The Unraveling: The Rise and Fall of Empires and the United States
History is littered with a long list of once great civilizations. Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Maya are but a few examples. In more modern times Holland, Spain and the British Empire are relevant examples. In the 20th century the collapse of the Soviet Union was sudden and brought significant changes to the world order. Most residents within these empires probably did not notice the trends towards decline. The United States is in a similar place. There are signs of decline all around us. However, most people think the country is the same as it ever was.
The causes for collapse were economic, technological and environmental. With the Maya collapse happened suddenly. It is understood that radical environmental decline occurred. It was brought upon because of the over exploitation of local resources, Cities were abandoned, and the population scattered. Those cities were discovered centuries later by archeologist, who have reconstructed some of that history. The stone slabs have some of that history carved into the stone, and since the language was decoded, we have learned a lot. Recently a large megalopolis was found under the canopy of the Guatemalan jungle. This is one of the cities that was abandoned at the height of the classic period. It is also proof of how advanced the Maya were.
A similar process of environmental collapse happened in modern day Iraq with the rise of agriculture. We know the environmental collapse led to desertification in a river valley that was the heart of early agriculture and human society. One reason were minerals that poisoned the plants. We know this story from Sumerian clay tablets. This happened around 2300 before the common era. Summer and the Maya share this in common. There was deep damage to the environment, leading to local civilization collapse.
The Modern Period
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not a surprise for experts, but it was for western intelligence agencies. Partly it was self preservation which led to analysis bias in agencies that relied on the Russian threat for budgeting operations. They missed strong markers of imminent collapse. Among them there was a Soviet deficit that led to an inability to pay Red Army Soldiers. Meaning, they were less motivated to fight. This massive deficit, brought from spending large amounts of money in the military, prevented the government from spending money on internal needs. Among them, were infrastructure, research, medical care and education.
Which brings us the American present. While deficit growth slowed down over the past administration, tax reform is expected to grow the deficit by 3 trillion dollars over the course of ten years. The Congressional Budget Office raised multiple alarms before the tax bill was passed and signed into law. They continue to raise alarms as the deficit starts to grow:
”Because the tax legislation reduced individual income taxes for most taxpayers, the Internal Revenue Service released new income tax withholding tables for employers to use beginning no later than the middle of February 2018,” CBO said in a report. “As a result of those changes, CBO now estimates that, starting in February, withheld amounts of individual income taxes will be roughly $10 billion to $15 billion per month less than anticipated before the new law was enacted.”
We know that trickle down economics has failed every time it’s been tried. Acolytes of the theory fail to understand this at our national peril. However, this will bring us closer to those sky high Soviet deficits that brought the Soviet Union down. It also means that we keep spending large amounts of our national treasure on defense, but very little in infrastructure, education and basic research.
The choices made today mean failing water systems, for example. We are also experiencing worsening infrastructure when flying in and out of airports. Then there is the almost ancient AMTRAK rail system, that cannot support modern, fast, bullet trains. While we discuss adding safety measures into an ancient system, Europeans, Japanese and Chinese trains have connected their respective countries. In some cases, trains have replaced air travel for short hops. This also reduces the carbon footprint of the transport system. These nations also sport new airports, that are modern and able to manage more air traffic safely. Countries like Mexico are replacing and modernizing airports as well.
Why? One reason is that this will mean a modern, green terminal in Mexico City. The government calls it the gate to Latin America, and it is also a legacy setting project for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who is all but popular. Tijuana is in the process of modernizing the existing airport that is now connected to the United States though a pedestrian bridge. Full disclosure, due to family matters I fly out of that airport often. Further, like all major projects, the Mexico City project is not free of controversy.
American Education is not the best in the world. We are also a very ignorant country, and proud of it. Basic education has a deep emphasis on testing, not in understanding material or connecting dots. This contributes to that ignorance. Science education is deficient, to the point that there are Americans who believe the earth is flat. Some believe the sun goes around the earth. Then there are those for whom evolution makes no sense. They either believe in intelligent design or the young earth fantasy. This is in part because we do not teach basic science well.
Climate science and evolution are extremely controversial in more than a few school districts in the United States. There is a desire to teach intelligent design besides evolution. One is accepted as scientific fact, the other is not. Religion has been inserted into more than one school district, mostly in the rural south, which violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
We have a strong anti-authority and conspiratorial cultural undercurrent. This is bad enough that those who believe vaccines are poison, and chem trail believers are on the same level as flat earth theorists. In the case of anti vaccination activists are a clear and present danger to public health. They say but we do not have polio. Of course we don’t. This is due to the success of vaccination campaigns. Their refusal to vaccinate their children could spark and outbreak though if a traveller brings it back.
Other diseases are already making a comeback. Among them Mumps and Measles, which are fully preventable with a vaccine. Measles even came to the happiest place on earth, leading to mandatory vaccination legislation in the State of California. Those who fear vaccines are fighting back on this front.
Here is an old wife’s tale that is making the rounds. It is a classic of the ignorance we are dealing with:
Did you know that if you get the flu, you should put a slice of potato in your socks and go to sleep? When you wake up, the potato will be black since it is drawing toxins away from your body. Never mind that the potato is black because the starches oxidized overnight. Most people who do any cooking will tell you, after you cut potatoes, or apples, you put them under water to keep them from browning. That browning is oxidation.
