Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Slow Collapse of an Empire

I always wondered how great powers in the past could "let it all slip away" and collapse. But now I'm living up close to the modern version of this story. I'm watching while political partisans in the US fight tooth and claw over ideology while letting the country around them slip into decay and collapse. I now appreciate how this kind of thing happened in the past.

Here are some bits from an Economist article on American infrastructure decay:
America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart. American cities have suffered a rash of recent infrastructure calamities, from the failure of the New Orleans levees to the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis, to a fatal crash on Washington, DC’s (generally impressive) metro system. But just as striking are the common shortcomings. America’s civil engineers routinely give its transport structures poor marks, rating roads, rails and bridges as deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a World Economic Forum study America’s infrastructure has got worse, by comparison with other countries, over the past decade. In the WEF 2010 league table America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. Its roads, railways, ports and air-transport infrastructure are all judged mediocre against networks in northern Europe.


All this is puzzling. America’s economy remains the world’s largest; its citizens are among the world’s richest. The government is not constitutionally opposed to grand public works. The country stitched its continental expanse together through two centuries of ambitious earthmoving. Almost from the beginning of the republic the federal government encouraged the building of critical canals and roadways. In the 19th century Congress provided funding for a transcontinental railway linking the east and west coasts. And between 1956 and 1992 America constructed the interstate system, among the largest public-works projects in history, which criss-crossed the continent with nearly 50,000 miles of motorways.

But modern America is stingier. Total public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at 2.4% of GDP. Europe, by contrast, invests 5% of GDP in its infrastructure, while China is racing into the future at 9%. America’s spending as a share of GDP has not come close to European levels for over 50 years. Over that time funds for both capital investments and operations and maintenance have steadily dropped.


Roads, bridges and railways used to be neutral ground on which the parties could come together to support the country’s growth. But as politics has become more bitter, public works have been neglected. If the gridlock choking Washington finds its way to America’s statehouses too, then the American economy risks grinding to a standstill.
When I was a kid I marveled at the deep hatred some people had for FDR. I had a grandfather who went to his grave blaming FDR for "government agents coming out and killing his cattle and plowing up his crops". He refused to understand that this was a policy -- a misguided one -- that was aimed at trying to get farmers better prices for their crops. Rather than work with the government, he simply refused to accept that the government had any role to play (especially the hated Yankee government coming into the Deep South to tell him what he could or couldn't do).

FDR saved capitalism from itself. Without FDR the US would have collapsed into the chaos of a Germany, Austria, or Italy with either a fascist government or a communist government rising from the ashes and the wealth effectively confiscated. But the rich never thanked FDR for this. Instead, they brooded over an eternal hatred for him.

I watched how crazy the right wing ideologues could be in their support for Joe McCarthy, a drunk mad with the power of publicity who simply made up accusations that resulted in hundreds of innocent people's lives being ruined.

I watched how right wing ideologues supported an insubordinate general, Douglas MacArthur, and wanted to "annoint him president" and replace the legitimately elected Truman. MacArthur exceed orders in clearing out the Bonus Army in the 1930s, he failed to obey orders and disperse his planes when warned of an imminent Japanese attack in the Philippines, and he ignored orders to stay away from the Chinese border and pushed the attack in Korea against instructions from Truman.

From what I can see the political right in the US is more interested in "winning" political squabbles than in building up America and keeping it strong. I see a country on an arc of decline. In my mind the current squabbles are like the antebellum political struggles that let partisans destroy the union rather than find a compromise. Fanatics want to win even if it means that take down the ship of state and all in it. That is how great empires collapse. They are gnawed away from within by "patriots" and "nationalists" and "fanatics" more concerned with scoring political points than keeping the country strong and growing. You see it now with how the political right opposes a stimulus because they worry about "debts" which under Bush didn't bother them, they worry about "entitlements" when under Bush they passed a huge entitlement, in short they are hypocrites willing to destroy all rather than find an accommodation and work for a viable future. Sad.

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