The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The American Death Wish

I wrote this article January 19th, 2009. Obama had just been inaugurated, we knew who his economic team would be, his Chief of Staff (Rahm Emmanuel), and we knew the basics of the stimulus package. 

I knew, then, that the last opportunity for America to avoid catastrophe, as opposed to mere disaster, had passed, and so I wrote this article. It has held up well, and the predicted decline in standards of living is well underway–sooner and faster than even I expected. 


I’ve been struggling with how to write this post for quite some time. It’s the conversation you have to have with a friend, where you have to say something like: “It’s nice that you’re trying as hard as you can George. I even believe you are, but it doesn’t matter. Because, George, your best just isn’t good enough.”

Or, as Captain Jack Sparrow would put it, all that matters is what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.

Sometimes the world doesn’t grade us on a curve. You need to jump a fence, and you can’t. You need to climb a rock face, and you aren’t good enough. You’re running away from a bear, and you don’t run fast enough. And now you’re dead. You wanted to get into a good grad school, but you don’t have the grades or test scores. You’re in a fight, and the other guy wins, and you wind up on the ground, and he puts the boots to you, and you’re crippled for life. You tried “your best,” but you lost and you’re going to pay the price for losing for the rest of your life. Maybe you lost because he fought dirty, and you’d rather take the chance of being crippled for life than kick someone in the balls. Maybe you lost because he trained harder than you, while you were out drinking with your friends.Or maybe you needed to pay for health care, and you didn’t have the money, and someone you loved died. And they died because you didn’t have the money–because your country didn’t have universal health care. And maybe you always worked as hard as you could, and you campaigned for health care with all your heart. It doesn’t matter, your child, your wife, your husband—they’re still dead. Your best wasn’t good enough.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year.  If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

Now this is where America is. This is the real world. The United States in aggregate has been living beyond its means for over 30 years now. You have been shipping the real economy overseas. Ordinary families have been going in debt. The government has been going in debt. You’ve been voting yourself lower taxes and not paying for infrastructure reinvestment, or education, or anything else that matters, really. You’ve been spending too much money on guns, not enough on butter. You’ve been pushing the bill off into the future.

And whenever I write about what needs to be done to fix this, about simple things like universal healthcare, which we know for a fact reduces health care costs by 1/3, because it has worked for every single other country that’s ever done it, people come out of the woodwork and they tell me that’s not “politically feasible.” Or perhaps I suggest a 55 mile an hour speed limit, “That’s not feasible.” Or I might suggest spending significantly less on the military, as half the world’s military spending is a bit overboard. “That’s not politically feasible.” Or raising taxes, “That’s not feasible.” Or…but why go on, the list is endless.

Then Obama comes out with a stimulus bill which simply will not do the job. It is not big enough. It is not adequately well-constructed. It has no vision. It won’t work. This isn’t really in question: Even their own report(pdf), which has its thumb heavily on the scale, shows it won’t work if you take the time to look at the job charts.

A lot of people think this is some academic debate that doesn’t matter in the real word, like, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” It’s not, it’s deadly practical. The US is in severe decline. It is past the point where any other country would have flamed out and had an economic collapse (Argentina collapsed with better numbers than the US has now, for example). But, because of America’s privileged position in the world, it’s been able to stagger on.

Now, folks can say, “Ian those things aren’t necessary, I think the following steps will fix it” and that’s fine. I could be wrong. Obviously I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t write what I write, but, hey, plenty of people have been dead certain they were right, and were dead wrong.

But what gets me is that so often what I hear is this refrain: “That isn’t politically feasible. We can’t do that.” Now, when they says “can’t,” they don’t mean, “Those things are impossible” or, “We don’t have the means,” what they really mean is, “We won’t do them, because they would be hard or they’re outside our ideological comfort zone.”

Fair enough. But if those things are necessary, and if you don’t do them, then the consequence is going to be catastrophe. I don’t mean disaster. New Orleans was a disaster, and it wasn’t enough to wake America up. The current financial crisis was a disaster, and so far it’s looking like it wasn’t enough to convince people that real, fundamental changes are needed.

