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August 19, 2009


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Wait. Is that OUR Carlos there?


Do I think we're in decline? Not really. I think we're in a stagnant moment. It happens periodically. As pointed out before, we've had this happen before - feels a bit like the early 90s to me - and we'll have it happen again.

Personally, I'd say that America _has been_ in decline, in a manner of speaking, and now has a chance to rectify things.

We'll see how things turn out.


J. J.

I'm goiing to vote for moody, also - though, as Chou En-lai said, it's too soon to tell.

This post raises some fascinating questions, but I'll stick to one. Jim Henley says "The government works perfectly well at ensuring the lifestyles of defense contractors and investment bankers. That is its purpose". I read that as the capture of "the system" by voracious elites. (Which is hard to take seriously because it's the premise of so many bad thrillers. Of course, that's probably just what They intended.)

You and Carlos, OTOH, seem to be visualing a structural breakdown, which seems a lot more likely. Carlos listed some possible signs of this breakdown reaching critical levels, but neither of you talks about what you see as the root problems that might bring them about. What are your suspects, if you have any?

And this is driving me crazy.

Will, how can you say we're in a stagnant moment? I say very rapid social change.

Specifics: As a librarian, my profession has changed almost out of recognition in the past 15 years. And it is continuing to change, possibly out of existence.

Similar stories could be told by many journalists, travel agents, insurance salesmen, small bookstore owners, advertising people...the list is endless.

There are some differences in the way we are rasing our younger children now and the way we raised our eldest that are largely due to the presence of cell phones. Of course, our children's lives are shaped by things like Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging in ways we're still trying to figure out.

And I haven't even mentioned globalization yet.

David, you're changing the topic. The question raised in the blog post is whether the American political system is still able to rise to the challenges it faces.

A time of rapid economic and social change makes that question more salient, not less. Will is implying that we're in a stagnant political moment, much like the U.S. after the 1994 election. His implied argument is that the current state of politics isn't much to worry about.

In other words, you interpreted Will's comment outside the context of the discussion. Given that he was writing the first comment in an attempt to start a political thread, I don't think his shorthand was unreasonable.

One way to explore the topic is from the perspective of where the challenge comes from, and the degree to which the established internal political order has experienced a similar challenge. One could argue that since about 1815 the US has not really had a serious external challenge (perhaps in only one respect -- militarily--the USSR?) coupling political, economic and possibly military aspects -- and that this could change this century. How the internal political system adapts to that seems an interesting question. Historical examples abound of rise to hegemony and decline: Spain, France, Britain to count only some of the same political tradition. Does the US have some extra reservoir of transformative "whatever" not available to others?

Another way to seize on the question is to ask to what extent "size" matters. The US is a gigantic public enterprise, compared to most other polities. Size alone affords political sustainability. But size can also delay needed change. On the first, there is an established status quo backed up by 13 tri dollars of economic relationships. Big, and dynamic, lots of stakeholders. On the second, inability to move on, such as in health care, and somewhat incapable of absorbing offshore experiences (altho it's surprising the amount of debate about the Canadian, Swiss, French, British "models"). But necessity seems to be prevailing, against the inwardness syndrome. I heard Sylvia Ostry, the Canadian economist, a long time ago saying the US didn't have an industrial policy: "It doesn't need one," she said. Well, seems to me there's one now, when the US Government owns GM and AIG and a score of other private companies. Necessity trumps ideology? The speed of American response to crises and challenges is surprisingly high compared to anybody else's, don't you think?

Well, Britain kicked off the response to the panic of 2008, more than the United States, and France is pushing far more sweeping financial reforms.

So I'm not sure that America reacts all that rapidly or radically compared to other democratic nations. What do you think?

Yes, Noel, they did, but both countries in addition to more compact elites also have a tradition of intervention and state-run enterprises that seem foreign to American ideology. In that sense American elites traversed a much wider pond to get to the same solutions. Unless one is of the view that American market orientation is really a fantasy play while the reality is subsidies. I was surprised at Paulsen's change of heart, speed of Congressional action, and not at all at Bush's disappearing act. The US went rapidly into Real Crisis Recognition Mode, a good test of the theory of failure modes. I think it augurs well for the future.

I recently heard Lee Kuan Yew in an interview on Charlie Rose (who could hardly keep up with the old guy). Anyone even wondering about US failures (much less demise) ought to listen a bit to him. There's plenty available on the internet.

So we're currently in a crisis that I think is a combination of #1, #4 and #5, with some version of #2 and #3 possibly waiting in the wings if things go badly enough.

The fundamental problem is breakage of the democratic feedback loop: veto points and federalism allowed Congress and state governments to hurt their own constituents in such a way that the President and his party got the blame, for a minority just large enough that they could deliver an Electoral College victory to a clownish strongman.

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