Summary: Today Chet Richards looks a recent Stratfor post about the crisis of the middle class, and from there explores some of the challenges facing 21st century America.
George Friedman, Founder and CEO of Stratfor, is always worth reading for the same reason that, say, James Kilpatrick was: You might not have agreed with much that he wrote, but there were usually a few nuggets amidst the infuriation, and he wrote so amazingly well. In fact, in his later years, his columns on writing were all I remember.
Friedman has an important column in Stratfor, The Crisis of the Middle Class and American Power. He opens with:
I received a great deal of feedback, with Europeans agreeing that this is the core problem and Americans arguing that the United States has the same problem, asserting that U.S. unemployment is twice as high as the government’s official unemployment rate. My counterargument is that unemployment in the United States is not a problem in the same sense that it is in Europe because it does not pose a geopolitical threat. The United States does not face political disintegration from unemployment, whatever the number is. Europe might.
And proceeds to argue most eloquently that the United States faces exactly that. This was also something the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) worried about. For examples, here’s part of his discussion of the prerequisites for an insurrection. From his presentation Patterns of Conflict, slide 94:
Insurrection/revolution becomes ripe when many perceive an illegitimate inequality — that is, when the people see themselves as being exploited and oppressed for the undeserved enrichment and betterment of an elite few.
I read Friedman as concluding — and I agree — that we’re nowhere near this stage. For that reason, a “vanguard” has not been able to emerge. From Patterns slide 67:
[Igniting the revolution] is accomplished when the vanguard is able to:
- Fan discontent/misery of working class and masses and focus it as hatred toward existing system.
- Cause vacillation/indecision among authorities so that they cannot come to grips with existing instability.
- “Confuse other elements in society so that they don’t know exactly what is happening or where the movement is going.
- Convince “proletariat class they have a function—the function of promoting revolution in order to secure the promised ideal society.”
Greece, for example, is not at this stage, and they are much worse off than we are. Marx, as Boyd would often note, had a pretty good diagnosis, but his solution was tested and turned out to be worse. But that doesn’t invalidate his analysis of causes.
Friedman concludes that we need luck:
It would seem to me that unless the United States gets lucky again, its global dominance is in jeopardy.
I disagree. As Fabius Maximus notes, we need to fix our OODA loops, that is, to come to some broad agreement (orientation) that we do have the problems Friedman lists and that we need to back away from the conditions that will lead to social disintegration. In our system, the primary responsibility for selling this need falls on the President.
As an aside, Friedman gets the part about “agility” completely wrong. “Re-engineering” as it was actually practiced became a cover for outsourcing overseas. Its complete purpose and how all those consultants made their money was simple cost cutting. Foreign outsourcing, which makes a supply chain longer and more complex, has exactly the opposite effect. It kills agility. Charles Fishman has a great article that illustrates this point in last month’s Atlantic, “The Insourcing Boom.”
What is true is that lean practices combined with robotics (which finally seem to be working as they were promised a generation ago) will greatly decrease the need for human workers. Nobody knows what this will mean. A colleague of mine has a disturbing post on this point, and I can’t find anything wrong with his analysis: “The End of Work Creeps a Bit Closer“, Robert Charette, 7 December 2012. Fabius has also been running posts on this subject.
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For More Information
To learn about America’s broken OODA loop, see section 10 of the FM Reference Page How can we stop the quiet coup now under way in America?
Poss about inequality and social mobility, once a strengths of America, now a weakness:
- A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008 — Our low social mobility.
- Inequality in the USA, 7 January 2009
- A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
- The latest figures on income inequality in the USA, 9 October 2009
- An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009
- Graph of the decade, a hidden fracture in the American political regime, 7 March 2010
- America, the land of limited opportunity. We must open our eyes to the truth., 31 March 2010
- Modern America seen in pictures. Graphs, not photos. Facts, not impressions., 13 June 2010
- Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there, 13 December 2011
- News You Can Use to understand the New America, 14 March 2012 — Articles about rising inequality
- How clearly do we see the rising inequality in America? How do we feel about it? Much depends on these answers., 27 September 2012
- Ugly truths about income inequality in America, which no politician dares to say, 2 October 2012
- The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?, 27 November 2012
He was top of the 1% during the late 18th Century: