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How America wil end?


Army.ca Legend
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An interesting series in Slate, although they don't seem to go beyond the usual tropes (climate change, for example). Of the ideas suggested in this part, the gradual breakup seems most familier, since it mirrors similar ideas presented by Joel Garreau in The Nine Nations of North America or Robert Kaplan in An Empire Wilderness.


Today, I've asked the world's leading provider of futuristic consulting to help me think about America's downfall. I'm at a conference table in the group's San Francisco office with six forecasters, including GBN founders Schwartz, Napier Collyns, and Stewart Brand.  Our mission: plot scenarios by which the United States could end in the next 100 years. GBN's head of marketing and communications, Nancy Murphy, suggested the time limit. "Beyond 100 years it gets so science fiction-y," she explains.
Before my meeting, I collect some pointers from Schwartz's foundational scenario-planning text, 1991's The Art of the Long View. He suggests that wannabe futurists inhale science and tech news, embrace fringe cultures (though Schwartz admits that his chats with UFO aficionados "offered no insight about the future"), and look for social trends in nascent cultural phenomena such as gangsta rap and America's Funniest Home Videos. (Forgive him: The book was written 20 years ago.) The big picture: If you want to glimpse the future, seek out remarkable people and open your mind to loony-sounding ideas. 

I also learn from Schwartz's book that the sensible futurist prefaces everything by saying This is not a prediction of the future—the professional forecaster is not an oracle. That said, Schwartz has made his share of good calls. When Schwartz was the head of scenario planning for Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1980s, his team told the company's higher-ups to watch out for an unknown Soviet pol named Gorbachev. If Gorby were to assume a leadership position, Schwartz said, it would be a strong indication that the USSR would open to the West and oil and natural gas prices would drop. When the price plunge came, Shell execs—having anticipated this eventuality—swooped in and bought oil reserves at a discounted rate. 

This morning, in a conference room full of fellow forecasters, Schwartz happily plays the emcee for the end of America. He speaks more quickly and authoritatively than anyone else, and he's the one patrolling the line between what's crazy enough to destroy the United States and what's just plain crazy. His first idea: racial warfare. By 2050, whites will no longer be a majority in the United States and Hispanics will make up an estimated 29 percent of the population. "Most violence is committed by males 18 to 35," Schwartz explains. "Now picture a very large, low-employed Hispanic population of males not too pleased with their lot or their ability to control a white-dominated world. … That population then becomes violent and disruptive. And now you get into racial and identity politics—it's all those illegal immigrants we let across the border." Add in a flailing economy, mega-droughts in the Southwest, and the "Colombianization" of Mexico and you've got The Road Warrior crossed with an unusually rabid episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight.

This is just the beginning. For nearly three hours, we run through America-killers that range from the believable to the science fiction-y: rising sea levels, a collapse of entitlement programs, an attack by a foreign power on American soil, a pandemic 10 times worse than the 1918 flu, global domination by a space-faring nation that uses geo-engineering to "turn off" climate change, and the emergence of a transnational class of biologically enhanced supermen and women ("They're all about 6-2—and that's the girls," Schwartz says) who identify more with one another than with any particular nation.
Despite the fun of imagining America succumbing to the Super Friends, Schwartz believes the most likely scenario for the next 100 years is "that the city of Washington will still be a capital of a nation-state on this continent." America has abundant natural resources, relatively low population density, and—with oceans on both coasts—a built-in security system. The collapse of a country with those inherent advantages sometime in the next century would require a low-probability series of events. But low probability isn't no probability. Schwartz ends our exercise by sketching out the possibilities in a two-by-two box.

Most scenario-planning sessions end with the world stuffed inside a grid. The "scenario matrix" is a means of transforming everything we've learned into a range of credible stories—four futures that are as different as you can possibly make them, covering the broadest range of possible outcomes. Joel Garreau, a longtime Washington Post writer and editor who regularly works with GBN, explains that the scenario matrix is a framework for thinking logically about an illogical subject—a way to minimize the "oogabooga" that's inherent in futurism. When he was contemplating whether to buy a generator in the run-up to Y2K, for example, Garreau drew a matrix of four possible post-Y2K worlds. The generator, he found, would come in handy in only one of his four futures; he didn't buy it.

