Sunday, November 15, 2020

Is America a Declining Civilization?

Last week, people were dancing in the streets over the election of one Joe Biden to the American presidency. The people who were most thrilled were the elite intellectuals that believe that God gave them the right to govern the rest of us. As you know, this class went completely dyspeptic over the presidency of a man who was not just like them.

Others, especially in New York City, thrilled to the prospect of a massive government bailout. The city is bordering on insolvency, and since it is governed mostly by Democrats, it has had difficulty sucking money out of red states-- to pay for its fiscal profligacy.

Given how optimistic everyone is, it is more likely that we are like the good ship Titanic, heading toward an iceberg. Now, two thinkers, of slightly dubious pedigree have explained that we are in serious trouble. One is Professor Peter Turchin. The other is a man named Dmitri Orlov.

You might see their theorization as crackpottery, but still, sometimes even crackpots can see things that those who bathe in the convention wisdom miss completely.

Graeme Wood explained Turchin’s theories in detail in The Atlantic. He teaches at the University of Connecticut, and is a world leading authority on pine beetles. Naturally, when you want to see the future, you call Nostradamus, but, if you can’t get him on the line, you seek out an expert in pine beetles.

Turchin believes that America is suffering from a dark triad of social ills:

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. 

The last seems to me to be the most cogent. The American government keeps racking up debt and acting as though it need not pay it back. I will leave to others to explain the risk involved in the possibility that the dollar loses its reserve status, but surely Turchin is onto something there.

As for a declining standard of living, I have my doubts. Yet, when it comes to the overproduction of elites, he might be on to something there. After all, we are handing out college diplomas willy nilly and do not have enough jobs for those who receive them. 

This seems sort-of to be true. We are giving too many diplomas in worthless studies to people who do not learn anything. These credentials are basically useless-- unless we can massively expand the bureaucracy or charity organizations. And of course, these same creatures, filled with resentment, are more interested in tearing down the culture that duped them into racking up college debt. They are likely to become social justice warriors, antifa fascists or layabouts.

Allow Turchin his word:

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

None of this is very good for the common people. Turchin believes that when the living standards of the common people declines, the elites will need to hand out goodies, like welfare. This makes too many people wards of the state, and this is a combustible mixture-- because you do not gain any pride by being a ward of the state:

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

If that is not a sufficient serving of gloom and doom, consider the words of Dmitri Orlov, from his eponymous blog. By his lights, and they are cranky indeed, America is a declining civilization. It reminds him of the Soviet Union before it fell.

The symptom of our decline is the fact that we have become a geriatric gerontocracy, a country ruled by very old people who should long since stepped aside. 

Orlov is an all-purpose crank. He trash talks everyone, from right to left to far left. He is even crankier than I am, a considerable achievement in itself.

Consider his theory:

In healthy societies, older leaders age out and make room for younger leaders who take over for them after a lengthy period of study and apprenticeship. In sick societies, older leaders cling to power with no one competent there to replace them and once they die are replaced by traitors and criminals. The USSR and the USA are two such examples. The late Soviet serial gerontocracy of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, who for a time haunted the balcony of the Lenin mausoleum and, once dispatched to the netherworld, were swiftly replaced by the traitorous duo of blabbermouth Mikhail Gorbachëv and Drunk President Boris Yeltsin, was a tragedy for Russia. The resulting die-off was of the same order of magnitude as the losses incurred during World War II. In accordance with the worn-out cliché about history repeating, the current American gerontocracy is more of a farce than a tragedy, but its results are likely to be no less lethal for the population.

Orlov is not exactly a Trump fan. He does not see today's presidential election as a great selling point for democracy. He neglects the fact that other political offices were also decided on November 3:

And now, a quarter of a century after my initial insight, as the US enters national bankruptcy and institutional collapse, the whole world is being treated to an end-of-empire spectacular election extravaganza starring none other than the consummate showman and impresario extraordinaire Donald Trump. He used to run beauty pageants, while this one is more of an ugliness pageant, but then beauty is rare and always fades while ugliness is commonplace and usually just gets uglier, making it a much safer bet. And so let’s accept it as a parting present to the world from a vanishing nation that gave us horror flicks, reality television and three-ring circuses with sideshow freaks.

On a more pessimistic note-- he must have strained to find a more pessimistic note-- he adds that America will never be great again. In truth, there is no way of knowing this, and besides, the more people become aware that America needs to undergo some serious rehab, the more likely it is that America will return to its glory. It is not going to happen very soon, but that does not mean that it will never happen. Using big words like "never" make you sound like a prophet. They also detach you from reality.

