An Empire Eaten From Within

In a recent edition of the Economist, Ariana Huffington claims we face a stark choice as Americans.  We can continue going down our current path and turn into a third world country, a shell of our former selves, or Americans can demand more from their leaders and start to take the lead in their own lives to restore the US back to previous heights.

The US is already starting to resemble a third world country in many ways:  The gap between the rich and the poor is growing toward South American levels.  City and state governments are making decisions to cut school teachers and school days, turning off street lights and deciding to let some roads return to nature.

Our infrastructure is beginning to crumble and we’re developing an underclass of unskilled, unemployable people in addition to the abundance of service jobs like nannies, maids, restaurant workers and farm work that are being filled on one side by over educated workers and on the other illegal immigrants.  Our deficits are some of the highest per capita in the world and our national debt is the biggest in the history of the world.  All the while, we demand more.

The rich want to pay lower taxes, but still get the benefits of the state.  Bankers want to be able to play in their casino and if they screw up, they cry to be bailed out from the public coffers.  Public unions want to retire in their 50s or early 60s with a full pension and health care, while contributing hardly anything toward these benefits while they are still working.  Republicans want to keep spending huge amounts on the military and continue to spend on bases in 75% of the world.  Democrats want to spend more on transfer payments, regulation and social programs and nobody is willing to compromise.

Economist say that people are “motivated by self interest,” but I think we’ve crossed the line from self-interest to plain old selfishness.  Most Americans want theirs and don’t seem to care about the rest of the country.  They think (and sometimes say), “as long as I get mine, fuck the rest.”

America’s rich are starting to realize that they don’t really need us anymore.  They can live the good life in the United States while producing and selling their products in developing markets around the world.

I’ve written extensively about how Americans have lived the good life off of debt, but it seems like the rest of the world is starting to see through our profligacy.  People want to continue to live in McMansions with the latest cars and electronic toys and spend outrageous amounts of money on the military, health care and social security, without feeling any of the pain of actually paying the bills.

I haven’t really proposed any solutions, mostly because I don’t really see any that have a chance of working.  It will take a huge change in America’s mindset.  I don’t generally subscribe to the “great leader” theory of change, but they do come around every once in awhile.  Ghandi, Martin Luther King , Nelson Mandela and others have inspired huge, national movements that changed the world, but most change comes from within, from smaller movements.

I think the only way we will see the change necessary to save America from it’s current trajectory is a leader or a movement that is willing to tell it like it is.  Americans need to be told:

  • Manufacturing jobs are not coming back
  • Americans need to be able to compete with people in the rest of the world, so you need to try in school.  A college degree with no skills does not cut it anymore.
  • Our standard of living is going to fall, we need to downsize our lives
  • We ALL need to make sacrifices and many of these sacrifices will be painful.
  • You can’t always get what you want.  If you’re demanding 100% of your agenda, you’re being selfish and damaging the country.  Even if you’re demanding 75% you’re still probably doing it.

We need to paint people who are being selfish (not self interested) as the selfish people they are.  Public unions can’t continue to live like they have.  Bankers cannot continue to speculate and gamble with our money.  The military will have to be scaled back and bases will have to be closed.  We’ll have to examine legalizing marijuana and releasing non-violent offenders.  We’ll have to look at privatizing portions of social security.  We’ll have to demand that Americans take personal responsibility and get in shape (economically and physically).  This will lower health care costs for us all.  We’ll need to back off the ledge of our 24 hour, soundbite, black vs. white “news” cycle and go back to actually solving problems.

We need to create a common sense movement to tell our leaders they are on the wrong track.  It’s not a Republican/Democrat issue.  It’s a systemic problem.  The current crop in both parties are part of the problem.

We need to turn inward and take a long look at ourselves and start to take responsibility.  We have the government (and the media) we deserve.  It’s a selfish government, catering to the needs of special interests, rather than the greater good.  We need to demand that our government tackles the big problems, not the politically expedient ones.  If we don’t, we’ll continue down the path we’re on.  Nobody will do it for us.  It’s on us.

If we don’t, we’ll end up an empire eaten from within.  And it will be our fault.

Do you agree?


  • Huffington is right; the USA is becoming a Third World nation. Complaining about selfish people is like complaining that gravity broke your leg after you jumped off a building. Selfishness and gravity will always be present; every individual must find his own path around obstacles to prosperity.

    As Adam Smith said, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

    Democracy is the worst form of government and always destroys itself as soon as voters realize that they can vote wealth for themselves rather than earn it. I’m disappointed that you, “haven’t really proposed any solutions, mostly because I don’t really see any that have a chance of working.”

    I propose a solution in my blog post, Boycotts in Chile and the Brigantine Pilgrim. Please let me know what you think. I’ve received no comments! I have no audience!

    • I think there is a difference between self interest and selfishness. It seems to me that in the past, people made their money/took care of their interests, but also were more interested in society as a whole.

      I tried to propose some solutions here, but I honestly don’t think any have a chance of working. What event, movement, leader will create the change we need? I can’t think of anything. I think we’ve had 70 years of good times, nobody with power except the people who lived through WWII as adults know hard times.

