international analysis and commentary

Obama’s biggest problem is Edward Gibbon: tackling decline


It is a great pity that no one bothers to read seminal social science tracts much anymore. For a social science treatise written over 200 years ago best illuminates the greatest foreign policy risk confronting the Obama White House: irretrievable domestic political and economic decline.

Between 1776 and 1788 Edward Gibbon embarked on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Despite the unprecedented scope of the work, the narrative content is held together by only a few basic but profound analytical insights that give unique form and balance to what by rights ought to have been an unholy mess.

It is striking that one of these themes was the micro notion that the overall decline of the greatest empire the world has ever known was the result of the very personal failings of its citizens, which was then reflected in increasing political paralysis. Gibbon is prescient in realizing that great political powers are almost always destroyed from within, and that political polarization becomes the means of societal suicide.

As was true for latter-day Rome, there is little doubt that America is failing to deal with the perilous structural problems that lie dead ahead. Out-of-control federal spending and the consequent rise of the American debt burden – and both parties’ signal inability to confront this reality – epitomize the cancer lying at the heart of the American political system.

The numbers tell the story. From his first inauguration (January 20, 2009) to the beginning of September 2012, President Obama oversaw a national debt increase from $10.63 trillion to $16.02 trillion. According to the IMF, if the federal debt is added to what the American national government owes its various trust funds (such as Social Security) the real American debt total amounts to an astronomical 107% of GDP, or $111,414 owed by every American taxpayer. Remember these numbers the next time a politician or pundit of any stripe goes on television, selling the comforting snake oil that we have no real problem here.

Nor is this just a little local difficulty brought on by the obvious need to prime the pump in the wake of the global economic crisis; instead, the problem is systemic. Government spending has increased by three times the rate of inflation between 2007-2012.

In February 2013, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the government is on track to grow the debt by $6-9 trillion over the next decade. In line with these estimates, White House projections suggest a yearly average deficit of 5.5% being run for the next decade, far above what almost all economists find to be a sustainable level. In both cases, the narrative is the same: A brief fiscal respite a couple of years down the road will come to an abrupt end, as the real tsunami hits; when the baby boomers retire en masse. The reason for this is a series of long-term bills coming due at the same time the American political system seems chronically unserious about tackling the country’s structural economic problems.

America truly stands on the precipice of being unable to indulge in reasoned political discussion anymore. While it is easy (and correct) to blame the political pygmies on both sides of the aisle, as Churchill rightly observed you get what you deserve in a democracy. And here politics is merely following the cultural bandwagon. American redistricting – amounting to nothing less than gerrymandering, the picaresque term used to describe congressional districts being drawn in Dali-esque shapes to favor incumbents over the past several decades – has merely echoed what has been going on in the wider culture.

The political result has been as obvious as it has been devastating. There is precious little room for the moderates who used to make the deals that kept the country going in the American system. The Congress is increasingly voting in strict parliamentary terms, despite the country not being founded on parliamentary principles; voter discipline within both parties is at 100-year highs.

At the state level, America has evolved into a series of 45 states with basically one-party predilections. The 2012 presidential election saw only five swing states decided narrowly, defined as by 5% or less; all the rest were pretty much in the bag before voting ever started. In 2012 just one in 15 House members was elected by a district which voted for the other party’s presidential candidate, the lowest level of ticket splitting in more than 60 years. This new polarization – where the crucial element of politics takes place within parties rather than between parties – leads both the Democrats and the GOP to adopt unchanging positions, whether grounded in objective reality or not, that are never tested by electoral competition. Instead, they measure the ideological purity of its members. While this quasi-Bolshevik stance may make for party discipline, it also does much to explain the bankruptcy of thinking that is presently the chief characteristic of a dysfunctional Washington.

The end result is that politically the parties have fled the center, where deals between the two historically get done. The Tea Party phenomenon – and its pushing of the Republicans to the right – has been much commented on. Less discussed – but equally important – has been the Democrats lurch to the left, both under President Obama (who is no Clintonesque centrist) and at the Congressional level. Despite leading the Democrats in Congress to the political equivalent of Little Big Horn in 2010, then Speaker and unabashed liberal Nancy Pelosi was easily re-elected leader of her party in the House.

Such an outcome, with moderates in both parties effectively being squeezed out, has left two disciplined, ideological parties – one increasingly liberal, the other increasingly conservative – to do battle with precious little incentive to work together. For a Republican lawmaker to admit the obvious, that middle class taxes will have to rise to tame the debt monster, would be seen as heresy, and likely lead to a Tea Party challenge during the next primary season.

For Democrats to stop mimicking French Socialists and accept that runaway entitlements are primarily driving America’s unsustainable debt and must be reformed would be apostasy, and lead to a similar challenge from an affronted left. In both cases, all these semi-hidden political incentives point toward the headline direction everyone is presently moaning about… political sclerosis.

But, truth be told, Washington isn’t doing this to the American people. In 45 of 50 states the American people (despite what they say) like the present state of affairs, to the extent of continuing to vote for it. And as Darwin realized, once self-selection starts it is a very difficult process to stop. People with cosmopolitan, leftish views like living in New York City and San Francisco where they know such views are favorably looked upon, just as those who cherish traditional American values like to live in places like Texas and Nebraska.

There is nothing much intrinsically wrong with this and certainly nothing unnatural. But while this has always been true, intellectual flabbiness – the basic yearning not to be challenged by other views but to instead cocoon oneself in news sources and neighbors who sustain one’s own prejudices – has taken this natural process an unnatural step further. A majority of the country finds itself surrounded by people of very like views, who just cannot understand how the other side can be so incredibly stupid.

What’s lost in all this is the precious ability to keep the American system functioning, predicated as it is on checks and balances that call beyond anything else for compromise. The great American Civil War historian Shelby Foote knew his people well when he noted that despite the myth of rugged American individualism, it is rather the country’s time-tested ability to politically compromise when the chips are down that is its greatest blessing, only marred by the horrendous bloodletting of 1861-65.

This Gibbonean problem is what has continually thwarted Barack Obama. It is the greatest long-term threat to the country, one that will fundamentally condition the sort of foreign policy America is able to mount in the new era. Without both Congressional parties agreeing to the sanity of a Bowles-Simpson outcome – where taxes are raised and spending cut to put the debt on a manageable footing over the medium term – it is hard to see how American decline is mitigated. This is by far the overriding challenge for America of our time.

As another much quoted but little read playwright would have put it about ancient Rome: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”


See also

The US and the Iranian crisis: old soap opera, new facts
John C. Hulsman – Aspenia online – 8/4/2013

President Obama’s Europe problem
John C. Hulsman – Aspenia online – 18/3/2013

The demise of the Arab Spring: one of five global risks awaiting the White House
John C. Hulsman – Aspenia online – 19/12/2012

The Indian Ocean Rim and China: Obama’s historical challenge
John C. Hulsman – Aspenia online – 6/2/2013