The decline and fall of the USA

James Fallows writes that "America can rise again." But California's example is not encouraging

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 5, 2010 11:21PM (EST)

After exploring, and partially dismissing, the question of whether the United States is in decline, James Fallows' magisterial new article in the Atlantic, "How America Can Rise Again", concludes with a downbeat summation that belies the optimistic title.

Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. But ... our only sane choice is to muddle through. As human beings, we ultimately become old and broken and dysfunctional -- but in the meantime it makes a difference if we try. Our American republic may prove to be doomed, but it will make a difference if we improvise and strive to make the best of the path through our time -- and our children's, and their grandchildren's -- rather than succumb.

The most depressing part of Fallows' analysis is his belief that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with "America" that can't be fixed, except perhaps our system of government!  This will ring true to to anyone who paid close attention to Washington in 2009.

Or California. For no disquisition on American decline can be complete without a side trip to America's Exhibit A for dysfunctional government, and Fallows takes us right there in one pithy paragraph.

Kevin Starr, author of an acclaimed multivolume history of California politics and culture, told me that through the 1960s, the state's public culture was dedicated to the idea that big things could be done. "The water plan, the freeways, the universities -- it was all supposed to be the greatest in the history of the human race," he said. "It was envisioned as a higher-ed utopia. Whether you wanted to be a nuclear physicist or a beautician, the state would help get you there." Now, as he and countless others point out, California's system has been engineered to ensure that nothing can be done. Through ballot measures, California's electorate votes itself increasing benefits; through other ballot measures, the public limits taxes to pay for them. Harold Varmus won his Nobel Prize for work done at UC San Francisco and still owns a house in the Bay Area. He says that thanks to California's famous Proposition 13, which has limited property taxes over the past 30 years, his annual taxes in California are about $600 -- one-twentieth of what they are for a similar property in New York.

Just in the last week, the news from California only deepens the gloom. Last year's budget meltdown is set to repeat itself in 2010: the state is looking at a new $21 billion deficit for the next fiscal year, promising another round of draconian cuts in state services and partisan intransigence. Lawmakers are hoping for more help from the federal government -- and there's a good case to be made for that, since the last thing the American economy needs as it tries to get back on its feet is a bankrupt California. But in the runup to the midterms elections, bailing out California, no matter how strong the economic case, is unlikely to be a politically popular policy move. Meanwhile, every day brings another signpost of decline.

Can we muddle through? Does it really make a difference to try, to "improvise and strive to make the best of the path through our time," even if the Republic, and California, are doomed? I see no other way to live, as a practical matter, but I'm not sure Fallows has told us how to rise again, or has just shown us a way to fall with honor.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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