That Slow Fade to Black

Sunday, April 22 – and the June Gloom arrives in Los Angeles a few months early – that all day marine layer of light fog with three or four minutes of watery sunshine breaking through in late afternoon, followed by another wall of gloom off the Pacific, and then no sunset, just dull grayness fading to black. The tourists here in Hollywood must have been disappointed, and those who had headed to Venice Beach or Malibu for the sun and surfers were no doubt puzzled. This was not another day in paradise. But this is the other Los Angeles, the one you see in film noir classics like The Big Sleep, with the odd shadows and rain-soaked streets and the cynical private eye, who’s seen it all but with his hard-bitten irony tries to do something like the right thing, and then gets beat up a lot. That’s a Raymond Chandler thing, with Bogart and Bacall and all that. Nothing is what it seems. The world is darkly ambiguous and there’s no comfort there. Deal with it.

But it was a good day to read – quiet and oddly blank. So with the Danish pipe tobacco and another pot of black coffee in was time to dive into the Sunday New York Times and see what was being said on the other end of the continent. And there was prissy Thomas Friedman – considered by some the wanker of the decade – offering a column on how all may be lost – so deal with it.

Actually Friedman subcontracted the gloom and doom to Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford professor who once gave us The End of History and the Last Man – we won the cold war and free-market capitalist democracy is what the world was waiting for and history is pretty much over – and is now finishing up his two-volume masterwork on the Origins of Political Order – where he argues all previous theories of how and why folks form governments are flawed and it’s a bit of a mystery. He’s not exactly a cheery fellow. At least in 2006 Fukuyama did finally break with the neoconservatives and decide the Iraq War was a massive mistake – better late than never. But Friedman has a question for Fukuyama:

Has American gone from a democracy to a “vetocracy” – from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all?

Friedman likes to make up words but Fukuyama plays along:

“There is a crisis of authority, and we’re not prepared to think about it in these terms,” said Fukuyama. “When Americans think about the problem of government, it is always about constraining the government and limiting its scope.” That dates back to our founding political culture. The rule of law, regular democratic rotations in power and human rights protections were all put in place to create obstacles to overbearing, overly centralized government. “But we forget,” Fukuyama added, “that government was also created to act and make decisions.”

And Friedman notes we don’t do that much anymore:

That is being lost at the federal level. A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes – indeed requires – a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.

For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult – such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes. Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever. …

In addition, the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span’s coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent – making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm. And, finally, the huge expansion of the federal government and the increasing importance of money in politics have hugely expanded the number of special-interest lobbies and their ability to influence and clog decision-making.

Yes, special-interest lobbies have an inherent and now structural advantage over what might be called the broad majority – but everyone knows this. That’s what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about. And Friedman reports that Fukuyama gets it:

To put it another way, says Fukuyama, America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever. The effect of this is either legislative paralysis or suboptimal, Rube Goldberg-esque, patched-together-compromises, often made in response to crises with no due diligence. That is our vetocracy.

And Friedman cites the Financial Times columnist Ed Luce and his new book Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent summarizing it this way:

If you believe the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way, then gridlock and vetocracy are just fine with you. But if you have a proper understanding of American history – so you know that government played a vital role in generating growth by maintaining the rule of law, promulgating regulations that incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness, educating the work force, building infrastructure and funding scientific research – then a vetocracy becomes a very dangerous thing. It undermines the secret of our success: a balanced public-private partnership.

And Fukuyama is on board too:

“If we are to get out of our present paralysis, we need not only strong leadership, but changes in institutional rules,” argues Fukuyama. These would include eliminating senatorial holds and the filibuster for routine legislation and having budgets drawn up by a much smaller supercommittee of legislators – like those that handle military base closings – with “heavy technocratic input from a nonpartisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office,” insulated from interest-group pressures and put before Congress in a single, un-amendable, up-or-down vote.

So Friedman says all big thinkers agree and it’s time to change things:

I know what you’re thinking: That will never happen. And do you know what I’m thinking? Then we will never be a great country again, no matter who is elected. We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system – with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery – is now truly holding us back.

Yeah, but how is this change going to come about, by New York Times columnists doing telephone interviews with academics and citing books no one reads? America may be in that slow fade to black. Maybe we will never be a great country again. Malibu is socked in. Deal with it.

That’s what Ian Bremmer says in Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World:

If the worst threatened – a rogue nuclear state with a horrible surprise, a global health crisis, the collapse of financial institutions from New York to Shanghai and Mumbai – where would the world look for leadership? The United States, with its paralyzed politics and battered balance sheet? A European Union reeling from self-inflicted wounds? China’s “people’s democracy”? Perhaps Brazil, Turkey, or India, the geopolitical Rookies of the Year? Or some grand coalition of survivors, the last nations standing after half a decade of recession-induced turmoil?

How about none of the above?

For the first time in seven decades, there is no single power or alliance of powers ready to take on the challenges of global leadership. A generation ago, the United States, Europe, and Japan were the world’s powerhouses, the free-market democracies that propelled the global economy forward. Today, they struggle just to find their footing.

His thesis is that no one in charge now. No one really listens to us. And why should they? We can’t bomb them into respecting us, or point to how wonderful our system is. Heck, they might point to Rick Santorum or Ted Nugent, or Donald Trump. But of course it’s more complicated than that.

Now, as a bit of background, one must consider Ian Bremmer – the fairly young and brilliant fellow who previously gave us that bestseller (in some circles) The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations – all about what he calls state capitalism – the new phenomenon where massive corporations really run things, by means of and through their preferred governments. And earlier it was The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall – democracies are not inherently stable, nor are repressive authoritarian governments, as each works well in certain circumstances, so we really shouldn’t get all hot and bothered about spreading democracy. It’s complicated – the relationship between a country’s openness and its stability is odd. Some countries are stable because they are open – he cites the United States, France and Japan – while others are stable because they are closed – and he cites North Korea, Cuba and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It all depends on where they fall on his J-Curve. It’s not light reading.

But his new book on what he calls our G-Zero World isn’t that complicated, and at Thomas Rogers interviews Bremmer opening with this set-up:

According to a widely discussed 2010 report by London’s Standard Chartered Bank, the world has entered a new “‘super-cycle” in which traditional economic hierarchies are being upended. Ever since the financial crisis, the U.S. has lost the economic strength and force of will to be the world’s policeman. The number of Americans, for example, who believe the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally” has spiked to a level unseen since the 1950s. Meanwhile, new powers, like China, India and Brazil, have been unwilling to fill the power vacuum the U.S. has left behind. One could argue that this is a nice change from America’s aggressive past interventionism, but it has also helped create the global stalemate on everything from global warming to humanitarianism in Syria. And it’s a fact that has the potential to radically affect our future, both in positive and negative ways.

So Rogers is impressed with Bremmer:

In his book, he charts how America assumed the burden of global leadership in the wake of World War II, and how institutions like the United Nations, NATO, the G-7 and the IMF helped it dictate the international agenda for much of the past century. He also explains how the breakdown of those (often problematic) institutions is now hurting our ability to marshal global leaders to deal with some of the greatest threats facing our planet. Bremmer, the head of a global political risk research firm who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, believes that this new dynamic could lead us to a new, more egalitarian world – or to a new Cold War.

Yes, the world is darkly ambiguous and there’s no comfort there. Deal with it.

But the quotes from Bremmer are alarming, particularly when he discusses the G-7 which is now pretty much the G-Zero:

The G-7 is an anachronism in the same way that the United Nations Security Council is an anachronism, in the same way that the old structure of the IMF and the World Bank is an anachronism. All of that stuff basically came out of World War II, when the United States was the dominant power in the world, and it created a world order using its own capital, using its allies, building up its allies, prioritizing its values and its interests. And that world order functioned very well for us for decades but of course over the last 30 years, the underlying balance of power shifted away from this G-1 environment toward China. It hasn’t shifted to China – it’s not as if China is now the new superpower – but toward China, and away from the developed world toward the developing world, and away from debtor states toward creditor states. When the underlying balance of power no longer, in any way, reflects the global architecture that you have, then at some point, clearly, a shock will come along that will be big enough to crash that system.

And bad times are coming, or they’re here already:

The end of the Soviet Union was not big enough to make that happen, and 9/11 was not big enough to make that happen, but the 2008 financial crisis was big enough. And that effectively made the G-7 an anachronism. And it did so in part, of course, because it showed some of the vulnerabilities of the U.S.-led free market system; it certainly made it harder for the Americans to rally the emerging markets behind their values and preferences. But more important, the Europeans have been almost completely absent from the global stage over the past four years, and frankly so have the Japanese, with their 17 prime ministers in 22 years. And by the way, I strongly feel this is not a book about U.S. decline. I actually don’t believe the U.S. is in decline. It’s much more a book about the fact that the United States is not going to do this stuff anymore and its allies certainly are not coming along, but nobody else is either.

Ah, we’re in Phillip Marlowe’s world of ambiguities. Nothing is what it seems. There is no certain center. And that means we, as leaders with no real followers, might just say screw it all – let the world be and let’s take care of our own business. But here Bremmer has some interesting observations:

It’s very clear that America is the world’s largest economy, and more important, even if it weren’t, even when China becomes the largest, richest economy, China will still be a poor country. If the Americans wanted to remove Assad from power in Syria they surely could. If America wanted to bail the Europeans out they surely could; we have the money. It’s also true that if we wanted to balance our budget, we could, but we don’t. The political will doesn’t exist for that. And so much of that has to do with the political system, and it has to do also with the inward-lookingness of the U.S.

And here this loops back to what Friedman was saying about our system failing, although Bremmer says it’s just not us:

I happen to think that there has been this significant “coming apart” within the United States of the top 10 percent and the bottom 90 percent economically – but that coming apart within the U.S. is also being mirrored by a coming apart globally. And that there aren’t many Americans that are prepared to support the U.S. as the world’s policeman anymore. There aren’t many Americans that are prepared to say they benefit from U.S.-led globalization. With the levels of unemployment that exist in the U.S., with manufacturing jobs that have gone away and aren’t coming back, with Katrina and New Orleans not getting rebuilt, large numbers of Americans are saying, “We do not see the benefit from all of what the U.S. has been doing internationally.” And that will make it politically inconceivable for the U.S. to do the kind of things that it did when it was putting together the old world order. I mean, Geithner can get on a plane and go to Europe and give as much advice as he wants to. But there’s nowhere near the level of political support in the United States for the Americans to pull off another Marshall Plan in Europe, or anything remotely close to that.

And even in the case of Libya, which of course is the big intervention that happened after the 2008 financial crisis, look at what actually happened. The U.S. did not want to do it. Everyone hated Gadhafi – U.S. enemies, U.S. allies. The Brits and the French said you’ve gotta remove this guy. And only then did the U.S. say they would, and still the U.S. did not have troops on the ground. In some ways, Libya is the exception that proves the rule, that whether we’re talking about trade or climate or security or the European crisis, all of these are issues where we’re just not going to see the kind of leadership anywhere that we have historically.

No one wants to lead, obviously, and it certainly won’t be the Chinese:

For the Chinese to continue to succeed they need to fundamentally restructure both their economy and their political system. They’re aware of this. It’s an enormous challenge, it’s never been attempted with a country remotely the size of China, and they’ll need to do it relatively quickly. First of all, there are no guarantees that they will succeed and, even assuming that they succeed, or they even succeed sufficiently to stave off various crises, when China becomes the world’s largest economy, it will still be a poor country. And I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate how different that will be. They will be focused much more on ensuring that they can provide the minimum form of employment and growth and commodity inputs for their own people. The United States is a rich country. The U.S. can easily afford to spend a lot of time helping to provide public goods, acting as a global policeman across the world, and it’s done that for over a century, again for good and for bad. The Chinese will not be prepared to play that role.

And there are hard times coming, even if not war exactly:

Clearly we’re going to see much more conflict in this environment. And the question is what kind of conflict it will be. I tend to not see this as a world where we’re going to have military and the sort of conventional warfare between major powers. Compared to the pre-WWII environment, there’s so much more interlinkage between the economies of countries. But having said that, we’re definitely seeing a fragmentation of the world order, compared to a globalization and statelessness that had been driven by the United States at the order of the global markets over the past decade. What does that mean? Well, first of all it means we’ll see much more cyber-conflict. Much more industrial espionage. Much more direct and overt conflict between states and corporations. More protectionism. More industrial policy. Those sorts of things, I think we will see more conflict overall. I think that can spill over into military conflict regionally that won’t necessarily involve the United States.

In a G-Zero-environment the Middle East is much more problematic. Because absent strong US, European, Japanese, Chinese or Russian intervention, what you end up having is the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks playing much greater roles in terms of diplomacy and political influence, economic influence, military influence. Those countries support completely different outcomes. Clearly that means more sectarian conflict. We’re not going to see more integration in the Middle East. We’re going to see more disintegration, more fragmentation, more confrontation.

That’s depressing, and the short form is this:

We are in a process of creative destruction, globally, that hasn’t occurred since after WWII.

Okay then – Friedman is on his high horse, saying our government is broken or has seized-up or something, and assures us that all the big thinkers agree on that, and Bremmer is saying no one believes America matters anymore anyway, as no one really has a reason to follow our lead anymore, and we don’t seem to want to lead anyway. And neither offers a plausible way that can change. All we get is fog and ambiguity, like in the old noir films. Where’s Humphrey Bogart when you need him, doing the right thing as best he can?

Ah well, here in Los Angeles the sun will come up tomorrow and the fog will be gone. It was just a strange and gloomy day. Unfortunately this other sort of fog isn’t going to lift, and you know how all those noir films ended – fade to black.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America Ungovernable, America's Decline, Broken Government, End of the American Century, Every Nation for Itself, Life in Hollywood and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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