Affluence Destroying America's Future?

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We have become the most prosperous nation in the world. There is however, evidence pervading our society supporting the argument that this very prosperity is sowing the seeds of discontent, which could destroy the integrity of this unified nation of hope. The 20th century saw America exert the immense power of its one people, one nation, integrity toward victory in two world wars. It saw an historically unprecedented rise in prosperity for all Americans, and the rise of an unparalleled middle class whose prosperity began to look like heaven on earth in the 1950's and early 1960's.

The 20th century saw an uplifting of government toward noble ends like women's suffrage, destroying organized crime, putting human beings on another celestial body, and the most radical advances in medical science ever witnessed; eradicating epidemic diseases and prolonging average life expectancy for Americans by decades. The visible remnants of slavery were discarded; new American Indian laws permitted even them some meaure of prosperity with legalized gambling opening the doors to some of their people to realize opportunities, to dream, and work for fulfillment of those dreams previously denied them.

The last century also witnessed the establishment of a government-economic strategy that virtually fulfilled the dream of individual freedom and opportunity to pursue happiness for most Americans. The public educational system produced the best-educated populace in the world, and spawned innovation, and entrepreneurial activity not even rivaled by ancient great civilizations. Those hundred years spawned a consumer class fattened on creature comforts, time and energy saving devices so numerous, that lack of physical fitness is now the number one health threat. The distribution of wealth through factories, and automation, union and management bargaining, and anti-monopoly legislation unleashed the greatest consumer activity the world of man has ever seen.

The last century also saw America give rise to the greatest political freedom ever seen in the history of humankind. Suffrage for all adults, enactment and enforcement of laws limiting the power of government to unfairly or unjustly impinge upon individual freedom, and unprecedented removal of impediments to free expression by all throughout the society. It was the greatest of all centuries for any nation's people in modern times.

So, how can all this freedom and affluence point to a negative future? There are four components: history, greed, specialization, and self-importance.

History. This is the simplest component to explain. Every society in history that reached greatness fell in part due to disintegration. The common thread running through their demise was overreaching. It is a kind of historical Peter Principle, wherein every society garners strategies, techniques, and foundations upon which to grow and expand. And that growth and expansion continue until that society reaches its level of incompetence in managing the greatness of its geography, the greatness of its population numbers, the greatness of its wealth. Rome over extended its geographical reach and wealth, and failed to manage the diversity of the people incorporated into it. The great city-states of Greece grew over confident in their wealth and its ability to purchase military security. Persia, China, the British empire, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and a number of others reached their level of incompetence in managing greatness, and fell. If history predicts, then history says the U.S. has, or is reaching, the fulfillment of its own national Peter Principle.

Greed and Specialization. More is always better. A common and pervasive fallacy that permeates all great nations, past and present, until it is too late to reverse. Only pre-modern civilization aboriginal tribes appear to be exempt from this fallacy by rejecting anything in excess of what they need to preserve tradition. There may be more, but, I know of only one such tribe left in the world, one that lives in the Amazon forest in Brazil which made international news 2 weeks or so ago when Brazil declared their territories once and forever, off limits to civilized exploitation. However, they are unlikely to survive black market forces and corruption of modern human activity despite legal protections.

In agrarian or hunter-gatherer societies, there is a limited amount of specialization of work. All females learn the same traditional ways of being a woman and fulfilling that role, and the same is true for men and the elderly. Labor is divided according to the tribe's needs and traditions, and all share roughly the same in the fruits of those labors. This limited specialization of labor and flat distribution of wealth is mandated by the survival of the tribe, which depends upon internal harmony and well being of its members.

Great civilizations however depend upon ever-wider expansion of specialization of labor; each vocational group becoming ever more dependent upon all of the other vocational groups for survival. If for any reason any of these vocational groups become dysfunctional or are put out of work, the effect ripples throughout the rest of society with those most directly dependent upon them most affected and those least dependent, less affected.