People also believe that putting onions on the corner of the bed will make you better. Or for that matter eggs. Now, these are the same people who will not, under any circumstances, get a vaccine. Or for that matter go to the doctor. They are not that rare, and it is not just a lack of ability to pay. In many cases, it is part of it. Some are rural and poor.
However, in California they tend to be wealthier, suburban, and better educated. The only thing in common is that they all tend to believe other conspiracy theories as well.
More than a few of these people serve in policy making bodies. The policies that emerge from these bodies is damaging at best, dangerous at worst. One good example was Senator James Inhofe brining in a snow ball to show to his colleagues that climate change was a hoax.
Science, Technology and Infrastructure
In this respect Rome comes to mind. At its height it was a technologically advanced society. We can tell from the workmanship in armor and weapons, as well as plumbing, medical knowledge and literature. Roman architecture was advanced, and civic life was very active. Incidentally, at the height of the empire the legions were manned by citizen soldiers.
By the fourth century of the common era the workmanship of weapons and armor was hardly as ornate, or offered the same protection to soldiers. Rome was in the business of hiring mercenaries to hold the frontier as well. The Republic was long gone, and so were the principles of citizenship. The Roman Senate was very dysfunctional and emperors were often murdered.
Roman infrastructure was failing. Historians also believe the Roman practice of using lead pipes and adding it to wine contributed to the decline. Lead is a well known neurotoxin that causes mental decline.
American infrastructure is in a very shoddy state. We have failing water pipe systems, not just in Flint, Michigan. For example, some San Diego schools have lead in the water and schools are in the process of fixing this issue. Children are getting bottled water. Nor is lead in water as rare as we tend to believe. 5,300 Systems are in violation of Environmental Protection Agency rules. While Flint is the poster child of this matter, we need to be aware that it is hardly limited to a few places.
We have a $1 trillion infrastructure needs, if we are to compete globally. It is airports, roads, trains, water systems, and even modern digital communications. Failures of dams and levies is also a problem. This could lead to disasters, due to major flooding. Yet, the political class speaks about this while cutting the funding to take care of it. Citizens are no better. Any talk of raising taxes sends people into almost open revolt. Why? They have lost the connection between those taxes and the services they receive. This connection started to get lost in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. These days it is complete. It seems the only way to fix roads and bridges is pixie dust, because most Americans do not get the connection. Many have protested the rise in the gasoline tax in California, and the US Chamber is asking for a similar rise at the Federal level.
Other signs of Decline
Americans are distrustful of government and institutions. The country is extremely polarized, not just along racial lines, but class lines and regional lines. This division is also present between urban and rural areas. It is especially sharp between coastal urban areas, and the interior of the country.
Part of the disagreement on migration policy stems from this sharp divide. People who live in urban areas with large immigrant communities are in favor of immigration. Those in rural, mostly white counties, are against it and afraid of the other. They live in a monoculture where they rarely hear a foreign language, let alone an accent. Rural counties have also lost economic dynamism, and tend to be at the heart of the opioid epidemic.
Incidentally, the US has a sharp economic division, with large concentrations of poverty in these counties. Yes, it would be silly to not see the poverty and increasing homeless population in Los Angeles or San Diego, but Appalachia has suffered from generational poverty that goes back a few generations. We rarely talk about that.
Then there is access to health care. Poor Americans are unable to pay for the services, and we are now on a trend towards a lower life expectancy. This reversal in aging trends is telling and yet another sign of decline.
Mass shootings are a uniquely American epidemic. It is time to refer to them this way. We have mass shootings every week, and these days most escape the attention of the national media. We have become inured to them.
Yet, they are a clear sign that something is very wrong in the United States. In 2017 there were 345 mass shootings. The fire zone in Las Vegas made the news. But for example, the one in San Diego did not.
Part of the reason is that in La Jolla one person was killed. We define mass shootings as 4 killed, never including the gunman. We have become numb, ergo a story that 10 years ago would have made it to the national news, did not.
We also refuse to call many of these shootings terrorism. Why? They do not meet the definition of one. The federal government defines terrorism as follows:
“the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
Here is the problem. We refuse to call acts that fit the US Code definition, as such. One good example of this was the shooting at the Charlestown AME Church. The goal was to start a race war. That is a political goal. Dylan Roof was charged with hate crimes though.
But these shootings, which are occurring more often, point to a social disease and instability. They point to a society where internal tensions have no other outlet. They also point to a society on the verge of a crisis.
We like to think that the US is an egalitarian nation. The American dream means if you work hard, you can get ahead. The problem is that this is no longer the case. Many regions of the country are as poor as many slums in the developing world.
”Some might ask why a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the U.S., there also exists great poverty and inequality.” That was part of a statement issued by Philip Alston, a New York University law and human rights professor, who is leading the mission.
The fact is that we have very high levels of child poverty, wage inequality, and of course racism.
Nations rise and fall. Empires come and go. Some achieve imperial status a few times. Russia and China come to mind. Others dominate over a long period. Rome is an excellent example. The United States is a young country. It dominated global affairs for 70 years. We started to decline before Trump took over. Historians might mark that turning point as the Iraq war, the greatest strategic blunder in a generation. Mass shootings, stagnant wages, quiet desperation, lowering standard of living and life expectancy are but signs. Most Americans know something is wrong. However, it seems Americans are ignorant of history. Like most residents within a crumbling empire, they are failing to recognize what is going on. Incidentally, Trump betting on the 19th century regarding energy, and our continued drop in global innovation is also a symptom of this.