Summary: We have come to believe we are exceptional, not just morally, but also operationally. We act as if we are beyond the need to plan and prepare for possible problems. It is faith-based public policy. Here we review how we came by this delusional belief, and examine how it plays out on a potentially serious problem: the growing US debt.
A brilliant insight, but likely to fail us if we depend upon it:
“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”
— Abba Eban (Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), quoted in the 19 March 1967 New York Times
Note how this aphorism about people has become one about us (It was not said by Winston Churchill; details here). Rather than assume success, we should take this advice:
“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
— Andy Grove, CEO of Intel 1987 – 1998
Two centuries of success have taught us complacency, confidence that we are not only exceptionally moral as the “city on a hill” in Matthew 5:14, but also exceptional in an operational sense. We assume success as our due, without the necessity for preparation, planning, or even effort. Energy, climate change, demographic challenges, underfunded pension plans, the next wave of automation, growing inequality — we assume success vs all problems, so take few precautions. It’s an odd kind of faith-based public policy.
Success has brought us the “victory disease” (senshobyo in Japanese, a term coined in the 1930s by novelist-turned-strategist Chuko Ikezaki ).
A people more aware of cycles might prepare for a period of hard times, much as darkness follows light (and lean years follow the good ones). It could be painful yet not like the Long Depression of 1873-1879 or the Great Depression of 1929-1939.
Let’s look at one example: our high Federal debt load, destined to rise as the boomers retire. We are confident that growth will easily fix these, as growth solved the massive debts the UK accumulated from the Napoleonic Wars. As growth solved our massive debts from the Civil War and WW2. This confidence is delusional.
Those debt loads were made manageable by several factors in the decades that followed the wars: