Friday, May 27, 2011

America's Catabolic Collapse

As we see America crumbling before our very eyes, it reinforces my belief in John Michael Greer's descriptions of catabolic collapse. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, he has written about it here, here, and the original description for the more technically minded is here. Basically it states that instead of a sudden, rapid collapse, empires enter a period of stepping-down to lower levels of living standards. From fire stations closing down to roads being depaved back into gravel, it is very clear that America is literally falling apart, as all of our productive wealth goes to the top 10 percent of private income, with nothing left for the rest of us and little or nothing being contributed to government (tax receipts are at their lowest level since the 1950's). If a city or state attempt to tax a corporation, they just move out of state (or just set up a mailbox in one). If a national government attempts to levy taxes, corporations just move to another country, or hide their profits offshore. What is the end result? A collapsing nation.

The editorial below appeared in the Kansas City Star and was written in response to Republicans threatening to forego needed assistance to tornado-devastated Joplin Missouri unless other spending cuts acceptable to them are made. And what's an acceptable cut? Why, programs to develop fuel-efficient cars, of course:

... it hardly requires an expert to behold the devastation in Joplin and see that, while charitable resources are essential, private donors will not be able to fund all that is needed. Joplin needs new school buildings, a new power grid, massive work on its hospital. And that's only the beginning.

This brings us to a rather shameful debate now taking place in, of course, Congress.

To its credit, a key House panel has approved an additional $1 billion in federal relief money to respond to a spring of natural disasters. But as soon as cries for help were heard, lawmakers pounced on the chance to make partisan points.

House Republicans are starting to demand that disaster relief funds be balanced with cuts in other areas of federal spending, essentially using human tragedy to advance their political agenda. One suggestion is that we should cut a program encouraging the production of more fuel efficient cars, a program brought about by economic and long-term national security concerns.

Here's the big picture: If the United States is to the point at which helping disaster victims means cutting other needed programs, it's time to rethink the way we're running this country. Today, Americans have the lightest total tax burden they've had since 1958. One result of that low tax burden, and the resulting inadequate federal and state revenue, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency faces a $3 billion shortfall. And that's before the Joplin bills arrive.

Overly optimistic projections during good times brought us to this point. Pandering politicians agreed to tax cuts that this country could not afford. But that's the past. Going forward, we must be able to agree it is un-American to scramble and bicker over priorities every time nature strikes.
Yes, it looks like America won't be able to rebuild the storm-damaged south, just like we haven't been able to rebuild New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, or the hole in the ground left from September 11th after a decade (I guess something is finally getting started there). It is clear that, domestically at least, the nation is literally on its last legs. Here in the rust belt, our silent factories have several decades of being reclaimed by nature under their belt. Buildings that once provided durable goods to the world and gave Americans the world highest living standards lay crumbling. We in the Midwest see these buildings every day; we walk and drive by them constantly, and they are constant reminders of how times have changed. This trend is now going nationwide, as The New York Times reports:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.
Does that sound like "The richest nation on earth" to you, because it doesn't to me. Cities and states are broke from sea to shining sea. Salon commentator Glenn Greenwald, who quoted the above article, went on to say:

UPDATE: It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

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? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.
Glenn Greenwald: What a Collapsing Empire Looks Like.

It's worth quoting that Wall Street Journal article in more detail, since it's so indicative of catabolic collapse:
SPIRITWOOD, N.D.—A hulking yellow machine inched along Old Highway 10 here recently in a summer scene that seemed as normal as the nearby corn swaying in the breeze. But instead of laying a blanket of steaming blacktop, the machine was grinding the asphalt road into bits.

"When [counties] had lots of money, they paved a lot of the roads and tried to make life easier for the people who lived out here," said Stutsman County Highway Superintendant Mike Zimmerman, sifting the dusty black rubble through his fingers. "Now, it's catching up to them."

Outside this speck of a town, pop. 78, a 10-mile stretch of road had deteriorated to the point that residents reported seeing ducks floating in potholes, Mr. Zimmerman said. As the road wore out, the cost of repaving became too great. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on an RM300 Caterpillar rotary mixer to grind the road up, making it look more like the old homesteader trail it once was.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as "poor man's pavement." Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

"I'd rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill," said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman's Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood.

