George Packer, “Last Best Hope, America in Crisis and Renewal”
As the smallest minority, the minority of one, I have always looked with a healthy bias towards the utopian ideas of socialism and collectivism. Looking from across the big pond at America I admit the country still looks like a nice house from the outside. But the image projected by JFK “city upon a hill” 1961 speech or projected by Ronald Reagan “shiny city on the hill” 1988 State of the Union address has lost its splendor.
In fact looking below the thin shiny veneer, at the foundations of the house of America as a 21st century civil society it’s safe to conclude seen in context of the whole, the fundamentals were poorly build and the wood underneath has been touched by the tooth of time.
This begs the question what is a civilized society in the 21st century
“Is this a society that has an advanced and humane culture, which protects personal freedoms, ensures fair and just elections, equal treatment for all people, and leaves positive legacies for future generations, including balanced budgets, universal healthcare and protecting the environment? “
“Is this a society society in which there is separation of state and church, full education, gun control with no capital punishment and with women having the right to choose?’
What is known!
Trumpism, the elephant in the room, as we know today has been growing for years below the surface, very much like the ox who grows in seize but not in wisdom, before the dark forces broke into the light, leading to the conclusion the maintenance of the house America build has been neglected over time and does not exemplifies the demands of the 21st century for a civilized society.
But the underbelly what was feeding Trumpism has always been living in the cellar and with the election of Donald J Trump came to the surface. The election of President Joe Biden although most welcome has not caused its demise, in fact Trumpism is readying its revival in the immediate future which will have detrimental consequences for the stability in the U.S. and the world.
Today the house America build is crumbling under its own weight in times that tribalism, populism, nationalism and cult hysteria have become the norm, with nuance and the willingness to reach consensus missing from the daily conversation.
In the absence of reason and responsible leadership America seems to be following in the footsteps of the Roman Republic from Marius to Caesar, which decline was a process, not a single event and also showed military pre-eminence is not a prerequisite for national security.
There is the erosion of the constitution, civil rights, voters rights, taxation and with rising economic inequality democracy is in danger to give way to a oligarchy given the monopolization of ownership in US economy, increasing the unhealthy influence of monopolies on democracy.
There is increased political polarization, weakening of the institutions, breakdown of unspoken rules and violence as a political tool has been introduced while the power of the Executive grows with SCOTUS support and a irrelevant and dysfunctional Congress.
As Benjamin Disraeli said “Change is inevitable. Change is constant,” leading to the conclusion mature systems must adapt or they will die.
In today’s Washington money and influence in politics is part of the culture and has a long sordid history and much, almost everything is influenced by lobbyists and lawyers, serving the entrenched interests which makes the needed self-correction of the present system, dominated by the military industrial complex, rather difficult Some reach the conclusion as some did during the Roman Republic “a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true.”
Like then everything is for sale and with the corruption of the American institutions, trust in the system has broken down and the train called authoritarianism is ready to leave the station when the calls for an strong leader grow louder, opening the door to the next demagogue, one who is more intelligent and suave in addressing the concerns of the public.
The limits of Democracy as ancient the history of Greece and Rome showed are evident, so is the difficulty of preventing Democracy sliding into tyranny in the absence of rational debate, reason & compromise.
Through the remarkable history of the Roman Republic, Romans never allowed a single man to seize control of the state. Every year for four hundred years the annually elected consuls voluntarily handed power to their successors.
With this in mind and looking at the U.S. limits of Democracy it has been mindboggling to watch the in-facto refusal to hand over power by the former guy and the attacks of January 6th, 2021 against the foundation of free society, the disgraceful and sickening scenes of anarchy in the US Congress, poisoning the well of Democracy.
History will be unkind and judge Senators and Members of Congress, who were complicit and let the poisons of nationalism, lies and self-interest prevail over reason truth and the Constitution. Spineless politicians without virtue, without any level of human integrity, devoid of self-respect and without a moral compass to recognize their own malevolence.
The present political climate is the direct result of the political polarizing climate Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich (Bill Clinton impeachment, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party) created. This led to the incompetent authoritarian bigot Donald J Trump, with his vulgar and abusive demagoguery with the hallmarks of xenophobia, racism. Nationalism and isolationism.
