Thursday, February 26, 2015

Charting historical trajectories

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

That question presupposes that history is dynamic and not static. Hoping that an aspect of life or existence will attain equilibrium, as I often do, is generally pointless. The cosmos is dynamic. Careful examination of anything reveals a dynamism; periods of waning inexorably follow periods of waxing, seen in the cycles of the moon, life that moves from youthful energy to the tiredness of old age, etc. In total, the cosmos appears to move toward entropy, the dissipation of its energy.

Correctly discerning the direction of flow can provide an individual with life-giving information, e.g., knowing the tide tables can help a skipper avoiding grounding her or his vessel.

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

Several indicators suggest that the US has passed its apogee and now heads toward an inevitable decline:

  • The apparent increase in the political influence of the wealthy and the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the poor suggest that a plutocracy may be pushing democracy aside. Something similar happened in ancient Rome. Democracy engenders innovation, energy, and loyalty that a plutocracy cannot match.
  • US global hegemony, perhaps at its peak at the end of the Cold War, seems certain to decline as China's economy overtakes the US economy in size, with India's economy poised to follow suit.
  • Chinese and Indian citizens, who are less assured of affluence and therefore have less to lose, are more likely to push for greater democracy; US citizens appear willing to trade security and comfort for freedom. They may also be more willing to take risks, and therefore to be more creative and prolific inventors and entrepreneurs than US citizens.
  • The huge and relatively constant proportion of the US gross domestic product tied to wasteful defense spending. The US spends a higher percentage of its total economic output on defense than does any other state and yet faces less of an existential threat, because of its geography, population, and excessive military strength than do most other states. Meanwhile, the US underfunds both the effective education of its citizens and investment in critical infrastructure.
  • The credence given to superstition and myth, with a concurrent disregard of science, is glaringly manifest in unnecessary death and contagion (e.g., the silly ideas, which have no scientific basis, that measles vaccine can cause autism or that humans are not the result of evolutionary processes). No allegedly developed nation is more handicapped in these ways than is the US, handicaps that appear to be increasing instead of diminishing.

Not all indicators are negative:

  • Lower oil prices, especially if coupled with increased reliance on alternative energy sources, may reverse the flow of oil wealth from petroleum importing states (e.g., the US) to oil exporters (e.g., OPEC members). If the US becomes a net oil exporter, that might also reverse the flow of US wealth. Rapidly growing Chinese demand for oil could magnify the positive effects of these trends for the US.
  • To the extent that the US becomes a more just society (think of increasing racial justice, increasing equality for women, and diminishing gender bias), the odds of US democracy continuing to survive improve.

History is rarely linear, i.e., history rarely moves in a consistent direction. Short-term reversals do not necessarily presage a long-term decline. Where do you want the US to go in the future? What can you do to make that future more likely to happen?

Ultimately, the future of the US seems tied to both the future of the world and of the globe. World future connotes the flattening of the world; the futures of all humans are increasingly linked. Our best hope for the future is if competitive nationalism and selfish atavism yield to an emerging awareness of a human community that transcends all differences and respects all people equally. Global future connotes the interdependence of all life. Unless we, and a majority of other humans, accept responsibility for our duties as stewards of nature, we will destroy the planet's ability to sustain human and most other forms of life.

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