CIRCLING THE DRAIN?
The Deterioration of America’s Political and Social Infrastructure
Observations and Commentary
By An Everyday Citizen, Taxpayer, and Voter
What This Book Is About
Imagine that you are living in a place that has the most advanced and accessible technology on earth. The levels of communications, medicine, transportation, food production, and military capability are unsurpassed in the history of the planet. Just about anything you might want is either produced nearby or brought in from afar by an efficient commerce system. Although there might occasionally be military conflicts on your borders or even farther afield that kill thousands from your own forces, where you live you are safe from the horrors of foreign invasion – and have been for centuries.
At the same time that the technological and economic situations appear to be flourishing, however, the political and social infrastructure is undergoing a slow deterioration. The political system was once a republic but a serious upheaval 150 years ago or so resulted in a fundamental transformation – and regression – to a more primitive form of governance that advertised itself as a continuation of the previous republic but eventually demonstrated that its primary mission was to impose central control in an authoritarian framework. A consequence of this new-but-old government has been a political free-for-all, where centralized power is wielded by what is approaching a state of pure democracy. In other words, the majority always rules and effectively negates the needs and desires of those who are not part of it. The net result is that temporary majorities (coalitions of voting groups) with more votes, money, or other forms of political capital gain advantage over those who have less. Power pendulums back and forth between political parties as relatively independent factions in the electorate recognize that the party in power can’t fulfill its promises to fix our problems and so throw their weight behind another party that makes promises of its own for the next election. Politicians’ attempts to gain office – or stay in office – by emphasizing solutions for individuals and special interests while neglecting overall and longer-term consequences makes them seem less like statesmen and more like they are simply trying to buy votes. Public respect for them is diminished. You are repeatedly being told that some things have changed – usually for the worse – and you need to acknowledge the “new normal”. While some aspects of the current state of affairs seem to be on the upswing at the same time others look troubling, you don’t really need to worry very much whether things are actually good or bad because you can always be amused and distracted in the short term by readily available sources of entertainment and leisure – some of the blessings of technology – that allow you to ignore the actual conditions if you wish to and pretend that everything is just fine.
Actually, you don’t need to imagine where you are living. You are in the United States of America in the at the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.
The above scenario is not unique to America of the 20th and early 21st Centuries. Many of its elements were also known and acknowledged by peoples in other times and places throughout history. Probably the best known of these were the peoples living in the Roman Republic and Empire. It was recognized by many Romans that their civilization had many serious problems, some of which are described in the next chapter. Despite remarkable and extensive technological achievements and its military conquest of much of the Mediterranean world, the Roman Republic imploded and morphed into an overextended, corrupt, autocratic empire, the western half of which continued degenerating into an empty shell that did not "fall" but was rather casually whisked away at the whim of a Germanic chieftain.
Although it is difficult to make direct comparisons between modern America and ancient Rome due to differences in the levels of technological achievements and social attitudes, many parallels can nevertheless be observed between the political and social functionality of the two civilizations.
Considering the United States and its potential parallels with earlier civilizations, probably the critical question that needs to be asked these days is: How are things really in America today? I found my own answer by looking at history and drawing some conclusions based on what has happened here and elsewhere in the past as well as my personal observations of America over the past six decades. This answer is reflected in the title of this book: “Circling the Drain?”.
The “circling the drain” symbolism is meant to be an authentic representation of my assessment of the current situation in the United States. Funny thing about circling a drain – in the early stages it can be difficult to tell that it is actually happening. As it starts, everything appears relatively normal. You are upright and moving in a large, slow, lazy circle. The fact that you are moving in a circle is almost imperceptible. Everything appears stable and moving ‘forward”. In the middle and latter stages, it becomes more and more apparent that you have entered a vortex. By the time the situation is obvious it is usually impossible to do anything about it.
It is my contention that the American civilization is on its way out, following in the footsteps of other civilizations that came before it. It has served its purpose, but has outgrown itself and become self-destructive and obsolete. I don’t know if our ultimate destination will be down the drain, like the Western Roman Empire, which eventually disintegrated completely and ushered in the era we know as the Dark Ages, or if we will be able to arrest the deterioration to some degree and settle in to an existence that will be a mere shadow of what we might have been.
One of the principal concepts lurking behind every chapter this book – and which I believe is a critical contributor to the deterioration of modern-day America as well as other civilizations – is the misguided idea that an individual or group of individuals operating within a single type of government possesses the knowledge and capability to enable governance of a very large, very diverse population. As America has grown from about four million people in 1789 to well over 300 million today, the response of those in charge has been to place more and more power in the hands of a centralized, overarching national government. This type of government can only function by attempting to control and standardize as much as it can, reaching down to the level of the individual citizen. By doing this, the needs and preferences of individuals and groups are disregarded, which leads to disenchantment and a loss of trust in those who are supposed to be governing. It also leads to artificial manipulation of the system, often proclaimed as being for the “greater good” but in reality benefiting specific groups. The ultimate result is the deterioration of the political and social infrastructure and the eventual failure of the system.
