Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How It Could Happen, Part Four: Crossing the Line

This week’s post is the fourth of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.  As the war ends, the price has to be paid—and paying it will push the already fractured United States toward a crisis few citizens could have imagined a short time before.

The church bells rang all night; perfect strangers embraced and kissed each other or fell on their knees and prayed together, depending on inclination; a baby boomlet nine months later revealed how many Americans celebrated the sudden discovery that life would go on.  Around the world, crews in missile silos, bomber bases and submarines sagged with relief as they got the order to stand down. In the US, the few police and National Guard units still barricading freeways and guarding government assets melted into the cheering crowds.  The threat of nuclear war was past. 

As a cold gray morning spread over Washington, though, Jameson Weed surveyed what was left of his presidency, and dropped his head into his hands.  A negotiation team would soon be its way to Geneva to meet its Chinese and Tanzanian opposite numbers and settle on a peace treaty. No matter how hard the spin doctors worked it, he knew, that treaty would mean a bitter defeat for America, and his solid grasp of the realities of American politics told him exactly who would be blamed for it.

The treaty, as it turned out, was surprisingly generous.  No one had to admit fault or pay reparations; the United States simply had to accept the status quo in East Africa and assign its rights over Diego Garcia—which was owned by Great Britain anyway—to the Peoples Republic of China. Since the United States had no effective way to contest either demand, there was clearly no point in quibbling. The treaty was signed at the beginning of October, and ratified by a glum Congress three days later.

Before that happened, though, two things pushed the country deeper into crisis.  The first was that one of the television networks broke the story of the naval disaster.  That was partly political—the network had close ties to the most likely presidential candidate from the other party—and partly the ordinary business of the news media, but it dealt a body blow to the nation’s morale.  The network found surviving crew members who had been evacuated to Europe before Mombasa fell, and brought in testimony from analysts who spent decades trying to warn the Navy of the obsolescence of carriers in an age of cruise missiles. The rest of the news media quickly joined the feeding frenzy. 

The second was more serious still.  As the world began to grapple with the fact that the United States was no longer the world’s strongest nation, investors began selling dollar-denominated investments. The selling began in the most risky kinds of speculative paper, but spread rapidly from there, sending the dollar down hard. Frantic attempts by central banks to stop the collapse crumpled in the face of a self-feeding panic, as investors all over the world and in America scrambled to get out of the dollar at any cost.  As the dollar plunged against foreign currencies, the price of gasoline shot upwards to $12 a gallon and kept climbing, and many other imported goods became unavailable at any price.

Then, a week before the signing of the treaty, one of the nation’s biggest investment banks went broke. Its traders had used inside knowledge of US policy to take huge positions in derivative markets that would pay off once regime change took place in Tanzania.  The possibility that the US might lose had never occurred to them, and the unhedged risk left them hopelessly in the red.  Bankers hurried to Washington, only to find that printing trillions of dollars for a bailout when the dollar was already in freefall was not an option. The following Friday, after markets closed, a grim-faced executive from Goldman Sachs announced that her firm was bankrupt and would go out of business.  Over the next six weeks, US stock market averages lost a third of their value, erasing tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth, and eight other major financial firms that had been considered too big to fail failed anyway.

Well before that process was over, though, the country had a new president.  Two days after the peace treaty was ratified, as planeloads of American POWs were leaving Nairobi Airport to begin their trip home, Jameson Weed stood behind the presidential podium one last time and resigned his office. His final speech was simple and dignified; he took full responsibility for the mistakes made during his presidency, expressed his total confidence in his vice president and successor, and asked God’s blessing for the nation. When he was finished with the speech, he went to his private quarters, took a revolver from a desk drawer, and shot himself through the head.

*  *  *
The new president, Leonard Gurney, was arguably not the best man for the difficult job into which he was so suddenly thrown.  A gifted communicator, skilled at finding and shaping the pulse of the public, might have done much, but Gurney had no such talents.  The scion of a wealthy family, brought onto the ticket to conciliate a powerful faction of his party, he had little grasp of practical politics and no sense of the plight into which the East African war and its aftermath had flung most Americans.  To him, the crucial issues were reestablishing the authority of the executive branch and funding a military buildup that would enable the United States to retake the lead from the Chinese and regain its former role of global dominance.

It was an agenda hopelessly out of touch with the times.  The wildly cheering crowds in Beijing were welcoming a new international order in which America was no longer the sole superpower, and might not be a superpower at all for much longer.  In the wake of the East African war, a growing number of erstwhile US allies told the US military units based on their territory to leave, and made overtures to the Chinese.  For that matter, between plunging tax revenues, the collapse in the dollar’s value, and the ongoing bear market in treasury bills, the US could no longer afford the bases it maintained around the world, and the carrier groups that had been the keystone of American power were as obsolete as Old Ironsides. Gurney and his advisers could not grasp this, and demanded money from a nearly bankrupt nation to fund the grandiose military projects they thought could rebuild America’s power.  Meanwhile China scrapped its one carrier and fielded a new navy of small, fast, expendable ships, a move copied promptly by such rising powers as India and Brazil.

Worse still, Gurney’s efforts came at a time when economic issues had taken center stage in the minds of most Americans. The collapse in the dollar and the drying up of imports gutted the economies of both coasts; while the farm belt enjoyed a modest boom and manufacturing firms that produced goods for the domestic market found themselves profitable again, these upticks did not begin to balance the impoverishment of tens of millions of Americans whose wealth depended in one way or another on the imploding financial sphere.  From retirees on fixed incomes to upper-crust families with hereditary wealth, those whose fortunes depended on paper assets found themselves plunged into poverty. 

There had been tent cities surrounding most American cities before the war, but their number and the number of people living in them soared as autumn turned to winter.  Stories about deaths from cold and malnutrition began to appear in the media.  Added to the failed war, the Trenton Massacre, and the utter disconnect between the new adminstration’s policies and the new realities of the postwar world, the ongoing implosion of the American economy pushed the nation into a crisis of legitimacy—a crisis that Gurney and his advisers apparently did not notice at all. Speech after presidential speech insisting that the solution to the economic crisis would come from defense jobs and a restoration of American power in the world bred resentment and, worse, contempt.

Lacking meaningful leadership from the White House, the pressure on Congress to do something, or at least to appear to do something, about the rapid increase in poverty became too great to ignore.  The gridlock between parties rewarded by their constituents for refusing compromise remained frozen in place, and though the speeches grew more shrill as the crisis deepened, few substantive steps could be acceptable to both sides. One party insisted on increased spending, the other party insisted on lower taxes, and the bear market in treasury bills made it increasingly clear that the old days of borrow-and-spend could not be revived without turning the dollar’s ongoing slump into a death spiral.  

It was out of desperation at that gridlock that the New American Prosperity Act was drafted by a bipartisan committee. It was thicker than the Los Angeles phone book and packed with giveaways to a galaxy of pet causes and special interests, but the core of the proposed act was an expansive new social welfare program, the costs of which would be borne almost entirely by the states.

Unfunded mandates—programs imposed on the states by the federal government, which provided no money to pay for them—had been a bone of contention for decades.  NAPA was arguably no more onerous for the states than earlier unfunded mandates, but it came when many states had suspended payment on their debts, and some were struggling even to pay salaries. State governments lobbied hard to keep NAPA off the books, to no avail; the act passed the House in January and the Senate in early March, and was signed into law by President Gurney a few days later.  The following week, the state legislature of Arkansas passed, with no dissenting votes, a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to pass an amendment that would outlaw all unfunded mandates.

*  *  *
The initial reaction of the Washington establishment and the national media to the Arkansas bill was hilarity.  The US constitution gave state legislatures the power to call a convention if two-thirds supported the proposal, and pass the resulting amendment if three-quarters of the states approved it, but that provision had never been used; it had been more than a century since it had even been tried.  Jokes about rewriting the constitution in Arkansas dialect made the rounds of the late night talk shows.

The next week, Montana and New Hampshire passed identical resolutions, and the laughing stopped. Pundits churned out essays explaining why tinkering with the constitution should be left to Congress if it had to be done at all. Canned polls insisted that most Americans opposed a convention. The state legislatures ignored them. They had their own ways of gauging the temper of the public, and what they heard was that people were eager to see the constitution amended. It wasn’t just unfunded mandates, either: somewhere in the course of the past year, most Americans had become convinced that the system under which they lived was broken, and needed much more than cosmetic change.

Four state legislatures called for a convention the following week, and five the week following. After that, the floodgates opened, as state governments realized that the chance to force major change really was in their hands.  Two weeks later, the magic number of 34 states was only a few more votes away.

At that point Congress panicked, repealed NAPA, and began to draft an amendment of its own that would limit, though not ban, unfunded mandates.  It was much too little and far too late.  The idea of a thorough revision of the constitution was everywhere; state politicians were advocating this or that reform; a few members of the House of Representatives, sensing which way the political wind was blowing, joined the agitation.  President Gurney denounced the proposed convention repeatedly in his weekly internet videos on the White House website, but few people were listening.

On April 24, Oregon became the 34th state to call for a constitutional convention; five more did so over the course of the next month, making any legal challenge moot.  The Washington establishment fought to have the new convention in Philadelphia, but lost; the delegates would meet in St. Louis, Missouri at the beginning of September. Congress exercised its right to decree that any new amendment would have to be ratified by conventions in at least three-quarters of the states, rather than by three-quarters of state legislatures, in the hope that this might stymie a power grab by state governments. It was a disastrous miscalculation, though no one would know that for months.

Rallies, speeches, and demonstrations framed the elections that, state by state, chose the 250 delegates charged with reinventing the constitution. More than two hundred books urging one or another reform to the constitution saw print during those frantic months. People at all points of the political spectrum placed extraordinary and incompatible hopes on the convention, extending to the wildest fantasies of left and right. Years afterward, rumors claimed that the national political parties had encouraged this explosion of extreme views, and helped extremists get elected as delegates, in the hope that this would cause the convention to deadlock. If this was true, it was an even more disastrous miscalculation.

*  *  *
The constitutional convention opened on September 5 in the full glare of the world media. At first, all went smoothly; an amendment banning unfunded mandates and several other abuses of federal power over the states was introduced, debated, and passed. The leaders of the moderate factions then moved to declare the convention over and go home.

The motion was heavily defeated.  Most of the delegates who had come to St. Louis, and most of their constituents at home, wanted more—much more.  The difficulty that surfaced, as the convention continued, was that what the people wanted varied so drastically that common ground was impossible to find. Red states wanted the right to own guns strengthened; blue states wanted it abolished.  Some Americans wanted to make the right to private decisions about abortion sacrosanct; others wanted an amendment guaranteeing the rights of the unborn. Nearly every fault line through American society gaped open in the debates.  New issues—hard limits on the power of presidents to wage war without consent of Congress, hard limits on the power of Congress to pass laws without consent of the states or the people, and many more—rose up to join existing divisions, and sparked fierce debates of their own.

It so happened that delegates to the convention were seated by state, in alphabetical order.  As a result, one of the delegates from Utah sat next to one of the delegates from Vermont. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, after a day of bruising debates, the Utah delegate slumped back in her chair and said wearily, “I’ve got an idea.  Why don’t we just dissolve the Union and let everyone have what they want.”

“I could live with that,” snapped the delegate from Vermont.

She considered him for a long moment.  “I’m starting to think a lot of people could.”

They worked out the details in the empty meeting room after a dinner of takeout Thai. Both were state representatives with law degrees, and every delegate had been issued a copy of the constitution with all its amendments, so it took only a short time to work out what would become the 28th Amendment:

Article I:  The Union of the States is hereby dissolved, and the several States shall be free to make other arrangements for their welfare.

