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by: Robert Cruickshank

Sat Aug 07, 2010 at 10:00:00 AM PDT

Yesterday's New York Times article on local government cutbacks produced a good response from Glenn Greenwald, who called it an example of imperial collapse:

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability?

Greenwald cites examples of Utah considering the elimination of 12th grade and the Wall Street Journal article about Midwestern states ripping up paved roads to save money as further evidence of the broad collapse now engulfing the United States.

We see this here in California as well. Our schools are facing collapse, with mass layoffs, shortened school years, and even closed schools. Cities like Salinas are laying off half their gang task force amidst a worsening gang war, and San Carlos voted to disband its police force due to budget cuts.

This is depressingly familiar to us historians, repeating the same cycle of collapse as experienced by the Roman and Byzantine Empires, numerous Chinese dynasties, and even the Soviet Union. The causes are always the same: money that used to go to fund physical and social infrastructure to spur innovation and prosperity are instead rechanneled to benefit a small elite and grow their wealth and power, at the expense of the viability of the society itself.

Here in California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican legislators have promoted this agenda of collapse. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are pledging to accelerate the decline - Fiorina vows to make the population sicker and poorer by repealing the new health care law and Whitman plans capital gains tax cuts to channel more wealth to her CEO friends at the expense of schools and libraries across the state.

It's a bizarre pathology when those who benefited from the investments of the mid-20th century then turn around and seek to destroy that very same system. But it flows from the dominant economic policy principle of the day, which is that wealth should be extracted from value created in the past, instead of producing new wealth by creating value for the future.

Our state and national economic policy is one of piracy, where neoliberal government basically uses the wealthy elite as privateers to plunder the wealth of households and public institutions for their own self-interested gain.

And as authors such as Jared Diamond have argued, our society faces the threat of ecological collapse as well. This is linked to the wealth capture problem in many ways - oil companies trying to undermine action on climate change by funding the repeal of our global warming law, or by wealthy developers seeking to destroy our water system by proposing huge water bonds so that they can keep writing checks Mother Nature can't cash.

Ultimately the combination of the aggressive destruction of environment and climate, along with the policies of channeling wealth to the elite at the expense of maintaining our society, will produce a severe crisis in the coming years. Maybe even an outright collapse.

We can stop it by supporting progressive solutions to take our money back and invest in our public institutions, in our future, and in ourselves. But it's going to require us to reject the right-wing policies that have brought us to this point, and the right-wing politicians that are bent on destroying what was once a Golden State.

Robert Cruickshank :: Collapse
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Where on Earth did you go to school? (0.00 / 0)
I know they don't teach this kind of stuff in school in California any more. But they did in the days of yore when I was in school. And you're right. I've maintained for decades that we're following the classic pattern of imperial decline. I noticed it when gated communities started to proliferate in L.A. when I lived there. When statistics showed that the generations following mine would be the first where many would have less education and a worse financial future than their parents.

The historians Will and Arial Durant posited that human civilizations follow cycles like this. Vast wealth and power becomes increasingly concentrated. Finally, intelligent people with no future rise up against their corrupt masters and eventually establish themselves in their place. Indeed, history is littered with examples of it. The Russian Revolution is one that springs to mind immediately. But, if you look for them, there are also examples of other less traumatic evolutions. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland seem to have found ways to break the cycle.

The main impediment to achieving that here has always seemed the "vast sums of money" poured into lobbying by "the military-industrial complex"..."washing over the gunwales of the ship of state, and threatening to sink our democracy." to quote President Eisenhower.

I think Lawrence Lessig has it right. Unless we get corporate money out of our government, we will continue to see increasing economic inequality because of the concentration of political power in the economic elite. According to George Lakoff, this will show up in more gated communities, more private police, more private schools, and an increased withdrawal of the elite from the failing public services sphere. That will be left to whither and die, pretty much as you describe.

I expect them to continue their stranglehold on the media to enable them to try to sell this shabby strategy to those suffering under it.  

Heh (0.00 / 0)
I'm a product of the California public schools, from my first day of kindergarten in Orange County in 1984 to the day I graduated UC Berkeley in 2000. And a public university in Washington State, UW, honed my skills of historical analysis.

All of those institutions are now under attack by those who believe we should spend our money propping up the rich instead of educating our society and innovating for the 21st century.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
yeah (0.00 / 0)
The rich don't need any propping up, Maybe taking down a peg or two, But no propping up.

[ Parent ]
Great article, Robert (0.00 / 0)
I always enjoy reading your work.