Ultimately, the American collapse probably won't occur in the next century. If it does, though, it might take one of these four forms. Without any further oogabooga, here's Peter Schwartz's matrix for the end of America:

Collapse: In this scenario, the country has devolved after a series of catastrophes: unchecked climate change, a pandemic, nuclear war—the stuff that Jared Diamond books and disaster movies are made of. A catastrophe that breeds internal division, Schwartz argues, is more likely to eradicate America than any kind of external threat. A country is like a family, he theorizes. If you feel threatened from the outside, you band together—rather than tear the United States apart, 9/11 galvanized us against a common enemy. The laggard response to Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, meant that our own government became the common enemy. A long, uninterrupted series of nationwide Katrinas—and a concomitant series of bungled federal responses—is the recipe for collapse.

Schwartz submits that government incompetence might not be enough to trigger America's implosion. After all, we could always just vote out the bozos who let us down. What we need to destroy the country, he argues, is Zimbabwe-sized corruption: a succession of executives who pilfer the national treasury and refuse to hold free elections. In that case, the country could fall apart as our national creeds of freedom, democracy, and openness are gradually abandoned.

Friendly breakup: In future No. 2, the country dissolves peacefully because the overhead of running a large nation becomes unmanageable. Schwartz likens this to the breakup of the Soviet Union, a case where the cost of holding the country together proved too great and the advantages too small.

While Igor Panarin—the Russian who forecasts America's demise for 2010—would certainly agree with that idea, making parallels with the USSR seems a bit dubious. Unlike the Eastern bloc, the United States isn't an agglomeration of states with strong ethnic identities. It was foreseeable that a socialist republic like Lithuania, which had its own long-standing culture and language, might someday become an independent nation. In modern America, where English predominates and a highly mobile population flits from place to place, is it possible that some state or region could develop enough distinctiveness to split from the union? GBN's Michael Costigan suggests that self-segregation could lead to an amicable parting of the ways. If Democrats migrate to Democratic cities and Republicans cluster in GOP strongholds, we could reach a point where the redder-than-red states and the bluer-than-blue states decide to go it on their own. Hey, it's the future—it could happen!

Global governance: In our third future, the national government declines in importance relative to the world community. Barack Obama's recent brief in defense of American exceptionalism is just one indicator among many that the United States is nowhere near willing to cede its position as the greatest of the world's great powers. But Slate contributor Robert Wright argues in his book Nonzero that humankind must come together to head off the challenges of the "non-zero-sum," globalized world: climate change, biological weapons, pandemics. While Wright tells me that "you wouldn't need something so centralized" as a souped-up United Nations, he believes that if in the next 100 years "America's identity has not dissolved into some sort of larger body of global governance, then chaos will reign."

Global conquest: The final scenario and the grimmest of all: a figure described variously as a "global Napoleon," "a much more empowered Hitler," and "a super-Mao" conquers America and the rest of the world via brute force. This idea, which Schwartz classifies as the least likely of the four, leads us to debate whether it's harder to subjugate the world than it used to be—Schwartz believes it is, as there are "more people with military competence spread across the world." That's followed by a discussion of the best method to exercise dominion over the globe. "I think the way you conquer the world these days is from space," he says. "You can put weapons up there and shut down the world."

A real GBN client would use this scenario matrix to initiate a change in behavior—a shift in corporate strategy perhaps, or a call for new public policy. For me, the end-of-America scenarios are the stopping point. I'm trying to foresee our pathways to societal upheaval, not prevent it from happening.
Futurologists are generally fairly sanguine about man's ability to save himself, even if they do delight in thinking up dystopias. Jamais Cascio, a former GBN employee who now consults for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, is a connoisseur of disaster scenarios—worlds torn asunder by ocean acidification and nanoscale weapons—that you weren't aware you should be terrified of. For IFTF's Ten-Year Forecast spring retreat—attended by corporations like Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Nokia, and Wells Fargo—Cascio went beyond the program's usual decadelong timeframe to write up three 50-year forecasts, each laying out a distinct vision of the next half-century. One of the timelines, the "Long Crisis," begins with "global storming," a run of catastrophic weather events around the world. By 2023, the United States has defaulted on its debts to China. Eventually, in the aftermath of Global Famine II, the U.S. breaks into eight pieces. On the plus side, African biohackers find a cure for AIDS in 2026. Yippee! (You can read Cascio's whole "Long Crisis" scenario here.)