Pat Buchanan was the first warning sign of the populist insurgency to come and used the phrase “America first,” in 1991, expressing his nostalgic views in an essay for the National Interest titled “America First—and Second, and Third.”
In his obsession with American decline, liberal immigration policies and overseas commitments, Buchanan laid with his populist nationalism the groundwork for the election of Presidency of Trump.
Buchanan blamed free-market economics and globalism as the cause for the demise of the industrial American heartland and the international liberal order for the modern imperial pretentions and sought the removal of ethical considerations from foreign policies.
With his views the former advisor of Ronald Reagan, known for his affinity for the uneducated working class, tapped into the unexploited market for nativism, protectionism, and isolationism and in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention Buchanan invoked the term “cultural war” and tapped into the anger and resentment of the “forgotten Americans” and “conservatives of the heart.”
The slogans of “America First” and MAGA “Make America Great Again” and rejection of the Liberal order bears similarities with the 1930’s when fascists claimed the liberal democracy was over. In 1938 George Kennan proposed the US should take to the path of constitutional changes to the authoritarian state, while Charles Lindbergh did not hide his Nazi sympathies using the slogan “America First.”
Since the 1960’s and with Nixon years the divisions, injustices, paralysis and inequality have increased and affected the fabric of society under influence from technological and industrial changes which has led to a society in which a large group of people has been left behind or simple does not wish to adapt to the modern organized society. For some of these people their existence has become an impossible daily struggle, a symptom for a divided country, a country which in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “dies by suicide.”
As George Packer diagnoses in his excellent book “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal”, which has the premise Economic inequality is destroying America and concludes this devastation has driven the activist population into four ideological camps, each feeding the others and paralyzing the nation through dubious theories of blame and redemption.
Two of these tribes are Smart America (emphasizing university education, sophistication, the meritocracy) and Just America (social justice youth, which defines today’s issues in rather emotional terms which do not fit in a financial spreadsheet and is assaulting the meritocracy of smart America), both driving the Democratic Party.
The other two are Free America (libertarian types demanding unrestricted individual freedom with minimal regulated capitalism) and Real America (rural and small town traditionalists, away from the sophistication of the main cities), driving the Republican Party.
America’s society is a tale carefully hidden behind barriers of privilege that benefit the few at the expense of the many. There is relentless inequality destroying communities while fanatics demonize “the other.”
As Packer puts it, “The American people have grown used to parasites attaching themselves at the top of our democracy and sucking its lifeblood.” Meanwhile “Sexting with a staffer does more harm to a politician than profiteering in a national crisis” (p 22).
As Packer explores todays tribalism, all of these tribes are on collision course with each other, based on mutual distrust, but they need to be integrated with each other based on reason, logic and beyond party and liberal versus conservative.
There are massive structural societal problems which are found in education issues (functional illiteracy of 14% of US adults), overflowing prisons (prison reforms), police brutality, the absence of an inadequate social safety net and universal healthcare.
Young children are victimized by gun violence, in a society in which guns are prioritized over their young lives. Later, they are burdened by massive student debt and given their uncertain prospects they are understandably open to cynicism.
There are immigration policies in which the long-term consequences of the increasing of flow of low-educated immigrants, which add to the existing surplus of low-skilled workers, is underestimated, while prioritizing well-educated and high-worth immigrants is not considered.
No doubt, the country is large and diverse and in the cities the disappearing middleclass has been effecting neighbourhoods. This has resulted in opportunity and inequality issues which have deeper origins than we wish to accept. As Packer puts it, given these issues America needs to restore itself to a more egalitarian society.
It’s worth noting since antiquity upbringing has always been the great separator in society, whereby children need to be nurtured at a young age so they will do well in school and in their later lives. Parents are very important in helping and stimulate their children develop their talents by working with them at home and make sure that their children are in programs that challenges them intellectually and responds to their potential.
Often poor students, students with limited English language skills, and students from diverse cultures have been overlooked by schools and the more gifted are selected for programs. Every so often children from more varied backgrounds are collateral damage, their talents are not recognized.