Whitman's way worse than Schwarzenegger (0.00 / 0)
I have many gripes with Schwarzenegger, as we all do, but he's way better than Whitman. First, it probably helped that he didn't have to go through a closed Republican Primary to become governor, which Meg now has. But let's look at the substance. Whitman wants to suspend AB 32, while Arnold has been, for the most part, supportive of AB 32. Arnold supported high speed rail, Meg doesn't. Arnold never signed a no-new-taxes pledge; Meg has. Arnold, unfortunately, did break records with veto ratios, but Meg insists that he didn't use the veto, to quash good ideas and improvements in public policy, nearly enough. Meg wants to reduce the # of state employees, from what Arnold has maintained, by 40,000. Arnold cared enough about California, before becoming Governor, to work on a voter initiative; Meg didn't care enough to vote. Meg, driven by ego, probably just wants to be president; Arnold knew the Constitution would not let him become President, so that wasn't an issue for him. Arnold opposed Prop 8, Whitman supported Prop 8. All in all, Whitman is far worse than Arnold. I think having to go through a closed Republican Primary has at least a little to do with that. But whatever the reason, she's way worse and I hope she goes the way of Prop 16.

error (0.00 / 0)
oops. That comment was meant for a different thread.

[ Parent ]
Agreed (0.00 / 0)
Arnold has made some bad decisions, but I think he actually does care about California.

I shudder to think why Meg thinks that her $100 million is well spent running for governor. The best case scenario is that she is completely incompetent at money management. (Heck, if she wants to be President, her $100M would go a long way in that race. Why wreck your career on the shoals of California?)

Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

[ Parent ]
Is it too late? (0.00 / 0)
Are we going to turn this around or is it too late?  Does my son need to take his family to China to earn a living wage?  He is about to do that and this Grandmother is sad.

Depends (0.00 / 0)
Unless these trends are stopped and more progressive policies adopted, then yes, it will be smarter for people of my generation (I'm 30) to look elsewhere to make a living.

But these trends can indeed be stopped. It's fairly simple from a policy perspective - we need very high tax rates on the rich in order to fund economic policies designed to invest in our society and in ourselves. And we need to be arguing for these things as often as we possibly can, generating public demand for it.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Let's start by examining those with wealth that refuse to pay their fair share (0.00 / 0)
The public would benefit from some examples of tax avoidance such as the Gallo family, the McCourts and their ilk.  Righteous outrage will certainly grease the skids in demanding tax equity, but so long as we are prevented from hearing about wealth protection and tax avoidance - and how regular working stiffs end up carrying the load for the have-mores, it's  hard to get the attention of the public.
My experience has been that most people mistakenly believe that undocumented workers have caused this problem, and if we can make them go somewhere else, everything will be fine.  Trying to counter that misbelief is to roll the rock up hill again and again.
Now if the have-mores would just move to wherever they've offshored their wealth, the rest of us could probably do just fine, but they insist on coasting and allowing the rest of us to pay for their roads, access to our courts, hospitals, universities, resources and the like.

[ Parent ]
It's not just channeling wealth to the elite... (0.00 / 0)
...but also channeling wealth to the military.  Reading Glenn Greenwald's quote above, it appears that he was hinting at this, but there is an excellent piece by Tom Engelhardt of Tom's Dispatch called "Are We Going Down Like the Soviets?" (available here on AlterNet) that brilliantly compares our current out of control military expenditures to that of the Soviets prior to their collapse.  He makes a chilling statement when he refers to Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empires."

While channeling wealth to a few elite is by no means a small matter, I suspect that it is a combination of channeling wealth to that small elite as well as the continuous blank checks we give to the military, that is leading California, and the country, to ruin.

Even Defense Secretary Gates (0.00 / 0)
Even Defense Secretary Gates wants to get rid of the waste and fat in the Military budget, Like commands that command No troops or what not, But yet employ a few thousand employees(Paper pushers). He said He could save the US Billions of dollars, What He saves should be used on non military programs instead of ever more Newer Military hardware, What We have now should be good for a while, If We have to spend money on replacing damaged or destroyed hardware with hardware of a current design I'm Ok with that, But We should not spend money on newer hardware that does not fulfill a valid military mission or that is stealth(no one else does stealth, As It costs a heck of a lot). I mean do We need more Stealth aircraft or the Joint strike fighter or a few more expensive Aircraft Carriers? If We do then Why not build a modern version of the Montana Class Battleships as a combo AA and Shore bombardment platform which can also shell other ships? Cause they'd be very expensive sitting ducks(Big fat targets just like Aircraft Carriers are, Only Bristling with weapons, radar and sonar equipment), Nuclear powered or not.

[ Parent ]
Collapse | 12 comments
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