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Declinism for real

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 9, 2009

Last Tuesday night, CNBC personality Rebecca Jarvis put this question to the airwaves: what if the new generation works harder but doesn't get ahead? Her co-host at the time, Donny Deutsch, brought closure by saying that they'll come up with their own solution. Nevertheless, it's a question that's topical. Things have been bad lately, and unexpectedly so for many.

There's already talk about an "Obama bear market." President Obama and his administration are discovering that winning the election openeth the tough part of the road. The opposition is beginning to blame them for the bear market within a bear market we've seen since January. The drop in the S&P 500 from January 20th to last Friday is close to the real thing: -17.6%.

Because the market has continued to shoot down, in the teeth of several rescue/stimulus/bailout plans being announced or implemented, it's unsurprising that the Obama Administration is being blamed. The '09 decline became nasty after Sec. Geithner's announcement of the Administration's bank-fix plan; respites and resumptions show a definite pattern. When the general economic news is bad, the U.S. market has tended to rally overall. When ill news from the banking, housing or auto sectors hit the tape, then the market resumes its overall dive. Despite attempts to tie the recent decline to the current bad economic news, this leg of the bear is industry-driven. Real estate, autos and the banks are the sick and un-quarantined men of the U.S. stock market.

And Obamaites are beginning to discover, ironically, that declinism is their friend. A true declinist of the Nouriel Roubini sort feels no need to single out anyone in the Obama Administration for special blame. The recent drop merely indicates that things were much worse than Wall Street had assumed. This type of declinist would merely claim that the Administration hasn't done enough yet. A Peter Schiff type of declinist would blame the Obama Administration as if it were a McCain Administration. Although it is criticism, it's the kind that's hard for an Obamaite to take personally. Any Obama supporter can deflect it by repeating Obama's own recent words: the U.S. government would have engendered a lot of ruin by doing nothing in this crisis.

Declinism For Real

Declinists are always good for flushing out hidden cracks in the foundation. Some are imaginary, some are apparent, but some are real. This service explains the odd permanency of declinism in a still-superpower. Declinists at their best are like safety inspectors.

Nevertheless, students of history know that the United States will go into decline like any other great power. One of the symptoms of a declining power is "those who can, will not; those who will, cannot." This cri de coeur was attributed to a Spanish official during Spain's decline, and is the perfect summation of what life is like in a declining power.  The problems are obvious; the solutions are common-sensical; enacting them is politically impossible. In times like that, words like "reactionary" serve as a blind person's dark glasses. Anyone who uses them can't see what's going on.

Of course, the above reason really isn't one; it's just a description of a dysfunctional country. A nation more hearty can easily laugh off the term "reactionary," just as our near-forebears laughed off "Satanic" when used to denote deviant or different. Relativism can be turned on itself. If an explicitly atheistic movement can be shrugged off as just another dogmatic faith, then there's no reason why the "Progressive" can't be laughed off as a secularist Elmer Gantry.

Al least, it's the solution on paper…one that's easy for a wordsmith to concoct. Implementation is another matter. Here's why this solution is far more difficult to implement than it may seem:

The true age of greatness for the U.S., in terms of economic growth and rising influence, was not the mid-20th century. It was the late 19th century. Before the Civil War, America was a relatively minor and largely agrarian country. It was easy to sneer at Americans in auld Europe. Conversely, it was easy for a good American to lump corruption, Europe, aristocracy and wealth into one slimy ball. The U.S. being poor and relatively minor, antebellum Americans had the luxury of sneering at riches and power.

By the time America was on the eve of another mass war, over a span of only fifty years, its station had changed considerably. In Europe, it was being compared to Imperial Germany as an economic powerhouse. Declinists in Britain were pointing to America as a real threat to John Bull's predominance. America was on the world stage, and was worth courting by the belligerents once World War 1 began. The Monroe Doctrine was no longer seen in Europe as the roar of a pipsqueak; it changed into a real sphere of influence. America came of age, as a Great Power, thanks to late 19th century development. The mid-twentieth century did not mark the end of adolescence, but the beginning of maturity. (Wilson could be described as the world stage's stuffed shirt.)

Those two ages, however, do have something in common. The "man of the hour" in a growing powerhouse is pragmatic and highly skilled: a doer who gets things done. He's also someone who's brusque, officious, and contemptuous of the contemplative life. Show him an aspirant scholar, and he'll see a spoiled wonder that needs to be kicked out of bed. Show him erudition, and he'll see "booky-book." Show him someone who doesn't work hard, and he'll see lazy (and be completely free of any hypocrisy in the matter.) Show him someone who is tentative, he'll see confused. Show him agreeable, he'll think "fatso." Show him a questioner, and he'll point to his accomplishments and the renown he's won in his field. He'll conclude with "so much for that nit." And he'll mean it, and follow through by ignoring any other such critic.

To be brusque myself about the issue, a great age is often a rude age. There's an interconnection between "going soft" and softening of manners. And, like it or not, there is a connection between action-orientation, dismissal out of hand, and underratement of the intellect.

The above character type is known by many bad names nowadays, the most potent of which are usually inaccurate. Regardless, those bad names gain wide currency because a true man of action, one most needed by a rising power, does tend to be insensitive and coarse.

This downside to a bustling nation explains why nations enter decline. After a certain level of success, a general benefit is seen in softening manners and wholesale banning of certain kinds of callousness. Extending social assistance is seen as compensatory. As the benefits keep kicking in, the earlier age of growth becomes seen as more and more horrid. Complaints that used to be dismissed as whining are taken more seriously. So is doomsaying. The old ethic that got people up and running is deconstructed as "abusive." It's no longer expected to merely shrug off being laughed at with "I'll show you someday." As a result, many people do become happier. During the flowering of the softened-manners phase, there is enough growth culture to keep the economy humming along; any objector is easy to dismiss out of hand with "the facts." The same process takes place in miniature when the descendants of a rich person become gentry – including use of "the facts."

When looked at another way, national decline is national gentrification gone too far. That's why the common-sensical 'reactionary' is easy to rule out of court, above and beyond showing earlier pragmatics' SNAFUs. Regardless of the sense or wisdom in said 'reaction', it merely comes across as "Why We Should Act Beneath Ourselves."

I have my own guess about what solution the youngsters would hit upon if America is fated to decline: past-rooted punctilio, along with full-bore noble-poor Stoicism. Both will render the oft-proffered boot camp solution nugatory, as both cultivate toughness incompatible with growthmanship. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

 

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