Summary: America peaked in 2000. Events since then have sent us on downward trajectory, accelerated by our bad decisions in response. Now the grim reality of future geopolitical and economic problems presses on our imaginations, the end of our hegemonic delusions of power founded on unlimited borrowing at low interest rates. In response we retreat into comfortable dreams. Something will shatter our dreams, probably bad news of an economic or geopolitical nature. That is the nature of dreams, that one must eventually wake. That’s the first step to a stronger America.
Every society experiences defeat in its own way. But the varieties of response within vanquished nations — whether psychological, cultural, or political — conform to a recognizable set of patterns or archetypes that recut across time and national boundaries. A state of unreality — of dreamland — is invariably the first of these.
From the Introduction to Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003)
In 2000 America stood at the top of the world. Economically vibrant, the Federal budget in surplus, the world’s hyperpower in both technology and war. The tech bust, recession, and 9-11 ruined those delusions. Our corporate accounting revealed as bogus, our investment banks as fraudsters — and our assumption of invulnerability shattered. In response we panicked — abandoning both economic prudence, our traditions of liberty, and rational foreign policy.
Why so many mistakes? We fell from grace, becoming just another great power. The shock broke us, and we took refuge in dreamland.
- Rather than putting America to work rebuilding our rotting infrastructure, we borrowed trillions for tax cuts to sustain consumption.
- Rather than relying on the US law enforcement and judicial system that served us so well during so many crises, we decided to shred the Constitution.
- Rather than relying on the structure of multilateral defense and international law we built after WWII, we manufactured lies to justify invasions of two nations (one unrelated to 9-11, the other only marginally related).
Feckless, reckless behavior taken under belief that the laws action and reaction don’t apply to America. Now we see our national debt skyrocketing, failure to achieve our goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military deteriorating under the stress of the long war, our global reputation in the mud, and our political regime on its deathbed. Despite this we feel powerful as our debt-powered economy remains hot, and our military remains triumphant over poor peasants across an ever-widening area of the world. We have moved into Dreamland.
“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, no known source (perhaps apocryphal)
This lack of clear vision about our situation might be our greatest illness. We sense this decline, however, as seen in the rising tension erupting as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Our dysfunctional political culture cannot translate this disquiet into coherent and rational alternative policies. Instead the Democratic party adopts the status quo as its mascot and the Republicans sink into madness.
Time heals all wounds.
— Menander, Publius Terentius Afer, Chaucer, and others
But how will this downward cycle end for us? Will we realize our folly, build a broad consensus for reform, and take the necessary bold actions? Or will retribution, recession, and our accumulated errors combine harshly to pop our delusions? Either way, we must first wake before taking steps to forge a better America.
… the economic buoyancy of 1919-21 was reminiscent of the military and political euphoria after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty and before the beginning of the spring offensive of 1918. Both times, Germans were confronted with the spectacle of what they saw as reality — military victory, the blossoming economy — dissolving into thin air. The analogy can be taken still further since in neither case was the demise physically apparent …
The German perception of reality became unbalanced. Vertigo became the dominant sensation of and metaphor for the period of hyperinflation. … In 1939, Sebastian Haffner, looking back on the hyperinflation of 1923, wrote: “An entire German generation had a spiritual organ removed; an organ that gives human beings constancy, balance, even gravity …”
— Schievelbusch’s The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning,and Recovery
About our dreams of power:
- Another perspective on Cordesman’s “A briefing from the battlefield”, 29 February 2008
- Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay, 3 March 2008
About our struggle to adapt to a new century:
- Which is better? Rioting in France and Greece or snoozing in America?, 28 October 2010
- Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
- We have the leaders we deserve. Visit MacDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010
- The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 2 November 2010
- The Enigma of American Power, 8 November 2010
- Why China will again rise to the top. About their most important advantage over America., 11 November 2010
- The story of the early 21st century: the future arrives, forcing us to build a new world order, 6 December 2010