America in Decline, by Noam Chomsky

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America in Decline

by Noam Chomsky

Nation of Change OpEd

Published: Friday 5 August 2011

“What remains of political democracy has been undermined further as both parties have turned to auctioning congressional leadership positions.”

“It is a com­mon theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colos­sus with un­par­al­leled power and un­matched ap­peal is in de­cline, omi­nously fac­ing the prospect of its final decay,” Gi­a­como Chiozza writes in the cur­rent Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence Quar­terly.

The theme is in­deed widely be­lieved. And with some rea­son, though a num­ber of qual­i­fi­ca­tions are in order. To start with, the de­cline has pro­ceeded since the high point of U.S. power after World War II, and the re­mark­able tri­umphal­ism of the post-Gulf War `90s was mostly self-delu­sion.

An­other com­mon theme, at least among those who are not will­fully blind, is that Amer­i­can de­cline is in no small mea­sure self-in­flicted. The comic opera in Wash­ing­ton this sum­mer, which dis­gusts the coun­try and be­wil­ders the world, may have no ana­logue in the an­nals of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy.

The spec­ta­cle is even com­ing to frighten the spon­sors of the cha­rade. Cor­po­rate power is now con­cerned that the ex­trem­ists they helped put in of­fice may in fact bring down the ed­i­fice on which their own wealth and priv­i­lege re­lies, the pow­er­ful nanny state that caters to their in­ter­ests.

Cor­po­rate power’s as­cen­dancy over pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety – by now mostly fi­nan­cial – has reached the point that both po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, which at this stage barely re­sem­ble tra­di­tional par­ties, are far to the right of the pop­u­la­tion on the major is­sues under de­bate.

For the pub­lic, the pri­mary do­mes­tic con­cern is un­em­ploy­ment. Under cur­rent cir­cum­stances, that cri­sis can be over­come only by a sig­nif­i­cant gov­ern­ment stim­u­lus, well be­yond the re­cent one, which barely matched de­cline in state and local spend­ing – though even that lim­ited ini­tia­tive prob­a­bly saved mil­lions of jobs.

For fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions the pri­mary con­cern is the deficit. There­fore, only the deficit is under dis­cus­sion. A large ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion favor ad­dress­ing the deficit by tax­ing the very rich (72 per­cent, 27 per­cent op­posed), re­ports a Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll. Cut­ting health pro­grams is op­posed by over­whelm­ing ma­jori­ties (69 per­cent Med­ic­aid, 78 per­cent Medicare). The likely out­come is there­fore the op­po­site.

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The Pro­gram on In­ter­na­tional Pol­icy At­ti­tudes sur­veyed how the pub­lic would elim­i­nate the deficit. PIPA di­rec­tor Steven Kull writes, “Clearly both the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Re­pub­li­can-led House (of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives) are out of step with the pub­lic’s val­ues and pri­or­i­ties in re­gard to the bud­get.”

The sur­vey il­lus­trates the deep di­vide: “The biggest dif­fer­ence in spend­ing is that the pub­lic fa­vored deep cuts in de­fense spend­ing, while the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the House pro­pose mod­est in­creases. The pub­lic also fa­vored more spend­ing on job train­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and pol­lu­tion con­trol than did ei­ther the ad­min­is­tra­tion or the House.”

The final “com­pro­mise” – more ac­cu­rately, ca­pit­u­la­tion to the far right – is the op­po­site through­out, and is al­most cer­tain to lead to slower growth and long-term harm to all but the rich and the cor­po­ra­tions, which are en­joy­ing record prof­its.

Not even dis­cussed is that the deficit would be elim­i­nated if, as econ­o­mist Dean Baker has shown, the dys­func­tional pri­va­tized health care sys­tem in the U.S. were re­placed by one sim­i­lar to other in­dus­trial so­ci­eties’, which have half the per capita costs and health out­comes that are com­pa­ra­ble or bet­ter.

The fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and Big Pharma are far too pow­er­ful for such op­tions   even to be con­sid­ered, though the thought seems hardly Utopian. Off the agenda for sim­i­lar rea­sons are other eco­nom­i­cally sen­si­ble op­tions, such as a small fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions tax.