In Orlov’s words:

Rest assured, Trump or no Trump, America will never be great again. But Trump’s magic halo extends out from his resplendent orange cranial plumage and enfolds all those who pine for the lost Pax Americana and fear and loathe what America is fast becoming—which is, to put it bluntly, a holding tank for degenerates of every stripe presided over by a freak show. They pine for a time when men were manly and women womanly, when secretaries were flattered when their bosses took time away from their busy schedules to rub up against them, and when everyone was either a WASP, or worked hard on trying to look and act like one, or kept to their assigned station in life and knew better than to get too uppity. They want to believe that the ethnic melting pot can still produce noble alloys, preferably Corinthian bronze, and certainly not clinker or slag.

Arrayed against our fearless orange-hued leader, who at 74 is no spring chicken himself, is a ghoulish gaggle of geriatric gerontocrats.

And then, Orlov offers some choice descriptions of the anti-Trumpers.

Beginning with Joe Biden:

There is Joe Biden, 77, whose brain ran away and joined a circus some years ago but who imagines himself to be president-elect, or senator, or vice-president, or something. Having spent eight years lurking in the shadows as Obama’s VP, Biden is as fit to lead as a pig is kosher after rubbing its side against a corner of a synagogue.

The media is currently fawning over Biden, the better to embarrass itself. Since it has no sense of shame, it has not yet noticed.

After Biden, come Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders:

Also haunting the balcony of the American mausoleum is Nancy Pelosi, 80, who still runs the House of Representatives even though proper employment for her at this point would be up on a pole keeping the birds off the corn. There is also Bernie Sanders, 79, a sad pagliaccio whose permanent role in the political Commedia dell’Arte that the Democratic Party stages every four years is to simulate democracy by cheerleading crowds of young imbeciles in Act I, to feign death after falling off his pogo stick in Act II, and to stagger to his feet, wave and smile for the curtain call.

As I said, Orlov is one cranky guy.

But, that’s not all. The gerontocracy also includes:

Last but not least, there is the horrid harpy Hillary Clinton, who is relatively young at 73 but whose putrid smell and cadaverous, ghastly visage are not longer fit for public display except in most delicately contrived circumstances. Hidden even further backstage is the suppurating cadaver of George Soros who, at 90, is still pulling the strings and wreaking havoc in the US and around the world. (His minions had recently spread color revolution to Armenia, in turn causing it to “elect” Pashinyan, a choice imbecile and a traitor, who then lost a big chunk of Armenian territory to Azerbaijan.) I could mention quite a few other financial corpses and oligarchic cadavers, but will refrain, to avoid giving you nightmares. Nobody lives forever, not even Henry Kissinger, 97, and so all we have to do is wait.

As for America’s institutions, Orlov is seriously pessimistic:

In any case, it would be futile to try to give the US some semblance of a democratic election system. It would be like trying to clean up a beach by picking up empty beer cans around a beached whale. The presidency, after four years of ham-handed efforts to unseat a president using false evidence, is a failed institution. Congress, which now nonchalantly overspends federal revenue by a factor of three, is a fiscal zombie. The Federal Reserve, which is now a pure pyramid scheme, is a financial zombie. And then there is the rest of the ridiculously bloated US economy, which is waiting for a stiff gust of wind to cause ephemeral wealth to flood out of stocks and bonds and into cash, much of it evaporating in the process and the rest causing a tsunami of consumer price inflation.

As if that were not enough:

As the curtain descends on this final act of Pax Americana, the image of the orange enfant terrible and the senile puppet with his child-nurse in tow playing on the teeter-totter of electoral dysfunction on the playground of second childhood will forever remain etched into the retinas of the whole world. The whole world will then be able to move on and look for worthier role models and for less corrupt policemen. And that’s progress!

The good news in this dour assessment is simple. For now it's only a few cranks who are selling the pessimistic party line. And yet, the more people descend into bleak pessimism the more likely it is that the country will be forced to come to terms with its faults and flaws. The more it does so, the more likely it is that it will start digging itself out of its current nightmare. As every stock market forecaster knows, bleak pessimism is a sign that we should invest. 

Dare I say, we are not there yet. Orlov reminds us that he has been saying this for fifteen years now. So, he has a vested interest in calamity, and in seeing things through a glass, darkly-- to coin a phrase. Right now he and Turchin are surely outliers. When their view becomes commonly accepted, the great American recovery will begin. 


David Foster said...

It would be worthwhile to think about example of entities...countries, corporations, military organizations...that were on the downswing but managed to revive themselves.

trigger warning said...

