby the wrong people are forced to do the right things.
One cannot wait for the great leader to descend from the heavens to do the work for us. Every glamour boy, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney to Rick Perry, proves to have feet of clay. It’s more important that tens of millions of ordinary citizens move the meter on public discourse and force the wrong people to do the right things.
But we don’t have much time to force them. If we don’t turn this thing around by mid-decade, if we let China become the dominant economic power in a world where the Iranians are nuclearizing and where Russia is making whatever mischief it can, we will see something new in world history. Something terrifying. This will not be like the transition from Britain to America, from a crucible of liberty to its greatest exponent. This will be the greatest step backwards for the civilization that built the modern world and spread its blessings across the map. There will be no new world order. There will be no world order.
The only way to prevent it is to act, and act quickly. Otherwise, it’s over. In 1969, in a poem about the end of the British empire called “Homage to a Government,” Philip Larkin wrote: “Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home/For lack of money…/We want the money for ourselves at home/Instead of working.” The narrator keeps saying that “this is all right,” but he concludes with this: “The statues will be standing in the same/Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same./Our children will not know it’s a different country./All we can hope to leave them now is money.”
We Americans can’t even hope that. And our children will know their reduced America was not the America that should have been theirs by right.