Why This Time is Different

Although this time indeed is different, it would be foolish to believe that the outcome will be different … wouldn’t it?” – The Lonely Realist

Any number of Americans know believe that the U.S. is a 21st Century Titanic, fated to sink beneath icy waters. Assuming they are correct, no one has yet described what the triggering mishap will be or the date on which the iceberg collision will occur. Americans therefore are hopeful. Despite clearly-perceived challenges danger, they hope that America somehow will navigate hazardous waters safely … and, in any event, are unwilling to accept the painful measures that would be necessary to avoid potentially disastrous consequences. Most who have been paying attention reluctantly accept that today’s doomsayers are right since they are speaking from knowledge, a quality otherwise in short supply. Nevertheless, they also are praying for Heavenly relief. Today’s tribalist Americans use differing rationales to explain America’s decline the risks America is facing – lamenting the high levels of partisanship and voicing economic or ecological or financial or geopolitical reasons for the current rot. Some also ask why they should believe “the elites.” Moreover, there are many who argue that the doomsayers’ interpretations of history must be flawed, that history doesn’t necessarily repeat, that this time, although America is facing daunting challenges, the outcome somehow will be different. Others believe that America’s doom lies in an indefinite future and that there will be remedies that future generations will adopt. Since this time really is different, is the outcome necessarily fated to be the same?

The differences abound. They add levels of complexity that obscure their individual significance while, at the same time, multiplying snowballing the risks. Never before in human history have there been so many simultaneous and interrelated changes upheavals in human health, lifestyles, social interactions, trade, international relations, etc. … or to global ecology as well as to technological, agricultural, industrial and economic development. Change continues to accelerate at a revolutionary rate. Doomsayers predict that the actions of individuals, tribes and governments in response portend unavoidable disaster. Will any or all of today’s budding calamities progress into full-throated crises? Are doomsayers’ concerns real or hyped?

COVID provides an excellent example of pyramiding upheavals. There haven’t been many pandemics in human history. COVID was is the first of the modern medical era. Its effects have been, and continue to be, profound. They’ve resulted in death and chaos alterations in lifestyles, work habits and population concentrations …, and in politics and geopolitics, industry, medicine, technology, etc. COVID reorganized global supply chains, being instrumental in replacing globalization with onshoring, an unforeseen consequence that is accelerating the disintegration of global connections and relationships. Tariffs and trade barriers thought to be vestiges of backward eras now are accepted as prudent economic and geopolitical necessities. They have combined to create increasing international tensions that echo the 1930s. COVID added to years of foreign policy blunders great power complacency that propelled Europe into a hot war … a war between nuclear-armed adversaries.

War also has broken out in the Middle East, the Iranian problem has remained unresolved for almost 50 years, the drumbeats of war threaten China and Taiwan, civil wars multiply in Africa, and a nuclear-proliferating, ICBM-armed North Korea has become an increasing threat to global security. The underlying question is what will be the outcome of the contest for global supremacy between America and China? In an era as complex and as fraught as today’s, there are no historical precedents mirroring the evolutionary development of, yet alone providing a resolution for, the U.S.-China Thucydides Trap. How will Chairman Xi China realize its global ambitions in the face of America’s declining hegemonic power? And how will America and its remaining allies respond?

Throughout the COVID pandemic and for each year thereafter, the U.S. borrowed heavily, adding to an already massive national debt and deficits. Yet, today, even fiscal conservatives have given up trying to balance America’s budget. Republicans want to reduce – not eliminate – the deficit by cutting entitlement spending and Democrats want to address deficits – in part – by increasing taxes. The inability to compromise means that both parties argue over minutiae …, an ongoing, unmitigated failure. In the words of noted economist Herb Stein, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Continued trillion dollar deficits cannot continue forever.

What of artificial intelligence? And of declining American educational standards? And of the fact that guns in America outnumber people? And of income inequality the drives domestic conflict and incentivizes workers and unions to demand inflationary wage hikes? How will the 21st Century’s energy transition affect each? And what about the potentially catastrophic intrusions of climate change?

Today’s doomsayers are almost uniformly of an older generation. Does that make today’s crochety Baby Boomers modern-day Cassandras … or wise elders? Are they regretting the excesses of their era and over-weighting challenges to forecast imaginary death spirals? They experienced humanity’s Golden Age of peace, prosperity and progress. Today they are lamenting the hangover. The fact is that the human condition has suffered through similar periods over the last three millennia. History therefore most certainly is rhyming. Is there sufficient reason to conclude that it will repeat? What is patently true is that this time truly is unique …, and so are the challenges. 

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Finally (from a good friend)

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