Monday, May 19, 2008

The Multi-decade Endgame of US Ascendancy

Change is on the way for the United States. Change is always around the corner, but it may be arriving faster than we think. Is it a new austerity? A new mindset? Something more humble and realistic, given the rapidly changing nature of our environment and our world? Or will there be a backlash against any kind of reordering of the American way of life?

Kevin Phillips looks at recent American history and sees parallels which should concern us all:
Premature fears have also dogged the United States. The decades after the 1968 election were marked by waves of a new national apprehension: that U.S. post-World War II global hegemony was in danger. The first, in 1968-72, involved a toxic mix of global trade and currency crises and the breakdown of the U.S. foreign policy consensus over Southeast Asia. Books emerged with titles such as "Retreat From Empire?" and "The End of the American Era." More national malaise followed Watergate and the fall of Saigon. Stage three came in the late 1980s, when a resurgent Japan seemed to be challenging U.S. preeminence in manufacturing and possibly even finance. In 1991, Democratic presidential aspirant Paul Tsongas observed that "the Cold War is over. . . . Germany and Japan won." Well, not quite.

In 2008, we can mark another perilous decade: the tech mania of 1997-2000, morphing into a bubble and market crash; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; imperial hubris and the Bush administration's bungled 2003 invasion of Iraq. These were followed by OPEC's abandoning its $22-$28 price range for oil, with the cost per barrel rising over five years to more than $100; the collapse of global respect for the United States over the Iraq war; the imploding U.S. housing market and debt bubble; and the almost 50 percent decline of the U.S. dollar against the euro since 2002. Small wonder a global financial crisis is in the air.

Here, then, is the unnerving possibility: that another, imminent global crisis could make the half-century between the 1970s and the 2020s the equivalent for the United States of what the half-century before 1950 was for Britain. This may well be the Big One: the multi-decade endgame of U.S. ascendancy. The chronology makes historical sense -- four decades of premature jitters segueing into unhappy reality.

The most chilling parallel with the failures of the old powers is the United States' unhealthy reliance on the financial sector as the engine of its growth. In the 18th century, the Dutch thought they could replace their declining industry and physical commerce with grand money-lending schemes to foreign nations and princes. But a series of crashes and bankruptcies in the 1760s and 1770s crippled Holland's economy. In the early 1900s, one apprehensive minister argued that Britain could not thrive as a "hoarder of invested securities" because "banking is not the creator of our prosperity but the creation of it." By the late 1940s, the debt loads of two world wars proved the point, and British global economic leadership became history.

Any change or reordering of the way Americans live would affect vast areas of the country that were designed entirely for car travel and have almost nothing in the way of a public transportation infrastructure. Paul Krugman compares Atlanta and Berlin--to cities virtually identical in size. Berlin has subways, trains and bike riding areas and Atlanta has cars and very little else. The reality of rising energy prices means that suburban Atlanta could be isolated or abandoned in favor of living in a more densely populated area, served by public transportation. Krugman says that change is going to be difficult:
Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard. For one thing, houses last a lot longer than cars. Long after today’s S.U.V.’s have become antique collectors’ items, millions of people will still be living in subdivisions built when gas was $1.50 or less a gallon.

Infrastructure is another problem. Public transit, in particular, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to justify transit systems unless there’s sufficient population density, yet it’s hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access.

And there are, as always in America, the issues of race and class. Despite the gentrification that has taken place in some inner cities, and the plunge in national crime rates to levels not seen in decades, it will be hard to shake the longstanding American association of higher-density living with poverty and personal danger.

Still, if we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil, Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.

One thing that will likely change is the notion of extreme commuting, or living so far away from work that it is next to impossible to see how the costs of transportation could be covered by any reasonable salary:

It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. When a commuter says, “It’s an hour, door-to-door,” tack on twenty minutes.

Seven hours is extraordinary, but four hours, increasingly, is not. Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way. People travel between counties the way they used to travel between neighborhoods. The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl. They’re the talk-radio listeners, billboard glimpsers, gas guzzlers, and swing voters, and they don’t—can’t—watch the evening news. Some take on long commutes by choice, and some out of necessity, although the difference between one and the other can be hard to discern. A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth.

Resistance to any kind of change or rethinking of how to commute, how to improve our lives, and how to deal with new economic realities can best be explained by looking at the hysterical headlines from websites, such as the Drudge Report:

This headline, in underlined RED text while everything else is in regular black text, is designed to appeal to readers who might be offended that a Presidential candidate would suggest that Americans need to change their thinking about certain things. It is not designed to appeal to anyone who might agree with Obama, hence, the prominent position on the page (upper left, first story), the highlighting of the red text, and the out-of-context quote:
Pitching his message to Oregon's environmentally-conscious voters, Obama called on the United States to "lead by example" on global warming, and develop new technologies at home which could be exported to developing countries.

"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK," Obama said.

"That's not leadership. That's not going to happen," he added.

There may be new change and some form of austerity forced on Americans, but it won't happen quietly.

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