The Long View 2009-03-09

The Long View 2009-03-09

John J. Reilly helps us to understand what decadence means:

Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a "decadent" society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study "Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet," but Barzun may persuade readers that "decadence" is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term "decadent" may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger, admittedly unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.

Decadence Today

Even in Hell there is wishful thinking, as C.S. Lewis cheerfully noted, and in that spirit we should read this comment by Joel KotkinDemocrats Could Face an Internal Civil War as Gentry and Populist Factions Square Off.

Broadly speaking, there is a long-standing conflict inside the Democratic Party between gentry liberals and populists. This division is not the same as in the 1960s, when the major conflicts revolved around culture and race as well as on foreign policy. Today the emerging fault-lines follow mostly regional, geographical and, most importantly, class differences.

Gentry liberals cluster largely in cities, wealthy suburbs and college towns. They include disproportionately those with graduate educations and people living on the coasts. Populists tend to be located more in middle- and working-class suburbs, the Great Plains and industrial Midwest. They include a wider spectrum of Americans, including many whose political views are somewhat changeable and less subject to ideological rigor. . . .

Although peace now reigns between the Clintons and the new president, the broader gentry-populist split seems certain to fester at both the congressional and local levels – and President Obama will be hard-pressed to negotiate this divide. Gentry liberals are very “progressive” when it comes to issues such as affirmative action, gay rights, the environment and energy policy, but are not generally well disposed to protectionism or auto-industry bailouts, which appeal to populists. Populists, meanwhile, hated the initial bailout of Wall Street – despite its endorsement by Mr. Obama and the congressional leadership.

Geography is clearly a determining factor here. Standout antifinancial bailout senators included Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jon Tester of Montana. On the House side, the antibailout faction came largely from places like the Great Plains and Appalachia, as well as from the suburbs and exurbs, including places like Arizona and interior California.

True words, for the most part, but then much the same is true of the Republican Party. Indeed, the face of the party is not Rush Limbaugh, but a capital-gains-tax zombie promising to get the government off the people's back as soon as the party is returned to power. The party is decadent in the most extreme sense: it no longer has the capacity to make use of good luck.

* * *

But what about external civil war, using non-metaphorical ordinance? As this space has noted before, the thought commends itself in some quarters:

Russian foreign policy expert Igor Panarin keeps pushing his prediction that America will collapse next year with Russia and China becoming the new world's leaders. (And a new global currency, too!). Among Panarin's signs of impending doom, according to the AP: 1) falling financial markets, 2) the recession, 3) the Citigroup bailout. 4) schools shootings, 5) the size of the U.S. prison population, 6) the number of gay men in America.

The short answer to Eurasianism, I fear, is this postulate:

Russia + China = China

However, this is not to say that China's place in the world is improving. Perhaps the most interesting economic event of the past week was Premier Wen's big speech, which went over no better than the public pronouncements of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and for much the same reason: he had nothing to say when everyone's attention was focused on him. A consensus is like to grow that, as William Pesek recently noted, China's 2009 Rebound Is Pure Fantasy: William Pesek:

March 6 (Bloomberg) -- The idea that China can grow strongly as the world unravels is a fantasy. Ditto for the view that China is going to save the global economy.... Premier Wen Jiabao was wrong to err on the side of caution [this week] when he delivered the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. State of the Union address. He said the country¹s 8 percent growth target is within reach, indicating an additional stimulus package isn¹t needed. It's a bad call, and Wen is likely to regret it as 2009 unfolds.

Markets are sensing as much. On Wednesday, stocks around the globe soared on hopes that at least one major economy would skirt disaster. Markets came back to Earth yesterday after China quelled stimulus speculation. As the global meltdown deepens, it probably means the export demand that drives China won't return until well into 2010...

China's almost $2 trillion of currency reserves would seem to give the nation considerable policy latitude. Yet China's vast economy lacks the financial infrastructure to get the bang it needs from its stimulus in yuan. Would building more roads, bridges and dams do the trick?

"'Eight percent GDP' doesn't really tell you anything about job creation," says Stephen Green, Shanghai-based head of research for China at Standard Chartered Plc. "Many of these projects are not particularly job-intensive."

China for many people was supposed to be the last hope, if not the best. It is always important when a last hope vanishes from public affairs.

Ah, but what about the First Hope, the Hope-in-Chief? Though barely able to maintain his composure in light of recent events, Mark Steyn nonetheless managed to propose these insights:

MS: Well, I think the reality is that the United States is more responsible for this global crisis than any other government, Western government. But there's no justice in the world, so every other country is going to be clobbered a lot worse, including Canada, including the United Kingdom. We've already seen it in peripheral places like Latvia and Iceland, but nobody much cares about those countries. The next wave are countries like Ireland and Italy, which are all but bankrupt. I mean, Ireland and Italy are basically in the same situation as General Motors and Bank of America. And so global world leaders, prime ministers around the world, are looking to Obama not just to save America, but to save Europe and the rest of the world as well. And so when they see this protectionism that's in the stimulus package, they realize oh, my God, he has got, he is not interested in solving our problems. He's not even interested in solving America's problems. He's got some entirely different agenda altogether.

I think that world leaders will put up with a measure of protectionism, especially at a time when their countries are not going to miss any economic opportunities because of it in the short run. But here are a few more thoughts, this time from Charles Krauthammer, on the theme that President Obama is not really interested in what his presidency is going to be about:

The logic of Obama's address to Congress went like this:

"Our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he averred. Indeed, it all began before the housing crisis. What did we do wrong? We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care, and education -- importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?), not reforming health care, and tolerating too many bad schools.

The "day of reckoning" has now arrived....

[In reality, the author observes] [a]t the very center of our economic near-depression is a credit bubble, a housing collapse and a systemic failure of the entire banking system. One can come up with a host of causes: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pushed by Washington (and greed) into improvident loans, corrupted bond-ratings agencies, insufficient regulation of new and exotic debt instruments, the easy money policy of Alan Greenspan's Fed, irresponsible bankers pushing (and then unloading in packaged loan instruments) highly dubious mortgages, greedy house-flippers, deceitful homebuyers.

The list is long. But the list of causes of the collapse of the financial system does not include the absence of universal health care, let alone of computerized medical records. Nor the absence of an industry-killing cap-and-trade carbon levy. Nor the lack of college graduates.

To be fair, you could argue that the medical industry has been leeching blood from the industrial part of industry for decades, and thereby exacerbating today's situation. Still, the author is correct that the Administration is offering solutions to problems that are not obviously urgent. However, this is not an uncommon pattern. The last thing Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson wanted was to be a war-time president. John Kennedy, in contrast, did want to be a war-time president, or at least a Cold-War-time president: only in the last months of his life did he realize he would be remembered chiefly in connection with the Civil Rights Movement. And then there was President Bush II, ramming through tax cuts after declaring a world war and still pursuing an agenda of turning Social Security into a 401K-type system, plus easing immigration restrictions, just as he had planned to do when he first ran for president. Unlike his predecessor, our current president could at least argue that his agenda is not demonstrably repulsive, even if it is not necessarily more relevant to the task at hand.

Is the Obama Administration decadent? Can it take advantage of good luck?

* * *

Speaking of decadence, don't forget the book.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Buy Spengler's Future on Amazon