Article II: All property of the former federal government in each State, at the time this amendment is ratified, shall become the property of that State.

Article III:  All property of the former federal government outside the territory of the States shall be divided by agreement among the several States.

The proposed amendment was presented by both delegates to the relevant committee the next morning. The response was stunned silence.  The amendment was found to be in proper form, and a hearing was scheduled for the next day. Long before that happened, everyone at the convention from the delegates to the kitchen staff at the convention center sensed that something immense had happened. A line had been crossed, and there might be no going back.

End of the World of the Week #45

Sudden ice ages, the theme of last week’s End of the World of the Week, got picked up and used for local color in a number of other apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most colorful was the prediction of cataclysmic earth changes retailed by psychic archeologist Jeffrey Goodman in his 1977 bestseller We Are The Earthquake Generation. Basing his prophecy on the future visions of seven popular psychics, Goodman painted a terrifying picture of cataclysmic earthquakes that would plunge the western half of North America beneath the sea, turn Kansas into a seacoast state, and tear huge rifts in the earth’s crust.  Meanwhile Europe would be plunged into an ice age as land rising from the Atlantic deeps cut off the Gulf Stream.

The New Age press fastened on Goodman’s prophecies with enthusiasm, and when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1982, there was no shortage of predictions that the rest of the Earthquake Generation scenario would follow shortly.  The twenty-year “season of catastrophes” Goodman predicted, though, somehow failed to show up.  Western Kansas was supposed to be beachfront property by 1992, and the whole world transformed by 2000; instead, the earth kept on producing distressingly ordinary earthquakes instead of the gargantuan (and physically impossible) ones Goodman expected.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Joseph Nemeth said...
One way or another, we eventually get to the breaking of the Union, don't we? We've always celebrated it because it is so fragile.

This strikes me as a very plausible scenario: a breakdown along existing state lines. After all, the governmental infrastructure is already there: legislatures, tax collection, an executive, state courts. The boundaries have been set long enough to be "traditional" -- there are already signs on the highways.

I've felt for years that we'd break into roughly a half-dozen pieces, along local-cultural lines. This is a very straightforward way to get there, since the states aren't going to remain separate for long. There will be disputes, "illegal immigration," treaties and alliances, local wars, conquest and annexation, mergers based on common interests....

The fifty-state boundaries will get smudged pretty quickly, I'd guess.

Dang. Another week to wait. :-)

10/24/12, 8:08 PM

CGP said...
Thank you once again for a fascinating post.

May you please explain the distinction between a constitutional amendment having to be ratified by conventions in at least three quarters of the states versus by three quarters of the state legislators? What does this mean and what are the pros and cons of each?

I can imagine many of the proposals that you outlined being raised at a constitutional convention. However, don't you think it is also realistic that delegates would propose public financing of elections and an end to corporate personhood? Further, don't you think that these two constitutional amendments would be a great boon to America?

To what degree do you think that the plutocracy can be blamed for the malaise that has beset America? Also to what degree do you think that reforms that curb their influence such as the abolishment of tax havens, proper financial regulations over derivatives, leverage and the like and breaking up excessively large and risky financial institutions could help America to heal?

10/24/12, 8:25 PM

Glenn said...
I wonder what the adjacent delegates from Texas and Washington (state) thought?

I can see most states South of the Mason-Dixon Line or West of the Rockies quite amenable to cutting loose from them (expletive) Yankees or (expletive) Easterners.

Locally, I've often wondered if Oregon and Washington would like to rotate their common border 90 degrees and combine their coastal regions in one state and their Eastern regions in another. Politically it seems to make sense, there'd be a conservative state East of the Mountains, and a liberal one on the coast. Economically it would be a bad idea. The coastal cites need the agricultural produce, especially grain; and the inland farming regions need the markets and access to ports.

There might be a lot of that sort of mistakes made in the years immediately after the partition of the U.S.

Marrowstone Island

10/24/12, 8:27 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Joseph, stay tuned! ;-)

CGP, any one of your three paragraphs would require an entire post for a satisfactory response, so I'm going to pass. You can quickly find information on your first question with a little time on Google, you know.

Glenn, Vermont has an active secessionist movement just now, so I'd add New England to that list. One of the complexities to any such splintering is that most states east of the Mississippi have boundaries that follow natural features, and so make at least some sense, while most states west of the Mississippi have boundaries that make no sense at all. There would have to be a lot of sorting out, probably involving the business ends of various weapons systems, before the bad decisions of 19th century politicians are finally laid to rest.

10/24/12, 8:38 PM

Joel Caris said...
Yeesh. You have me completely hooked. Last week's installment left me feeling extremely uneasy at the thought of a military defeat and potential nuclear war--I may have to eventually write a blog post about that sensation once the feelings have percolated enough for me to get some coherent grasp on them.

This week's installment provided a bit more morbid excitement, though. I could easily see the population latching onto a constitutional convention in the hopes of remaking an ever-more-distressing reality. Of course, it could easily end up being a disaster, but that utopia/apocalypse idea is just so enticing and a convention could seem like an end run around the hard work and long grind of actually trying to create fundamental shifts in national politics to get the policy changes you want. Why not just lay it all out in a convention instead?

And then the dissolving of the union. I could easily see that, as well, and more and more so with each presidential election that rolls around. The divides are so heated and bitter and there's such anger being directed all over the place--someone somewhere is always responsible, it seems, for all that ails us. I'm here in the northwest, and the idea of Cascadia seceding and becoming its own entity is not a new idea. And I do have to admit to it having a certain appeal. But wow, what a can of worms to open. How would it all turn out? I wonder if a desire and need for sovereignty would create a movement toward more appropriate living based within local ecosystems, or if we would just hastily slap together a series of trade agreements with the other states or regional governments to essentially continue the same economic arrangements as we currently have in the country? The potential impact on the food system alone would be fascinating (and that's my particular interest.)

Anyway, I guess I don't have much to add beyond various musings. I love this story--I'm glad to know it's proven particularly popular for you. I'm very excited to see how it ends next week.


10/24/12, 8:43 PM

CGP said...
Well it would have been nice to get your opinion on corporate personhood and public financing of elections since these issues are directly relevant to the health of the nation which is what you are discussing.

10/24/12, 8:49 PM

Steve said...
The chain of events sounds plausible, I must say. This hearkens back to your post(s) on the dissing of democracy by people across the political spectrum in the US. There's enough animosity toward the political system that people seem to think anything else to replace the union would be better. This sounds like a case of collective thaumaturgy about to rear its ugly head. Be careful what you wish for, eh?

Your comment about always leaving your reader hanging from a higher cliff with each installment was very instructive. In this series you went from the start of a war to the loss of a war, then to the threat of nuclear war and surrender, and now to the threat of the dissolution of the United States. It makes me wonder - you wrote early on that you already knew who the next two presidents of the US would be: number one is Gurney, is number two Russell Eigenblick? It seems either that or it's nobody...

Thanks for this thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, JMG.

10/24/12, 9:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Joel, thank you! I'll look forward to that blog post. Yes, this is turning out to be one of my most popular sequences -- the first episode is currently my third most read post of all time, and rising, and the others are following at a comparable pace.

CGP, I'll see if I can make time to do a post on each of them one of these days, as less than that would not do justice to issues that are considerably more complex than they're portrayed these days.

Steve, now there's a name I suspect too few people will recall. You get tonight's gold star for the Little, Big reference. (I once had a "Russell Eigenblick for President" button, which I wore at science fiction conventions.) Still, he's not in this particular scenario, though it wouldn't be implausible to construct a scenario of American collapse parallel to the very subtle one in Little, Big without the fantasy elements...

10/24/12, 9:10 PM

John Michael Greer said...
By the way, I'd like to thank everyone who's put something into the tip jar in response to this sequence of stories! That's a form of applause particularly welcome to those of us who make their living at the keyboard, and it's good to see that so many people are enjoying these stories.

10/24/12, 9:11 PM

Hal said...
I, for one, don't do "tip jar" because I don't like to use plastic over the web. But it's a reminder to me to go order another JMG book at my local independent bookstore!

10/24/12, 9:23 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
I wonder what poor old Europe will do when the US breaks up?
It all depends on how the current crisis on this side of the pond works out, I guess.
If the EU chooses to unify further, it may be strong enough to try going it alone for a bit.
If it chooses to splinter, some countries will probably start sucking up to Russia, while others turn to former colonies - Brazil, Mexico, the Commonwealth. The remainder probably goes to China.

Of course, by the time this scenario plays out, there might be two EU's - northern and southern.

Thinking about this, I suddenly realise that I cannot imagine e new superpower arising that will be as all-powerful as the US. In an age of resource scarcity, won't everyone's ability to project military power lessen?
I mean - in the late coal age, even Great Britain couldn't defeat Germany (which had no empire to speak of)...

There are other ways to excercise power than by sheer military force, but those other ways all leave more manoeuvering room for other players, methinks.

10/24/12, 9:27 PM

Mister Roboto said...
I can see the Union being dissolved once the USA is no longer a world power and the dollar tanks. Ever since I was a twenty-something, I've identified rather more with Wisconsin than I have with the United States of America (as heartbreaking as the failure of the recall of Governor Scott Walker was).

10/24/12, 9:33 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
@ Steve - eh, for people on this side of the pond the threat of dissolution of the U.S. is a significantly lower cliff than the threat of nuclear war! Indeed.

10/24/12, 9:35 PM

CGP said...
Yes, I think it would be great if you posted discussions on those topics. Please do that.

10/24/12, 9:37 PM

Hal said...
CGP, John Michael already discussed corporate personhood in his series of posts on economics. Wouldn't have any idea how to tell you to search for it, but I suppose a search phrase might be "corporate death penalty."

Or, you could order Wealth of Nature from your local independent bookstore.

10/24/12, 9:43 PM

Jeffrey Kotyk said...
I'm enjoying these stories.

I wonder though what happens to protectorates of the US like Taiwan (where I presently live)?

I imagine in this scenario the Taiwanese government would simply open up "reunification dialogues" with the PRC and quickly sort out the details of a "one country, two systems" arrangement like Hong Kong. With the fall of the US I don't think Taiwan could stand up to the PRC.

10/24/12, 9:43 PM

JacGolf said...
JMG-why are you not writing fiction all the time? Maybe it is just that we are all of the same mind, but this story is enthralling, and more to the point, it is not that far off. You are taking cues from all sides and finding the middle path. What may seem extreme is actually the best path for this empire. May we all find happiness in our local world and stop seeing a nation state that tries to rule the world. I still believe that through our breeding of 'exceptionalism' we have the opportunity to actually BE exceptional, if only we stop thinking that the guy in Wichita and the woman in Berkley are the same 'American'. My only regret is that I read the whole thing tonight....dagnabit!

10/24/12, 9:51 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Hal, thank you! That's another form of applause that every author appreciates.

Thijs, good. It's quite true that the age of the single global superpower is probably going to turn out to be precisely as long as the age of cheap abundant petroleum. As the US goes down, as I see it, we're likely to see a multipolar system in which a couple of major power contend with each other and with an assortment of regional powers; that will last through the age of scarcity industrialism, and the arrival of the age of salvage societies may see the end of anything close to a global power structure because force projection beyond regional spheres may turn out to be too inefficient.

Mister R., I know a lot of people who feel the same way about their state or their region.

