A couple of years ago, at the onset of the present financial cycle, I wrote a rather long and tedious article about the period of American global financial domination that began at Bretton Woods. I’ve been thinking about that piece as events have unfolded since then – and I would like to revisit and revise some of those remarks.
One thing that I’ve learned from my years in the history classroom is that most people’s sense of history is only about ten years deep, they folks may have some vague notion of the times that their parents lived in, but not much more. This must partly explain the death grip which many people clasp around their worldview, they really believe that the world they inhabit is as it has always been, and those who speak of change are anarchists, or worse.
I’ve always been a bit odd (in any number of ways) in that I have always had a fascination with what went on before. From family history, to local history – how did our ancestors get here, what building was here before this one. I will never forget a grade school trip that took us around our own town; a local historian was talking about various things when I asked him about the oldest building around, and what had been there before it’s construction – he thought for a moment and then said, “…nothing, just the prairie.” I will always remember that answer and how it made me realize just how young a country I live in.
Most middle-aged Americans live in an extremely rare window of time. Our parents lived through the greatest period of economic power the world has ever seen, but they themselves were raised by parents who had suffered through war and depression. Our grandparents were loath to talk of the hard times, and our parents did little but extol the virtues of a society that would allow them to ascend so far, so fast. So it’s hard to blame 40 to 80 year old Americans from believing that they deserve a place on that continuing upward spiral of American financial superiority.
And with belief comes action – a person who believes it is their right to reach even greater financial heights than their parents, because their parents had… will act according to that belief, no matter how many facts get in their way. Blind belief in something that we want to be true may be the hardest human trait to contain.
Many of this age and background see changes that they neither like nor understand. The US is no longer the financial ruler of it’s own destiny, nor the superpower to which the rest of the world pays due respect. Domestically, the recent election pointed out the obvious cultural and ethnic shifts that have been taking place, and the fact that the hegemony of the white, protestant male is coming to an end.
No titled class goes down without a fight, and the lines are being drawn. From the Neo-Cons of the Bush years to the Tea Party of today – if you listen past the sound bites and failed attempts to dress fear as Constitutional defense – they feel the great curve of history beginning to swing away from them. They have a sense that their children may not do as well as they, or that what they have may not even be enough for their own remaining years. I have to wonder how many members of the Tea Party had grandparents or great-grandparents that voted for FDR and all his rampant Socialism during the darkest days of the 1930’s
Fear brings a desire for blame – Socialists, illegal immigrants, welfare cheaters, abortionists … the French (!). Someone who is afraid and angry needs definition, they need to be told that what is happening is not their fault; they do deserve all that they want, and they would have it, except for….them!
Every dictatorial ruler in history knew this, and rose to power by providing that one simple answer: who they are!
From Nero blaming Christians, to Christians blaming Muslims, to Muslims blaming Infidels. There is always a them around to point to, and pointing to someone else is always better than pointing at ourselves.
But turning the finger inward may be our last best hope, we must break the historical cycle of societies that collapse under the weight of their own success, we must let go of some of the nuts, or our hand will never come out of the tree.
The long view of history shows that the affluence of America from the end of WWII until fairly recently is coming to an end. Not to say that America is going to fail, like some weak Roman comparison that pseudo-historians are so fond of. But that our level of consumption will end — by choice, or by the forces of the very markets that we have championed for so long.
Did we really think that the rest of the world would continue to let us consume the way that we have been for long?
We have no inherent right to more than we need.
We can restrain ourselves, or wait to be restrained by others.