Monday, July 25, 2011


This summer is shaping up to be one for the history books, and not in a good way.  Another drug-addled musician joined the "27 Club," some headcase with a vaguely racist-nativist agenda kills nearly 100 people in Norway, record heat is cooking crops and tempers in most of the lower 48.  While nothing is on the radar at the moment, I wouldn't be surprised if we wake up one morning and hear about a Category 5 killstorm barreling its way toward the Eastern Seaboard.

However, all of the topical bad news of the day is still overshadowed -- in spite of the media's best efforts -- by the impending economic financial implosion in America and the Hobson's choice it poses for people in political office.  The choices have boiled down to extending the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar slowly sink, or not raising the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar melt down overnight.  This is what the media and politicians are not presenting to people -- that there is no way out with the two "options" being floated right now for people.

The logical choice would be to simply stop spending money that the nation doesn't have.  This is what most people do when they're faced with bills they can't pay.  If they're smart, they don't go get another credit card.  For the American government, it would mean drastically cutting defense and social spending, pushing it down to levels where it would be possible to stop adding to an already massive debt and maybe even start cutting that debt a little, here and there.

There is of course a small problem with this.  Objectively speaking, the United States is an empire, not a nation.  It maintains military bases in many different parts of the world, something that is almost unique at this point in time, and exercises a great deal of influence over many governments through economic incentives.  In addition to maintaining external control, America itself is not really a nation in the sense of a shared culture and values, with the Civil War being an obvious example of this heterogeneity and the problems it can cause.  The "War on Poverty" itself was simply a massive attempt to soothe the pain of and address the injustices directed at the African-American segment of the American population before it tried again to assert itself politically, and so on. 

Ultimately, America cannot disengage from where it already is, without first dealing with the issue that the definition of America itself would change, and this is what the real heart of this political battle is all about.  The right wants to support military spending, the left wants to support social spending, and neither type of spending can be sustained in the long run.  This is the fate of empires...extending themselves to the point where they can't be maintained and destroy themselves in the process of trying to make it just a little longer, like the person who can't stop spending.  For people who have studied ecology, this is referred to as "carrying capacity" -- the population we have now (both literally and in terms of ideas and institutions) has been built around something which could not be sustained.

While people have mentioned that a default might be a good thing, to reign in spending, the issue here is that doing so is going to very quickly expose the fault lines in American public life.  Far too many people have their fortunes and fates tied to the American government, to the dollar, and to the systems that have been created around these two entities.  Could the pieces of lives and institutions be picked back up quickly enough once the dust of the economic chaos settled?  Or would we see a confusion with no clear way forward?  I think it would take only a very short time before people start mentally and emotionally, if not physically, heading for the exits.  It won't be longer after that all the systems which have been put in place and maintained by those same people will cease to exists.

It's never easy to know how to act in times like these, but I think one piece of advice makes sense -- disengage as much as possible.  Look to minding your own life and realize that the thunder you're hearing is the long-forecast storm finally arriving.  Get away from anything which requires a sound dollar and make sure you have plans in place for the day when there is nothing on the store shelves and what you need must be obtained through barter or local labor.  Understand that you are going to do with a much simpler lifestyle if you are not living simply.  If you already are, then be content in knowing that you're likely going to be okay in the long run.  Last, understand that all things come to an end, sooner or later, including nations and empires, and that what is really most important is likely in front of you anyway.


  1. "In addition to maintaining external control, America itself is not really a nation in the sense of a shared culture and values, with the Civil War being an obvious example of this heterogeneity and the problems it can cause. "

    This is good post, but I'm highlighting the one bit I disagree with.

    America is actually an unusually homogenous nation. Over half the population lives in the suburbs (metroplitan areas outside of the central cities), where they live in pretty much identical landscapes of houses surrounded by lawns, shopping malls, fast food strips, and office parks. Their media is provided by a few large conglomerates, same with most of the products they buy. Half the country still has pretty much the same lifestyle of driving to the office at around 8 AM and returning arond 5 PM, somehow fitting in dropping off and picking up the kids from school. The states,with their state capitols that are architectural knockoffs of the federal capitol in DC, have arguably been part of the "dignified" as opposed to the "efficient" part of the government since the New Deal era, if not since the Civil War.

    Except for Hawaii and a few parts of the Southwest, the U.S. is not the sort of federation or empire where different parts had an existance, or an identity, as nation states before the empire that they could recover. In this respect it is very unlike the Soviet Union, for existence. The political existence of most parts of the US essentially dates from the time when English speaking settlers moved in, and outside of the Eastern seaboard this even happened after the federal government was set up. And since Congress was not adverse with gerrymandering state boundaries when states were admitted to gain small political advantages for the faction in charge, state boundaries tend to be problematic as boundaries of potentially independent natons.