Cascio insists that the "Long Crisis" isn't merely a scary story.  Rather, his goal is to goad policymakers into dealing with the century's biggest challenges: climate change, Sino-American relations, the global food supply. "What futurists and scenario planners provide is a wind tunnel of sorts," Cascio says. "The scenarios we construct allow organizations to test their strategies, to test their decisions, to say, If we follow Course X, what kinds of outcomes might we expect as the world around us changes?"

For more of Cascio's thoughts on futurology—why it doesn't matter that every detail he comes up with will be wrong, his belief that the United States could break apart in the next 50 years, and how America and China might forge a partnership to fight off an asteroid strike—watch the video below.

Cascio clearly believes that humanity has the ingenuity and the smarts to beat back threats to its continued existence. He doesn't, however, assume that the persistence of the United States is necessarily the most-desirable outcome. It's possible America will collapse as we try desperately to save it—or perhaps the country will shrivel up and go away when its time has come and gone. "It's not necessarily how America will survive," Cascio says, "but how do the values we hold dear … survive even if some of the institutions don't?"

You've seen what the professional forecasters think. Now we want your thoughts on America's demise. With our "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" tool, you can pick the scenarios you think are most likely to terminate the United States and compare your selections with those made by the rest of the Slate audience. At the end of the week, I'll file a report on the most popular choices and investigate what clues your favorite scenarios give us about the American psyche.
Join the discussion about this story on Facebook and Twitter today.

More here:

Readers were asked to pick their own apocalypse, and interesting results were obtained. Read the various charts and breakdowns:

I'd suggest reading "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" by Kennedy.  He concludes stating that due to the vast size (physical and population), decentralization of power and the sheer adaptability of its people, the US may be uniquly immune to social cataclysm. 

Now that I'm retired and living in the US, I hope so.  But this ain't NY or Calif.... it's.... Iowa.
Interesting that you mention locality, this is big in some other meditations of the nature and future of the United States. Joel Garreau divided the Unted States and North America roughly along climactic and ecological boundaries (The Nine Nations of North America), and Robert Kaplan suggests that micro regions bounded by geography (river basins, mountain ranges etc.) may define the future of America (An Empire Wilderness)


An Empire Wilderness: page 294

“Environmentalists believe in making decisions based not on the welfare of this generation but on the seventh generation to come. That means the seventh generation will occupy the same place that we have preserved for them. So we’re localists, because if you have no geography, not only do you have no accountability-like so many global corporations-but you have nothing to defend. But we can defend this watershed, this bioregion; we can’t defend anything that’s larger or something that’s merely political, like a state or country”

While Tocqueville’s localism was inseparable from the commerce and material progress that has been the American secular religion for more than 200 years, the localism of Gold and Miles spurned this materialism and thus Lawrence’s “homeland…of the pocket”, the same materialism that has attracted generations of immigrants here. The western environmental movement may foreshadow a new and more subtle form of separatism as traditional patriotism becomes harder to sustain.

Page 301

“The Liberals and Environmentalists have latched onto the Federal government, defending federal lands and so forth, while the conservatives have latched onto the sanctity of the states. But that too will lead to disaster because the states are no less impersonal and sometimes more irrelevant than the Federal government. Boise, Idaho’s capital, for instance is becoming a world-class software city, but it has no control over Coeur d’Alene in the northwest part of Idaho, which is an economic extension of Spokane, Washington. John Wesley Powell [the great surveyor of the arid West, who explored the Colorado river and the Grand Canyon] warned Federal bureaucrats not to draw straight lines in setting political boundaries here; instead, he said, the lines should follow the river valleys, drainage basins, and mountain ranges. Well, we ignored Powell, but the emerging economic reality is that of Billings and the Yellowstone drainage, Missoula and the Clarke fork drainage…It is neither Washington D.C nor the state capitals that are determining reality here, rather, it is these urban areas that are spreading along the river drainages. Neither the state or Federal government can make things work; it can only be the civic culture of each locale.

