The Long View 2007-01-01: Whatever Can't Continue Won't

Here is John J. Reilly’s New Years’ predictions for 2007. Let us see how he did:

  • The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq. Flat wrong. This went on for another four years or so. And even after it petered out, the former Ba’athists enabled the later rise of ISIS.

  • Sub-replacement birthrates in advanced countries. Somewhat right. I was a little surprised by this one, since the US seems to be a bit of an outlier. Look at this chart, and then go look at any set of countries you want in the data set. There really was an uptick in several advanced countries in the late 2010s.

  • US Federal Deficit Spending. Tax revenues were trending up at the time. There was a huge jump shortly thereafter, but that was the housing bubble, and almost no one got that right.

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays  By Congressional Budget Office - https://www.cbo.gov/publication/53651, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69489104

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays

By Congressional Budget Office - https://www.cbo.gov/publication/53651, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69489104

  • Barack Obama. Clearly wrong. John’s partisanship probably didn’t help.

  • The Political Invective Industry. Also wrong. John missed out on Twitter.

  • Embryonic stem-cell research. Mostly right. The science really isn’t good on this, and John correctly perceived this.

  • Skepticism about climate change becoming a fringe phenomenon. Right on. This has definitely moved beyond the pale.

  • This wasn’t in the bulleted list, but John also correctly noted that the replacement for the Reaganite conservatism post GWB was going to be 1970s style identity politics.


Whatever Can't Continue Won't

If you are reading this, then I survived this year's New Year's Eve party: the point is uncertain as I write this on the preceding afternoon. So, in the spirit of gratitude for small favors, we will make a modest excursion down the via negativa. Here are some things that, I am pretty sure, will pass their sell-by date in 2007:

The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: The traditional position of the Sunni minority in Iraq became untenable the last time Saddam Hussein left his office in 2003. The only question was whether they would exchange that position for a part in a national coalition, or whether they would prefer to be ethnically cleansed. Surprisingly (and some fraction of US bafflement about what to do next in Iraq arises from this), they have been leaning toward Option B. Time for them to change their mind is running out: this is the year when the Iraqi government will begin to have the military resources to conduct its own policy.

Sub-replacement Birthrates in Advanced Countries: This is not going to turn around in a year, but there has been considerable discussion of the issue and the beginning in France, Japan, and Australia of serious pro-natal programs. The issue could begin to surface in US politics this year: the matter has already been raised as one of the public-policy objections to gay marriage.

US Federal Deficit Spending: The predicate for this was always the position of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency: the money markets would absorb all the debt the US federal government chose to issue. There are good reasons for supposing that the US dollar will remain the principal reserve currency. I also don't quite see how there could be a run on the dollar: who would the dollars be sold to? However, the advent of the euro as an alternative currency means that there will now be upward pressure that was not there before on interest rates. We may see the Chairman of the Federal Reserve telling Congress that he cannot promise that there will be an adequate market for US sovereign debt unless the federal government increases taxes.

Barrack Obama: Perhaps his enemies arranged for him to have this much public exposure so early in his career. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: both a blank record and a a trailing pack of opposition political operatives eager to magnify his missteps.

The Political Invective Industry: Since the great age of snarky commentary began with the Clinton Administration, this has been a one-sidedly Republican enterprise. Throughout the period there have been Democratic editorialists at least as unhinged as their Republican colleagues, of course, but none was as much fun as, say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter: certainly none was as popular. Now, however, they cannot claim to be the voice of a populist majority. They also suffer from a lack of risible opponents. The new Democratic Congressional leadership may do some very foolish things, but there is no Newt Gingrich among them to symbolize their malefactions. Meanwhile, the bitter and second-rate Democratic commentariat has further cause for bitterness in that they are the dog that caught the car. They have already discredited George Bush to their own satisfaction, but the very fact the Republicans lost an election discredited their darker fantasies.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Forgive me if I repeat myself, but this is looking more and more like a scam. Half the research money for the medical uses of stem cells (which in general do show promise) is going into the approach that presents the greatest theoretical difficulties and which is least likely to be of clinical use. The enthusiasm for embryonic stem-cell research differs from the enthusiasm around 1990 for cold fusion (which also got some public funding, by the way) in that the cold-fusion scientists believed what they were saying.