So because no one will do what is necessary, catastrophe will happen. What I mean by this is a severe decline in the US standard of living, probably between 20 percent to 40 percent, starting in 4 to 6 years and taking place for a decade. It might happen sooner if folks keep refusing to do what needs to be done to fix the financial crisis and stop it from turning into a worldwide Great Depression. Even before that happens, you’re going to see real wages declining for Americans while their assets collapse in price.

To see what a precipitous decline in standard of living is like, read up on Russia’s history in the 90’s. A lot of people will die of starvation, cold, heat, lack of medical help, and from violence.

That’s just the way it’s going to be. Because while there are no problems that America has that America can’t fix, it also appears that there are no problems America has that America is willing to fix properly. And it doesn’t matter why. It just doesn’t matter, just as the bear doesn’t care why you couldn’t run fast enough when it mauls you to death. When the economy finally goes into full bore collapse, when all the bills come due and everyone decides to stop paying Americans to consume, it won’t matter why Americans thought they could suspend the economic laws of gravity forever and live beyond their means for decades.

It just won’t matter. You can do what it takes to fix the problems or you can’t. If it’s true that you can’t, then I quite seriously, sadly, and with utmost sincerity, suggest that you either start learning how to survive in a societal meltdown, or you get out, or you hope that your number comes up in the next few years so you don’t have to pay the bill that comes due when people think they can live in fantasy land, on credit, forever.

America elected Barack Obama. He’ll have, essentially, two chances to fix things. He’s failing the first one already, with his botched stimulus bill and that’s going to be disastrous. If he fails the second one, that’ll be catastrophe.

So I sure hope that, yes, America can.

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  1. markfromireland

    Well if they’d only been shipping their economy abroad that would be serious but not desperate as the saying goes. Except they’ve been shipping rather more than just that haven’t they? They’ve been shipping, war, societal collapse, poverty and tyranny abroad for several generations now.

    What you’re saying Ian is that given their refusal to reform their behaviour if not their character that they’re about to reap as they have sown.

    How is that a bad outcome for everyone else? One particularly virulent cancer in the global body politic has started to consume itself rather continuing to consume the host organism. How is that a bad thing for anyone not resident in North and perhaps Central America? Greatest good of the greatest number and all that.


  2. Texas Nate

    What was Obama’s other chance Ian?

  3. Tom W Harris

    Just yesterday morning on Chicago’s all-news radio station WBBM 780 AM I heard right from the President’s mouth that the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9%.

    They’re openly laughing at us now, aren’t they? We really should respond harshly.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Well MFI, I basically spent 6 years of my life trying to get them to reform. As for the collapse: well, it may work out for the best, but there’s going to be a LOT of collateral damage.

    Canada’s border is too long to really secure against American refugees, too. 😉

    Nate: just that after seeing the bailout fail he’d have one more chance to do it right before ’10 Congressional elections cost him his majority in the House and maybe Senate (that’s what I expected to happen.)

  5. Gaianne


    Good essay.

    Good to see it again.

    Even the people I know who say they are paying attention are not paying attention. It’s grim, and of a piece with our recent past. Just the way it is.

    Catastrophe is not an event, but a process. A process that we are in. We are right on schedule.


  6. V. Arnold

    I think the death wish is a human condition; not just the U.S.. Yes, the U.S. is pre-eminent because of its embrace of the neo-liberal political/economic model (spelled greed).
    The U.S. set the ideal of materialism the whole world (mostly) is striving towards; a disaster of global proportions.
    Well, it’s too late to fix it. The bread and circuses are just one more distraction away from the point.
    Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was possibly the first shot across the bow of the environmental abuse. That was 54 years ago. David Suzuki was an early voice of warning 35 years ago; but very few heard or listened to his dire warnings of what was already in the “system” then. Since then, there have been others, and today we have a very eloquent expert on climate change/global warming; Guy McPherson.
    The interview is a must listen, IMO.
    Nobody else I’ve heard/read, has talked about near term human extinction (14 – 30 years), but McPherson lays it all out there. One critical point he makes is this; it isn’t that we (humans) can’t adapt (we can), but rather, the rest of life on the planet can’t within the short timeline afforded. Our food will not survive and to that we cannot adapt.
    McPherson offers some salient advice on our choices going forward.

