Friday, January 22, 2010

The thing about easy confidence is that, well, it's easy

I swear I don't just react to Matthew Yglesias for my blog ideas, but this sat poorly with me:
...the point is that it would be really bizarre for the United States to enter a sustained period of decline. It’s not just that “people have said this before and it didn’t happen” it’s that nothing like that has ever happened. To think about it another way, it’s true that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, but in 1946 Germany’s entire infrastructure had been pulverized by explosives and a huge proportion of its surviving machinery literally picked up and relocated to the Soviet Union. But they just built new stuff. And dysfunctional though our politics may be, they built new stuff and saw rising living standards even in East Germany and I’m fairly confident we can maintain a “better than the GDR” standard of governance.
Now, we know that Matthew Yglesias travelled to Russia in the late 1990s. The question I have is, did he open his eyes much while he was there?

By 1999, the Russian economy had contracted by almost 50% in two years, territory under Moscow's control was 25% less than it had been a decade earlier, and the state was struggling to maintain even basic powers of taxation, with renewed secession movements all over the place. And what's really shocking is how little of that was predictable even a decade before those changes began. Even the mid-1980s saw few serious observers thinking that the USSR would collapse. As an instructor of mine (who had worked in one of Canada's intelligence services) once said: "People ask me how we were all surprised by the collapse of the USSR. Well, it surprised the fuck out of them, so I'm not sure I was supposed to see it coming!"

The point is that a spell of bad governance can, in fact, unravel a state in an incredibly short time. And people living through it will tell you, if you're willing to listen, how surprised they were at how quickly it happened.[1]

Now, there's the rejoinder that Russia has since enjoyed some decent growth and a return of relative stability, so maybe Yglesias is right -- though even without total state dissolution, I think post-Soviet Russia could be seen as a collapse scenario.

But Russia, and Yglesias' example of Germany, both recovered in the context of a global economic system that was growing, and where it was possible for a country to export its way to growth. The collapse of the US, if it comes, will necessarily come together with the collapse of the American-led global system. And any hypothetical US collapse would almost certainly be in the context of a global economy that was shrinking, or a system that had become unimaginably violent. To put it another way: Germany was rescued by the Marshall Plan [2] and Russia was rescued by rising oil and gas prices (c/o China). If the wheels come off the American economy, who would have both the resources and the inclination to rescue the US?


Ah, that's what I thought.

Last and least, I take issue with the argument that there's a bright line dividing modern and pre-modern economies when it comes to how quickly they can come apart. Humans are humans, and still need food, shelter, security, and all it really takes is for more and more people to be unable to secure those things through usual channels before they start to try to secure them other ways. Or, more succinctly: in 100 years, The Wire will be watched as a literary example of state failure.

[1] I don't know about you, but I would argue strongly that America has since the end of the Cold War had more years of bad governance than good.

[2] This is kind of what irks me the most about Yglesias' post -- if you read Marshall's speech announcing the plan for reconstruction, it's clear that the German economy didn't simply recover after the war -- it was in the process of falling further apart after the war ended, only to be reassembled by the Allies. Ditto for many other European countries. To say that "rich countries never collapse, even in the case of ruinous war" is to basically argue that the Marshall Plan was redundant or unnecessary. I don't think Yglesias believes that, but this is what you get when you make pronouncements without thinking them through.

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