In 1492 Columbus rediscovered America, and the settlers, destructively exploiting its vast resources, achieved a success which they attributed to their own near-miraculous virtues, some of which they actually had: courage, rude vigor, industry, and an independent spirit. Shortly after, they emerged from WWII unscathed due to the military genius embodied in two oceans while competitors – Europe, Russia, China, and Japan – lay prostrate. America’s intact military and an economy up and running allowed the establishment of a fairly benign empire and an astonishing commercial dominance, both being attributed to near-miraculous virtues and regarded as permanent.
They didn’t see it coming.
Japan revived and began producing something it called a Toyota while Detroit, sure of its market, manufactured lousy cars that arrived falling apart, final assembly by owner. Germany revived. Communism still protected America from China, and no one foresaw that this would change. Airbus Industries appeared, but no one believed that it could compete with American know-how and engineering. It did. One by one American manufacturers of airliners took shelter in the military market until only Boeing was left, more or less equal to Airbus. But Americans knew that Europe was socialist and had no work ethic.
Before long Japan had completely devoured the market for consumer electronics, cameras, and suchlike. Shipbuilding went, except for builders catering to the captive military market. The steel industry left for foreign shores. Few noticed. Americans knew that their prosperity sprang from their near-miraculous virtues, which foreigners could never achieve.
Eventually China gave up on communism and became 1.3 billion smart, hardworking people who saw nothing wrong with the idea of becoming the world’s dominant power. Brazil began making airliners and American airlines began buying them. Even India showed signs of life. Americans didn’t worry because they knew that these funny countries couldn’t compete with America’s democratic values.
Manufacturing jobs began flowing to Asia, first a trickle and then a torrent. Americans didn’t pay attention, not knowing exactly where Asia was. Anyway, those foreigners were comic little people with squinty eyes and ate with sticks. Who could take them seriously? Then design work and programming began emigrating eastward. American had invented the Internet and now would pay the price. Intellectual capital had broken free from physical capital. Oops.
American industry largely ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be American. The big companies became free-floating international entities, adventitiously putting down roots wherever taxes were low and labor cheap, which wasn’t America. An HP laptop now consisted of a CPU from Intel but made perhaps in Ireland, the motherboard, hard drive, power supply and case made in Taiwan, RAM and screen from Samsung, assembled in Taiwan or China, but the label said HP, so it was American.
The trade balance went sour, and then very sour. The country had long since become captive to consumerism both national and individual, “He who dies with the most toys wins” being a bumper-sticker anthem. At every level America began living on credit, but America’s credit was good, which American’s attributed to near-miraculous virtues which they no longer had, if they had ever had them.
As the economy invisibly declined, the military’s budget grew and grew. The country could no longer afford it, but the Pentagon was so deeply embedded in the economy and Congress that the country couldn’t stop affording it. The five-sided money hole spent on, an aging kept woman with no obvious purpose since, with the fall of the Soviet Union, America had no military enemies.
Consequences sometimes arrive tardily. After WWII, Zionists had conquered Palestine and begun mistreating its people in the manner of white South Africans at their worst. Moslems, of whom it later turned out there were quite a few, came to hate Zionists and, by extension, all Jews. Since America supplied the bombs that Israel used to kill Moslems, these came to hate the US. Thus 9/11. This was used as a pretext for war by hawkish wimps, now called Neocons. The conflicts were embraced by the Pentagon, which needed a raison d’etre in the face of the lack of enemies. The ensuing wars were enthusiastically supported by evangelicals, more Zionists, confused patriots, imperialists, military industry, and those who just wanted to kill some Arabs, any Arabs. President W. Bush with his eternal martial priapism and yokel grasp was just the man. The military budget now was about a trillion a year in a country that owed more money than it could ever repay.
Many things had changed since the arrival of Columbus and smallpox. Americans still imagined themselves as Marlboro Man, rugged individualists, though many had never actually seen a live horse. In fact the country had become a society of mass conformist consumerism with its tastes designed at corporate. America was still a land of opportunity, if you were an Ivy techy with an IQ in excess of 180, but everybody else was pretty much screwed. Most people lived in velvet serfdom, afraid of the boss and imprisoned by the retirement system. Few young males could any longer meet the physical requirements for induction. The Army softened training so they could appear to get through. So much for Davy Crockett.
Americans had become the Frightened People, afraid of terror, of Moslems, of an outside world they couldn’t find or, in many cases, spell. The government used this bounty from heaven to justify rapid elimination of civil liberties, telling the public that it was to protect them. They still prided themselves on their democracy, without any longer having one, and on being a light to the world, which hated them. “The whole world hates us. What is wrong with the whole world?” they asked, deeply puzzled.
The looters came. In the past there had been an element of noblesse oblige, of concern for the nation, a sense among the upper classes that they ought to pay some slight attention to keeping the country alive while picking its bones. This changed. The country was now ruled by the tightly interlocking directorates of Wall Street, Congress, the upper reaches of the executive branch, and the big corporations, none of whose members had ever worked a night shift at Wal-Mart while living in a rented trailer. The worst and brightest went to Harvard and then into i-banking. Thus the sub-prime adventure. This catastrophe was regarded as a cyclical correction instead of as the first notes of the knell.
By this time the country was acquiring the attributes of the Third World. Impunity: financiers did not go to jail for financial crimes, nor generals for war crimes, nor congressmen for anything. National incapacity: The government handled natural disasters with the adroitness one might expect of Burundi. Intractable slums festered in the cores of its great cities. Over its age America had achieved greatly, done much that was admirable and much that wasn’t, and now, overreaching, still convinced of its miraculous virtues, was perilously close to falling on its face.
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.