  7. SumiDeamer

    This is from 2006 .. and read the prescience!

    Very excellent repost, Ian. If only people would heed the warnings!

    Paul Craig Roberts is writing some of the same stuff now, with increasing urgency.

  8. stephen

    Is there any place we can see a standard of living measurement and chart?

  9. markfromireland

    “We really should respond harshly.”

    By doing the same calculatedly ineffectual stuff we’ve been doing for generations and adding some new exciting stuff like making comments on web sites. That’ll do it sure enough.

  10. markfromireland

    Gaianne’s point that catastrophe (like death) is far more often a process rather than a discrete event cannot be repeated or emphasised often enough.

  11. markfromireland

    Yeah Ian I know you did and the effort needed to be made but there comes a point when the effort has to stop and the energy involved devoted to other things such as letting them take what’s coming to them and concentrating on saving your own people.

    A lifetime of dealing with them and trying to mitigate, not even undo just mitigate, some of the worst of what they’ve done has convinced me that they are irreformable. There simply comes a point at which one has to recognise that they do what they do because they’re Americans and they want to.

    Yes, there’s going to be a lot of collateral damage, and sauve qui peut will be the order of the day whether in the long run we’ll be better off is unknowable. My suspicion is that Northern Europe will do fairly well but that North America’s collapse will be so comprehensive that nobody will need to spare them a thought for a very long time.

    As to Canada and it’s border well yes but as you yourself wrote a Canadian government that was serious about defending Canada would have some devices capable of making very big bangs indeed already concealed, primed, and ready to use South of the border at need.

  12. markfromireland

    One final point this:

    “or you get out”

    I sincerely hope that you’ve got you’re own get out arranged. Apart from the fact that I wish you well personally there’s the rather important point that post-collapse there’ll need to be some decent ideas floating around and people capable of articulating why behaving decently is worth doing.

  13. Ian Welsh

    I may get out, though it may take 2 or 3 years to arrange. I imagine the US will hold together that long. Or I may move north to some remote place.

    I still write this blog, but not because I think Americans will reform, though, of course, I hope they might. The big push has ended.

    My core audience, especially amongst influentials, is increasingly moving to Britain, with a fair number of Europeans. I am also heartened to see more Latin and South Americans.

    People haven’t thought seriously about the triage point, and we are going to hit it.

  14. Tom W Harris

    So Marky Mark writes a web comment about web comments being ineffectual. Ya gotta love it.

  15. Tony Wikrent

    I am short term pessimistic, along the lines of what you reposted. But I am optimistic about the long term. I note that the zeitgeist is shifting. A front pager on DailyKos wrote tonight that “Incrementalism has outlived its usefulness…. Incrementalism isn’t pragmatism. It isn’t a logical acceptance of the possible. It is the coercion of a population paralyzed by fear. It is mental enslavement of a people who simply cannot visualize their innate collective power. In effect, incrementalism has turned into virtual suicide…. Incrementalism was necessary because neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party would run the risk of of upsetting their wealthy benefactors or the corporatocracy.”

    I honestly do not believe you would have found ANY front pager writing something like that just a year ago.

    Another example: In January last year, I posted on DailyKos about the December 2014 article, by Richard A. Werner, in the scholarly journal International Review of Financial Analysis, entitled Can banks individually create money out of nothing? — The theories and the empirical evidence. There were a lot of heads that exploded over that one. Some of the comments were downright hilarious. And of course you and Stirling and others have written a number of times that one key to the power of present elites is their stranglehold on the creation and allocation of money and credit. Well, a few days ago, it occurred to me that I had seen a half dozen commenters over the course of about a week writing about money being created out of thin air.

    Finally, I want to point to Bill Curry’s post at, “It’s almost over for Hillary: This election is a mass insurrection against a rigged system.” “What makes the media blackout of Sanders an even greater travesty is that it was imposed over a period of many months in which he led all 21 other candidates in both parties in nearly every general election poll. When a self-described socialist leads every poll, something historic is happening.”

