America’s Civilizational Paralysis

Here are two recent articles from Victor Davis Hanson:

America’s Civilizational Paralysis

The Greek city-states in the fourth-century BC, fifth-century AD Rome, and the Western European democracies after World War I all knew they could not continue as usual with their fiscal, social, political, and economic behavior. But all these states and societies feared far more the self-imposed sacrifices that might have saved them.

Mid-fifteenth-century Byzantium was facing endemic corruption, a radically declining birthrate and shrinking population, and the end of civic militarism—all the last-gasp symptoms of an irreversible decline. Its affluent ruling and religious orders and expansive government services could no longer be supported by disappearing agrarians and the overtaxed mercantile middle class. Returning to the values of the Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century empire that had once ensured a vibrant Byzantine culture of stability and prosperity throughout the old Roman east remained a nostalgic daydream. Given the hardship and sacrifice that would have been required to change the late Byzantine mindset, most residents of Constantinople plodded on to their rendezvous with oblivion in 1453.

We seem to be reaching that point of stasis in postmodern America. Once simple and logical solutions to our fiscal and social problems are now seen as too radical even to discuss. Consider the $20-trillion national debt. Most Americans accept that current annual $500 billion budget deficits are not sustainable—but they also see them as less extreme than the recently more normal $1 trillion in annual red ink. Americans also accept that the Obama administration doubled the national debt on the expectation of permanent near-zero interest rates, which cannot continue. When interest rates return to more normal historical levels of 4-5% per annum, the costs of servicing the debt—along with unsustainable Social Security and Medicare entitlement costs—will begin to undermine the entire budget.

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Medieval America

Pessimists often compare today’s troubled America to a tottering late Rome or an insolvent and descending British Empire. But medieval Europe (roughly A.D. 500 to 1450) is the more apt comparison.

The medieval world was a nearly 1,000-year period of spectacular, if haphazard, human achievement — along with endemic insecurity, superstition and two, rather than three, classes.

The great medieval universities — at Bologna, Paris and Oxford — continued to make strides in science. They were not unlike the medical and engineering schools at Harvard and Stanford. But they were not centers of free thinking.

Instead, medieval speech codes were designed to ensure that no one questioned the authority of church doctrine. Culturally or politically incorrect literature of the classical past, from Aristophanes to Petronius, was censored as either subversive or hurtful.

Career-wise, it was suicidal for, say, a medieval professor of science at the University of Padua to doubt the orthodoxy that the sun revolved around the earth.

Similarly, at Berkeley or Princeton, few now dare to commit the heresy of expressing uncertainty about whether man-caused global warming poses an immediate, existential threat to human civilization.

Today, a fifth of American households have zero or negative net worth. The shrinking middle classes struggle to service trillions of dollars in consumer and student debt to big banks — in the manner of medieval peasants.

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