Mean­while new gifts are reg­u­larly lav­ished on Wall Street. The House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee cut the bud­get re­quest for the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, the prime bar­rier against fi­nan­cial fraud. The Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Agency is un­likely to sur­vive in­tact.

Con­gress wields other weapons in its bat­tle against fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Faced with Re­pub­li­can op­po­si­tion to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, Amer­i­can Elec­tric Power, a major util­ity, shelved “the na­tion’s most promi­nent ef­fort to cap­ture car­bon diox­ide from an ex­ist­ing coal-burn­ing power plant, deal­ing a se­vere blow to ef­forts to rein in emis­sions re­spon­si­ble for global warm­ing,” The New York Times re­ported.

The self-in­flicted blows, while in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful, are not a re­cent in­no­va­tion. They trace back to the 1970s, when the na­tional po­lit­i­cal econ­omy un­der­went major trans­for­ma­tions, end­ing what is com­monly called “the Golden Age” of (state) cap­i­tal­ism.

Two major el­e­ments were fi­nan­cial­iza­tion (the shift of in­vestor pref­er­ence from in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion to so-called FIRE: fi­nance, in­sur­ance, real es­tate) and the off­shoring of pro­duc­tion. The ide­o­log­i­cal tri­umph of “free mar­ket doc­trines,” highly se­lec­tive as al­ways, ad­min­is­tered fur­ther blows, as they were trans­lated into dereg­u­la­tion, rules of cor­po­rate gov­er­nance link­ing huge CEO re­wards to short-term profit, and other such pol­icy de­ci­sions.

The re­sult­ing con­cen­tra­tion of wealth yielded greater po­lit­i­cal power, ac­cel­er­at­ing a vi­cious cycle that has led to ex­tra­or­di­nary wealth for a frac­tion of 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, mainly CEOs of major cor­po­ra­tions, hedge fund man­agers and the like, while for the large ma­jor­ity real in­comes have vir­tu­ally stag­nated.

In par­al­lel, the cost of elec­tions sky­rock­eted, dri­ving both par­ties even deeper into cor­po­rate pock­ets. What re­mains of po­lit­i­cal democ­racy has been un­der­mined fur­ther as both par­ties have turned to auc­tion­ing con­gres­sional lead­er­ship po­si­tions, as po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist Thomas Fer­gu­son out­lines in the Fi­nan­cial Times.

“The major po­lit­i­cal par­ties bor­rowed a prac­tice from big box re­tail­ers like Wal­mart, Best Buy or Tar­get,” Fer­gu­son writes. “Uniquely among leg­is­la­tures in the de­vel­oped world, U.S. con­gres­sional par­ties now post prices for key slots in the law­mak­ing process.” The leg­is­la­tors who con­tribute the most funds to the party get the posts.

The re­sult, ac­cord­ing to Fer­gu­son, is that de­bates “rely heav­ily on the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of a hand­ful of slo­gans that have been bat­tle-tested for their ap­peal to na­tional in­vestor blocs and in­ter­est groups that the lead­er­ship re­lies on for re­sources.” The coun­try be damned.

Be­fore the 2007 crash for which they were largely re­spon­si­ble, the new post-Golden Age fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions had gained star­tling eco­nomic power, more than tripling their share of cor­po­rate prof­its. After the crash, a num­ber of econ­o­mists began to in­quire into their func­tion in purely eco­nomic terms. Nobel lau­re­ate Robert Solow con­cludes that their gen­eral im­pact may be neg­a­tive: “The suc­cesses prob­a­bly add lit­tle or noth­ing to the ef­fi­ciency of the real econ­omy, while the dis­as­ters trans­fer wealth from tax­pay­ers to fi­nanciers.”

By shred­ding the rem­nants of po­lit­i­cal democ­racy, the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions lay the basis for car­ry­ing the lethal process for­ward – as long as their vic­tims are will­ing to suf­fer in si­lence.

© 2011 Noam Chom­sky

Dis­trib­uted by The New York Times Syn­di­cate

ABOUT NOAM CHOMSKY:  Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is well known in the academic and scientific communities as one of the fathers of modern linguistics, and a major figure of analytic philosophy. Chomsky is the author of more than 150 books and has received worldwide attention for his views.
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