We are witnessing such an event occur in the US today as manufacturing jobs disappear and workers in those jobs are displaced. The families of these workers as well as the suppliers to their places of employment are most directly affected, but the ripple effect is felt through large segments of the rest of society as these good paying jobs with benefits are replaced with lower paying jobs with lesser to no benefits.

All great societies succumb to the 'More is Better' fallacy, which is taking its toll on our great nation. More businesses and profits mean more products, more garbage, more trash, more pollution. More choices and more specialization in the work place, mean more confusion, more dependency, and more ignorance. More freedom of speech and more avenues to express individual opinion are creating competitive tribes within the society itself. A microbiologist needs a whole slew of specialized people to support his efforts in microbiology: a car repairperson, a real estate agent, a financial manager, a day care center and/or school system for his kids, a yard and garden specialist, etc. etc. The reasons he is dependent upon them is two fold, he has neither the time, nor the knowledge to take care of these things himself.

An AC repairman asks a customer which model do you want? The customer does not even know how air conditioners work let alone which model is going to be the best choice for their needs. Hence, most customers, depending upon their level of affluence will reply by choosing the most expensive, or the cheapest model. (As if such a choice in anyway guarantees the customer the best value for their air conditioning need.) Of course the repairman wants to sell that unit with the greatest profit margin.

This dependency upon others breeds a degree of insecurity as all dependency does. The more estranged the folks are whom we depend upon, the greater our insecurity. The primary mechanism for the microbiologist to decrease his insecurity is to buy the best quality of specialists to take care of those things for him. Hence, his desire, and even need, to make more money to bid for the best reputation and quality of services which he depends upon others for. How many art buyers have relied upon experts in selecting an art investment, only later to discover it was a fraud?

If one listens to Congress or the President, the word more is one of the most used words. More schools, more revenue, more jobs, more clean up, more military, more health care, more nurses, more affordable health insurance, more of almost everything. This greed of great societies always leads down the same path, the path toward insufficiency. As greed demands ever more, eventually the society's demands will exceed its ability to supply those demands.

There comes a time in all great societies when a trigger event occurs which causes demand to overwhelm supply. That event can be a natural disaster as in the droughts that killed the Pharaoh's Egypt, a war that kills Germany's economic expansion or internal strife which causes a society's own laws and order to crumble. For many South American nations in the last century unsustainable debt and inflation became the trigger as is now occurring in Africa which causes disintegration of society in places like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and the Sudan. In the Soviet Union, more military build up in the arms race became the excess that limited food and shelter essentials, which triggerd the downfall of the communist government.

In the US, it appears as though the combination of national debt and dual caste system of haves and have-nots could be the excess that brings down the curtain on America's greatness. Many great societies fail because some trigger event like excessive greed leads to ignoring the losses for many in the society of the basics of food, shelter, health, and physical security. All great societies, if not ended by another mechanism like war, will fail due to the greed factor spending the society's resources on non-essentials in the good times while ignoring and taking for granted the essentials when greatness is achieved.

More Americans are concerned about when they will be able to afford that in-wall digital 6' wide TV screen than they are about the loss of manufacturing and its ripple effects on the rest of society. More Americans are concerned about where to spend their vacation than they are about saving enough to weather the next economic downturn. More Americans are concerned about the cost of their children's prom or wedding than they are about saving for that lengthy retirement period when income will drop dramatically. Such are the seeds of greed that grow like a cancer in great societies precisely because of the historical Peter Principle which dictates the complexity of greatness will overwhelm the people's ability to manage it.

Self-Importance Greatness breeds a sense of self-importance and confidence that always exceeds reality. And this in turn leads to a lack of critical self-evaluation. A perfect example is America's use of torture of prisoners in the war on terror. Someone somewhere decided that since America is unrivaled in the world for military strength and economic might, America no longer had to be overly concerned about appearances. They decided not to constrain America by the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment, intelligence gathering was more important.

They overestimated their ability to keep torture and abuse secret and grossly underestimated the world's reaction and mistrust if such acts are revealed. Such is the liability of self-importance. Great societies inevitably reach a state when greatness exempts them from the rules that made them great. For decades, America fought and talked against autocratic regimes and their inherent dangers all the while propping up and supplying dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein's which aided America in some way toward its short term and short sighted goals of the day.