Hal (and CGP), I don't specifically discuss corporate personhood in any detail, but the discussion of one way to rein in corporations -- involving, yes, imprisonment and execution for corporations that commit heinous crimes -- is on pp. 207-213 of The Wealth of Nature.

Jeffrey, without the US to defend it, Taiwan would pretty much have to make the best deal with the PRC that it could, and Hong Kong would be a good model for such an arrangement.

10/24/12, 9:57 PM

John Michael Greer said...
JacGolf, thank you, but my one published novel, The Fires of Shalsha, though it got fairly good reviews, has sold very poorly, while my nonfiction books reliably pay my bills. (For that matter, my blog/novel Star's Reach has a twentieth as many followers and page views as this blog.) I enjoy writing fiction, but unless the numbers change, it's going to be an occasional treat.

10/24/12, 10:04 PM

JacGolf said...

Your comment to Thijs is sparking a conversation I had with an old architecture colleague of mine. His rational was that all of the 'national standards' were bs. How could the guy with a solar panel in New England compare energy-wise to the family in Arizona living large off of solar? Yet, how could the Arizona family imagine having a fresh supply of water while those in New England have plentiful rivers, springs and natural lakes? In other words, we may need to have a 'succession of energy generation' to save us locally. Sorry for the tangent, but succession makes me happy. We have been brainwashed to think that if you want to succeed, you must eat fried chicken, root for Little Dale and wear a white hood, when in reality, our founders realized that while all are created equal, our upbringing shapes us to be regional in reaction to our environment.


10/24/12, 10:12 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
My experience of writing for the short story compilation was that it was in many ways a more powerful and useful exercise than simply discussing a topic. The rigour required of the writing process forced me to ensure the rigour of my arguments, while at the same time the placing of those arguments in a fictional narrative enabled me to firmly evoke them in concrete terms for the reader.

I wouldn't want to overuse it, since rational argument is essential to properly getting at a topic, but I think you're doing a sterling job of illustrating the judicious application of didactic fiction.

10/24/12, 10:13 PM

JacGolf said...
JMG, in fairness, you do not advertise your fiction blog as I have been an avid lurker for years and this is the first time I have heard of this alternate 'universe' of fiction. But glad to check it out. I have a cross country flight tomorrow and I can tell you what I will be doing.

Thanks for shaking the tree to help us all see things as we may not have before.

10/24/12, 10:18 PM

Leo said...
A relatively peaceful way out of empire. All depends on the Federal goverment of coures and if they want to force the issue. Of course the question then becomes, how do they rule and have people co-operate?

Here in Australia the state divisions aren't nearly as deep and the Federation here could potentially remain throughout peak-oil and the "long descent".

On another note this finally arrived. (Haven't got the battery yet tho)
Works fairly well and the LEDs are worth it. It could certainly power a radio and is a useful example of thermo-electric power.
Theres now a stove that uses a thermo-electric generator to power a fan (imporves combustion) while generating excess power.

10/24/12, 10:18 PM

SophieGale said...
This sounds like a good time for Green Wizards to pick up a copy of Constitution Cafe by Chris Philips.

For the last few years he's been going around the country getting folks to read and discuss the Constitution, what the Founding Fathers intended, what they left out, what needs to be amended and how. You might as well get ahead of the curve on the subject.

10/24/12, 11:36 PM

N_Makhno said...
Have you ever read the book Warday, by Whitley Streiber and Jim Kunetka? It follows the protagonists as they journey across America 5 years after it was wracked by a "limited" nuclear war between it and the USSR, that "only" destroyed a few cities in each country yet was enough to cause political and economic collapse.

Many of the themes that I've seen in your work - the balkanization of the US, the spiritual and economic consequences of empire, a return to "human-scale" economics / the reclamation of things we've lost, and the resilience of the human spirit- all shine strongly through. I first read it when I was 12 (10 years ago now- wow!) and it powerfully affected my perspective on our common humanity. (much as your writing has in a more recent frame)

10/25/12, 1:08 AM

Lizzy said...
Hello there JMG! When you said you were not going to do your normal writing in October I was really disappointed, I've relished your postings since I first came across them, as well as your books of which I have three. There was no need to worry -- your fiction is terrific and exciting; I'm hooked. I can't wait till next week.
Thanks! Lizzy

10/25/12, 1:40 AM

CGP said...
In the 1980s America started exporting its manufacturing base to China which helped China to become wealthy. If America had refused to allow their multinational corporations to do that couldn't they have kept China from becoming the power that it is today? Didn't America help to create China's power by allowing their corporations to put their interests over the national interests?

10/25/12, 2:18 AM

Odin's Raven said...
'Reverse regime change', wonderful!! Hoist with their own petard.

Without oil, and with the diminished importance of the coastal states, whose big cities must surely shrink drastically, wouldn't the Mississippi valley be the natural unifying factor and so a new capital at say St.Louis near the geographical centre, seem a likely outcome for a Confederation of Central States of America?

10/25/12, 2:49 AM

JP said...
This is your best post ever!

10/25/12, 4:12 AM

Michelle said...
A fascinating progression of events! Alas that a totally clueless president locked in a previous century's paradigm is so utterly believable. I'm on tenterhooks to discover how the former Union looks after the dissolution of said Union....

10/25/12, 4:39 AM

Karl K said...
Just got this in the mail and am looking forward to reading it. The reviews on amazon were a hoot and sucked me in:

10/25/12, 5:52 AM

Hal said...
Now as to the story itself. I understand that the purpose of the exercise is to educate on the possible mechanisms and scenarios that could lead to a breakup of the states, and the constitutional convention is something we all ought to know about. But on reflection, I think this is a unlikely scenario. First, this really is a very patriotic nation. Not so much in substance as in symbolism, but it takes some pretty powerful forces to wrest people from their symbols. The people elected to such a convention would include a lot of people with powerful ties to flag and oath. After the convention, when it comes time for the people to vote, there would be a lot of people thinking of all of the years of patriotic inculcation.

Second, and this also would mostly apply after the convention, almost everyone has family in other regions of the country. Certainly there would be an organized, concerted effort to remind people of that, availing itself of all of the tools of electoral thaumaturgy.

Finally, the large at-scale corporate powers would have a lot to lose in a breakup, and would use their considerable power to fight it.

I see a much more likely scenario being something like the Texas incident in the last post. Not necessarily all at once, but repeat such scenarios during multiple crises, and at some point, as unifying infrastructure breaks down, it just gets harder to put it back together. Even so, I imagine, as hinted in Stars Reach, there would be some collection of states claiming the mantle of the USA, with flag and all, far after regional splits. Maybe even competing claims. I think it would not be at all inconceivable that the Southern states would keep the name long after the rest of the country, an ironic echo of the Eastern and Holy Roman Empires.

10/25/12, 7:08 AM

oneotaBill said...
I found the counter-productive response of President Gurney the most compellingly, chillingly plausible moment in the entire story. Great read!!


10/25/12, 7:15 AM

AA said...
JMG, it's possible that fiction of this sort could be a commercial best seller. Certainly it resonates with the concerns and anxieties of a large number of the reading public.

10/25/12, 7:35 AM

Mister Roboto said...
One poster correctly pointed out that the newly independent states would likely start forming regional confederations. I could see Wisconsin entering into a "Northern Great River State" confederation with Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri.

10/25/12, 8:19 AM

Farka said...
Hmm - interesting stopping point! Perfectly legal procedure or not, I'm guessing some Unionists won't be taking this amendment lying down.

The other stumbling block that seems to loom here is the national debt. Will China be prepared to write it off as a casualty of inflation, or will it seek to protect the money the US owes it (or use that as a pretext for doing something interesting?) And how does the debt get divided up among the states?

10/25/12, 8:34 AM

Edde said...
Greetings, John Michael,

I'm enjoying this series of speculative fiction.

Hal, I too, don't like to use plastic on the interweb. I got JMG's mailing address and sent a Money Order. You might try the same. I also bought several books...

Best regards,


10/25/12, 9:11 AM

Jagger said...
Good read but scary. I would have to leave the south if the southern governors had free rein to run their states as they see fit. We would be back to a 21st century version of the plantation days in a heart beat.

10/25/12, 9:12 AM

Unknown said...
I don't know enough to make an intelligent addition to the converstion, except to bring up the new book "Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession
Chuck Thompson" and Dennis Kucinich's N.E.E.D. act which implements the 1939 "Program for Monetary Reform" (non-debt $$, 100% reserve banking, etc.) which might become popoular in a dollar collapse. And, my beloved "A Paradise Made in Hell" by Solnit ;) .... along side your great reads :)

10/25/12, 9:19 AM

Thomas Eicher said...
I have long felt that the U.S. is too large, both geographically and in population, to be governed democratically. Our very thin procedural "democracy" really doesn't count as democratic rule.

One solution is to dissolve the Union and reorganize the states into regional confederations along cultural and ecological lines.

Several recent books have stimulated my thinking and I'm encouraged by the recent discussions which take dissolution/secession seriously.

The books are: Thompson, Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession and Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

In trying to think through the problems that would come up with such a split-up I've yet to figure out what to do with the nukes. Most of the issues are solvable: immigration, trade rules, monetary issues, division of federal property and military assets, status of the two Commonwealths, three unincorporated territories and D.C., but the nuclear weapons issue is very difficult.

It would take more than a simple Constitutional amendment to address all of the tough issues, but that would be a start.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the series and am looking forward to the next installment.

10/25/12, 9:21 AM

John Michael Greer said...
JacGolf, true enough; the US as originally designed was a federation of largely independent states. The differences between regional cultures are huge, probably too large for the nation to remain intact once the basis for imperial power begins to break down.

Kieran, thank you! It's a genre that deserves more use than it's gotten of late.

JacGolf, I don't advertise The Archdruid Report either! I hope you enjoy Star's Reach.

Leo, excellent! Good to see thermoelectric generation coming back into use. I wonder if one of those pots could be put at the focus of a parabolic mirror aimed at the sun, and produce a decent amount of electricity...

Sophie, thanks for the tip!

N_Makhno, yes, I read it when it first came out. So much fiction about nuclear weapons treats them as, basically, supernatural forces; it was good to read something where the authors had done their research and used it.

Lizzy, thank you!

CGP, you have a talent for asking massively oversimplified versions of extremely complex questions. If you go back through the archives, you'll find a number of posts discussing the complex politics behind the transformation of America's industrial hinterland into the Rust Belt.

Raven, except that Missouri is in the borderlands between the South and the Midwest, and cultural differences would much more likely push toward a division between these regions. I'd expect St. Louis to become a hugely important trade center, but the capitals of the nations involved would be elsewhere.

JP, thank you.

10/25/12, 10:23 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Michelle, all I had to do to invent Leonard Gurney was to imagine any of the last half dozen presidents in the same position. Sometimes life makes things very easy for the writer of scenarios!

Karl, you and several other readers.

Hal, heh heh heh. Stay tuned...

Bill, thank you. As I mentioned to Michelle, that didn't take any imagination on my part!

AA, since I pay my bills with my writing, I can't afford to take the year or so that would be necessary to turn this into a full-length novel, and invest it in the off chance that this time, my fiction might be successful. I'd basically have to have a contract in hand, with a decent advance, before I started work on such a project -- and that happens promptly after Beelzebub's back yard freezes over.

Mister R., stay tuned!

Farka, the dissolution of a nation usually means default on the national debt. More on this as we proceed...

Edde, thank you!

Jagger, there'd be a lot of internal migration in the wake of such a thing, no question. (BTW, I got three copies of your comment -- the anti-robot thing was less of a challenge than you thought.)

