Pondering Whither America, I reflected on a story, probably apocryphal but which I am going to believe because I like it, about catching monkeys. Tribesmen somewhere craft a heavy pot with a hole in it large enough that a monkey could insert an open hand, but not withdraw a closed fist. They then put monkey food in the pot. The monkey reaches in, grabs the food and, refusing to let go when the hunters approach, is caught and eaten. Here we have our politics in a paragraph. The American national monkey canâ€™t let go. The party is over, boys and girls, but we arenâ€™t going to adapt.
For example: When people recently found that they could no longer afford the SUVs, the McMansions, the buying of absurdities in a frenzy of competitive consumerism, they just put it on the credit card. The monkey canâ€™t let go. And now they are screwed.
Same-same domestic policy. The US has played War-on-Drugs for half a century, with no results but to make drugs an integral part of the economy. The evils engendered are great. Yet the monkey canâ€™t let go. It is internationally that the monkey principle really bites. The country is well on its way to being a merely regional power militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Short of a miracle, short of a conceivable but unlikely catastrophe in China, Americans will soon be medium potatoes. There is nothing we can do about it, but we will bankrupt ourselves trying. We canâ€™t let go. If you look beyond the Readerâ€™s Digest patriotism of Fox News, and the high-school cheerleading of little Sarah Palin, if you look beyond the national borders, all of this is obvious.
By Chinese standards, America is a small country, having a quarter of its population. Their economy grows at close to double digits. Yes, it may slow down, or it may not. Short of unforeseen disaster, the question is not whether but when the Chinese economy will dwarf the American economy. Tell me why this is not true.
All power springs from economic power. While America decays, plays, and sucks its thumb, China invests. Everywhere. There is nothing unprincipled in this. It is just intelligent commerce. Do not underestimate these people of the epicanthic fold. I have lived among the Chinese, in Taiwan years ago. I liked them, and still do. I know them to be smart, disciplined, studious, practical â€“ as well as nationalistic and very racially conscious. No, we do not think these attitudes proper. It doesnâ€™t matter what we think. Note that China has that perfect government, an intelligent dictatorship concerned with advancing the country. The American government consists of self-interested lobbies and Wall Street looters. China is run by engineers, America by lawyers. Watch.
The US is midway through an inexorable suicide. If a country does not manufacture things, it does not have an economy, and manufacturing has fled American shores. Ship-building, steel, consumer electronics, railroads: gone. You may think your HP laptop is an American product, but in all likelihood every component was made overseas and it was assembled in Taiwan.
The country as a whole, as always, looks inwards and doesnâ€™t understand, doesnâ€™t know what stirs without. Communism no longer protects America from Chinese competition.
America is the worldâ€™s greatest debtor nation, China the greatest creditor. We cannot possibly repay what we owe, so we must either default or inflate. If another choice exists, I am unaware of it. And yet the government spends, spends, spends, and borrows, borrows, borrows. No one is in charge. No one cares. All line their own pockets.
Rationally, this would seem a good time to let go of unaffordable luxuries. But no. The US continues to buy things it canâ€™t pay for, to play roles it can no longer maintain, because it pains the national vanity no longer to be the biggest kid on the block. The monkey canâ€™t let go. The millstone around the American neck is the Pentagon. The direct cost alone of feeding the military contractors is almost mortal to a sinking economy: $720 billion this year, plus another $120 billion requested for the unending wars, plus huge black programs, the Veterans Administration, and so on. A trillion wilting green ones, call it. The more perceptive note the opportunity cost of wasting so much engineering talent, so much money for research and development, on martial zoom-wowees. China, Russia, the Moslem world, Latin America and all the rest who detest the US must be enjoying the spectacle. Spend on, spend on, oh round-eyed foolsâ€¦.
Vanity. We do not garrison South Korea because Pyong Yang may send its troops across our common border into Arkansas. We do it because we think it our birthright to rule the world. The monkey cannot let go.
Our practical choice is between retracting the military or going down hard. But we cannot retract. Once you have made your economy dependent on huge unproductive expenditures, there is no quitting. It might seem wise for example to reduce the military rolls by the 30,000 troops in South Korea. But they would simply increase the rate of unemployment, already dangerously high. Since most of the military contributes nothing to the defense of the United States, releasing all unneeded soldiers into joblessness would probably precipitate an armed rebellion.
There is worse. Towns spring up around large bases to supply the troops and their families. Close the bases, and the towns die. Closing Camp Lejeune would kill Jacksonville; Fort Bragg, Fayetteville; Fort Hood, Killeen. Further, huge companies â€“ Lockheed-Martin, much of Boeing, and dozens of others â€“ being unable to compete in the civilian economy, have become obligate military suppliers. Cut their big programs and you unemploy tens of thousands for whom there are no civilian jobs.
The federal bureaucracy is much the same, employing vast numbers yet producing nothing. Politicians drone about wanting â€œsmaller government.â€ How? Eliminate the Departments of Education, or Housing and Urban Development, or Commerce â€“ and where do the people go?We can pretend that the current recession is temporary, and not a manifestation of dying opulence, just as a fading beauty can pile on the make-up and hope that men donâ€™t notice. We can spend while others grow, buy their goods on credit â€“ for a little while longer. The monkey canâ€™t let go.And any who say that we ought to put our house in order and come to terms with reality? They will be said to Hate America. Well and good, until the bill comes due.
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.