Skepticism about Climate Change: I think that this is the year when disbelief in climate change moves from minority opinion to fringe idea. The science more or less supports substantial recent climate change. The science also supports human activity playing a role. Be that as it may, the persuasion of the public in this matter has more to do with the fact the media have made it their business to report weird weather. That's not to say that weird weather is far to seek. It snowed in southeast Australia just before Christmas. That's like snow in Chicago in July.

Actually, what's most remarkable about the world today is the lack of plausible alternatives. The Reaganite conservative movement in the United States is dead, partly because its original deregulation agenda has been achieved and partly because it proved corruptible and inflexible in power. The opposition, however, stands for nothing but the multiculti patronage politics that could not tolerate the light of day in the 1970s and which has not improved with age.

Similarly, the international institutions designed to be the instruments of a small alliance of stable nation states has now become like a residential property whose apartments have been subdivided far past the point of safety and whose pipes and wiring are being stolen by the building managers in connivance with some of the owners. The only alternative offered to this system is American hegemony, an institution with no inherent legitimacy in the law of nations or, just as important, any institutional mechanism for coupling the hegemonic function to domestic politics or government.

I could go on in this vein, and indeed I will: that's why people have blogs. On the whole, though, I am not impressed by our problems. History is often more confusing than it is today.

Just watch.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-09-04: Twilight Phenomena

This is your regular reminder that Gordon Chang is still wrong. He may not be wrong forever. Jean Raspail ended up being extremely right 42 years later. Raspail got some of the details wrong, but the big picture is very right. 

John said a lot of things about Iraq and the Bush administration that were very, very wrong in retrospect, but here is something he got very, very right:

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

John's intense interest in Spengler and macrohistory allowed him to predict that something like ISIS would be fundamentally hollow, utterly without any creative spark whatsover, doomed to spend its energies in mindless destruction.


Twilight Phenomena

Here's a headline I've been expecting to see: A Heated Chinese Economy Piles Up Debt. It appears on the frontpage of today's New York Times. While the story is not alarmist, it does point to the big economic story of the next few years: the impending bust of the last and greatest East Asian economy. There is nothing very mysterious about China's enormous recent growth statistics. If a government allocates capital on a political basis, there really is no problem generating export-driven growth of 6% to 10% every year. The problem is that the booming enterprises are literally a waste of money. The huge conglomerates of South Korea and Indonesia used to be capitalized at tens of billions of dollars, but produced returns on capital of less than one percent. The effect of all that manufacturing was just to turn the local currency into dollars. This makes a certain short-term sense, if there are tempting dollar investments to be made. That was the case in the 1990s. It is not the case today.

This is not just an Asian failing. The artificially low interest rates of the 1920s put America of the 1930s into a situation like that of Japan today, but worse. Closer to the current Chinese situation was the American savings-and-loan industry of the 1980s, when politics disabled the regulators but kept federal deposit-guarantees in place. The result was "see-through" office buildings and a lot of bankrupt institutions, for which the taxpayers were responsible. Of course, one of the lessons of the S&L collapse is that these things need not be the end of the world. The depositors got their money back, and the assets of the busted lenders were sold off, without enormous net loss to the Treasury. For that matter, the Pacific Rim countries have pretty much recovered from their own pre-millennial bust. Japan is a special case, but far from a lost cause.

There are people who say that China is a special case that is also a lost cause. So argued Gordon Chang two years ago in The Coming Collapse of China, which is the book that got me looking for those "It's later than you think" headlines about the People's Republic. His diagnosis is both ominous and persuasive. However, it is the nature of apocalypses to be averted by insightful predictions of them.

* * *

Speaking of disaster averted, I see that just a few days ago a reputable source warned that a 1.2-mile-wide asteroid could collide with Earth in 2014. I can easily imagine why there are so many warnings like this. The first observations of an asteroid will generate nothing more precise than a wide sheath of possible future positions. These sheaths are routinely big enough to hit Earth, but the relatively tiny asteroids in them are not. In any case, this latest warning was withdrawn within 24 hours.