And speaking of Camden, New Jersey, The Nation magazine ran an amazing story documenting the decay of this industrial city. Surely Camden is simply an advanced look into the future of most of America:

Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped, along with the physical refuse of postindustrial America. A sprawling sewage treatment plant on forty acres of riverfront land processes 58 million gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant that releases noxious clouds, a prison, a massive cement plant and mountains of scrap metal feeding into a giant shredder. The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts.
Camden, like America, was once an industrial giant. It employed some 36,000 workers in its shipyards during World War II and built some of the nation's largest warships. It was the home to major industries, from RCA Victor to the New York Ship Building Corporation and Campbell's Soup, which still has its international headquarters in a gated section of Camden but no longer makes soup in the city. Camden was a destination for Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants, who in the middle of the last century could find decent-paying jobs that required little English or education. The city's population has fallen by more than 40 percent from its 1950 level of 120,000. There are no movie theaters or hotels. There are lots with used cars but no dealerships that sell new vehicles. The one supermarket is located on the city's outskirts, away from the endemic street crime.
There are perhaps a hundred open-air drug markets, most run by gangs like the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos and MS-13. Knots of young men in black leather jackets and baggy sweatshirts sell weed and crack to clients, many of whom drive in from the suburbs. The drug trade is one of the city's few thriving businesses. A weapon, police say, is never more than a few feet away, usually stashed behind a trash can, in the grass or on a porch. Camden is awash in guns, easily purchased across the river in Pennsylvania, where gun laws are lax.

Camden is the poster child of postindustrial decay. It stands as a warning of what huge pockets of the United States could turn into as we cement into place a permanent underclass of the unemployed, slash state and federal services in a desperate bid to cut massive deficits, watch cities and states go bankrupt and struggle to adjust to a stark neofeudalism in which the working and middle classes are decimated.
It's not just Camden. According to the Washington Post, we've neglected our infrastructure - the most fundamental thing any society needs to function-so badly that it will take 2 trillion dollars just to make the existing infrastructure whole again, not to mention updating it to the twenty-first century standards of the rest of the world:
The United States is falling dramatically behind much of the world in rebuilding and expanding an overloaded and deteriorating transportation network it needs to remain competitive in the global marketplace, according to a new study by the Urban Land Institute.

Burdened with soaring deficits and with long-term transportation plans stalled in Congress, the United States has fallen behind three emerging economic competitors — Brazil, China and India, the institute said.

The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature. Eventually, the report says, the federal gas tax will be increased; local governments will be allowed to toll interstate highways; water bills will rise to pay for pipe and sewer replacement; property and sales taxes will increase; and private, profit-seeking companies will play a much larger role in funding and maintaining public projects.

“Over the next five to 10 years, public concerns will grow over evident declines in the condition of infrastructure,” the report says. “At some attention-getting point after infrastructure limps along, platforms for reinvesting in America could gain significant traction and public support.”

The report is the latest in a series of studies to conclude that the nation will face dire long-term consequences if major investment in transportation revitalization is postponed.
Study: 2 Trillion Needed for U.S. Infrastructure.

But what does the Urban Land Institute know, anyway? They're probably just a bunch of big-city liberals who like big government. Don't they know spending is bad, and private wealth makes America?

It's amazing that the United States theoretically won the Cold War, yet it's cities look worse that the decaying Magnetogorsks and Traktorgrads of the former Soviet Union, and many of it's people live in desperate poverty. Detroit has been the poster child for this for decades. The very epicenter of the assembly line and the place where moden industrial mass-production was created is a modern-day Roman ruin, complete with goats grazing in the shadow of the Forum:

The reality of Detroit is nearly common knowledge by now. The number of residents has been steadily decreasing since 1950, when at its apex the population was nearly 2 million. Right now, about a third of the city lays vacant. Detroit Free Press writer Stephen Henderson points out that "property tax revenues have fallen $10 million since 2003. Income tax receipts are down $13 million". The Motor City now suffers the highest unemployment rate in the nation, with over 25% of residents out of work. The loss of tax revenue means less money for schools, police and fire protection, and all other municipal services that sustain a city and make it inhabitable.
In response, Detroit has recently begun implementing "planned contraction" initiatives, demolishing houses in the most decimated sections of the city and turning them into agricultural land while relocating the remaining residents. The plan is an effort to co-locate residents and services to make the most efficient use of the city space for the remaining population. Orchards and farms would ostensibly replace urban blight, adding stretches of green landscape between the city core and the suburbs.
Downsizing Detroit: How They Found the Money to Shrink, and What We Can Learn

If you're still not convinced by all of the above that we're a nation undergoing catabolic collapse, please have a look at the following: slide show

In Pictures: Detroit's Abandoned Buildings (via BBC)

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