Speaking of "bloated" elite classes, and sadly recognizing that "Dr" Blasey-Ford has thankfully retired to the anonymity of quiet tenure at NPCville Women's College for Shrinkatology, let's take a quack (sp?) look at "Dr" Jill Biden. Or, according to USAToday (11/10/20), "Professor FLOTUS". :-D

"Dr" Jill was a remedial writing instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College, "with an emphasis on instilling confidence in students" (but not, unfortunately, emphasis on writing skills). During her husband's tenure as Senator from Delaware she was admitted to the Educational Leadership graduate program at the University of Delaware (required GPA: 2.75/4; no GRE), a "program designed to be completed on a part-time basis with students maintaining their current employment".

"Dr" Jill's dissertation... oops, sorry!, Executive Position Paper (2007) was titled "Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students' Needs". She collected personal accounts from Delaware Technical and Community College students to provide "insight" regarding their needs and why they dropped out.

Delaware Technical and Community College's current graduation rate: 23.2%

Stellar results, perfesser!!!

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Trigger, wait ‘til you see how many honorary degrees she accumulates in the next 4 years!

And how many women’s magazine covers she appears on, touting all her “smarts.” Count on her being on the cover of O, Cosmo, YM, Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping — all before the Easter Egg Roll. How many covers was Melania on the last 4 years?

Jill Biden will be “her own woman” — a woman of letters for the ages, with many stories about how she married for love, and received so much more! I’m sure she’ll sneak in a giggle about how Ol’ Joe just loves to sniff HER hair... it’s just that cute thing he does. Aw, shucks, you see, that’s just Joe being Joe!

My, my... the Biden family seems to accumulate so much doing so very little. No mention that it’s all paid for by her son-in-law’s Chinese benefactors, of course.

And don’t be so MEAN about that 23.2% graduation rate, Trigger. Professor FLOTUS has always had the best of intentions...

Anonymous said...

When everyone goes to Harvard,nobody goes to Harvard.

Sam L. said...

"It would be like trying to clean up a beach by picking up empty beer cans around a beached whale." Speaking of beached whales, 50 years ago this month in Oregon:

Sam L. said...

"As for a declining standard of living, I have my doubts. Yet, when it comes to the overproduction of elites, he might be on to something there. After all, we are handing out college diplomas willy nilly and do not have enough jobs for those who receive them." I expect they're not well taught, as well.

JPL17 said...

The idea that a nation's over-production of elites leads to social and political instability -- and sometimes revolution -- has been well-known for over 50 years. Yet not only has the U.S.A. been over-producing elites since about 1960, but since then, it's adopted policies to over-produce elites at an even greater rate (e.g., vastly expanded governmental grants to colleges and subsidized college loans).

What accounts for this national suicidal behavior? For most I suspect it's just a combination of misguided egalitarianism and well-meaning ignorance. For others -- particularly politicians and government and academic bureaucrats -- it's probably ambition and corruption. But for a small but powerful minority who know exactly what's going on -- here I'm thinking of people like Bill Ayers and Barack Obama -- it's obvious that social and political instability is the goal.

Ares Olympus said...

Yes, Orlov claims he's been predicting the fall of the United States since 1995. It seems a useful perspective to consider, what do you value when everything you know and care about can fall apart? Some people think guns will protect them. Before the blue city riots, many city folks believed their neighbors would protect them from the roaming hordes; too bad they abandoned their peace officers. Orlov is right that the 70+ crowd currently in charge are on their final days. Will my generation-X find its way under the shadow of fading boomers?

Until then I'm not worried about the "elite" who try to functionally run a government that serves people, but the "elite" who aspire to own everything, who are happy for every market dip as a buying opportunity, knowing the Fed will promise a swift recovery to the faithful. So if Elizabeth Warren runs again in 2024 for a 1% wealth tax for people with over 50M in assets, it works for me, not because I want to punish the wealthy, nor even fund the government, but because a mere 1% tax will separate the patriots from the vultures.

FDR said to the wealthy "I welcome their hatred", while it is amazing how any act that puts limits on individual power to accumulate wealth is equivalent to 1918 Russia revolution. The wealthy really have put something over us, to make themselves the victims. Either they start paying up on their success, or we're all going to pay a much higher price, the literal end of America.

Ares Olympus said...

James Howard Kunstler, friend of Orlov, is another leftist who believes serious evidence the fix was in for Biden, using Shiva Ayyadurai's analysis as evidence. To be fair, if Biden has been ahead on election night, and Trump slithered back into the lead on under-audited absentee ballots, Democrats would be crying foul just as loudly. How do we trust anything if people in positions of power will steal elections and believe they can't get caught? Conspiracies can be real. If you had evidence of manipulation, but hated Trump, would you stay quiet? I mean if "Trump is Hitler", you'd do anything, as another "leftist" Scott Adams considers. So equally, there's a real danger, if there are many small scale corruptions, 100 fraudulent ballots here and there by 10,000 lone wolves, it could change the election decided by 50k votes.

Sam L. said...

Well, the Dems are doing their damnedest to make it so.