The American Monkey Can't Let Go

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Whither America, I reflected on a story, probably apocryphal but
which I am going to believe because I like it, about catching monkeys.
Tribesmen somewhere craft a heavy pot with a hole in it large enough
that a monkey could insert an open hand, but not withdraw a closed
fist. They then put monkey food in the pot. The monkey reaches in,
grabs the food and, refusing to let go when the hunters approach,
is caught and eaten.

Here we have
our politics in a paragraph. The American national monkey can’t
let go. The party is over, boys and girls, but we aren’t going
to adapt.

For example:
When people recently found that they could no longer afford the
SUVs, the McMansions, the buying of absurdities in a frenzy of competitive
consumerism, they just put it on the credit card. The monkey can’t
let go. And now they are screwed.

Same-same domestic
policy. The US has played War-on-Drugs for half a century, with
no results but to make drugs an integral part of the economy. The
evils engendered are great. Yet the monkey can’t let go.

It is internationally
that the monkey principle really bites. The country is well on its
way to being a merely regional power militarily, economically, and
diplomatically. Short of a miracle, short of a conceivable but unlikely
catastrophe in China, Americans will soon be medium potatoes. There
is nothing we can do about it, but we will bankrupt ourselves trying.
We can’t let go.

If you look
beyond the Reader’s Digest patriotism of Fox News, and the
high-school cheerleading of little Sarah Palin, if you look beyond
the national borders, all of this is obvious.

By Chinese
standards, America is a small country, having a quarter of its population.
Their economy grows at close to double digits. Yes, it may slow
down, or it may not. Short of unforeseen disaster, the question
is not whether but when the Chinese economy will dwarf the American
economy. Tell me why this is not true.

All power springs
from economic power. While America decays, plays, and sucks its
thumb, China invests. Everywhere. There is nothing unprincipled
in this. It is just intelligent commerce.

Do not underestimate
these people of the epicanthic fold. I have lived among the Chinese,
in Taiwan years ago. I liked them, and still do. I know them to
be smart, disciplined, studious, practical – as well as nationalistic
and very racially conscious. No, we do not think these attitudes
proper. It doesn’t matter what we think.

Note that China
has that perfect government, an intelligent dictatorship concerned
with advancing the country. The American government consists of
self-interested lobbies and Wall Street looters. China is run by
engineers, America by lawyers. Watch.

The US is midway
through an inexorable suicide. If a country does not manufacture
things, it does not have an economy, and manufacturing has fled
American shores. Ship-building, steel, consumer electronics, railroads:
gone. You may think your HP laptop is an American product, but in
all likelihood every component was made overseas and it was assembled
in Taiwan.

The country
as a whole, as always, looks inwards and doesn’t understand,
doesn’t know what stirs without. Communism no longer protects
America from Chinese competition.

America is
the world’s greatest debtor nation, China the greatest creditor.
We cannot possibly repay what we owe, so we must either default
or inflate. If another choice exists, I am unaware of it. And yet
the government spends, spends, spends, and borrows, borrows, borrows.
No one is in charge. No one cares. All line their own pockets. Wait.

this would seem a good time to let go of unaffordable luxuries.
But no. The US continues to buy things it can’t pay for, to
play roles it can no longer maintain, because it pains the national
vanity no longer to be the biggest kid on the block. The monkey
can’t let go.

The millstone
around the American neck is the Pentagon. The direct cost alone
of feeding the military contractors is almost mortal to a sinking
economy: $720 billion this year, plus another $120 billion requested
for the unending wars, plus huge black programs, the Veterans Administration,
and so on. A trillion wilting green ones, call it. The more perceptive
note the opportunity cost of wasting so much engineering talent,
so much money for research and development, on martial zoom-wowees.

China, Russia,
the Moslem world, Latin America and all the rest who detest the
US must be enjoying the spectacle. Spend on, spend on, oh round-eyed

Vanity. We
do not garrison South Korea because Pyong Yang may send its troops
across our common border into Arkansas. We do it because we think
it our birthright to rule the world. The monkey cannot let go.

Our practical
choice is between retracting the military or going down hard. But
we cannot retract. Once you have made your economy dependent on
huge unproductive expenditures, there is no quitting. It might seem
wise for example to reduce the military rolls by the 30,000 troops
in South Korea. But they would simply increase the rate of unemployment,
already dangerously high. Since most of the military contributes
nothing to the defense of the United States, releasing all unneeded
soldiers into joblessness would probably precipitate an armed rebellion.

There is worse.
Towns spring up around large bases to supply the troops and their
families. Close the bases, and the towns die. Closing Camp Lejeune
would kill Jacksonville; Fort Bragg, Fayetteville; Fort Hood, Killeen.
Further, huge companies – Lockheed-Martin, much of Boeing, and
dozens of others – being unable to compete in the civilian economy,
have become obligate military suppliers. Cut their big programs
and you unemploy tens of thousands for whom there are no civilian

The federal
bureaucracy is much the same, employing vast numbers yet producing
nothing. Politicians drone about wanting “smaller government.”
How? Eliminate the Departments of Education, or Housing and Urban
Development, or Commerce – and where do the people go?

We can pretend
that the current recession is temporary, and not a manifestation
of dying opulence, just as a fading beauty can pile on the make-up
and hope that men don’t notice. We can spend while others grow,
buy their goods on credit – for a little while longer. The monkey
can’t let go.

And any who
say that we ought to put our house in order and come to terms with
reality? They will be said to Hate America. Well and good, until
the bill comes due.

13, 2011

Fred Reed
is author of Nekkid
in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well
and A
Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be
. His latest
book is Curmudgeing
Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle
. Visit
his blog.

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