Monday, November 14, 2011

Is America Over?

This is the question that dominates the cover of the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs is an Establishment publication.  It is, in fact, the flagship publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, an Establishment establishment.  It doesn't engage in demagoguery.  And, in the November/December issue, it doesn't offer much reassurance in response to the big question on the cover.

The key article related to the big question is George Packer's essay entitled "The Broken Contract:  Inequality and American Decline."  It is not, strictly speaking, about foreign policy, although the implications of its thesis for foreign policy are very clear.  That it appears in Foreign Affairs should be reason enough to take notice of the argument.

Packer argues that the the unwritten social contract that for decades ensured Americans would work together in common cause to solve the great collective problems of society has been broken by the rise of "organized money" in the nation's political system.  This, in part, was an unintended consequence of reforms implemented in the 1970s that were designed to bring greater transparency and equality into the system.  But the rise of political action committees, independent expenditures in political campaigns, a form of lobbying that is tantamount to legalized bribery, and more is only part of the story.  Ultimately, Packer states, "inequality is the ill that underlies all the others."

For those who doubt that inequality is a problem in the United States, Packer cites these indicators:
Between 1979 and 2006, middle-class Americans saw their annual incomes after taxes increase by 21 percent (adjusted for inflation). The poorest Americans saw their incomes rise by only 11 percent. The top one percent, meanwhile, saw their incomes increase by 256 percent. This almost tripled their share of the national income, up to 23 percent,the highest level since 1928.
The entire article deserves to be read and discussed widely.  Here, however, we skip to Packer's conclusion and another big question:  What difference does inequality make?  Packer answers eloquently:
Inequality divides us from one another in schools, in neighborhoods, at work, on airplanes, in hospitals, in what we eat, in the condition of our bodies, in what we think, in our children’s futures, in how we die. Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others—which is one reason why the fate of over 14 million more or less permanently unemployed Americans leaves so little impression in the country’s political and media capitals. Inequality corrodes trust among fellow citizens, making it seem as if the game is rigged. Inequality provokes a generalized anger that finds targets where it can—immigrants, foreign countries, American elites, government in all forms—and it rewards demagogues while discrediting reformers. Inequality saps the will to conceive of ambitious solutions to large collective problems, because those problems no longer seem very collective. Inequality undermines democracy.