Unknown and Thomas, I haven't read Thompson's book, though I'll probably have to. Thomas, as for the complicated issues, that sort of thing very often has to be managed afterwards -- remember the scrambling that followed when the USSR broke up!

10/25/12, 10:34 AM

Gary said...
Another riveting chapter to this story. Whether it involves an effort to dissolve the Union completely or not, it does seem to me a state led push for structural reform to the constitution is in the realm of possible events.

With approval of congress slipping to incredible lows, if it got to the point enough people demanded deep structural change, they certainly wouldn't want congress to be leading it. Although you make a good point consensus for the whole nation could be difficult and could rupture sharpening differences.

If there is breakdown of the Union, whether quickly or slowly, I just hope that it is managed as peacefully as possible. Sitting here on the left coast, I'm thinking it is perhaps for the best that we are separated from Texas by a vast expanse of deserts and mountain ranges...

10/25/12, 10:59 AM

Joseph Nemeth said...
After sleeping on last night's read, one thing was bothering me about the scenario: the relative lack of civil disorder and violence, and the lack of any federal response.

As was discussed on earlier posts, the US is not a martial nation, but it is a violent one.

During the early parts of the Great Depression, my understanding is that FDR faced the farm riots and open insurrection from the rural areas, to the point that his advisors and Congress wanted him to suspend the Constitution and become a fascist leader, as was happening at that time in Europe (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Stalin [not a fascist, per se]).

In the wake of a national catastrophe on this scale, I would expect any number of large cities to burn -- not just a few isolated, rapidly-contained "incidents" like the Trenton Massacre. Something like the Watts Riots in LA back in the whenever, but all over the country. The resulting disorder would almost certainly evoke a military response from the Feds, especially in the hands of a clueless incompetent like Gurney: the constitution would almost immediately be suspended under "temporary" martial law, for the duration of the crisis.

Martial law would breed sedition, of course. What they would call "home-grown terrorists." Which would only reinforce the Fed-perceived need for stronger controls over the population. Since the dollar is worthless and international trade is at a virtual standstill, ordinary people, particularly the young and inexperienced, will need work, and the government will offer it in the form of homeland security soldiering, which will be increasingly needed.

I'm not sure where that would lead. The US is geographically isolated and still quite resource-rich in a survival sense. Your opinion on how long a US totalitarianism could last?

It's a different breakdown scenario. Maybe more probable, maybe less. I'm enjoying yours, however.

10/25/12, 11:37 AM

Odin's Raven said...
When the USSR fell apart the USA kindly helped to see that their nuclear weapons were looked after. If the USA fell apart, no doubt the Chinese and the Russians would be eager to return the favour.

In an impoverished America the huge corporations might not care much whether it falls apart, since they would be looking to make much less money there, and they've already transferred the productive economy to China. However the vast federal bureaucracies, and their clients, would definitely want to continue riding the gravy train. The states would presumably need to be able to stop the transfer of money to Washington, and prevent the obedience of orders from there.

Will the men in control of the big weapons allow the break-up? What will be to their personal advantage? Being a Pentagon Poobah, even in an impoverished America probably outranks a Kentucky Colonel.

Maybe it could dissolve slowly, like Mughal India, where the nominal sovereign in Delhi was treated with great respect, but no obedience, and the rulers of the regions went their own ways and fought each other. That might be closer to the original American constitution with very limited powers for a central government and real power with jealous cantankerous local politicians who pay only lip service to Washington.

10/25/12, 11:40 AM

Iodhan Silverbear said...
I've theorized for some time now that one of the reasons that we cannot trust our politicians is because we as a people tend to remain faceless and nameless. A switch to more local control would make a lot more sense, essentially forcing our politicians to face the people they represent with more immediacy. With more local control, you are no longer screwing some guy a thousand miles away while you sit in your posh 5 star hotel room, you are screwing the guy in the next town or even the next street over from your own. I would like to believe that it would make politicians more answerable but I suspect that is pretty optimistic...

10/25/12, 11:52 AM

Puzzler said...
Colin Woodward has a fascinating book about how we already are divided, not by Red State and Blue State, but by how the US was settled.

The book is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

It will likely fracture along these lines.

10/25/12, 12:31 PM

Mean Mr Mustard said...
Greetings from Sunny Diego Garcia -

10/25/12, 12:54 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Given that I have no idea what plans JMG actually has here, I might point out to my fellow readers that the Union has not been dissolved yet! The amendment for dissolution has been proposed to the convention; it still needs to be passed by the convention and sent out for ratification. As you may recall, the last time someone proposed breaking up the Union, the shooting didn't begin in ernest until after the Articles were passed! You can bet there will be all sorts of reactions to this news, potentially ranging from unilateral secession moves by some states to threats to disband the convention by force and prosecute the delegates for treason, conspiracy, racketeering, and sedition. I will note that JMG mentioned more than one president who would follow Weed, so we ain't seen the last of Washington yet!

10/25/12, 1:39 PM

Phil LaCombe said...
I read Colin Woodard's American Nations recently and highly recommend it. A breakup of the USA could result in some messy situations within states whose current jurisdiction crosses the national borders Woodard describes. JMG in Cumberland (Greater Appalachia) might end up in a different country than myself in Baltimore (The Midlands), even though we currently live in the same state. Further still, Maryland's Eastern Shore would prefer to leave both of us for the coastal Virginians (Tidewater). If things play out similar to this tale, it would probably prove advantageous to live in a state undivided by Woodard's national borders.
He's a lifetime Mainer, by the way.

10/25/12, 1:45 PM

Leo said...
As long as the heat is enough to cook with it will work, the advantage is that the heat source is used twice, electricty and cooking, and makes solar much more viable.

Since you'll always need a backup for when the suns not shining it will still produce electricty. And if you use a thermo-electric wood stove you get even more out of the wood.

The only problem is that the only models of both are prduced in the USA, however the tech is easily reproducible and could easily be a trade-good far into the long-descent.

10/25/12, 2:05 PM

Draco TB said...
From retirees on fixed incomes to upper-crust families with hereditary wealth, those whose fortunes depended on paper assets found themselves plunged into poverty.

Which should have happened in 2008.

…and the bear market in treasury bills made it increasingly clear that the old days of borrow-and-spend could not be revived without turning the dollar’s ongoing slump into a death spiral.

Of course, governments don't actually need to borrow. Under the conditions you describe though the government would have to declare the present currency null and void (yes, full default) and start a new currency. In the US the states could do it themselves if they were willing to drop from the federation which it appears that they are…

10/25/12, 2:45 PM

CGP said...
I understand what you are saying about my question being oversimplified. I know you spoke about the transformation of America’s industrial hinterland into the rust belt. That transformation was related to the fact that China and other countries that were poor at the time opened their economies up meaning that a huge additional cheap labour force became available as well as the recovery of Europe meaning additional competition. Also the oil crises of the 1970s may have had something to do with this change, presumably because this cut into profit margins making it more important for greedy corporations to tap into cheap labour. Another reason might have been because energy during the 1980s became cheap enough (due to political machinations and some luck) to justify offshore production of goods as shipping was cheap making this business model more profitable. I also realise that cheap goods produced overseas benefited American consumers and offset the effect of stagnant wages. I could go on but I won’t. So you see I am not as prone to oversimplification as you seem to think. However, if you’re not going to answer posts that require too much detail what’s the point of me going into detail? It’s a waste of my time.

So with all that said if the American government had stepped in and put the national interest first, if it had employed a form of protectionism that actually protected American jobs and allowed wages for the working and middle class not to stagnate, rather than allowing so much wealth to accumulate in the hands of the super-wealthy, then is it not fair to say that American could have prevented China from rising to the extent that it did? If the government has shown long term wisdom and put the nation above the plutocracy is it not fair to say that it could have retained its pre-eminence for longer than it did? I do not remember you ever addressing this hypothetical scenario. I feel that you do not like this line of thinking, that you feel it is too partisan and too much in line with bobo (bohemian bourgeois) thinking. However, this is a reasonable question whether or not you feel you should answer it.

10/25/12, 3:43 PM

Richard Larson said...
The continuing shock would be the swing states busting apart as well...

10/25/12, 4:01 PM

Richard Larson said...
One more story and I'll chip in. You got a good chance for a few more bucks that way!

The summer has been quite busy here, but soon we will get back into a reading mode and catch up on Star's Reach, and will include some of your book writings as well. Long winter nights you understand..

Good work.

10/25/12, 4:30 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
CGP asked what might have happened
"If the government has shown long term wisdom and put the nation above the plutocracy."

I reply with a counter-question: What makes you think that our government *was capable* of showing long term wisdom over the decades? Or that any government might ever be capable of doing that over the centuries?

Remember, please, the truth that Lord Acton articulated so well more than a century ago:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

No government with as much power as ours now has can *ever* avoid becoming wholly corrupt.

10/25/12, 4:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Gary, trust me, the Texans are as happy to have those mountains and deserts in place as you are.

Joseph, I suspect that if Arkansas hadn't proposed a constitutional convention, there might have been insurgencies under way by year's end. People will put up with a lot if they can convince themselves that there's a hope of positive change.

Raven, stay tuned...

Iodhan, are state politicians, or county politicians, more answerable than federal ones?

Puzzler, thanks for the tip.

Mustard, the comments section is fascinating!

Bill, stay tuned...

Phil, thanks for seconding the tip!

Leo, true enough -- thermocouples are very easy to make.

Draco, stay tuned...

CGP, you're still missing at least one major point, which is that the decision to throw the country's industrial economy and working class under the bus in the 1970s and thereafter was done, in large part, for the benefit of the middle class. The alternative would have been trade barriers that would have preserved the relative prosperity of the working class, but driven up prices for most consumer goods -- especially the electronics, autos, and other middle class toys that Japan produced in such abundance in those days -- thus effectively lowering the standard of living for the middle class. Nobody in the political sphere was willing to risk the electoral backlash from that, and so the working class got thrown under the bus.

You can no doubt argue that they should have done something else. Still, what's the point of such an argument? That's water under the bridge at this point; it may be useful to understand why certain decisions were made, not least because the middle class is now getting thrown under the bus in its turn, but I don't see much point in Monday-morning quarterbacking about decisions made decades ago.

Richard, nah, the red-blue thing is far too simplistic. Most "swing states" have values of their own, which they share with some of their neighbors, and which don't correspond closely to the values paraded (though not practiced) by the two parties. My guess is that a lot of "swing states" would choose their own paths in a situation of the sort we're discussing.

10/25/12, 4:58 PM

CGP said...
Interesting. Thank you for that information. I agree that there is no point in over-indulging in "what-ifs" but such thinking has its place. However, ultimately I agree that we all need to deal with the cards we were dealt.

I look forward to future instalments of your blogs and books. By the way I am planning on buying your book “Not the Future We Ordered: The Psychology of Peak Oil and the Myth of Eternal Progress” as I anticipate that it will discuss precisely the sorts of issues that I find so interesting.

You have said a few times that America is a violent not a martial society. Have you written a post about this? If not will you? Alternatively, are there any books, articles or the like that examines this aspect of the American psyche in some detail that you would recommend?

10/25/12, 5:43 PM

Renaissance Man said...
Hah! It finally occurred to me that the description of a world dominated by two superpowers is 'bi-polar'.
Next week will not come soon enough!
But meanwhile, I can enjoy all the commentary.