America places such confidence and self-importance upon its economic might that she is vulnerable to overlooking a world economy being built by nations that realize very clearly that it is to their benefit in the long run to become independent of America's influence. America does not see how the world economy could ever survive without America due to her overestimation of self-importance based on past and present economic greatness. While America recognizes the threat of those eccentric groups in the world which would rather die than submit to American influence or ideology, America often appears oblivious in its foreign policies to those societies like China who are reacting with a view of their own path to greatness not including dependence upon the United States.

Conclusion Agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies have few, if any issues which can divide them to the point of failing to provide the essentials. If an individual threatens the society, they are removed. But, in complex civilizations like ours, pervasive affluence breeds choice and differences. Differences of philosophy, religion, politics, affluence, power, control, and many others threaten to divide the society into camps of 'us' and 'them'. As long as the essentials are readily available and accessible to most of the society, such differences are not as likely to lead to civil war, though they have in other nations. A certain level of unity and one people identification is essential to the integrity of a great society. It it ceases to exist, those camps will move to eliminate other camps if a trigger event creates grossly insufficient supplies to fulfill essentials needs. Such was the case with our first Civil War.

America is rapidly losing that 'one people' identification and unity. Some Republicans believe the nation would be far better off without Democrats and vice versa. Some religious groups are demanding America become a one religion nation. Some conservatives say they know America's greatness is being harmed by liberals, and vice versa. There is even a breakdown between specialists.

Gone are the days when scientists were revered and their word on a topic accepted on faith. Today, even the most tightly controlled science produces opposition claiming the data and conclusions are tainted by hidden political motives. Also gone are the days when the people trusted government. Large numbers of Americans now view government as a necessary evil and are quick to form lobbying groups to oppose any new government initiative regardless of its merits.

These are the kind of differences that general and pervasive affluence produce. In the past, one had to belong to an organization with deep pockets to launch a public relations campaign to sway popular opinion. Today, anyone with a computer and a web site can attract a following and influence them to oppose some other group. One would think that general affluence would permit folks to vote with their dollar and shape the nation by what they buy and don't buy. But, that appears to be largely a myth.

The fact is, general affluence breeds the kind of greed that dictates one stretch one's dollar to buy the most of what one values, rather than sacrificing and paying more for something in protest of something else. The word is the weapon in our affluent society, and in politics, the word and money open the way to government; lobbyists and web sites are the wheels to deliver those weapons to the halls of Congress and the Whitehouse, and now even the courts. And those who do not believe and think as we do, become the targets of our word war efforts.

So, while America is not engaged in a physical civil war, she is deep in the throes of a verbal war with many factions seeking power to assert their will on the nation at large. This kind of disintegration of modern great affluent societies appears to be inevitable. Little more than a trigger event such as a deep recession or homegrown terrorist group with a just cause is needed to move America from a war of words and ideology to a more guerilla type gun and knife war in her streets. America beat back such a spawning ground for physical civil war back in the 1960's and '70's with enforced civil rights legislation and withdrawal from Viet Nam. It remains to be seen if the next trigger event will be countered as successfully.

America is a great nation. But if history has anything to say to America to guide her in remaining great, it says, stay humble, keep to the rules and policies that made you great, never forget your essentials of food, housing, health, and security, and never forget that your greatness depends upon the success of the vast majority of your people. Let not your desire for more exceed your abilities to maintain what made you great in the first place.

I will close with just one of many stories circulating that demonstrate America is following the path of all great nations in history. reports: "More Americans than ever with mental disorders are trying to get care, but only a third receive effective treatments, ..." One in four Americans suffer a mental disorder. This news item and a host of others are proof enough that general affluence is not necessarily an accurate measure of a successful and great society nor an accurate predictor of that society's staying power.

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This page contains a single entry by David R. Remer published on June 9, 2005 4:58 PM.

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