Wednesday, August 24, 2005

the rise and fall of the american empire

A friend of mine from my biweekly D&D sessions sent me a lengthy piece from CTheory that analyzes political, social and economic trends in the United States today, and looks ahead to the next fifty years. It's a fascinating essay, but I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure what to make of it either. It's fairly lengthy and not as readable as one would wish for something this complex. I definitely see the power to what the author is saying, though, on several points:
  • America has become a nation of consumers rather than producers. Our industry has been outsourced to other countries, and many "American" businesses are, more truthfully, multinational companies with assets so widely scattered it's hardly fair to say that they're American in the sense that originally would have meant. Our factories are in Mexico and China, our tech support comes from India, and plenty of other intellectual services, such as architecture, have been outsourced to places like Egypt, where the knowledge comes more cheaply than from a place here in the U.S.; and even our food is grown all over the world. It makes shareholders happy when the bottom line is blacker, but it makes us progressively less capable to provide for ourselves. As fuel costs continue to soar, we can expect the price of the goods we consume to rise also, and we'll have little alternative,since we've shut down our factories, developed our farms, and outsourced everything else.
  • Our economy is riding an inflated bubble, and we're probably facing another Depression in the next ten years. Savings reached zero percent this year, and people are borrowing like crazy to get everything. It's a "standard of living" issue, but our standard of living is preposterous, with the things we "need." The writer notes -- and I agree -- that we've inverted the Protestant work ethic that made our nation what it is (or was). Instead of working hard with a delayed gratification, we've opted for a model of instant gratification where we get what we want now, even if we don't need it, and spend the next twenty or thirty years working our way out of debt. We do this not just with houses, but with cars, education, appliances, entertainment and pretty much everything else we buy. That's unsound economics, as anyone who remembers Black Friday in 1987 will attest.
  • We're ignoramuses of our own history and culture. I actually thought this was an interesting stament in the piece you sent, since the author makes the point that our pop culture is recycling itself, with remakes of old TV shows, movies and TV shows as movies, a la "Dukes of Hazard." Part of this is the dimming of the American mind, to be sure, but it also hearkens back to the lost tradition of storytelling, where people would retell familiar stories from one generation to the next. What I gleaned from this point was that our new mass storytelling isn't connecting to our cultural heritage -- our history, Shakespeare, antiquity, the Bible -- it's connecting to recent stuff instead, and most of it fairly lightweight, like superhero movies or "Dukes of Hazzard." Rather than wrestling with the deep and troubling stories told by Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or Moses, we're going for the simple-minded morality tales of Batman fighting the Scarecrow, and the Duke boys getting the upper hand on Roscoe P. Coaltrain.
I'd have to say that I think a lot of the analysis here is dead-on, and it makes me think of a line from Alex Ross' "Uncle Sam" comic with Vertigo a few years back. Brittania, talking to Sam, recalls when she fell from glory and then adds: "Of course, when you fall, it's going to make what I went through look like a bloody cricket match."

And as the writer interprets from current events, it's not that the United States is going to fall. We've already started to topple.

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