10/25/12, 5:45 PM

Justin G said...
I think Richard does bring up a good point, though I don't think it is really an issue specific to swing states. Take for example Illinois. The culture of Southern Illinois is far closer to Kentucky than Chicago, and I could easily see intra-state strife if the union were to dissolve. The same goes for many other states, e.g. Northern Virginia vs. the rest of the state, SW vs Northern Ohio, etc etc. While the boundaries of the states east of the Mississippi may make more sense geographically, many of them are no more culturally relevant than the arbitrary boundaries drawn by colonial powers in Africa or the Middle East.

10/25/12, 6:15 PM

Christophe said...
John Michael, on top of all your other ample talents, you have an extraordinary gift at breaking stories into a serial format. The ending of each episode has a distinct tone, sometimes affirming the melodramatic cliffhanger model, others bypassing it altogether. The end of the third episode beautifully releases the military tensions built up to such frenzy, but only after introducing a new theme of political discontent, thus keeping the reader hooked.

This fourth episode has my favorite ending yet -- a political cliffhanger drawing a distorted parallel to the military cliffhanger at the end of the first. Whereas the second episode fulfilled most of the readers' expectations (fantasies?) from the first, you have introduced a doubt that the fifth installment will be as gentle with our assumptions. "A line had been crossed, and there might be no going back." Looking forward to the unexpected.

Also, you have conceived a beautifully crafted piece of magical literature. By that I mean, behind the radical subject matter most of us find so satisfying, you are discretely challenging how we think. After luring in an audience with wish-fulfillment, you encourage us to move beyond our preconceptions and find fulfillment in the challenge of thinking about reality. You are a dangerous writer. Many thanks.

10/25/12, 7:14 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Richard and JMG -- having lived in a "swing state" for a decade, I can attest that it did not necessarily have any more internal strife than, say, California, New York, or Texas. The "swing states" are generally middle class white majority middle of the road suburban environments, exactly the demographic that all politicians like to keep in their Ven Diagrams of constituencies on one edge or another. Few of them achieve this status by being evenly balanced between extremes, they achieve it by being really heavy in the middle. We described our home for those years as "the most middle-american white-bread place we have ever seen."

10/25/12, 8:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, thank you!

Robert, I won't quarrel with Lord Acton.

CGP, I don't know of any really good sources on the subject, but then I haven't done extensive research on it. If I do a post on it, that'll have to change, of course.

Renaissance Man, funny.

Justin, many nations have thrived for centuries with vast cultural variation within their borders -- in fact, it seems to be a source of strength. Geographical boundaries, on the other hand, seem to be much more necessary to national survival.

Christophe, thank you. I consider "dangerous" a high compliment.

Bill, that makes sense to me. There are regions where a solidly white-bread moderate majority could very quickly end up running things.

10/25/12, 10:52 PM

Spanish fly said...
Man, you are a writing machine! This story scares me again. Regards from the fallen kingdom of Spain...

10/26/12, 12:46 AM

Sooper said...
I think the most natural sequence is someone to arise with a counter proposal, one not as radical, preserving the federal structure
somehow. Of course, it may only be preserved in a mostly symbolic form, kind of how it happens with the British Monarchy...

10/26/12, 2:10 AM

Leo said...

I think i'll use this as a model, already has a pot and just needs an extra stand. And some way of cycling cool water into the pot and hot water out (improves the efficency).

Won't start work on it until after exams (4-6 weeks) and i'll try to charge my CAS calculator with it.

10/26/12, 2:16 AM

CGP said...
Robert, I am well aware of that quote about the corrupting qualities of power. That, in and of itself, is not analysis. I was simply entertaining a hypothetical scenario regardless of how unlikely said scenario might be. I trust you are familiar with thought experiments.

10/26/12, 2:16 AM

Rik said...
From this Dutchman (who's never been to the US), only Texas has something like Catalunya-style nationalism. I don't buy the States falling apart. Whenever the sentiment shows up, someone will remember the advantages of "e pluribus, unum" and act to preserve it (most like a man on a horse).

I'm still not sure if Beijing will go to war to further its Empire. Recall that China, thanks to the one-child policy, has an upcoming population crisis, like present Japan. Recall as well that wars are fought by men and women at their, um, reproductive peak. If resources are really that important to Beijing, it would be very foolish to waste. Yes, they a surplus of men, but in war they (the men) could well prove to be a liability.

10/26/12, 3:01 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I read part 4 yesterday and something was bugging me about it, which I couldn't put a finger on.

So, if in doubt, do nothing, was the order of the day.

I did however go out (by train of course) to the big smoke for dinner and to the cinema to see the film "Moonrise Kingdom" which was quite lovely. It's not about me though - so back to the topic at hand!

Most, but not all, comments tend to view the breakup of the union as a foregone conclusion. So, applying ternary thinking (nod of the hat to yourself for this useful tool), what people are looking for is a political response that resolves the existing problems. The sticking point for me is, why would replacing one lot of politicians with another lot, solve any of the long term problems facing the country?

I don't get the excitement in comments as it is my view that overall the population may be in for a massive disappointment should these circumstances actually come about? To my mind, the population in the story is looking for someone to blame. Change for the sake of change has been historically pretty dodgy!

Sure, in the story, the federal government has made mistakes, and that entity has also proven that it has difficulty pursuing long term objectives that are of benefit to the population. But still, surely there is more resilience to the system than it has shown? For example, over here they'd most likely have a Royal Commission or the Governor General could sack Parliament or some such thing. Surely, there must be some process with which to have a post-mortem about the crisis?

The thing is, whilst abandoning or killing off the US dollar seems like an attractive option to get out of a lot of financial problems, default, will push your import costs up (think energy especially) and kill your standard of living. Perhaps states may be able to sell off assets, but it wouldn't be good for the population at large - and it wouldn't be a long term proposition. What is worse is that there would be sharks swimming around that would take a hefty profit off these state asset sales.

By the way, it is a chilling thought, but China's overall goals can only be attained by sinking the US economically. How else do they get access to those resources which the US now enjoys? It’s not like the country’s goals are secret or anything.

Not trying to be a bummer, as I am really enjoying the story and can't wait to see how it ends up.



10/26/12, 3:33 AM

flute said...
Very good read! I even got a few laughs. Maybe that's easier for me from a European viewpoint.
Now I'm looking forward to the last part.

10/26/12, 5:45 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Fly, thank you!

Sooper, stay tuned...

Leo, keep us posted!

Rik, you might be surprised if you ever visit this side of the pond and get away from the usual tourist sites. What you'll find is not so much 19th-century style nationalism (which Texas has, no question) as a growing, sullen, as yet unfocused disaffection with the entire structure of the United States as it exists. Sooner or later, someone or something will tap that effectively, and the system we have is going to come apart in a hurry. As for China, if you've got an excessive supply of young men, war is one of the classic ways of dealing with that -- and the prospect of getting a lot more in the way of resources is also an issue.

Cherokee, pay attention to that sense of excitement, and its easy dismissal of important practical concerns. It's a bellwether of some importance.

Flute, thank you! I plan on getting the final part uploaded to autopost, so even if we lose power during the upcoming storm, it'll still be up as scheduled.

10/26/12, 9:02 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ CGP:

Sure, I know what a thought experiment is. The worth-while ones, IMHO, do not start from sheer impossibilities. I'd sooner expect a pig to fly than a government to act wisely once it has accumulated as much power as ours has here and now. It is the poor and weak governments that can occasionally show wisdom.

10/26/12, 9:07 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
JMG wrote:

"Cherokee, pay attention to that sense of excitement, and its easy dismissal of important practical concerns. It's a bellwether of some importance."

Indeed! One of the things JMG may be doing with this story is using our comments to help him figure out just how soon the next crisis is coming. At any rate, that's what I am doing as I read all the comments. For this, the instinctive reactions of people at large are more useful than any amount of punditry.

I was recently looking into the 1995 edition of Theodore Roszak's _The Making of a Counter-Culture_. There in his new introduction I found a striking dictum: "economics is as much a study in fantasy and aspiration as in hard numbers -- maybe more so" (p. xx).

This goes for politics as well, I suppose. Indeed, economics has sometimes been called "mathematical politics." When the fantasy breaks down, everything else breaks loose. At that point in history, whoever provides the most appealing, most reassuring, most *useful* new fantasy comes out on top.

10/26/12, 9:25 AM

Unknown said...
I'm also pretty sure that the Union won't be formally dissolved, if only because people will cling to the familiar. Of course, that doesn't stop them from delegating more powers to the states as a way to resolve conflicts that can't be bought off with the federal printing press anymore...until the union is but a hollow shell, the people realize that their state is what they're stuck with and then all that is left is to legalize the de facto situation. But that process will take generations. And much like the Roman Empire, people will try to reestablish it or claim to be its successor for centuries. The most likely future for the USA is some kind of Holy Roman Empire.

But again, many people will be averse of a quick split. For every American with strong local ties, there's another one with family all over the union who has lived in several states in his life. Yes, there are dozens of gaping faultlines in American society, but these are social and not geographically concentrated. Many minorities won't look forward to lose the option to defend their interests on a federal level.

From the POV of the states it's not clear either. California and Texas would benefit from it; most inland states will recognize that they're at mercy of the coastal states in a formal split; many will think they're shafted in the proposed division of the federal inheritage, Hawaii and Alaska will feel terribly exposed without union, and so on.

And additionally, it all seems to go against the underlying idea of a slow but inevitable collapse, even allowing for dramatization.. But we'll see what happens next week :)

10/26/12, 9:43 AM

Robert said...
In the real world I wouldn't be surprised if the Goldman Sachs vampires had taken a position on a Chinese victory and made a lot of money out of their country's defeat.

Actually dissolving the Union seems a bit drastic? Wouldn't it be better to set up a new Confederacy with all powers devolved to the states except for foreign policy and defence? Doubtless the Confederates would want to abolish the Federal Reserve as well or at least drastically reform it.

I doubt breaking up the dollar into fifty different state currencies would be good for business.

Let's hear it for the Confederate States of America!

10/26/12, 11:10 AM

Nano said...
I need some guidance, if you will, to point me in some good research directions. Here are my question.

What exactly are China's current economic goals? and how does our economy sinking help them out? If I understand correctly all their current empire building abroad is made possible 'cause they hold a bunch of our "money/debt."

If they become an economic leader, wouldn't the simple fact of them becoming a leader make their export prices rise and mess with their current model?

Isn't China becoming a consumer society?

Hasn't it been outsourcing work to Vietnam and other 3rd world countries too?

From what I have been reading the unavoidable bubble burst that's been coming their way is going to hit their economy HARD as well.

10/26/12, 12:26 PM

Renaissance Man said...
I don't know if either Brian Stewart, of the CBC, or Michael Mazarr, of the U.S. National War College, read this blog, but they certainly read as if they do.

This morning, Stewart wrote:
"Perhaps more important is the deepening realization around Washington that America must now develop a different "grand strategy" for the future, one it can actually afford.
"It would be a strategy that fully accepts the fact that the U.S. no longer has the wherewithal — whether militarily, diplomatically or economically — to bear the full weight of global obligations."

Michael Mazarr's paper The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency is apparently making it's way around Washington with a grim warning:
"The forces undercutting the U.S. strategic posture are reaching critical mass...
"The question for the United States now is whether it responds to this emerging reality, or continues doggedly trying to ignore it."

10/26/12, 1:07 PM

Robert said...
If the Union were to become a confederacy there is the matter of the dollar. As I see it there would be two possiblities

a) keep a monetary union with a single currency across the Confederacy but drastically reform the Federal Reserve. Either abolish it or reform it so it is accountable to the elected Confederate government. At present the Fed is a private cartel. Many Americans believe it to be a arm of the federal government but in reality is is a private institution set up by a cartel of bankers in 1913. The President should have the power to sack the Chairman and governors of the Bank with a snap of his fingers.

