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Posted by on Aug 18, 2013 in Critical Thinking, skepticism | 4 comments

Salon hysterically predicts US collapse by 2025

“New media” outlets like Salon.com bill themselves as hip, modern, and high-tempo versions of “old media” ala CNN and NYT. But they’re often little more than digital tabloids with fluff pieces, an abundance of sex articles, and a conspicuous, lazy liberal bias.

Consider the fanciful How America will collapse (by 2025) by Alfred McCoy. I find the article alarmist and lacking in perspective.

Salon artist's depiction of US circa 2025, probably.

Salon artist’s depiction of US circa 2025, probably.

I am no economist, but McCoy seems to be playing fast and loose with the facts. For example, when making a point that the US has failed to seek alternate energy sources as, is being done elsewhere, McCoy tosses out a statistic to show that our dependence (net imports) on foreign oil have doubled over the last decades.

The United States has taken a different path, doing far too little to develop alternative sources while, in the last three decades, doubling its dependence on foreign oil imports.

Well let’s pull up that data he links to, the net oil imports. Here are the numbers in thousands of barrels per day (May is the last month in 2013 for which there is data).

1983, May: 4241
2013, May: 6585

That’s a 55% increase, not a 100% increase as he said. You can find a 100% increase, if you cherry pick months; so just to be thorough, the average bpd for 1983 was 4303. The average for 2013’s first five months is 6590. More importantly, look at the trend on the graph over the last 7 years. Net imports of oil in the US are crashing, from over 13,000 barrels a day in late 2005 to 6-7,000 range in 2013. Granted, this is because the US has had a major increase in domestic oil production in that time period. Nonetheless, painting a picture of ever-increasing US dependence on foreign oil is misleading and false.

McCoy also gives short-shrift to American investment and innovation in renewables. He is correct, we have not been as quick to adopt or invest as we ought to have, but nonetheless fails to mention that 20% of California power comes from renewables. The federal government invested  $6.56 billion in renewables in 2010 alone (compared to $1.843 billion and $2.499 billion for fossil fuels and nuclear respectively). In 2011, renewable energy sources provided more power in the US than did its nuclear plants. The picture is far from bleak.

Progressive or parochial?
For a piece that seems written to delight in the mistakes of conservative hyper-militant America, it is surprisingly locked into an old, obsolete worldview. McCoy is all about empires, comparing the US to that of the Soviet Union and the old British empire. He envisions the future as decided by military dominance and economics as a proxy for military dominance, complete with the idea that there must be or will be one or a few super powers controlling the globe. He’s sort of right, but has got the century wrong. He substitutes territory for cyberspace, literal space, and for some reason, the oceans, but superimposes political assumptions from 60-200 years ago.

1. The US is not an empire. This bears saying because the author draws that comparison explicitly. Here is how empires, such as the Soviet Union, generally work: militarily or by threat of such invade and take over a country or region. Install puppet regime or de facto Soviet governor. Control laws, economic policies, et cetera directly and exact whatever tax or trade system benefits the empire. Execute or exile pesky dissidents and freedom fighters. Send in the tanks if anyone has ideas about self-determination and democracy.

While the US does abuse its military power to protect its (perceived) interests and it can be heavy-handed and selfish about economic foreign policy, there is no land which fits the above description within the US lands and territories. Iraq holds its own elections, mostly which do not go according to what Washington would prefer. Cold War vestiges such as the military bases in Germany remain there purely at the pleasure of the host government (and greatly to their benefit).

2. China is not a threat to the US, for many reasons. Earlier this year North Korea seemed on the brink of declaring war on the US, South Korea and probably Santa Claus, why not. Only about a generation ago, Chinese and American military forces fought during the Korean War, a proxy conflict over the competing ideologies of communism and capitalism. Only China’s interference prevent the US-backed forces from overwhelming the North Korean regime. But in 2013, everything has changed. China is less communistic, and the US is quite a bit less capitalistic. More importantly, we’ve become economically intertwined. We depend on each other. So when North Korea started to go off the rails this year, Beijing responded with a proverbial “Kim, you settle down or I’ll put you in time out”.  China won’t point space lasers or cyber-attacks at America- we’re their best customers, integral to their economic livelihood.

Lost in all the talk about China’s stunning economic rise are all of the major problems that are increasing just as quickly: pollution and ecological devastation which are destroying natural resources, causing skyrocketing healthcare costs,  and serving to dissuade top talent from relocating to China’s metropolitan centers. CNN called China’s environment “An economic death sentence”. Then there’s China’s lack of innovative prowess. The bullet trains are impressive until you realize that they’re imported technologies from Canada, Germany, and Japan. The truth is that competitive innovation does not prosper without academic and political freedom, which is lacking in China so far.

3. The rise of other nations is not the demise of the US. In fact, it’s the best thing that Americans could possibly hope for. It may be the end of some sorts of global domination for the US, but so what if it is? Federalism and democracy meant the end of the total power of a single monarch or autocrat. The result? Everything got better for almost everyone. Instead of McCoy’s vision of a brutal struggle for military and economic dominance, maybe what we’re seeing is the emergence of a global community of relative peers who, thanks to their intrinsic economic connectedness, find it more profitable to trade fairly rather than invade and fight endless wars.

This has already happened in western Europe. Today, the idea of Spain marching into Portugal or France into Belgium is an absurdity. Economic development has not been stalled by the modern ethic of cooperation trumping outdated notions of total dominance. Germany has the #4 GDP in the world, while spending almost nothing on national defense. The benefits of a community of peer nations are legion and stunning:

  • Magnitudes of order reduced need for military spending which can be re-channeled into economic stimulation, scientific research, education, healthcare, and space exploration.
  • More competition in every important area: commercial goods and services, scientific advancements, and progressive political and economic systems which leads to more good ideas, better new products and services, and faster pace of scientific innovation while costing everyone less.
  • For businesses, countries like China, India, or any country with a new middle class, is the creation of millions or billions of potential new customers to buy your product or service.
  • Major global problems can be handled more easily, and less selfishly by a community of peer nations than a single nation upon which solving a major crisis may be an enormous hardship. If Hitler part II emerges XYZlandia, it’s a whole lot easier for the combined power of the US, China, India, and the UK (for example) to deal with it. But this also applies to global health crises, strengthening Interpol, natural disasters, asteroid attacks, and any humanitarian crisis.

I am not polyannish about this. From here to there the road will be bumpy (at best). We will run out of oil. There will be economic hardship. The Americans in power that start to become aware of the acute loss of total dominance probably will act irrationally and try to lash out. The childish Americans, the ones who now vent their sexism and racism online in anonymous outrage that there is a black president and a woman aiming to be, they will support such lashing out. There seems real, just-beneath-the-skin terror among millions of Americans at the prospect of having to learn to play nice with others who are different. They’re going to make the transition much uglier than it needs to be.

But none of this signifies the end of the US as a great and formidable nation.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Sensationalism and shallowness, alive and well in the digital age.

  • ThePrussian

    Very good piece of work. I especially liked the bit about the weird Sinophobia, to coin a term, that seems to be used all over the place. China isn’t like Imperial Japan; it has no interest whatsoever in ruling the US.

    It’d be good to also deal with the problems of America’s off-the-charts debt though.

  • Sennacherib

    I don’t think America will collapse by 2025 but the world in general will get increasingly dismal in the coming decades:

    http://csis.org/publication/age-consequences

  • hannum7

    The author addressed very few of McCoy’s points, and even those he was unable to discredit substantially.