Imperial pressure was imposed by Lincoln when Rocky Mountain settlement began during the Civil War, but that concept of nation building is antiquated, and Lincoln’s model of one power dominating the east-west continent needs to be taken on. Yes even Lincoln himself needs to be challenged, as Jefferson is being challenged now. The state system into which the Republicans have put so much faith is impeding the natural conglomeration of new urban units, whose borders will be geographical and not political.
My worst case scenario is a second revolution the foundation of which is being laid due to the increasing unpopularity of Obama's radical policies. There is a disconnect between the public and the politicians. The politicians are hell bent on forcing radical policies down the throats of the tax payers. This breeds frustration. Throw in Iranian style thuggery,election steeling [which hasnt happened yet on a massive scale] and an economy in the doldrums and there is a recipe for an ugly situation. Remember it only took a third of the population of the colonies to support revolution. The remaining third remained loyal to the crown and a third played it safe. I dont see those numbers being all too different today.
An interesting point of view to say the least.
There is no doubt, as I see it that the seeds of revolution are bing sown once again.
Radical elements of the Republican Party are out in force and the Democrats are on the defensive. People, by our nature will react to fear or the perception of fear. This is what the GOP is counting on.
Illegal Immigration, racial discord, and the "religious right wing" are likely to feed the fire.
Jammer you are way off base. Its not the republicans that have their thugs beating citizens up. Last year Hillary said it was every citizens patriotic duty to protest their government. Now that they are running the show they are whistling a different toon now. What you dont realize is that the democrat party has been taken over by Statists and have counted on their rank and file to go along. Obama's socialist agenda is very much anti-american and he is losing his democrats. His polling numbers have been tanking and thats not because republicans oppose him but his own democrats are bailing along with independents. People realize Obama has been lying to the voters and he has zero credibility left. They have the numbers in congress to pass any bill they want and what the public wants doesnt mean squat to them. Lets see what happens in 2010. If this keeps up and the economy continues to slide toward depression alot of democrats will lose their jobs in congress.
I think the real issues are actually different than what most people seem to think. The "Democrats vs Republicans" is how the  trope plays in the MSM, most of whom really don't see it in any other way, but looking at the composition of the T.E.A. parties and the opposition of normally non aligned people and organizations (the C.E.O. of an organic food supermarket chain wrote an Op Ed in the WSJ against Obamacare!) we see the distinction is almost totally artificial (most T.E.A. party organizers have shunned politicans from every party).

The divide seems to be the between political elites, many of whom have very little real differences, and their political clients and supporters vs the general public, who are essentially being told to pay up and pay big (higher taxes, fewer opportunities and devalutaion of savings and currency).

Kaplan's insights in regionalism and localism would suggest that the primary motivations of both the elites and the taxpayers are no longer even at the same level. The MSM, for example reports on an Obama town hall without reference to the crowd of protesters outside, while the regional press and bloggers only report on the protesters without much reference to what is going on inside...

The conflict is national "top down" control being imposed by Washington vs freedom to seek local solutions, and neither side is even on the same page despite talking on the same topic. If Washingtom becomes mostly irrelevant to people's lives, then Kaplan's vision of a residual government overseeing national defense and long term projects like nuclear waste disposal while micro regions deal with strictly local issues may come to pass in practice.
Thucydides said:
If Washingtom becomes mostly irrelevant to people's lives, then Kaplan's vision of a residual government overseeing national defense and long term projects like nuclear waste disposal while micro regions deal with strictly local issues may come to pass in practice.

Which is exactly the model the founders of the US (and Canada) had in mind.  The federal government creep in power has come from a judiciary that sees themselves smarter than Washington and Jefferson or MacDonald and Cartier.
What bothers me is the level of public discourse in America.

Within my very limited (by place and social class and, and, and ...) experience the private discourse remains spirited but, essentially, civil.

But the public discourse is loud and discordant: it is rarely a discussion. talking heads have been replaced by shouting heads. It’s been a long process but I recall when John McLaughlin’s programme, The McLaughlin Group was an interesting if overly loud “free form” discussion – quite different from its rather staid competitors. Now Face the Nation and Meet the Press and the rare exceptions: the rule is people shouting past one another.

My fear is that public discourse often drives its private counterpart and when private discourse turns into a shouting match then we are one step closer to losing the strong, civil social capital that is one of the foundation stones of our form of electoral democracy.

I doubt that gunfights after political discussions are going to be the norm in Boulder, CO or Durham, NC but, as the level of discourse declines, maintaining the veneer of civility may become more of a problem in e.g. Houma, LA (amongst the ten worst educated cities in that Forbes survey).

