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October 18, 2013

The American Decline May Wind Up Doing What Republican Political Agitation Could Not: Arrest the Growth of the Government

Hey, let me start you weekend with a huge downer.

It is beginning to appear that the "New Normal" of very slow growth -- almost indistinguishable from a recession -- is going to be with us for a long time to come.

Previous generations of politicians could reach agreements on taxing and spending by punting their differences to the next generation -- that is to say, where they could not agree, they could agree to borrow the difference, and expect the next generation to pick up the tab.

This was never moral nor responsible but it was workable so long as each generation was wealthier than the last, so that the next generation would have the money to pay for the previous one's profligacy and irresponsibility.

What happens when that is no longer true?

We are about to enter a truly brutal phase of American politics, in which we will less and less be able to call in the wealth of the next generation as a way of papering over differences between segments of the population. For a long time to come, a Winner today will not make a Loser some time down the road (who cannot complain too much, as his loss will register in the future).

Government-Mandated Winners will come at the expense of Government-Selected Losers in the here and now, people who can and will object. Passionately, and even, possibly, violently.

The United States has been, thusfar, exceptional in a fairly low level of social disorder and political violence. Such things plague most of the rest of the world, but the United States has mostly avoided such things.

But we avoided such things because we were always becoming richer, and could afford to float a certain amount of keep-the-peace debt.

But we've lost that exceptional advantage. The last big innovation in American industry was the internet, and while this does provide certain improvements in informational efficiency, it has nothing like the game-changing effects of the rise of mass production, or the rise of the steam engine and then the gas-powered engine, or the rise of electrification, the explosion in agricultural productivity, and so on.

Those were major technological breakthroughs that provided immediate increases in wealth and then even more increases over a period of decades, as the technologies were further exploited.

The internet boom and potent, cheap computing power provided a small boost in the mid-nineties, and by 2010, its capacity to increase efficiency was all but fully exploited.

There will not be another big gain in American productivity, and hence American prosperity, until there is a similarly large breakthrough in a technology with wide economic implications.

Or a change in government policy. Which seems increasingly unlikely.

Or a change in the national character, away from entitlement and sloth and towards self-reliance, hustle, and industry. Which seems increasingly... impossible.

Here now begins the Spoils Society, born in the throes of the Decadent Phase of American History.

Perhaps in 20 years we'll figure out fusion power and we'll have another period of growth for 20-30 years. Or perhaps again not.

I guess we'll just have to hope. Because that's all we're reduced to now, hoping that someone somewhere does something to bail us out.



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posted by Ace at 08:20 PM

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