Problem would be that a monetary union without fiscal union is probably unworkable in the long run as the Eurozone mess indicates.

b) abolish the US dollar with each state issuing a currency of its own. Full fiscal and monetary powers devolved to the states. This would give poorer states the chance to regain competitivness by devaluing against the stronger states. This would probably be necessary in order to make up for the loss of federal subsidies to the poorer states which exist now.

The present mess in the Eurozone demonstrates pretty convincingly that a monetary union is unworkable without fiscal union and large transfers from richer states to poorer ones. This requires an elected federal government to make such transfers as without that there is no democratic legitimacy for the scale of transfers necessary to make the union work. There is not going to be a democratic federal government in Europe because the national governments are not prepared to give up their fiscal sovereignty.

I wouldn't be surprised if the European Union collapsed before the American one does.

10/26/12, 2:27 PM

Robert said...
The beauty of a confederacy is that it might take much of the venom out of these ghastly culture wars that are doing such damage to the nation. So long as conservatives were able to maintain what they see as conservative or Christian values in their red states they might be happy to let the liberals go their own crazy way in the blue states and vice versa.

10/26/12, 2:30 PM

CGP said...
Robert, there have been plenty of examples where powerful American governments have shown good judgment and even perhaps wisdom. For example, FDR introduced the new deal, JFK handled the Cuban missile crisis well, Richard Nixon signed the EPA into law as well as opened up diplomatic channels with China and Jimmy Carter warned the American people about the perils of over-reliance on fossil fuels even going so far as to place solar panels on the white house (which were taken down by the Reagan administration). I am certainly not saying any of these administrations were perfect or that they did not make mistakes (sometimes major ones) but there certainly are examples of American governments showing good long term judgment. Therefore, to say that it is a sheer impossibility to entertain a thought experiment in which the American government shows good judgement is incorrect in my opinion. However, I do agree that over the past three or so decades there has been deterioration in the political climate which has made it far less likely for wise decisions that are in the people’s long terms interests to take place. There are a number of factors at play there but one of the most important factors, in my opinion, is the increasingly powerful role of money in politics.

10/26/12, 2:42 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
While I'm not an citizen of the USA, I must join my voice to the people who question the breakup of the union on the basis of a relative lack of attachment of families to their own home turf, for the most part.

Isn't the USA the country with the largest share of "internally displaced" people, so to speak? Families living in multiple states? People move frequently in search of jobs or whatever? I fail to see how this is a fertile ground for a dissolution that would be the most monumental political fact of the last hundred years or so (would beat the breakup of the USSR and only lose out to the world wars, IMO).

I mean, the USSR had probably a worse crash than this, and it did breakup, but you have to remember that there WAS a sucessor state to the USSR (Old Russia), which inherited the lion's share of the former state. What truly broke out where the periphery zones. Later on, the West has managed to exert some influence into Belarussia and the Ukraine (which, IMO, is core russian territory), but I expect these gains to be short lived.

I don't know, the scenario is immensely entertaining, and I can agree that North America will probably look very different on an atlas later in this century, but I don't quite see this happening over a constitutional convention. Civil war seems much more probable as a mechanism for breakup. I would also expect this to happen AFTER some sort of military junta rules the country for a while.

10/26/12, 3:21 PM

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...
Robert wrote:
"If the Union were to become a confederacy there is the matter of the dollar. As I see it there would be two possiblities"

Only the two sir?


10/26/12, 5:14 PM

Draco TB said...
The thing is, whilst abandoning or killing off the US dollar seems like an attractive option to get out of a lot of financial problems, default, will push your import costs up (think energy especially) and kill your standard of living.

Only temporarily until local manufacturing scaled up to replace the lost external manufacturing.

Perhaps states may be able to sell off assets, but it wouldn't be good for the population at large - and it wouldn't be a long term proposition.

This is correct, states selling assets is bad for the population. Now if the politicians would actually realise that it would be great. Actually, foreign ownership is always bad for the local economy.

What is worse is that there would be sharks swimming around that would take a hefty profit off these state asset sales.

There already is and they're buying up as much as they can. This, of course, makes the population dependent upon those sharks for their livelihoods which is what they want.

By the way, it is a chilling thought, but China's overall goals can only be attained by sinking the US economically.

Both the goals of the US and China and,in fact, every single country are unobtainable. The world just doesn't have enough resources. The rational thing to do would be to cooperate but, unfortunately, we've got competition BS going instead and so we're looking at more wars in the future.

10/26/12, 6:10 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ CGP:

Certainly individual people in the government can act wisely on various occasions, and you mention certain cases where a president has acted wisely. But we were talking about "long-term wisdom," not individual solutions to specific problems. These are very different things.

Also, I find it highly significant that when you cited instances to make your case, you always mentioned presidential actions.

First, the president of the USA is not its government, even today, and often he is barely even the leader of its government or the primary shaper of governmental policy.

And second, all presidents (since Harry Truman) are special cases in another, even more important sense: none of them is permitted to retain his office longer than eight years. Eight years is nothing compared to the tenure of many members of Congress, to say nothing of Federal judges. Eight years is not very much time for Lord Acton's dictum to hit its upper limit of absolute corruption.

So I stand by my original claim about governments (not presidents) and long-term wisdom (not just various individual wise actions or policies).

10/26/12, 6:13 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
PS (in general) There are two people named Robert commenting here. I always use my last name, too. He goes by his first name only. We have different views, it seems.

10/26/12, 6:15 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I hadn't considered that aspect and agree with your assessment.

As always, your blog (and all of the comments) are food for the brain.

I went today to a local farm where Joel Salatin of Polyface farm held a talk and demonstration. The farm practices all of the systems developed at Polyface farm and I was both impressed and humbled. Perhaps it may be time to run some pigs here through the forest in a similar rotational system. It would have quite a beneficial impact on the ecosystem here - only if they were rotated continuously though.

Truly, the things we have access to nowadays are quite mind boggling - like basic portable electric fencing.



10/26/12, 11:16 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Nano,

Rather than feeding you the answers to your questions, I'll pose you a question to think about:

Quote: "What exactly are China's current economic goals?" - When the US exports culture, what do you think will happen to the populations of the countries that receive that US culture and is this situation in the best long term interests of the US?



10/26/12, 11:30 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Throughout most of American history, it appears that political outcomes have been governed by one part idealism to three or four parts economic self-interest.

I think this is a good ratio. Without any idealism, society is heartless, but when moral ideals have a greater influence than practical economics, society will have a lot of communal strife, a low standard of living or both.

The outcomes of the future constitutional convention may be predicted by asking who benefits. In the USA of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, small businesses have had about the same political influence as individual citizens. Medium sized to large corporations preferred power to reside in the states, because they had enough economic power to bend state legislatures to their will. Huge corporations liked a strong federal government because the Federal treasury is an enormous source of wealth in the form of government contracts and subsidies, and because giant corporations have enough money to buy favorable tax treatment, defeat attempts at regulation, and arrange preemptive legal shelter from any local popular attempts to rein them in.

The Citizens United decision has altered these arrangements by making it legal for foreign-owned corporations, including sovereign government owned businesses, to contribute to American political campaigns. It's early to know what effects this will have.

If the rising cost of fossil fuel makes it harder for multinationals to prosper, scaled down corporations might back efforts to weaken or dissolve the Union in order to retain their dominance.

10/27/12, 12:56 AM

João Carlos said...

For be a government with good judgement and wisdom need know the facts and the real situation of the world. Obama is a very competent guy and the clintonistas that help him too are much competents, but they have poor judgement.

The clintonistas live at the world of 1990's (well, it is better than the Republicans, that want return to teh world of 1950's). But the world changed since the 90's, China ascended to second world economy, Latin America is pratically at revolt against the empire, Europe and Japan have serious economic problems. The world is moving to be bipolar and maybe multipolar.

That is the reason that any victory Obama and the clintonistas gain (for example, Libya), it proves after some time be a defeat. They are competent (very competent, to be true), but they live at world it is no more, so they are guided by convictions that made them have bad judgement.

That is the reason we will not see soon a US President that can have a good judgmenet. The wolrd changed to a direction that the politics and american public cannot grasp.

That is what I can see here from Latin America.


sorry the bad english, my native language is portuguese

10/27/12, 6:04 AM

Glenn said...
Dissolving the Union

Some random thoughts. I think the "culture wars" are less likely to define separations. They are for the most part over-hyped subjects that the two major parties use to keep adherents voting for them. Most people are more concerned about jobs and the economy; all the hot air about the environment, gay rights, gun rights, fetus' rights & etc. is mostly a distraction. I think it more likely that different economies, such as between the North and the South before the Civil War would define the splits.

I've got relatives all over the country in at least four other states in three different regions. I would have no problem with those being other "countries". It really wouldn't change how often I see them (very rarely) or how we communicate. Now, the end of cheap travel and the crash of the internet _would_ change this dramatically, but not, say Rhode Island per see being in another country.

Some states were technically independent countries before joining the U.S. Specifically the Republics of Texas and California, and the Kingdom of Hawaii. While the boundaries of some of the Western States are arbitrary geometric lines, ignoring natural features; most of them are large enough and contain enough resources for independence. I wouldn't say the same for Rhode Island or Delaware, no matter which natural features form their borders. I believe that Mountain Ridges make more logical borders than rivers for natural borders. A river valley is a natural economic and biological region, a border down the middle is rather foolish, no matter how attractive a moat it makes to the military mind. Using mountains as defensible walls makes more sense.

Regarding Economic changes, I think JMG has nailed it. Currently the coastal "Blue" states subsidize the interior "Red" states through Federal taxes. This is in part because our economy greatly undervalues agriculture. The collapse of the dollar and the resulting slump in international trade will nail both continental coasts hard. One of the U.S. few strong spots would be the agricultural economy of the agrarian interior, the wheat belt.
The initial reaction of the coastal states to cast off the "flyover zone" would prove catastrophic when the economy shifted to a domestic agrarian one; as well as domestic manufacture after the remnants of the U.S. are priced out of international trade.

The three west coast continental states are net exporters of food, they'd be okay, though suffer from the lack of shipping. I'm not sure about Alaska; whether the value of the fish catch being exported exceeds the value of virtually all the other food being imported is a question I can't answer. I would certainly expect Anchorage's population to decline rapidly by emigration though.

Marrowstone Island

10/27/12, 8:48 AM

DaShui said...
Oddly FEMA has already thought about it:

10/27/12, 1:47 PM

Jennifer D Riley said...
To answer the question "what is meant by x fraction of the state and not the state legislators," I think JMG means the adult voters in each state vote to dissolve their state's the Union. Right now, the United States is a representative republic. We elect representatives and send them to state capitals and DC to represent us. What JMG is describing, I think, is a sudden switch to direct democracy. One voter, one vote, one direct, immediate effect or outcome. It's an intriguing idea. My thought is the corporate media system--radio and television--might have to be stripped of any political or other analysis, in advance. The benefit would be to force people into a local mind-set.

10/27/12, 3:08 PM

Sooper said...
The comment about the "crash of the Internet" made me think a bit about the dis-United States as compared to the present USA. I concluded that
the "d-USA" would be more convenient ambient to the Internet than the USA. For one thing, I think most states would be less likely to try to over-control it than present day
Federal Government. Granted that the resources to maintain the Internet will get scarcer, but more slowly than, say, car travel or jet travel.

