Thursday, March 16, 2006

The meaning of the decline of America

Books on the decline of a nation are like the proverbial stuck clock. They are wrong almost all of the time. Almost.

The same week that Salon made its bid for a Pulitzer Prize, they feature a review of a book predicting the decline and fall of America: Books | Decline and fall

... In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear to everyone that the United States had suffered a hideous blow, but few had any idea just how bad it was. It didn't occur to most people to wonder whether the country's very core had been seriously damaged; if anything, America had never seemed so united and resolute. Almost five years later, with Bush still in the White House, a whole cavalcade of catastrophes bearing down on us and a lack of political will to address any of them, the scope of Osama bin Laden's triumph is coming sickeningly into focus. He didn't start the country on its march of folly, but he spurred America toward bombastic nationalism, military quagmire and escalating debt, all of which have made its access to the oil controlled by the seething countries of the Middle East ever more precarious. Now the United States is careening down a well-worn road faster than anyone could have imagined.
It's easy to mock books about disaster and decline. After all, we who are relatively prosperous in America have, by definition, lived tolerably through several such books. On the other hand, it's hard to deny that America has "jumped the shark". Reelecting George Bush II. Delivering both the house and the senate to the 21st century GOP. The rise of theocracy. We're not in great shape now, and ahead lies the promise of far more dramatic acts of terrorism, of the post-oil world, geopolitical transitions, technological risks, climate change, the hoary ghost of Malthus (in the form of various plagues), etc, etc.

In any case, it was always very unlikely that America would remain ascendant forever. Like Spain, China (several times), England, the Netherlands, Turkey and so many other empires, we'll transition to some other role. We may have a faster rise and fall than most, but these are fast times. Centuries have become decades.

The more interesting question than the relative (and perhaps absolute) decline of America, is what it means. Will the world follow, or will human prosperity continue to grow overall? Certainly many of the challenges America faces are truly global; China's challenges are immense, for example. Will America's fall be relatively peaceful (Soviet Union style? - even better, the Netherlands) or a typically American meltdown? Will we keep some semblance of democracy, or will we re-elect some version of GWB? How should we, as individuals, adjust to the world ahead.

Those are the interesting questions. To me it's not about decline (highly probable and we're likely in the thick of it now), but about what happens to the world and how we manage the transition.

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