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The American Death Wish

I’ve been struggling with how to write this post for quite some time. It’s the conversation you have to have with a friend where you have to say "it’s nice that you’re trying as hard as you can George. I even believe you are, but it doesn’t matter. Because George, your best just isn’t good enough."

Or, as Captain Jack Sparrow would put it, all that matters is what a man can do and what a man can’t do.

Sometimes the world doesn’t grade us on a curve. You need to jump a fence, and you can’t. You need to climb a rock face, and you aren’t good enough. You’re running away from a bear, and you don’t run fast enough. And now you’re dead. You wanted to get into a good grad school, but you don’t have the grades or test scores. You’re in a fight, and the other guy wins, and you wind up on the ground and he puts the boots to you and you’re crippled for life. You tried "your best", but you lost and you’re going to pay the price for losing for the rest of your life. Maybe you lost because he fought dirty, and you’d rather take a chance of being crippled for life than kick someone in the balls. Maybe you lost because he trained harder than you, and you’d rather go have a drink with your friends.

Or maybe you needed to pay for health care, and you didn’t have the money, and someone you loved died. And they died because you didn’t have the money, and because your country didn’t have universal health care. And maybe you always worked as hard as you could, and you campaigned for health care with all your heart. It doesn’t matter, your child, your wife, your husband—they’re still dead. Your best wasn’t good enough.

Now this is where America is. This is the real world. The United States in aggregate has been living beyond its means for over 30 years now. You have been shipping the real economy overseas. Ordinary families have been going in debt. The government has been going in debt. You’ve been voting yourself lower taxes and not paying for infrastructure reinvestment, or education, or anything else that matters, really. You’ve been spending too much money on guns, not enough on butter. You’ve been pushing the bill off into the future.

And whenever I write about what needs to be done to fix this—simple things like universal healthcare, which we know for a fact reduces health care costs by 1/3, because it has worked for every single other country that’s ever done it, people come out of the woodwork and they tell me "that’s not politically feasible." Or perhaps I suggest a 55 mile an hour speed limit "that’s not feasible". Or spending significantly less on the military since half the world’s military spending is a bit overboard. "That’s not politically feasible." Or raising taxes, "that’s not feasible". Or… but why go on, the list is endless.

Then Obama comes out with a Stimulus bill which simply will not do the job.  It is not big enough.  It is not well constructed enough.  It has no vision.  It won’t work.  This isn’t really in question, even their own report(pdf), which has the thumb heavily on the scale, shows it won’t work if you take the time to look at the job charts.

A lot of people think this is some academic debate that doesn’t matter in the real word, like "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin". It’s not, it’s deadly practical. The US is in severe decline, it is past the point where any other country would have flamed out and had an economic collapse (Argentina collapsed with better numbers than the US has now, for example). Because of America’s privileged position in the world, it’s been able to stagger on.

Now folks can say "Ian those things aren’t necessary, I think the following steps will fix it" and that’s fine. Could be I’m wrong. Obviously I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t write what I write, but hey, plenty of people have been dead certain they were right, and dead wrong.  

But what gets me is that so often what I hear is "that isn’t politically feasible. We can’t do that". Now, by can’t they don’t mean "those things are impossible" or "we don’t have the means", what they really mean is "we won’t do them, because they would be hard or they’re outside our ideological comfort zone."

Fair enough. But if those things are necessary, and if you don’t do them, then the consequence is going to be catastrophe. I don’t mean disaster. New Orleans was a disaster, and it wasn’t enough to wake America up. The current financial crisis was a disaster, and so far it’s looking like it wasn’t enough to convince people that real fundamental changes are needed.

So because no one will do what is necessary, catastrophe will happen. What I mean by this is a severe decline in the US standard of living, probably between 20% to 40%, starting in 4 to 6 years and taking place for a decade. Might happen sooner if folks keep refusing to do what needs to be done to fix the financial crisis and stop it from turning into a worldwide Great Depression.  Even before it happens, you’re going to see real wages declining for Americans while their assets collapse in price.

To see what a precipitous decline in standard of living is like, read up on Russia’s history in the 90’s. A lot of people will die of starvation, of cold, of heat, of lack of medical help and from violence.

That’s just the way it’s going to be. Because while there are no problems that America has that America can’t fix, there also appear to be no problems America has that America is willing to fix properly. And it doesn’t matter why. It just doesn’t matter. The bear doesn’t care why you couldn’t run fast enough when it mauls you to death. When the economy finally goes into full bore collapse, when all the bills come due and everyone decides to stop paying Americans to consume, it won’t matter why Americans thought they could suspend the economic laws of gravity forever and live beyond their means for decades.

It just won’t matter. You can either do what it takes to fix the problems or you can’t. If it’s true that you can’t, then I quite seriously, sadly, and with utmost sincerity suggest that you either start learning how to survive in a societal meltdown, or you get out, or you hope that your number comes up in the next few years so you don’t have to pay the bill that comes due when people think they can live in fantasy land, on credit, forever.

America elected Barack Obama. He’ll have, essentially, two chances to fix things. He’s failing the first one already, with his botched stimulus bill and that’s going to be disastrous. If he fails the second one, that’ll be catastrophe.

So I sure hope that, yes America can.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at