Despite the apparent pessimistic viewpoint that the title and first few paragraphs of this book seem to put forth, the overall message of this work is optimistic. This optimistic message is that, in the same way the American Founding Fathers separated the wheat from the chaff of earlier civilizations and charted a new form of representative government in a decentralized society, future Founding Fathers (and Mothers) can devise political and social structures that advance beyond the current American system.
The decline of the American system has been described many times before. When the topic is usually discussed, however, the author usually advances ideas about how to fix a system that is broken. This book does not do that. I don’t offer any suggestions to fix the existing situation. I maintain that the present system is irreversibly damaged and is too far down the road to ruin to recover. For our civilization to truly advance, the American system will need to fail on its own and be replaced by a new and hopefully improved one. Toward the end of the book I do, however, make recommendations regarding how I think a new system should be constructed to enable it to be effective, fair, and lasting.
This book is organized according to a series of related topics. They are briefly summarized as follows:
· This is not the first time a civilization has undergone political and social deterioration and slowly collapsed on itself. A ridiculously abridged history of the Roman Republic and Empire depicts critical aspects of its decline. [Chapter 2]
· The characteristics by which the status of a civilization may be portrayed usually vary with time from its rise to its eventual fall. Depending on how each aspect may be described, measured, or manipulated at a given stage it may, or may not, give an accurate measure of the actual status of the civilization. [Chapter 3]
· Small countries, provinces, and other divisions can usually be governed effectively by a single centralized government. As the population and diversity increase, however, centralized governance becomes less and less effective, more corrupt, and more dictatorial. [Chapter 4]
· One of the most important concepts presented in this book is that of responsibility. Who is responsible? Who accepts it? Who doesn’t? Who is held responsible? Who isn't? [Chapter 5]
· A civilization slowly circling the drain will not be recognized by most people because they prefer to take their cues from superficial or convenient aspects of the world around them rather than look at the evidence directly in front of them. This phenomenon is known by the academic-sounding term cognitive dissonance. [Chapter 6]
· The concept of a significant fraction of a population choosing freebies and various forms of entertainment rather than dealing with realty is not a new one. Nearly two thousand years ago the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal coined a phrase to describe the phenomenon that is still well-known and relevant today: bread and circuses. [Chapter 7]
· America is following policies that are unsustainable and detrimental to the health of the country, yet a substantial proportion of elected officials and voters support them. Those who favor such toxic policies can be classified into one or more of the following five categories: The Stupid, The Ignorant, The Gullible, The Desperate…and The Inexplicable. [Chapter 8]
· It is far too late in the life cycle of this country to expect any significant change to take place. Authoritarianism and forced centralization are currently being promoted and enforced by narrow majorities (or even pluralities) of the electorate or through arbitrary dictated government policies (not approved through constitutionally mandated processes). The already-existing factions, and the national system itself, are far too entrenched for the system to be revamped to the extent necessary for its survival. [Chapter 9]
· Once the system does fail, however far in the future that may be, it will be necessary to build a new one. Hopefully the new system will allow the existing and potential diversity of needs and preferences existing in the country to flourish. This could be accomplished by turning the existing power structure upside down: truly local governmental functions (most governmental functions) would operate through a smorgasbord of government types at the local level (locally chosen, locally run), while those truly state and national functions can be taken care of at those levels. [Chapter 10]
This book is being written as an appeal to intellect and rationality. While it may be true that the path to public acceptance has usually been through an appeal to emotions, this route has often provided “solutions” that tend not to be well thought out and don’t actually solve the problems in a substantive or lasting way. When a “solution” proves to be more of a hinderance than an answer to a given problem, it is usually not reversed or repealed but persists as a “ball and chain” on the system for the long term.
A book of this length is not intended to be a scholarly or comprehensive treatise on any aspect of the American political or social systems, the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic, Roman Empire, economics, political science, or any other academic topic. It is simply a summary of the observations and analyses of one American citizen, voter, and taxpayer living in the United States last half of the 20th Century and the first couple of decades of the 21st.
I want this book to be a readily accessible, albeit superficial, source of ideas that will create an environment for discussion regarding the observations contained herein. It is not intended to generate arguments or inane shouting matches but, rather, intelligent and rational conversations concerning real problems our country is facing, both immediate and in the longer term. At the very end I make suggestions for some aspects of what I think might be a workable system but realize that no workable system may exist, human nature being what it is. As I stated above, I don’t think there is any way to fix the decline, but I hope that open-minded, honest discussion will prove me wrong.