In my opinion the differences between the Democratic and Republican mainstreams remain minor – more than during, say, the Ford/Carter/Reagan/Bush era – but still not huge. Most Democrats, including most elected Democratic legislators, are not wild eyed, bomb throwing Marxists and most Republicans, including most elected Republican legislators, are not knuckle dragging troglodytes. But most spokesmen for both groups are not in the mainstream. They are, too often, radicals who ignore the American mainstream as they try to appeal to their respective “bases” – bases that our out of step with America.

Being out of step is not a mortal sin (well except in The RCR!) but being out of step and “leading” public opinion is dangerous.
Obama's race to ram his health care plan down the throat is scaring the hell out of the Republicans and Democrats alike, not to mention the American public.
This is perpetuating a wider division of the classes instead of bring them together as he had hoped. The "Beer Summit" for example, pure theater in order to re-orient media attention to his agenda or a real attempt to bridge divides.
His social agenda is very popular with minorities and the less well off, however the politics of fear are being employed by both sides and the partisan media in America (ie Fox News and CNN).

I'm guessing this thread is just for fun. So here is my 2c.

Free beer to whoever knows who I am quoting below. :piper:


First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines' decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite - just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone's physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes "treatment" to cure his "problem." Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.

The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future - Google Books Result
by The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski - 2005 - Political Science - 124 pages
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better that human beings can do them. ...
Should have known the Irish guy would get the free beer. I'd never bothered to read anything he wrote. I just thought Kaczynski was crazy. I'll amend that. Smart and crazy.
This article suggests the old political divides in the body politic are resurfacing. Once again, some hints of the post Progressive future are also on display here:


The Age of Hamilton
Walter Russell Mead

As President Obama travels to John Brown’s old stomping ground in Osawatomie, Kansas where Theodore Roosevelt made his New Nationalism speech in 1910, Newt Gingrich has announced that he is a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.

If you asked Theodore Roosevelt what kind of Republican he was, he would — and did — tell you that he was a proud standard bearer of the Hamiltonian tradition in American politics.

Ron Paul, who would have fought TR tooth and nail as much as he is currently fighting both President Obama and ex-Speaker Newt would agree.  Gingrich, Obama and TR are all Hamiltonians, and Ron Paul thinks they are all dead wrong.

As we gear up for 2012 and beyond, American attention is increasingly returning to the oldest battle in our political history: the battle between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians that split George Washington’s cabinet down the middle and established our first party system.

That fight was essentially over three things that divide us intensely today: the role of the federal government, the nature of the credit system, and the future of the social hierarchy.  Alexander Hamilton favored a strong federal government at home and abroad, a centralized credit system similar to the British one with a Bank of the United States acting as our central bank, and believed that the best educated and most widely experienced people in the United States constituted a natural aristocracy and should play the leading role in our politics.

Thomas Jefferson disagreed with virtually everything Hamilton believed.  He wanted a weak federal government, detested Hamilton’s banking system, and feared that the alliance of a social elite with a powerful government and a strong central bank would turn the US into a European-style aristocratic or monarchical society.

Bipartisan Establishment, meet Mr. Tea Party.

The disagreement between these two men continued to reverberate down the years.  John Quincy Adams, Nicholas Biddle, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln sided with Hamilton up through the Civil War.  Presidents Madison and Monroe followed Jefferson, more or less; so in his own irascible way did Andrew Jackson.  The Southern Confederacy tried to write Hamilton out of the constitution when it modified the Philadelphia document to serve the rebel government.

Hamiltonian Hegemony

Alexander Hamilton owned the 20th century.  America’s growing global role made his vision of a strong military look like simple common sense; as US corporations became more globally focused and responsibility for the international financial order shifted from Britain to the US, his support for a strong federal role in promoting US economic interests around the world grew much less controversial.

While the 20th century was in some ways a very democratic one, with both women and racial minorities gaining the vote, it was also an unusually hierarchical period by American standards.  The 20th century was more elitist than the 19th; while access to the educational and social elite was open to talented outsiders, more and more power flowed to “experts”.

This was partly because the United States shifted from being a nation of small farmers, beholden to no one, to a nation of employees living in cities and suburbs.  The administration and management of a large urban unit requires a larger and more powerful government than does a region of small farmers and rural communities.  The rise of an interconnected national economy made the federal government’s power to control interstate commerce relatively more important; in the age of the automobile and even more in the information economy, more and more commerce is interstate, less and less purely local.

