The Decline and Fall of America Revisited: Ten Years Later

or: how close to correct did I get it?

A bit over ten years ago, I wrote a web essay titled "The Decline and Fall of America: or: why living in the U.S. in the 21st century probably won't be as much fun as living here in the last half of the 20th century has been". (The earliest date I have authenticated so far is April 20, 1998.) With us being at a major anniversary for my original predictions, I'm going to go back and have a look and see how I did.

The budget deficit: it's worse than you think

In 1998, I said that the brief period of balanced budgets that we enjoyed in the late 1990s would be hard to sustain. The record shows that they were not sustained, partly for the reasons I cited. The war in Iraq made them even worse, but we would have had deficits anyway. The dot-bomb crash and 9/11 pushed us into a recession that we haven't really exited since, although the politicians and the pet economists will tell you otherwise (more on that later); that's one factor. World economies recovered; that's another. Interest rates rose sharply in 2005 and 2006, both because of that world recovery (meaning that US-based investments had to offer a higher return to attract capital) and because of the Fed's attempt to slow down a superficially booming economy. And the interest and Social Security bills continue to pile up.

The deferred maintainance is still being deferred, and some of the chickens have come home to roost. The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans is the best known example, the bridge collapse in Minnesota is another. Closer to home here in Boston, we've seen traffic restrictions on Storrow Drive and the Longfellow Bridge caused by overdue maintenance.

I couldn't predict that we would elect a president stupid enough to get us into an unjustified, immoral war. But things would be bad even without that. Full credit here.

The aging of America

People continue to get older, as does the average age of Americans. The trend would be much more obvious if we didn't have continued immigration from Latin American countries to keep the average down and the average family size up. What minor tinkering has happened with Social Security has been to increase benefits, so no solution. Full points again.

Cheap energy: here today, gone tomorrow

Anybody who has visited a gas pump recently knows that cheap energy is already gone. Yes, oil has come back down somewhat from its peak of over $140/barrel early in the summer of 2008, but it's still around $100/barrel, compared to $10/barrel in 1998. Part of the difference is the decline of the dollar, but that still leaves a huge real price increase.

Progress is being made on alternatives, but it is slow. Wind turbines go up, but others get delayed by NIMBY politics. Solar cells remain too expensive to justify without tax subsidies, though they're much closer to ready than they were ten years ago, because of declining prices of solar panels and increasing prices of other energy sources. People finally stopped buying large trucks and SUVs and creating waiting lists for hybrids, but it didn't happen until gas went over $3/gallon.

My predictions on how we will cope also look good so far. People are doing without. Technology is starting to help a little. Fusion power is still just around the corner. We've seen an uptick in local farming, and even some industrial production coming back from China because of high shipping costs. Most managers continue to resist telecommuting, but we're starting to see use of virtual worlds like Second Life for meetings and work collaboration. Score so far: 3 for 3.

The upcoming water shortage

So far, the water crisis in the southwest hasn't gone critical. On the other hand, we had a near-crisis in an unexpected location; the area around Atlanta, which nearly ran out of water a year ago. (Since then, a multi-year drought finally ended, so the area is out of the desert for now.) I still see it as a big future problem that just hasn't hit in a big way; I'll only take half credit for this.

Societal polarization: the left and the right grow farther apart

George W. Bush.

Full points again.

The rich get richer

The Shrub administration moved tax policy even farther in the direction of allowing the rich to get richer. The globalization forces and the changing balance of power between labor and capital continue. The net result: everybody but the top 10% of the US population has lost economic ground since 2000.

The lack of financial regulation has caused major damage. The collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac a couple of months ago and the recent failures of Lehman and AIG are major examples.

I missed the detail of just how bad the Fannie Mae situation was, and how fundamentally broken the system was. Having the people who make the decisions about lending risks not be responsible for any of that risk, as happens when mortgages are resold to Fannie or Freddy or anybody else, is a fundamentally bad idea; the decision makers choose badly because they're playing with somebody else's money.

So far, no riots in the streets. But I wouldn't bet against them if McCain/Palin wins in November.

I'll take a tenth of a point deduction for not fully understanding the Fannie Mae situation, so .9 in this category.

Technology: some hope for the future

Technology continues to improve. Wind power has become economically feasible, solar power is close, and cellulosic ethanol is coming along. We continue to find ways to make our computers do more computing with less electricity. Internet speeds continue to increase, though not as quickly as some of us might like. Doctors might finally be zeroing in an Alzheimer's, which would be a huge step forward toward increasing the quality of life of the elderly. We've even seen a few commercial applications of nanotechnology; none of the really society-changing ones yet, but the technology is still very young.

I stand by my earlier prediction: technology will eventually make things a lot better, but not quickly enough to save us from some hard times in the next 10 years.

The final tally:

6.4 out of a possible 7: very good indeed. Of course, I'm scoring myself; maybe you won't be quite so generous.