10/27/12, 3:20 PM

Robert said...
@Robert Mathieson

I try and call myself RobertC in future so as to make it clear which Robert it is.

By the way I'm not saying that a confederacy with full autonomy for the red states would necessarily be a good idea just that some form of confederacy might be preferable to a total dissolution of the Union.

10/27/12, 3:30 PM

CGP said...
Richard M, the distinction that you make between long-term wisdom versus “individual solutions to specific problems” is fallacious in my opinion. How can one show long term wisdom in any way other than through the decisions they make in the here and now? Long term wisdom is about making smart decisions which often have short term costs but long term benefits. Second, when a president signs legislation into law that legislation first went through congress so even if I refer to a particular president signing something into law congress was obviously a part of that.

Our debate started with your argument that it is totally implausible to entertain a thought experiment where the government makes wise decisions. I disagree with you in a broader and more philosophical sense (and in terms of what could have happened a few decades ago) but in terms of the here and now I think we agree that it would be naive to expect governments to make wise decisions in the interests of the majority. The system has become too corrupted by money and self-interest for that to happen and quite frankly the range of options that any government can take has narrowed significantly. JMG, talks about how our options for dealing with peak oil have narrowed to the point where we moved from it being a problem to a predicament and I agree with this thinking.

10/27/12, 5:12 PM

CGP said...
João C, I agree that politicians almost always have a very narrow and skewed world view. This would have much to do with the fact that they either come from, or end up in, the plutocracy meaning they live in a bubble of wealth, privilege and power. Hence, politicians do not tend to understand the suffering of the broader populace as they do not see it or experience it in any meaningful or day to day sense. How can they when they live in mansions (or at any rate luxurious houses in the most sought after suburbs), have private jets (or at least fly first or business class) and are surrounded by people tripping over themselves to tell them how smart and spectacular they are? How can one really understand deprivation when their life is defined by abundance or injustice when their life is one of power? Expecting these sorts of people to make decisions that will benefit anyone other than the plutocracy is ludicrous but funnily enough many of the decisions they have made and continue to make undercut the very system that has been so good to them.

10/27/12, 5:15 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I hope you get through the storm unscathed.

Mega storm bears down on the eastern US

I've seen 10 inches of rain here and it wasn't pretty and tested every bit of infrastructure in the area.

In the aftermath, please let us know if there is anything we can do?

Regards and best wishes.


10/28/12, 4:51 AM

jollyreaper said...
Couple of thoughts.

Wasn't the image of a beached carrier the iconic photo of the war? I thought the missile attack was public knowledge. I know the Japanese tried to keep Midway a secret but contemporary accounts showed that the Japanese citizens still knew something bad had happened. And in this age of Internet, even if the pentagon is keeping mum and even if American media complies, we can watch the bbc, al jazzera, etc. Not to mention all the means of personal communication had by the survivors. Can't keep them all quiet.

I don't have a problem with a sudden collapse or dissolution of the union. My money would be on more fighting beforehand as a poster above suggested but these are just competing scenarios, none more likely than the other. It's all speculative territory. But what I don't think is speculative is that however the breakup happens, things will not do well. It will not be a cozy devolution.

Who gets the nukes? How are military forces divided? Red states are revenue sinks. What happens when those federal payments go away? What about people living on government pensions? How will large businesses be affected? Oh yeah, what about the national debt? The whole world is tied into t-bills and I don't see anyone agreeing to even take on a portion of that debt.

As I understand it, oil is why we got away with that. We sell debt we can't pay back and people buy it because you need dollars to buy oil. And the dollar is worth a dollar because the full faith and credit of the US is backed up by nuclear bleeping weapons along with the rest of the war machine.

You lose the dollar, tankers stop sailing. All the cheap crap from china probably stopped the same day the war started. So the US is looking are bare shelves at Walmart even before the breakup.

I think what might be an equally plausible scenario is the mismanagement of the constitutional convention causes a confidence crisis and panic dumping of the dollar and the union is forced into bankruptcy just like a Wall Street bank that gambled too dangerously. Rather than ratifying a breakup, it just happens as the wheels fall off.

So what would the leaders do? The DC guys. Their entire power base is tied into the status quo. They lose the federal government, they've got nothing. How will they scramble to preserve it? How will things go wrong?

The more I think about it, the more I realize there are is many things I probably haven't even considered that could take equal billing with "that's actually the real problem here."

I like the bad calls you included in your scenario. That's the most plausible and human bit in this entry.

10/28/12, 5:36 AM

jollyreaper said...
Not so sure about that. You have a libertarian paradise in one state, what happens when old folks try to move to a welfare state next door when they retire? What if they try sneaking across the border and living with relatives?

Suppose the South reinstates slavery. Yeah, extreme. But how do you handle fugitive slaves? That property stole itself and needs returning. I have an armed posse of drunk rednecks that says you're gonna cooperate, see heah now.

Or what if women are sneaking across the border from jesusland to godlesslibistan for an abortion and smugglers are doing a tidy business running contraceptives and prophylactics back the other way? International incident? Cause for war?

It's not that the scenario can't happen, just that I don't think it can happen in other than a messy fashion. The fall of the ussr was not pretty but at least it didn't go nuclear. But note the oligarchs there were created when state assets were sold off to private bidders, people already players in the soviet system. Maybe federal assets would be similarly stolen and the next generation of robber-barons would make today's Wall Street tycoons look like pikers.

10/28/12, 5:50 AM

jollyreaper said...
There was a funny story about the rich Nan's bubble on bill moyers related by a guest. Guest is with a rich and important somebody. The somebody says he was at an expensive resort and dropped his grapefruit spoon. Before he could even stoop to retrieve it here comes help racing in with four spoons on a tray for him to select from. He said he found it easy to become acclimated to and he was resentful when he made it back to relative reality, that he wasn't so catered to. He thinks it could be morally corrosive. This moment of self-awareness was punctuated by him calling his assistant at 11pm her time and screaming about why his car and driver aren't at the airport exactly when he needs them.

10/28/12, 6:03 AM

Chris Balow said...
JMG, I find myself a little confused by your response to Justin G's comment (in regard to swing states). In this week's post, irresolvable conflicts between red states and blue states drive a dissolution of the Union. Yet, when Justin G. pointed out that these same conflicts can be found within state borders (rural southern Illinois vs. Chicagoland is a good example, but there are many), you state that many nations of the past have found such cultural differences to be a source of strength.

When are cultural differences within a nation's borders a source of strength, and when are they a source of unresolvable division?

10/28/12, 1:58 PM

Liquid Paradigm said...
Just a quick drop in to say I'm enjoying (well, given the subject I"m not sure that's the right word, but it will have to do) the current series, and most looking forward to the "aftermath" portion of this speculative future.

And mostly I drop in to wish you and yours well against what could be either vindication for Art Bell and Whitley Strieber or another egg-on-face moment for the forecasters. Be safe!

10/28/12, 5:08 PM

john john said...
I have not read all the previous posts as yet, but find it sad that no one has mentioned the bioregional perspective. People have been planning and living as though the state boundaries do not exist for at least a couple of decades.

All Our Relations
john john

10/28/12, 5:13 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Robert M, good. Yes, that's part of what I'm doing here.

Unknown, I'm going to take issue with that last comment of yours. I've pointed out repeatedly that the Long Descent will include many crises, some of them sudden and overwhelming on local, regional and national scales. How many times do I have to say that before people stop insisting that I think everything's going to move at a snail's pace, on every scale?

Robert C, stay tuned...

Nano, I don't know China's economic goals; neither does anybody else outside of the relevant committee of their government. Nor do any of the rest of us have any idea what they may have planned to deal with the rough waters ahead. All we can do, lacking inside information, is guess.

Renaissance, fascinating! I'm glad to see that sort of thinking going on in those contexts -- it may save this country from some very rough times, if enough people pay attention.

Robert C, there are many other alternatives. Stay tuned...

Guilherme, a number of countries have broken up in the last few decades. More often than not, it hasn't involved civil war, and in some cases -- Yugoslavia comes to mind -- the war followed, rather than preceding, the breakup. Still, if you want to spin an alternative scenario, by all means.

Draco, China's most probable goals are a good deal more accessible than those of the US, over the short term; they can gain most of them -- a rise in status to global hegemon, for example, and sharply improved access to overseas resources -- if we crash and burn.

Cherokee, how will pigs interact with the native fauna? If there won't be a problem, it might be worth trying.

Unknown Deborah, good. You're paying attention to the fact that different power centers in today's America have different agendas, which is a surprisingly rare insight just now.

10/28/12, 5:43 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Glenn, economic factors would drive things if people were rational. By and large, they aren't, and so the cultural schisms may prove to be as powerful as, say, the fine points of Christian theology were in splitting up the post-Roman world.

DaShui, er, no. You need to read those websites a little more carefully.

Jennifer, no. If you read the US Constitution -- I highly recommend doing that someday, btw -- you'll find that a constitutional amendment can be ratified either by state legislatures, or by state conventions whose delegates are elected for the purpose. Congress has the right to decide which one a given proposed amendment will use. In the narrative, Congress voted to require state conventions, the delegates to which are elected by the voters of each state.

Sooper, I suspect you would be surprised -- some states, or new nations composed of states, would be much more inclined to censor and control the internet, and all of them would probably tax it, since they'll need money and won't have the option of borrowing until they've demonstrated some stability.

Cherokee, thank you! We should be fine here -- we're around 200 miles in from the coast, on the far side of the Appalachian crest -- but I'll certainly post something to let people know how things fare. The upcoming post is already uploaded and set to go Wednesday night, so even if I'm without power, you'll get to see how the story ends.

Reaper, yes, there was a photo of a wrecked carrier all over the internet. Very few people in the US knew what happened -- there were all kinds of rumors on the internet, but the evening news didn't say anything, and a lot of people dismissed the rumors -- there were plenty of claims, for example, that the carrier photo was photoshopped. The shock of finding out that the rumors were true, and that the US government hid the scale and nature of a major military disaster from the people, was a good deal of what made the revelations in September so hard a blow to the nation's self-confidence.

Chris, the cultural differences in the US today are a source of strength, or could be, if the habit of collective demonization hadn't gotten so deeply entrenched all over the political spectrum. It's that latter habit that's threatening to tear the country apart -- not cultural differences, but the absolute intolerance of them that's cultivated so assiduously by left and right alike.

Paradigm, thank you!

John John, sure -- a handful of people on the fringes of one end of the political spectrum, with no influence on the wider political or cultural conversation. If the bioregionalists want to change that, they need to get moving.

10/28/12, 6:09 PM

John Michael Greer said...
100% (offlist), the best way to get a message to me is to make a comment marked "do not post this," and include your email address. I won't post it, and I'll respond as soon as time permits.

10/28/12, 6:10 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Cherokee Organics, you know what releasing rabbits into the wild did to Australia. I'd be cautious about releasing pigs.

In Northern California, hunters introduced nonnative wild pig/domesticated pig crosses into some of our oak woodlands so they could hunt them later. Pigs are onmnivores, they root up the soil, and the sow like the rabbit is an emblem of fertility.

Two of the large predators formerly part of the California ecosystem (wolves and grizzlies) were hunted to extinction a century ago. Coyotes and cougars hunt solo, and a fully grown sow or boar is more trouble than they want to take on. I would think black bears could go after a feral pig, but AFAIK they don't. The human hunters aren't keeping the pig population in check.

Pigs eat acorns; their rooting destroys habitat for plants that need undisturbed soil and creates habitat for invasive plants that like it, such as Russian thistle. These multiplying feral pigs have done enough ecological damage in some of our state parks that the park service has paid to have them rounded up and slaughtered by the hundreds.

