November 27, 2023•1,013 words
America's government needs to make some tough decisions fast.
We're trying to prop up multiple proxy states against increasingly physical (and increasingly effective) attacks from emboldened regional rivals. We literally cannot afford to supply them all with the military aid they need to hold out effectively, but if we cut any of them loose and leave them to fend for themselves, they won't last long. And then we'll look like the sort of country that abandons our "allies" in a time of crisis, which is also not a reputation we can afford!
Here at home, our economy is kept limping along by creating gratuitous amounts of one of our last export assets: our currency. We've been on a printing spree since 2020, which has resulted in the entirely predictable1 outcome that the US dollar devalues at an alarming rate. Every few months, our government throws a temper tantrum about spending and threatens to cut a bunch of arbitrarily chosen expenses, then works out a deal at the last minute that keeps the money spigots pouring at the rate they were before. The only thing keeping inflation at a "manageable" level (instead of, say, "Zimbabwe") is the simultaneous cranking up of interest rates by our central bankers. This hurts people who don't have real assets in their possession (younger or poorer folks who are trying to buy cars, houses, pay off debts, etc) and locks physical assets owned by people who were fortunate enough to buy them at low interest rates off the market, and it will also exacerbate the crisis in the long term. Because our government issues debt to cover its spending, and because it must now issue that debt at higher interest rates, it will be forced to spend even more money in the future to cover its borrowing now, which will force more money printing to mitigate the last round of money printing, which will drive inflation even higher... Of course, cutting back on the bloated federal budget could avoid this, but the ultimate purpose of federal spending is to distribute favors to political insiders and privileged interest groups, and no one has the political capital to cut them out.
Domestically, America's political establishment has been (bufoonishly) trying to suppress a persistent streak of populist discontent for at least the last 7 years. The primary figure in American political life--the one personality who can consistently harness popular energy, seize the initiative, and force opponents to respond to his prompting--is a spray-tanned reality TV star who's only talent is his virtuosic ability to insult the people and institutions of establishment authority. In response, America's elite has lurched drunkenly between heavy-handed attempts to crack down on the man and his fans through various legal and extra-legal channels, and hysterically exaggerating his potential to try and build support among their own power bases. The one thing that, 7 years on, no one in authority has seriously considered, is any kind of sincere attempt to reduce material inequality and improve the living conditions of the lowest classes in America--this would cut the Orange Man's appeal off at the roots, but somehow the very thought is beyond mention.
Meanwhile, the Powers That Be have had no qualms embracing something that could plausibly be called Identity Grievance Politics--egging on the idea that certain identity groups get accorded Victim status, while others are labelled with Oppressor status, based on arbitrary and constantly shifting criteria. The ultimate intent of this sort of thing is shifting and unclear, but it consistently seems to favor oligarchic looting of the remaining social support structures, destabilization of any potential mass movements, and a confusing and ever-changing system of etiquette expected from public figures and aspiring elites. However, in a truly shocking turn of events, encouraging all this of petty squabbling and narcissistic offense-taking has fractured social coherence, fostered a culture of cynicism and selfish exploitation of attainable status, and is rapidly breeding the sort of ethnic bloc politics commonly seen in faraway basket case countries where the only certain alliance is with the people who look, talk, and think like you.
Some of these problems would be easier to solve if Americans still trusted the media, but they actually distrust it at record levels -- likely because America's political establishment openly uses its control of the media to push the sloppiest propaganda imaginable, and people have started to take notice. Oops!
The other thing that would help a lot would be reversing globalization - moving our industrial production and its dependencies back home, retooling our economy to create and maintain physical things, and restructuring our society and (especially) our educational system such that as many people as possible learn skills which can provide value in the physical world, and then enjoy fruitful, rewarding, and respectable careers doing those things. But of course, this would require the people who benefit from the current system to take a loss on their investments, so it's practically inconceivable. Double oops!
All this means that the American state has to deliberately commit to some hard choices, and then execute them in the face of domestic pressure and foreign interference. We are no longer at the point where we can wriggle out of this by cutting back on luxuries or soothing the proles with mild reforms. Our situation resembles that of a household who's budget crisis has metastasized to the point where we get to pick exactly one of groceries, rent, or utilities.
There's another problem with that, of course--the American state is a shadowy cabal of bickering oligarchs, all wrestling to pull the strings attached to some confused dementia patients who unaccountably hold the levers of power. This is not the sort of governing arrangement which is capable of making difficult decisions, or committing to anything quickly, or executing anything competently! Future historians, I am sure, will have a lot to say about our present moment, and the next few years we're stumbling into. Me, I'm just hoping to stay out of the way as best I can.