But there is no seize which fits all and also in the education system there is inequality, but as a rule nothing should hold a child back from opportunities to pursue their talents and passions.
Interesting these differences in life start at an early age, evidenced by the fact that a child which is raised by educated parents hears up to 3000 words a day, a child from a single parent hears around 800 words. With the US percentage of single parents at a level of 25 %, being the highest in the world, this can be hardly be viewed as a positive development.
These children in part of society are growing up in a culture which makes them dependent on handout’s and crime given the reality society cannot compensate for the defects of fragmented families.
From all of the OECD countries the US has the lowest percentage of workers participation and comes before Italy. The statistics are dire and show that 15 % of the men between 25-55 have never worked a day in their life. Which suggests inequality of education and opportunity are bigger problems than wealth inequality.
When it comes to the Medicare and Social Security entitlement explosion there is a remarkable reluctance in progressive circles to deal seriously with this issue by means of austerity measures. This despite the fact entitlements having exploded from 1960 to 2010 from 28 to 67 percent of the federal budget and with 34 percent of the household receive benefits. The normalization of benefits in society is the real issue, just as the labour participation which is lower in the US than in Europe.
Senator Moynihan once remarked “the issue of welfare is not what it costs, but what it costs to those who are receiving it.”
This at a time with environmental issues and global warming globally on the agenda to be dealt with after having been ignored by politicians and leaders since the early 1970’s after the Club Of Rome published in 1972 its first major Report “The Limits to Growth,” which warning have not been heeded resulting in disastrous results. Today calls for cultural change and massive investments based on the objective, scientific assessment of the impact of humanity’s behaviour and use of resources, which still defines the Club of Rome.
Today’s climate change emergency must be recognized as the defining problem of our times which requires immediate and urgent attention as confirmed by the Paris Climate Accords.
This comes at a time the national debt has increased significantly over the past 30 years, with around 3.2 trillion U.S. dollars in 1990 and totalled around 26.95 trillion U.S. dollars in September 2020 and is projected to be about 40 trillion U.S. dollars in 2035, an increase of about 13.1 trillion U.S. dollars from 2020.
In the absence of austerity measures, the trimming of government spending and the trimming and reducing the deficit, the debt has become unsustainable. In order for the US Treasury to be able to meet its financial obligations, this has led to Congress habitually raise of the national debt limits.
No matter who is in charge, and the election of President Joe Biden and the return of basic civility, decency, science and truth are positive developments in a changed and wary world.
The recent decisions by the Biden Administration on Afghanistan and the Nuclear-powered submarine deal under AUKUS, confirm the “America First” approach, demonstrating also under new leadership the approach is not very different from the former guy who betrayed the Afghans and the Kurds. The betrayal of France entail lessons for the allies in Europe and confirms Washington’s reputation for reliability and inconsistency
Internally Socio-economic reforms are required in many areas and unless they are addressed divisions, injustices and paralysis will continue to grow until their breaking-point.
All of this is further stimulated by Technological developments and the greater than expected AI (Artificial Intelligence) advancements. These technological advancements have as a consequences increased and continued unemployment for many and lead to fundamental changes in a world in which education is key for future prosperity.
In a sense America and also the world to a lesser extent, are nearing an new economic paradigm and unless value system are adapted and inequality is adequately addressed great civil unrest or worse are on the horizon.
How to fix the wrongness in society is an open and difficult question, most likely with massive investments and reform in education, healthcare, infra-structure, criminal justice, immigration and to consider the Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the future.
Although UBI a form of altruism which is incompatible with capitalisms UBI has some merit for to improve the quality of life of the poor and long-term unemployed and will likely be considered in the future.
But UBI is also a form of welfare which will only split and divide society further in two parts, the able and unable, or the first and second handers, not a direction society should move in. Also its early days in determining the usefulness of UBI with the financing of UBI as an open question which will need to be answered.
The advancements being made in ASI (artificial super intelligence) hold the danger that by making decisions which are better in rationality in comparison to humans they can cause unforeseen disruption and uncontrollable change which forever reshapes our human civilization.