Still, no matter how many times this happens, it's hard not to speculate about what would happen if the warning did not go away. That date, 2014, was particularly interesting. It's far enough in the future that we might be able to do something to avert the impact, but close enough that we would have to start doing it immediately. One imagines that steps would also be taken to move people out of harm's way, should deflecting the asteroid prove impossible. In any case, for some time the Rock would be what history is about.

As with nuclear weapons, which flickered in the world of science fiction long before someone actually built one, I sometimes get the sense the world is reaching for an organizing principle like this. That is part of the explanation for the genuine popularity of the idea of global warming. This is not to say that people are longing for some common challenge that would make the world one: far from it. Rather, some such global menace would make the world conceptually coherent for a while.

* * *

The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion, continues to grow. It is hard to understand the objection that the film will incite antisemitism. No doubt it will portray the Temple priesthood unsympathetically, but the portrayal will have to be very unsympathetic indeed to be worse than that in Jesus Christ Superstar, which is one Passion Play to which millions of people know the lyrics.

The truly bizarre element in all this has been the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League. For months now they have been trying to alter or suppress the film: now they are complaining about the angry mail they have been getting about their attempts to alter or suppress the film. They have also, under Providence, generated more publicity, for what would otherwise have been a minor art-film, than could have been bought for any money.

I could demonstrate at length that it has never been Catholic doctrine that the Jews are collectively to blame for the Crucifixion. (The Creed says "suffered under Pontius Pilate," not "Caiphas," for one thing.) There has been a popular tradition to that effect, of course, which sometimes found expression in Passion Plays. However, even judging only by hostile accounts of the rough cut, there is no reason to suppose that Gibson's Passion was made with that intent or will have that effect. Surely the ADL has better things to do with its time than pick fights with people who don't mean it any harm?

* * *

Passion Plays provide some insight into the Exploding Martyr phase of the disintegration of Islam. Spengler said, and I think he's right about this, that Jesus was the first great figure of a Culture that reached its spiritual culmination in Islam after AD 1000, and its final political definition in Ottoman hegemony. Spengler's name for this Culture was "Magian," and it includes the ancient eastern Churches, Rabbinical Judaism, and other, smaller communities as "nations."

21st-century Islamicism stands toward the time of Jesus as deepest Winter does toward earliest Spring. There are real continuities. Islamism addresses many of the questions Jesus did: about the relation of the World to the Kingdom, about ideal and practical moral norms, and about the importance of martyrdom. The cult of martyrdom is, in some ways, a fossil form of the Passion. Islam in general gets the answers backwards: it's a Reformation that went entirely off the rails, which the Reformation in Europe never quite did.

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will see that I just did a short review of John Crowley's Little, Big. This is a wonderful "autumn book," a category that does not lend itself to precise definition. It has something to do with esoteric subject matter, at least in my case, but also with woodlands and shortening days.

One of the few books with which I would compare Crowley's novel is Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It is, of course, ridiculous to think that a small stand of woods might be a gateway to the collective unconscious. It is less ridiculous to think that a wood might be "haunted": there is evidence that some places are uncanny in a replicable, almost objective sense. One of the marks of a good autumn-book is that the author knows when to stop being plausible, however. Holdstock is particularly good at this.

There is a sequel to The Mythago Wood, by the way, even a sort of cult.

A novella that might interest some readers is William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. The story was one of the products of the Occult Revival of pre-World War One days; so, though it's fiction, it incorporates quite a lot of theosophical doctrine. The story has little in the way of spooky woods, but there is another Occult Revival stage property: an isolated mansion in the darkest West of Ireland. Anyway, I'm happy to see it's been reprinted in an anthology: All Gothic 1: The Boats of the Glen Garrig & The House on the Borderland.

Most items in this category are ambiguously related to Christianity at best, but that need not be the case. Indeed, my favorite book in the autumn-book category remains C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. As I may have mentioned once before on this site, the book antedates George Orwell's 1984, but one may read Lewis's book as an answer to Orwell's. Plus you get to meet Merlin, and there is some conversational Latin. What else could you ask for on a darkening evening?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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