    The more I think about this, the more I think that a decline of the US will not take the form of parts of the country flying off on their own. In terms of the ease with which even an incompetent central government can maintain its own territorial integrity, the US has alot in common with Qing China and Ottoman Turkey. I suspect a decline will have the most parellels to those two cases.

  2. Also, what amounts to a technical default on August 2nd will not necessarily lead to a meltdown, and the federal government still has tools available to avoid technical default. The executive branch could just prioritize federal revenue to pay interest and principal, and then social security checks, and impound funds designated for earmarks in Republican Congressional districts. There might be a court challenge, but it will take time to resolve.

    In the larger picture, empires have defaulted something like all the time. Its nasty, and bad things happen, but it doesn't necessarily lead to meltdown. Everything depends on how the default is managed.

  3. Ed,

    Good point about the attempts of the central government to maintain that central control.
    I think that we have a strange mix of attempts at forging national unity combined with "identity politics," which are both exploited relentlessly by those in the media and in office or who are seeking office. While it can provide a glue to a certain point, there is still the end issue enough people have to agree to go along with the program for the program to have any chance of success. If people are forced at some point into trying to internally validate national (or even state) politics, I'm not sure how long that model is going to work. While people may not physically break away, I think they will decide to mentally break away and that will exacerbate the existing problems.

    The Qing and Ottoman dynasties seemed to end because the world had passed them by at that point in time. I'm wondering at times if we are not in the same boat -- the decline of the PIIGS, the most vulnerable of the modern nation-states being the canaries in the coal mine -- showing us that the concept of demanding loyalty to a central entity whose only claim to that loyalty is the occupation of a piece of territory. Of course, the parallel of extravagant living in the capitols of these places seems to hold up relatively well with Congress' excesses on constant display.


  4. I believe that the giant game of monopoly we have been playing has reached the point where everyday more and more people are discovering that we have to pay rent for Everything brushing our teeth drinking clean water eating we have to use monopoly money and the people playing global banker don't want their party to end even tho everyone else is getting tired and want to throw their race car or top hat or shoe at the bankers.
    The real problem is that net energy is being reduced more quickly now and it is taking money out of the game. People need food, need gas,need tires,need licensees for nearly everything to get the job so they can work 2-3hours a day to pay for the privilege of going to work to then make enough to eat and pay rent etc.etc.While the people playing bankers have no worries except keeping the till bulging at the expense of the race car shoe or top hat and iron.
    They only way out of this is to stop the game and a different type of game but that cannot happen because our bankers are the top 5% of the money holders/lenders are the pentagon who know that they have no military without oil and will look foolish sitting in a 300 million tank that cant move because of lack of oil they are committed to keeping the status quo as is nearly everyone with any"skin in the game" debtors all.

  5. Anonymous,

    Those are good points about the economy ultimately being based on cheap/free energy inputs. My thoughts have been for a long time that inevitability is going to catch up with manufactured reality, regardless of how much people try to avoid that outcome. The more complex the system, the more it can react to visible and expected changes, but the more likely there is some flaw in the system itself that will cause its downfall.

    We may not obviously see what that is yet, although it's likely present and already working to throw a giant monkey wrench into the machinery of the modern world. Peak Oil seems obvious, in spite of thinking on ways to avoid it.


  6. But the whole thing could be sorted out in a day if the US Congress would simply restore (not raise, restore) the tax rates of the 1990s. The budget would go back into massive surplus and Congress would be arguing again about what to do with all the extra money.

    By the way, "Leibowitz Society"- am I correct in assuming an inspirational link to "A Canticle For Leibowitz"?

  7. Anonymous,

    You're correct about the link to A Canticle for Leibowitz (and it's spiritual heir "Anathem"). If you go all the way back to the first post on the blog, I wrote some musings on the name and the intent of the Society.

    I would like to agree, but I think the idea of raising/restoring taxes rates is a fantasy and isn't going to do much to return to stability. We're already looking at inflation starting to make a significant impact on household spending. Coupling it with a VAT or rising tax rates would probably be a real blow to a large number of families as well as the health of the economy in general.

    I think it illustrates the fact that we're at a point when there's no way forward that doesn't cause more damage to one area or another of our civilization. We need people to spend, but we need to stabilize the medium they spend with. We need to make balance the budget, but it either means crippling cuts to a model which is built about large government spending, or seeing people even less able to get by. It's these kinds of situations that ultimately lead to the end of empires, when people kick the can down the road, to find out that there's no road left.


  8. "disengage as much as possible."
    I agree with much of your observations and advice. The above, however, I may contend with depending upon whether it means to disconnect with others. I think our humanity and sanity will benefit from our connecting and coming into harmony with our fellow beings.