The advances made in nuclear technology and artificial intelligence are a harbinger of the technological developments to come which lead to weapons whereby machines have become a partner and machines can develop their own judgment.
Unless wisdom prevails and as Henry Kissinger recently noted China and the U.S. refrain from striving for hegemony and agree to some limitations these advancements made could lead to an Armageddon clash with weapons which have for the first time the capacity to extinguish humanity in a finite period of time, capabilities which are so incredible, formidable and should give any reasonable person cause for pause.
This is taking place in an environment in which American primacy in the world as a national security strategy is running out of steam and internal priorities and the associated internal burdens are being contradicted by the costs of the military overextension of the U.S..
Today with unipolarity over, the status of the U.S. as first among equals has been weakened, its ability to dominate others had declined and is being further threatened by the rise of China. Like the US the world is also divided in two halves.
As Henry Kissinger recently recognized the rise of China threatens U.S. supremacy and its strategic autonomy on the medium to long term, having consequences for all the U.S. privileges and economic advantages which have resulted from this status.
The rise of China can also effect the role of the U.S., of the international reserve currency and as a result the decrease of the inflow of foreign capital negatively influencing U.S. economy and prosperity. This in turn, could also affect its role in the international institutions shaped by the U.S., which are already changed by China’s increasing participation and influence.
In this contest between China and the US for global hegemony, Europe should not get sucked in. It should remain open to co-operation with China where that is in Europe’s interest. It should use its influence to ensure that both China and the US use their power with restraint. For the foreseeable future, the triangular relations between the three powers will contain elements of attraction and elements of hostility. The EU should work with Beijing and Washington to pursue pragmatic policies that maintain stability in the world.
Despite the different economic models, it’s safe to conclude we live in a world in which everything is interconnected, a world in which capitalism and globalization have brought terrific advantages, peaceful prosperity with great mobility. Also a world which like our brain when once expanded will never return to it’s original seize.
Denouncing the benefits of capitalism as habitual is done in progressive circles without much nuance, and sacrificing capitalism for democratic socialism is not the answer.
There are indeed side effects to capitalism which given the tension in society is in need recalibration in order to achieve more social order. As to the wealth of some as the result of their business model, Globalism, fiscal optimalization and the giant oligopoly which has been created this can be called perverse.
The monopolistic absorption of businesses and shareholdings have grown over the years and the concentration of money and influence have reached an unhealthy level in the US economy, a trend which is also seen globally.
Horizontal ownership is one aspect whereby a small number of institutional investors like BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, Fidelity, and JP Morgan have acquired undisputable control of the leading corporations in practically all the most important sectors of industry.
A study by two Harvard researchers, Lucian Bebchuk and Scott Hurst, has highlighted that 80% of the capital allocated to investment funds today is going to Vanguard, Blackrock and State Street. In two decades, they are predicted to cast as much as 40% of the votes in S&P 500 companies,
Add do this the cross-holdings between the few equity funds or private capital firms makes this worse and this growing concentration raises concerns, since asset managers vote on strategic matters in concern which could be competitors.
This concentration also effects minority shareholders negatively and can have detrimental consequences for the economy, whereby this concentration of influence is also unhealthy in an democracy.
But at the same time this must been in relation to the times we live, in which globalization have created an environment in which multi-national companies have only grown and technology companies are the new powerful companies.
No doubt what is said today, the same was said about Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, in their days men with vision, against which the government applied the Sherman Antitrust Act with varying levels of success.
There is however one distinction to make, this were mainly national companies with international interests, but today change is more difficult since today we live in a global world in which everything is interconnected and this are global companies.
Although Packer suggestions have great merit, but perhaps not on the scale envisioned by his examinations with suggestions for an equal America. One should be careful what one wishes for with breaking up the monopolies, and with raising the estate tax and the wealth tax, which unless there is global harmonization of taxes will only lead to more legal tax avoidance and lower tax incomes.
Some Progressives of just America, have the dubious idea governments are responsible for the pursuit of happiness of the people and are trying to bring this in practice by spending like there is no tomorrow.