The rise of large fortunes also helped.  The Ford Foundation and other large philanthropic organizations employed, empowered and deployed experts to solve social problems.  The experts followed the doctrines of the new social sciences, believed at the time to be a source of objective wisdom.

This brief list only scratches the surface of the forces that made 20th century America what it was, but put these and other trends together, and the 2oth century saw the steady eclipse of the agrarian and Jeffersonian American vision by the urban, commercial and hierarchical Hamiltonian ideal.

The Kennedy-Johnson administrations saw the peak of this Hamiltonian era.  The son of a plutocrat summoned the “best and the brightest” from Harvard to carry out an ambitious program of national and international change.  From the Alliance for Progress abroad to the War on Poverty at home to the Apollo space program aimed at reaching the moon, the Democratic administrations between 1961 and 1969 brought all the elements of 2oth century Hamiltonian America onto the stage.

John Maynard Keynes

Keynesian economics was a cornerstone of the new Hamiltonian vision.  Keynes is Hamilton on steroids.  Hamilton (like the British visionaries who built the Bank of England on which he modeled his Bank of the United States) believed that a well-managed federal debt was a national blessing, not a national curse.  Keynes made the same argument about deficits that Anglo-American thinkers had long made about government debt: an appropriate and well-managed government deficit could be an engine of economic growth.  And if Hamilton believed that the central bank could manage debt effectively in a world of specie-backed currency, Keynes argued that central banks and even a global central bank could manage debt and deficits in a world of paper or fiat money.

The Hamiltonian vision was further reinforced by Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of government as the protector of the little man against the unchecked power of large corporations.  Jeffersonians had classically worried that the federal government was the leviathan that, unchecked, could destroy American freedom.  Rooseveltian progressive Hamiltonians saw the federal government as the park ranger, protecting the tourists and ordinary citizens from the corporate velociraptors in the Jurassic Park of modern American life.  The stronger the ranger, the safer the people.

Big Tent Hamiltonianism

The blue social model, the progressive American system of the 20th century, was the love child of Hamiltonian liberal theory and social democratic aspirations rooted in the Industrial Revolution and the class struggle it spawned.  It used a capitalist state, and capital markets, to advance both classic Hamiltonian objectives and the social goals of the urban working class.  For a good chunk of the twentieth century, the American party system reflected this division: Rockefeller Republicans stressed the liberal and Hamiltonian roots of the system, liberal Democrats stressed the social democratic aspects of its agenda.

In addition to the large social and cultural forces that made 20th century America so hospitable to the Hamiltonian vision, there was a very specific political switch.  During the New Deal, the South rediscovered the virtues of an economically active national government.  George Washington (who decisively favored Alexander Hamilton in his arguments with Thomas Jefferson), John Marshall, Henry Clay and even the young, nationalist John Calhoun had all seen the virtues of a national government acting to promote state development.  But as the Hamiltonian cause in the early republic became linked to a high tariff, pro-manufacturing stance, and as southern slaveholders came to favor constitutional theories that limited the power of the federal government to interfere in the South’s “peculiar institution”, the South threw itself squarely into the Jeffersonian camp.

After the Civil War, the control of the federal government by Hamiltonian, high-tariff business interests, tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party, and the war-hallowed cause of states’ rights, plus fear that a strong federal government would meddle in southern racial policies reinforced Dixie’s attachment to Jeffersonian views.

That began to change in the New Deal.  Lyndon Johnson typified the new kind of southern politician who understood that federal spending on infrastructure, electricity generation, and agricultural subsidies could transform the South.  Right up through the War on Poverty — which developed formulae for federal funding that gave the greatest federal support to the poorest states (almost all southern) — a strong federal government, once the bane and the nightmare of the South, became its strongest ally in Dixie’s attempt to close the development gap with the North.

America’s rise to world power further improved the position of Hamiltonians at home.  The transfer of financial power from London to New York and the liberation of the financial system from the gold standard allowed American Hamiltonians to reconcile their own preference for sound, internationally convertible money and the interests of capital-hungry entrepreneurs and farmers.  Under American leadership the global monetary system became far more expansionary than in the British era, and the sharp contrast between Hamiltonian banking interests supporting tight money against populists clamoring for debt relief was blurred in post World War Two America.

