Dominating American headlines is the government shutdown and the looming default. The American public is not pleased; yet strong forces keep this otherwise pointless fight going. Much of it concerns attitudes towards leadership, government, and the power of the state, and is well reflected in the predictions of generational theory. Other parts, however, are about unalterable economics and the results of a superpower finding its hard limits.
‘Super’ does not mean the same as God
A common myth, both among Americans themselves and those abroad, is that America can do anything if it puts its mind to it. Time and time again blame is heaped upon America for this massacre or that coup. Americans themselves long liked to believe they’re just being indolent when it comes to world affairs, and that if they just tried really hard they’d make the world a better place. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have tempered this attitude a great deal; ungrateful tribes using IEDs and suicide bombers to target soldiers who often believed they were sent to liberate those very same people tend to do that.
It’s all dead wrong, of course. While it is based on the factual truth that America really did remake Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II, it fails to take into account that the United States is still just a nation-state made up of people with limits that are now coming into sharp relief.
This government shutdown is just round one of America reconfiguring itself for a new reality
In the 2020s, Social Security, America’s public pension system, will increasingly grow insolvent. Nobody really wants to talk about that now because the voting blocs of seniors will turn against them. While there’s rampant evidence that no developed country can afford the promises made to people in the 1930s-60s, both citizens and politicians prefer to focus on panaceas, solutions to other, relatively minor problems that will distract from the real issue that gigantic sections of the workforce are about to retire and there’s not enough people to replace them.
Greece is a fine example of this ugly truth coming crashing down on a society that really didn’t want to add up the numbers until they had to. Many of Greece’s problems are caused by their inclusion to the EU and their attachment to the Euro, but the core root of their crisis is that politicians promised more and more but were actually able to deliver less and less. Much of the responsibility falls on an electorate that rewarded such people, but additionally the elites themselves were just as blind to the clear hazard of letting too many people retire in their 50s.
Compromise will be hard, ugly, and ultimately forced
As the 2020s begin, and as economies start to slow and feel the strain of their seniors, politicians who will have cut their teeth in these budget battles will fight for their narrow bases’ interests first. Few of these bases will be interested in compromise. They will fight tooth and nail to secure promises made to them when they were young. But the resources just won’t be there. They will either have to work longer or accept weaker pensions. Their hopes that they could retire to a permanent vacation will largely be dashed. Coming to the end of their long lives, they will feel cheated. They won’t reward politicians who undercut them.
This will cause all political systems in the developed world to grow unstable and chaotic. More than a few political parties will die out and others will arise. Each country will face down this problem in their own way. But whether or not they succeed will depend on if they make the right choices.
And there are right choices and wrong ones
The wrong choices will involve sticking blindly to plans drawn up nearly fifty years ago, and will result in governments going bankrupt and economies flagging. Some governments may choose to build narrow, specialized coalitions, wherein the reduced largess of the state is channeled to their supporters but no one else. That too is a recipe for disaster and instability and perhaps even the collapse of democracy.
Others will make the right choices, which mostly involve cuts, working longer (even if such work is reduced), and technological innovation that will give greater productivity. All societies will seek that latter, as it’s the closest to a ‘silver bullet’ as exists, but not all will understand that the research for such new technologies will take resources away from the promised pensions of seniors. Some societies will be well informed enough to make that trade off; others will have demagogue politicians narrowly focused on the next election who will ignore or bury that information.
Where is America going? Good damn question
Nobody wants to default, but the Republican coalition is still unwilling to accept that their Tea Party base has hurt their ability to be part of government. It will be telling in the coming days how the House acts, as well as the American public at large. This is largely a crisis of choice, and so it should be easy to resolve. The actions of the American government will foreshadow how future politicians will act when a truly unchosen crisis is forced upon them in the 2020s and 2030s.
With party primaries growing increasingly important in deciding who is elected, and with gerrymandering having reduced the number of Congressional districts that require compromise, the current trajectory implies that the U.S. will divide against itself and butt heads again and again until a true disaster destroys the assumptions of the system and forces everyone to reevaluate their fundamental views on government and policy. The last time such a thing happened was the Great Depression and World War II. That crisis created a consensus that lasted until the 1980s, when Reagan took power and started a new, narrower and more fragile one.
Thankfully, democracy is as good of a system as any to handle this
Democracies do a pretty good job of channeling unrest into electoral politics rather than into civil wars. No other system on Earth exists that handles these kinds of challenges as well as a democratic ones. That’s not to say all will survive, or that all will do a good job. But it’ll be better to face this down under a democracy than under an inflexible authoritarian regime that won’t give way.
Watch what happens in six days
If America avoids the default, but punts it further down the road, you’ll get the idea of where the country – and many other developed countries – are going. And in the unlikely event a grand compromise does emerge, take heart. It means that when the crisis of the 2020s and 2030s finally comes in full force, the world will be better prepared to deal with it.