This is confirmed by the Biden “spend and pay later” and “blame the rich” Administration and their allies on Capitol Hill which are pushing for new economic models which reject ideas about trimming government spending and reducing budget deficits, with more costly programs than four trillion dollars in new spending over the coming decade. This is on top of the $1.9 trillion that was contained in the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March.
But not even the present $ 4 trillion is enough given progressives “bottomless pit” priorities, including reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050, guaranteeing child care and paid family and medical leave to all Americans, expanding Medicare and increasing home care for the elderly, and writing off student debt and making community college free.
In their ultimate wisdom Democrats seek the solution in a recipe which has been used since LBJ to address these structural problems the US is faced by throwing even more money at the people, increasing the civil apparatus and increasing the power of the state.
But as laudable as these ideas might be, it’s necessary to conclude this is not the solution to the whole, the structural problems and the divisions in society. The flaw is this are only short-terms solutions which last until the next election cycle.
In their drive for the continuously increasing role of the state, progressives are leaving behind the protection of individual liberties in favour of community solidarity and are attacking personal achievement while conducting an offensive against Wall Street, the private equity industry by introducing new and higher tax proposals.
This are the same altruistic ideas which have been tried in Europe before, and despite the benefits of a more balanced society and a better quality of life in Europe, excessive taxation and wealth tax failed miserable.
However looking at the whole, I am convinced there needs to be a better balance and capitalism needs recalibration, whereby the interests of working class people will need to be rebalanced with other interest groups in society.
But a balanced society requires balanced budgets and cannot be based on the tyranny of the majority of the 51% and a dictate to the minority using this famous and misused phrase “the public good” or in the name of “the public interest” in which the interests of some are to be sacrificed to the interests and wishes of others who proclaim “the public, c’est moi.” Instead, a better balance can only be based on consensus between the groups.
In context of the whole, a more fairer and balanced society. there is the immediate need to address the failure of past and present governments to deliver on the demands that all members of society pay a fair share of maintaining order in society. This requires next to rebalancing of the tax system, a renewed focus on the gross inefficiency of the tax system in order to limit tax avoidance practices and to increase cohesion in society.
This can be done by simplifying the tax code and for Congress to end its unwillingness and inability to close loop holes in the existing corporate and income-tax rules and regulations. In addition the tax system would be better served by simplification and without exceptions, limitations, credits, subsidies and exemptions.
It’s also high time to address the elephant in the room, the role of America in the world and to consider how internal priorities contradict with the burdens of US primacy around the world and how past and current wars and conflicts have resulted in the overextending of the military and industrial decline.
The case can made today’s high level of national debt is unsustainable and has been created as a result of unnecessary wars, tax breaks and bailouts –more based on politics than economics.
The history of relative and industrial decline of the major empires during the last 500 years in the world shows, all these empires grappled with the problem of military overextension, as Paul Kennedy pointed out in his excellent book “The rise and fall of the great powers” confirm that once countries overstrain themselves their leadership position starts to show signs of economic and military erosion.
As Paul Kennedy concluded, “They are like an old man attempting to work beyond his natural strength and they have difficulty to paraphrase Bismarck to travel on “the stream of time” and fall into relative decline.”
The answer to these issues is not more collectivism at the cost of individualism, but austerity measures and reasonable tax increases which hardly can be avoided.
The demanded solidarity and community spirit has its limits, a two way street which requires responsible behaviour from all participants. Demands for solidarity by progressives cannot be based on a dictate by the majority on the minority or be disproportionate and requires reciprocity.
But we hardly live in an ideal world and human nature has definitely its deficits which need to be corrected sometimes by governments, but with the understanding self-reliance and self-responsibility are virtues, not defects.
At the same time governments and politicians are not really the epitome of wisdom, morality and ethics and can be often best qualified as rather “a little people, a silly people” as Lawrence called the Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia.
A possible way out, with anarchy and authoritarianism knocking on the door is that common cause is found between the different ideological camps.
One would hope this moment, when properly understood, will be used to rediscover, reinvent & reposition the country, correct the imbalances and make the necessary required changes which are long overdue.
But America has seen difficult moments before, the civil war, the great depression and Vietnam in the wonderful sixties, which remind of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”