    The ideas are spreading. Are they spreading fast enough? Probably not. But, read about the fall of communism in East Germany and in Poland. Lech Walesa did not come out of nowhere. But he recognized the moment, and seized it. The revolution most definitely will not be televised. But it will be.

    I think.

    Now, whether you or I will live through it – that’s a different question.

  16. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    All of y’all, and the people you cite, may yet turn out to be correct.

    However, when one spends nearly 53 solar orbits (I will complete 53 in May) hearing apocalyptic prediction after apocalyptic prediction after apocalyptic prediction after apocalyptic prediction yadda yadda yadda…

    And no apocalypse shows up…

    One could be forgiven for growing skeptical about the possibility of apocalypses.

  17. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    And if the apocalypse does arrive?

    Then I guess I shrug, knowing I could not have done one thing to stop it anyway, and shuffle off to the afterlife or to oblivion, take your pick.

  18. markfromireland

    My core audience, especially amongst influentials, is increasingly moving to Britain, with a fair number of Europeans. I am also heartened to see more Latin and South Americans.

    People haven’t thought seriously about the triage point, and we are going to hit it.

    Good to know about your audience not least because they’ve got a far better chance of being around and able to do something worthwhile post collapse than American so-called “liberals” who even if they survive are already so tainted by the fact that they’re divided into collusionist and collaborationist wings that very few pay attention to their nostrums. This situation isn’t going to improve for them post-collapse, collaborators tend to be even less popular than the regime with which they collaborated.

  19. markfromireland

    I love it when people walk open eyed and whistling into traps like that, it confirms my already low opinion of their character and abilities and provides me with politically very useful examples of what not to be and what not to do, thanks Tom.

  20. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I’ve thought of myself for years as a pessimist, but some of y’all here make me look like Pollyanna.

    (What would a male Pollyanna be? A “Paul Andy”, perhaps?) :mrgreen:

  21. fdg

    people come out of the woodwork and they tell me that’s not “politically feasible.”

    In other words, “snouts would have to be pulled out of troughs”. That used to be possible–Jackson and both of the Roosevelts managed it.

    Is it not possible now due to a decay of Republican ardour, or because the upper class now feels invincible thanks to the U.S.’s hegemon position and so is no longer willing to give any quarter?

  22. fdg

    “Republican” should have had a small “r”, of course… sigh…

  23. Tom W Harris

    Glad to lend a hand, Mark. I’m a soft touch toward those in need.

  24. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    If we have any yaoi fangirls on this site, they’re already shipping Mark and Tom. 😈

  25. Tom W Harris

    I don’t think moral equivalence applies here, Bill. I posted a more-or-less on-topic comment, and mark replied with a gratuitous insult. (And then of course things slid downhill from that point.)

  26. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    What does morality have to do with “shipping”? 😆

  27. markfromireland

    @ Ivory Bill Woodpecker:

    There are lots of excellent reasons why American “liberals” are politically impotent, there’s their intellectual, ethical, and moral flaccidity for starters. Then there’s the vacuity of their opinions and very importantly the fact that they very carefully avoid taking any action which could alter the status quo. Harris’ comment:

    “We really should respond harshly.”

    is an entirely apposite example of why American “liberals”, “progressives”, “left-wingers”, or whatever other half-assed description of the day they use to denominate themselves are a pack of shifltess worthless losers. They don’t actually have any principles or even opinions for which they’re prepared to strive. All they have is attitudes.

    The reason why right-wingers of various hues have held power in American quite literally for generations and are going to continue to do so is that unlike Harris and his ilk they do actually have firmly held opinions and principles. Principles and opinions for which they’re prepared to organise, principles and opinions that they work hard to propagate, uphold , and put into effect.

    The structural function of the American “liberal” – people like Harris is to act as a useful foil for the American ruling class and they know it which is why their actions are very carefully calibrated to be utterly ineffective. Cowardly, contemptible, and hypocritical doesn’t even begin to describe them.

  28. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    If he’s not already a senior citizen, Mark will make a splendid Grumpy Old Man one day. :mrgreen:

  29. Tom W Harris

    Confucius say, internet tuff guy equal real life yellabelly.

  30. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    D’awwww! Would you two just get a room already? :mrgreen:

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