Versus the Long Term

Ramesseum, the mortuary temple for Ramses the Great

I am sitting down this morning with a cup of coffee looking out on a rainy day.  It’s true summer and it is still raining, which is beginning to piss me off just a little.  But it will be summer again soon and my little-bitty garden likes the moisture.

Today is a lesson in perceptions and consequences.  It is also a primer of why, unless some remarkably cruel policies are put in place soon, we will fail in staying a first world power and will go the way of Greece.  There isn’t any moralizing here.  What a democracy spends its money on is its own damn business.  The taxpayer who whines about government largess usually just whines about government largess that he doesn’t receive.

Neither is this going to be a defense of the idea that the sad set of rituals and symbols that pass for the American Dream are worthy of any spirited defense.   This quote from a recent posting on The Automatic Earth says quite a bit about the current state of affairs.

Some of us chase dreams of wealth, while others simply dream of happiness. But we – almost – all have cars and TV sets and computers and many other possessions that are so ubiquitous in our societies that we don’t even ask anymore why we have them, or what we would do without. We unquestioningly assume they contribute to what we perceive as happiness.

Nope, this is merely a discussion of what I see as the most likely future.  It isn’t a polemic about how, should we choose, we could change the trajectory of a failing country.  It is a simple set of observations about how the change will come to us unbidden and out of our control.

Consider for a moment, this little gem:

United States Population Pyramid for 2010
Age and sex distribution for the year 2010:
Thanks to http://www.nationmaster.com

We have a 300-odd million total population.  Take 80 million off the top as being under 19yo and not really in the work force.  The 19-24 group is sitting on a 20% unemployment rate.  The main body of the employables is at the 24 to 60 range which gives us around 150 million folks in the truly productive workforce.  Sixty-three million folks are above sixty.

Doing a little unauthorized math here, and considering a 63% labor participation rate, for the main body of the labor force (24-60) I am figuring that only 94 million folks are out there working in a serious way (please, don’t bring me to task with some lame anecdote about how some person is really still fabulously productive while celebrating his 99th birthday, I am unconcerned with statistical outliers which make you feel better about getting old).

OK, so the real magic number is ninety-four million supporting two-hundred and fourteen million, or one productive worker supporting 2.27 non-productives human who has a set of desires similar to those who are working along with a fully formed set of rights to vote and petition government.

Now let us look at the levels below the >60 crowd on the histogram.  It is here that I am going to concentrate my arguments.  If there is an age group where long-term thinking is possible that is the age cohort of 25-50.  Simply put, this group has sufficient time remaining in their productive years to plan and execute difficult tasks with a project horizon greater than ten years.  The folks below this age group aren’t truly fully formed yet (but they are pretty damn close).  The folks above them are scrambling like maniacs on the supremely difficult task of getting ready for old age, a task which is becoming increasingly dicey.

There are right around 100 million folks in the 25 to 50 age group.  I am going to arbitrarily assign them a higher workforce participation (70%) than the average and make them a group of around 70 million souls in full productive mode, or twenty-two percent of the population.   It is my belief that this is not an adequate number to support a population the size of the US.  This doesn’t even take into account the number of folks who aren’t working full time or who are not really productive but who are pulling down a salary anyway (probably a distressingly large number).

These seventy million souls would, if allowed the access to resources, could theoretically put together a long-term project that could allow the successful transition to a lower-energy society.  The project would necessarily be quite expensive and have a high possibility of failure, but it could be done, allowing access to the necessary resources and allowing for a “what’s in it for me” to the persons executing the project.

But right now our resource base is steadily dwindling.  Our country’s wealth is questionable and we may potentially be technically insolvent at this point.  The limited resources will be allocated per democratic whim to the 78% of the population with no real desire to lose access to the resources that gives their lives comfort and continuity.  Not to mention the truly astounding amount of fraud that has sucked a major portion of the wealth of the country into the bottomless pit of the rentier class and out of the means of productivity.  I won’t even begin to discuss the truly amazing amount of debt that is hanging over our heads.

I don’t see a way out of the decline and fall of the Imperial United States in the next ten years.  I am hoping for a deus ex machina, but I think that I will be sorely disappointed.  The resources needed to execute a difficult long-term strategy are being sucked dry by an overlarge assembly of needy and low-productivity youngsters and oldsters with a set of manufactured needs incapable of being met.

Now, if I were a nicer person, I would probably have phrased the last statement differently.  It by no means is the “fault” of these folks.  But the cruel reality of economics is that one has to put in more than one takes out to make the equation balance.  We have too many people who by dint of age, ability, education, an intelligence cannot meet this goal.  There is a tendency to demonize these folks.  Parasite, welfare queen, greedy pensioner, shiftless, etc., etc., etc.  None of these appellations are valid, they just stem from the anger of folks who cannot access resources to attempt something to help the problem or who themselves want more than what they already have and aspire to the rentier class.

So the many will take away from the whole the means necessary to slow and control the transition to a low-energy future.  The few that will be sucked dry in the process and the collapsed system itself will serve as a rich compost for the next system to grow from.  DOn’t think for a moment that I see this as the preferred option, it just appears to be the most likely.

All these things have always been true.  They raised their heads in the time of Sargon and Augustus.  Louis Quatorze knew it in his soul and Queen Victoria laid her dainty head on a pillow of these simple truths.  The collapse of the American empire is not the end of the world or the end of America.  It will be what the next phase of America will grow from.  Things will not be worse.  They will be different.

The new America will not spring into being fully formed as did Minerva, but will be a series of missteps and contradictions.  Might be a theocracy in there.  Might have a touch of a military dictatorship.  Might have a new republic, the whole place may split into a set of warring states.  Hell, we may well even manage to keep hold of the current constitution and make adequate changes to allow it to survive.

But all of these futures will be from a smaller and more constrained set of economic ideas.  The idea that all can live as owners of richesse and comfort on an ever increasing scale will be finally put to rest.

Parthian Shot

A Different Path

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