As the US shifted from a trade policy based on being a free rider in the global British trading system to being the organizing power in the postwar system of free trade, Hamiltonianism also shed its support of protective tariffs and embraced the cause of free trade.  Hamiltonian tariff and tight money policy had set farmers’ teeth on edge from the earliest days of the Republic; 20th century Hamiltonians shed this political baggage and, with government crop subsidies, the regulation of railroad rates, and infrastructure projects (irrigation, highways) supporting agricultural interests, the increasingly corporatized agricultural interest in the United States moved from the Jeffersonian to the Hamiltonian camp where it remains today.

Wrestling With Founders

The long Hamiltonian ascendancy in the United States has brought many benefits.  It is in my judgment neither possible nor desirable to go back to the weak farmer’s republic that Thomas Jefferson thought he was building in the 1790s.  At home and abroad a healthy Hamiltonianism is an essential building block of American prosperity and security.

But there is also no doubt that the Hamiltonian-social democratic synthesis of the twentieth century is not adequate for the times in which we live.  Corporatism has bred the kind of cronyism and corruption Jeffersonians have always feared.  The alliance of the wealthy and the elite with strong state power is creating class divisions and class conflict.  The remoteness of the federal government from popular control (to be one of 300 million citizens is to have no effective control over the governing power) threatens to hollow out Americans’ sense of self reliance and independence while keeping most people at a great remove from any real exercise of political power.

Some of the problems we face are due to essential defects in Hamiltonianism, against which a Jeffersonian revival is our only safety.  The unchecked Hamiltonian ascendancy of the twentieth century has led to a lopsided America.  A revival of the Jeffersonian element in American political thought and practice is essential to our national health.

Other problems are due to the need for Hamiltonianism to reform itself: to develop new economic and social approaches for a new era.  Hamiltonianism at its best is forward-looking and revolutionary.  It is not the tool of established interests but a force for innovation.

Either way, a long revival of American traditions of individualism, skepticism of elites, and distrust of the federal government is a rising force in this country.  Add to that suspicions of finance and of the influence of firms like Goldman Sachs in politics, and a full blown Jeffersonian reaction is beginning to emerge.

The decline of the blue social model, part Hamiltonian, part social democratic, is the reality that shapes the debate.  Jeffersonians like Ron Paul argue that the decline of the blue model exposes the essential fallacies of Hamiltonian governance and that the US needs to rebase itself on a Jeffersonian foundation.  Hostility to the Federal Reserve echoes Jefferson’s hostility to Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States; the desire to limit federal authority and revive states’ rights similarly echoes some of the country’s oldest political arguments.

In Osawatomie and beyond, President Obama will run for re-election as a Hamiltonian and a custodian of the 20th century progressive state.  He will argue that modest and careful reforms, trimming a few excesses here, making some innovative policy shifts there, can keep the old ship afloat in the twenty first century.  Like JFK, he will argue that the best and brightest can develop government policy that will guide the nation to a brighter future through collective action and state investments.

Governor Romney, so far as one can discern, is at his core a Hamiltonian as well, but he has less sympathy than President Obama and the Democrats for the blue synthesis of Hamiltonianism and social democracy.  He stands roughly in a line of Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush who accepted the basic elements of the progressive state.  Former Speaker Gingrich is also a Hamiltonian, but much more than either Romney or Obama he believes that Hamiltonianism needs to be re-imagined for our times.  Congressman Paul is the one Jeffersonian in the race, and of the four he seems the least likely to be elected in 2012.

What America needs is a debate between 21st century Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians.  Obama and Paul in their way are both looking backward; Gingrich feels the need for a deep reworking of the Hamiltonian tradition and his surprising surge in the polls suggests that he has touched a nerve in the public — despite the baggage of his past and the sometimes sketchy nature of his proposals.  Paul’s popularity also points to the growing public discontent with political approaches centered on the defense of the status quo.

On the whole, 2012 is not shaping up as the kind of epochal contest the country saw in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt used his Osawotomie speech to launch the Bull Moose Party.  The three way contest between Taft, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt was the first election in which the dominant ideas of the 20th century were on display; we seem to be headed for something more modest this time.

The country needs a livelier and richer debate; over the next few days and weeks at Via Meadia we will do our part by trying to work through some of the ways in which Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian thought offer avenues for renewal and reform here in the twilight of Big Blue.