      • People were just as selfish in the past, if not more so. I don’t believe there ever was any Golden Age of unselfishness in the United States. In fact, I reckon it used to be worse. The Dailey machine in Chicago that illegally threw the election to Jack Kennedy was worse than today. Voters seem to think so, too; after all, they elected Obama as President even though they know he is a successful Chicago politician.

        People today look to politicians and the government for solutions to their problems. In the past in United States, and in Chile and Mexico today, voters were wary of politicians and so kept government smaller than it is today. Ronald Reagan was elected because the voters thought he would make shrink government; Ron Paul was rejected for President by Republican voters because he proposed dramatically shrinking government.

        The United States will change when large numbers of people emigrate. Anyone who believes that he has 40 years or more of life remaining would be a fool to remain there, but most young people are stupid and lazy, so they stay. Voting with your feet is the only vote that matters.

        If you like Chile and stay here, young people will read your blog and consider Chile as a destination; and your blog will be most credible if you tell it as it is, both good and bad.

        • Mark, thanks for commenting, you’ve made me think.

          Maybe selfish isn’t quite the right word. Greg’s comment about previous generations actually sacrificing, whether it’s for war, their family or just themselves is closer to what I really mean.

          I think many/most people are wary of politicians, but I do agree that too many people are looking to govt as a way to solve their problems in their everyday lives. 1 in 6 people in the us are on some form of govt assistance. That’s not sustainable.

          There’s also no “shame” in taking from the government. During the depression, people were loathe to ask for help from the government because they were self sufficient. There were event stories of people repaying welfare benefits because they were ashamed.

          Now, we’re at the other end of the spectrum. People see government as offering handouts (welfare, corporate welfare, tax breaks, everything) and people will do what they can to get them. It’s where the money is.

          Neither end of the spectrum is good and i’m not advocating going back to great depression era thinking. I have friends who are college educated, have a little money who applied for food stamps because they COULD, not because they NEEDED them.

          We were encouraged to apply for food stamps when we in extreme bootstrap mode in the first 6 months after graduation, not because we needed it, but because we could have qualified. That line of thinking has permeated American life.

          Back to govt solving problems. There are some problems that only govt can solve. National debt, social security, cutting the military, drug legalization etc. Normal people can’t do anything there.

          I’m not sold on emigrating as a solution. It will be interesting to see how the US develops in the next few years, along with the rest of the world.

  • Well said Nate. You are 100% spot on with both the diagnosis and the ideal solution. I share your concerns about whether we as a people are willing to face up to these challenges. Our politicians are third-rate, because they are parroting what we want to hear. Sometimes I am heartened, such as the marginal success that the two public debt commission received in Nov and Dec in elevating the level of discussion on the real issues. Then I become disheartenened when so-called fiscal conservatives such as a potentially promising Congressman from your (and mine) home State backs away from the challenge to satisfy his political career and we shortly thereafter have a so-called bipartisan compromise between the President and Congress that simple extends our trends of consuming today and sticking our children and grandchildren with the bill.

    This unfortunate current selfishness stands in stark contrast to the values that built this country. I was watching an old movie, The Crossing” last night which was about Washington’s crossing the Delaware in the Battle of Trenton. It is amazing the sacrifices that those soldiers made to start this country when contrasted with our current condition.

    Ultimately, the solution will have to come from outside the political realm. It will happen either by a consensus of citizens who are willing to make the sacrifices you identify (which are very minor compared to the sacrifices that most of our ancestors made in the last 235 years) or it will be imposed by the creditors who we potentially sold our future to.

    • yup, i had high hopes for Mr. Ryan and still do, but am not sure he’s going to actually be able to do much. Since no politician is willing to make tough choices, they’ll abdicate their responsibility to some commission who might be able to at least be able to push through some tough cuts.

      Yup, many people don’t understand how they can live without cable tv, a smart phone, a huge house etc. They don’t know tough times (I don’t either, but I’ve read my history).

      I think it’s much more likely it will be our creditors and it will happen much more quickly than anyone can think. It will be the black swan of our time.

  • I’m in complete agreement with the article, but I have to ask: What do you think about this mentality that the bubble economy based on constant technological innovation is the American way? I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it seems to be the way we do things around here. Up and down, always waiting for the next technological leap to carry our economy. Agreed that things are tough now, but things were tough in the 80s, and then along came the internet and then Bill Clinton with his federal budget surplus. Are we just waiting for the next innovation, or are we actually just junkies hoping for a quick fix?

    • Good questions. I think that’s the case with any developed economy. Since
      we’re always relying on
      we always need to get to the next technology. I read a book called Pop: why
      bubbles are good for our economy, but it’s notion of bubbles was in hard
      development (ie railroad, broadband capacity) maybe now houses.

      I think we’re both junkies and innovators. We’re addicted to debt (a bad
      bubble) but like innovation. It’s an interesting idea. What do you think?

Comments are closed.