10/29/12, 2:16 AM

phil harris said...
@Joao Carlos said from his vantage point in S America:
"The world changed to a direction that the politics and american public cannot grasp."
This is also true of British population and media as well as dominant politics. I am not so sure about thinking in the rest of Europe, although the those in the region must balance the risks to their economies from staying within EU structures, against the risks from 'going it alone' and then, too late, finding themselves too small to cope with competition in a changed political and economic resource context.

Britain has become increasingly reliant on sophisticated financial instruments and a 'defence' industry tied to the chariot wheels of the USA machine.

Influential commentators in Britain (e.g. Pritchard in the Telegraph) see shale gas in the USA riding to the rescue of American decline, and see UK in all but name 'out of the EU'.

So I guess Britain will once more 'bet the farm' on hanging in with the US hegemon.
So it goes ...
PS Best wishes to east coast USA in this next 48 hours. We will be thinking about you.

10/29/12, 4:25 AM

:€ said...
@JMG Just a quibble about breakup of Yugoslavia, from its former citizen: tanks were on the roads within hours of Slovenia's secession and their deployment for civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia started within a week. So, if anything, breakup and civil wars (there was not just one) were simultaneous. Of course, this only underscores your point.

10/29/12, 11:18 AM

Steve said...

A note about your references in previous posts to revitalization movements: Greece looks to be in the middle of at least one right now.

Some relevant quotes:

"Away from the door, Maria Kirimi tells me she's been locked out of her flat with all her things inside since 29 July; the family are crowded at her mother's now, seven people surviving on €400 a month. "We're the living dead," she says. Isn't she troubled by Golden Dawn's violence? "The boys in the black shirts are the only ones I'm not scared of. I feel they'll protect me." I ask her mother, old enough to remember the junta, what she thinks of their far-right views. "I heard Michaloliakos say on TV that their sign isn't Hitler's sign but a patriotic one," she says, and then looks down at her feet. "It does upset me a bit. But I haven't heard of anyone else giving out food.""

" In June, many voted for Golden Dawn as a protest against the parties that brought the country down: "I want them in parliament to beat the others up." Now they are turning to it because hope is exhausted; because things are out of control and they want someone to take charge; because it's "doing something". "It's not that Greece is going to be saved," one voter said to me. "Greece can't be saved.""

Lots of warning signs about the failure of the governing parties to do much of anything useful for the average person whose job, house, and identity have been lost. Sounds a lot like what this series is warning about in parallel for the future of the USA. All the more reason to get to work minimizing one's dependency on the industrial economy and political handouts.

Good luck riding out the storm.

10/29/12, 3:28 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
JMG, just a minor point:

I know a country can dissolve without that much bloodshed, at least initially, specially if it's a rickety thing cobbled together in a negotiation room somewhere far off from local realities, and some have indeed done that, granted.

But a big country, with that much history, and SPECIALLY an imperial power? I just can't see it. Maybe there are historical examples (I guess you could make a parallel with the carolingian empire, or the british empire post WW II, for example). Anyways, the feel I have for the US (admittedly from an outside perspective) points at something much nastier.

But, as they say, talk is cheap. We can't know until it actually happens, and then it won't mather who called it :)

The beauty of your style of prose is that, even if one doesn't agree with everything you say, it is so reasonable, consistent and it sheds light in so many issues, that it is a powerful narrative and it really deliver a message. As many people have said, you're a master storyteller.

10/29/12, 6:07 PM

yooper said...
Following with great interest! Thanks!

10/29/12, 6:36 PM

jollyreaper said...
Humans are story-loving critters and ideas that don't go down as easy in a philosophical essay are always more digestible when presented as parable or fable.

There was a terrible management book I read in college that featured a guy turning around his company by employing the author's ideas. While the quality of the novel itself was akin to a Young Adult version of Atlas Shrugged, I was struck that it was still a powerful format for exposition.

In retrospect I realized that there were other novels I'd read that were much better at being great stories but were actually vehicles for exploiting serious ideas.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference but for me it helped reshape how I looked at writing and storytelling. I could now tell when a writer had obviously written an essay on some topic and then stuck in a few quotation marks and stage direction to make it not look like an author tract.

I think the key ingredient in doing it effectively is the sympathetic character you identify with. Tell a kid to be careful in the woods and watch out for snakes, it doesn't stick. Tell the kid about another kid much like himself who didn't listen to his elders and got snakebit and how much he suffered before he died, that will stick. You can talk about the future portended by authoritarianism or you can run Winston Smith through the wringer and really drive the point home.

The only problem with this approach is you can prove anything you want in fiction and yet some people will take it as experimental proof that can be cited for the real world. Objectivism works in Rand's novels! Yeah, and in Rowling's novels boys and girls can become wizards but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for an owl from Hogwart's.

10/30/12, 3:02 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John and Deborah,

Oops! You may have misinterpreted my post. Yes, rabbits are a real drama here. Did you know the original settlers tried introducing 5 different species before the current Spanish wild rabbits established themselves here?

It is really interesting that those same rabbits are about 2 kilometres away from me and have been for some time, but they never made it here because being in the middle of some older forest with lots of bird housing in older trees, the wedge tail eagles (and foxes) take them out during the day and the southern boo-book / powerful owls (and foxes) eat them at night. It is a precarious life for a rabbit here (not to mention my chooks!).

The majority of native animals (except the echidnna which is a marsupial ant eater) are only active at night here. During the day I let the dogs roam through the orchard and they'd kill and eat any rabbit they'd find. The miniature fox terrier (a very common farm breed here) would even venture into the rabbit burrow. The dogs are in an enclosure at night and the native animals here know it and ignore them – even eating my herb garden which is right against the dog enclosure.

The original mega fauna which were mostly herbivores have long since been eaten by humans, upsetting the entire fragile ecosystem and changing it completely.

The other problem with Australian forests is that the soils here are old. Some of the oldest rocks on the surface of the planet are in Australia. This means that they don't have a lot to offer plants. Everything grows slower here. Seriously, this is why I squirrel away all this organic matter that most people consider to be waste product.

I'm in an area of relatively recent volcanic activity (6 million years ago) which is a bonus. However, the continent is pretty flat, so the last ice age didn't produce much glaciation which renews soils. In addition to this it is relatively geologically stable (regular readers may remember a reference to a recent earthquake in a comment, which was a rare occurrence), so there hasn't been much uplifting of the crust. All of these activities renew the soil, but it is not happening and the soils are exhausted and/or low in nutrients.

The theoretical pigs would be run in rotating plots and not running loose and feral in the forest. Their purpose would be for meat, manure and soil creation processes. They would effectively be concentrating organic matter and nutrients into the soil.

Yes, this does change the ecosystem and soil here, but the whole of the country has been so badly managed and strip mined that, whilst things could possibly get worse, they'd mostly likely get better.

By the way, deer, goats and pigs already roam through this mountain range. All of them are escapees. Apart from humans (and the accidental snake bite), there really is no other predator, but soil nutrients are so low that they don't breed massive populations either.



10/30/12, 3:30 AM

Mark Angelini said...
Gurney, even more appropriate!

Really enjoying these past four posts. Your depiction seems all too real. I was at the edge of fear reading part three. This one was a reprieve. Do you plan to release a book written in this form?

10/30/12, 9:58 AM

Sooper said...
On the apocalyptic subject, what would happen if Sandy's brother
"Dandy" came, next year, very much
like Sandy, except that he is category 5?

10/30/12, 10:40 AM

Unknown said...
This is very good literature! Each week I am waiting for the next installment. The details are spot on - it makes it very realistic.
The only thing that I see differently is the breaking of the union. I think the empire won't let that happen. What will happen though is what happened to Rome. Regions away from the center will be lost first. When there is not enough loot to bribe the states, they will slowly regain independence - not officially but just pushing back against federal power. When that happen, I actually expect the rich coastal states to take initiative - they give twice as much to the feds than they get back.

10/30/12, 12:48 PM

clifman said...
erm... Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, not '82. Jumps out at me as it was one of the last major events I was able to discuss with my father, who died in '81.

10/30/12, 3:36 PM

Sooper said...
That was an attempt at writing an apocalyptic prediction. In my opinion, like most such predictions, it was flawed. Storms are heat engines and depend on temperature differences to fuel them. As it is,
Sandy probably can only spread as much as it does, because it is category 1, and thus can be fueled by relatively mild average temperature differences spread over a great area. "Dandy" would probably starve itself to death before it could become a really big menace....

10/30/12, 6:22 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Re: JMG "The upcoming post is already uploaded and set to go Wednesday night, so even if I'm without power, you'll get to see how the story ends."

I wouldn't think an Archdruid would be sitting at his computer tomorrow night anyway! Hardly the way to spend New Year's Eve!

Sooper -- that's Roland-Emerich apocalyptic fantasy. Climate change isn't happening in "Day After Tomorrow" cataclysms, it's one weather event after another, cumulative over the decades and centuries. And, of course, to be technical, 4's and 5's don't happen early in the season, and so far 5's are still restricted to actual tropical latitudes (and remain very rare).

10/30/12, 6:47 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Euro, thanks for the clarification -- I recalled, inaccurately, that there had been a bit more of a delay.

Steve, yes, I've been watching Weimar Greece with some concern. It's astonishing that so many people are so heedlessly making the same mistakes as in the 1930s.

Guilherme, whether or not the US descends into civil war or insurgency in the course of its imperial collapse is still very much an open question. I simply chose, for this scenario, a course of events that didn't involve that -- one that I think is plausible. Still, it needs to be repeated that the narrative I'm writing isn't the way things will happen, just a way that things could happen.

Yooper, long time no see! Welcome back.

Reaper, stories are our species' oldest tools, and still among the most powerful. I noted a long time ago that people can't imagine something happening until they can put it in story form, and writing a fictional narrative is a useful way to help that happen.

Cherokee, fair enough. If you're keeping the pigs controlled, by all means; they're very efficient at converting vegetable matter into high quality (and very tasty) protein.

Mark, the current plan is to put the narrative into a forthcoming book on the decline and fall of the American empire. Still, if some big publisher wants to offer me a lucrative contract for a book version, I'll talk. ;-)

Sooper, perhaps you can tell me why this is relevant to the topic of this post.

Unknown, I'd encourage you to consider the fall of the Soviet Union. Would anybody have believed, as late as 1985, that the Soviet Union could simply fall apart, without civil war or nukes flying? The sudden collapse of imperial states, especially but not only in the aftermath of a failed war, is tolerably common in history.

Clifman, you're quite right, of course. My error.

Sooper, true, but again, in what way is this relevant to the post?

Bill, and a happy Samhuinn to you too! Mind you, I'll probably be on the keyboard a bit this evening anyway.

10/31/12, 8:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
In response to the questions about the little atmospheric disturbance (ahem) we just had, Sara and I got through the storm just fine. We had quite a bit of rain and wind, but nothing that an ordinary autumn storm wouldn't have brought; power flickered quite a bit but never failed, and if it had, we were more than ready for that. So all's well; many thanks for your concern!

10/31/12, 8:18 AM

Sooper said...
Well, not so much relevant to the main part of the post, but I felt it was a valid observation bridging current events to the second part of the post, the "End of the World of the Week"... Later, I did have some doubts on the relevance of the observation, but I had already published it.

10/31/12, 9:38 AM

Degringolade said...
Just Curious:

How much of what is written here in the last four posts ties in as deep background for "stars Reach"

10/31/12, 5:17 PM

Galih N said...