The Amerislump Reader

Tracking the ups and downs of a superpower.

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547201_111114_decline2.jpg

It's said that Americans are an optimistic people, and that's generally true. But they're also a very insecure one, constantly on the lookout for threats to their prosperity, way of life, and international predominance. Whereas communist infiltrators and Japanese salarymen once provided continual grist for media doom-spotters, today it's the Wall Street Occupiers and hyperqualified Asian tiger-children that launch a million trend stories.

In September, FP Passport began a new feature tracking the datapoints and trends said to be illustrative of the ongoing process of American decline, and assessing their relative slumpiness. They range from financial Masters of the Universe going without their customary cocaine binge, to starving Muppets invading a nation's TV screens, to the unanswered question of just how many goats live in the American heartland. Sometimes these stories are alarming, sometimes absurd, sometimes even signs of continued American dynamism.

It’s said that Americans are an optimistic people, and that’s generally true. But they’re also a very insecure one, constantly on the lookout for threats to their prosperity, way of life, and international predominance. Whereas communist infiltrators and Japanese salarymen once provided continual grist for media doom-spotters, today it’s the Wall Street Occupiers and hyperqualified Asian tiger-children that launch a million trend stories.

In September, FP Passport began a new feature tracking the datapoints and trends said to be illustrative of the ongoing process of American decline, and assessing their relative slumpiness. They range from financial Masters of the Universe going without their customary cocaine binge, to starving Muppets invading a nation’s TV screens, to the unanswered question of just how many goats live in the American heartland. Sometimes these stories are alarming, sometimes absurd, sometimes even signs of continued American dynamism.

Will this moment one day be remembered as the time when the sun finally set on the American empire, or will these stories seem as quaint as Red Scare-era newsreels? Only time will tell, but it’s time to start collecting data.

America’s goat population to remain a mystery

The New York Times reports on the latest cuts to the Department of Agriculture:

Last year, Wisconsin led the nation in mink farming, producing 833,430 pelts. Texas was the undisputed king of pansies, growing 1.8 million flats of the flowers. And no state harvested more hops than Washington, with 24,336 acres. 

This year? Who knows? The government has stopped counting.

Forced to cut its budget, the Agriculture Department has decided to eliminate dozens of reports, including the annual goat census (current population: three million), and the number of catfish on the nation’s fish farms (177 million, not counting the small fry).

[…]

The government began producing regular crop reports in 1863, the year after Lincoln created the Agriculture Department. One of the reports being eliminated, an annual sheep inventory (5.5 million head on Jan. 1), can trace its roots at least as far back as 1866. Also ending are reports on bees, honey production, flowers and nursery crops.

The statistics service said it was forced to reduce the frequency of some reports and eliminate others because its budget was cut for the fiscal year that ended in September and it expects further cuts for the current year. The eliminated reports will save $11 million a year.

“These are not cuts we wanted to make, but budget reductions by Congress made it necessary,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.

Decline-o-meter: Lord knows there’s ample room for cuts in U.S. farm policies, but spending $11 million to obtain accurate figures about a fairly vital sector of the economy actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. 

Of course, the goat census is ripe for mockery, according to the longstanding principle in American political discourse that any government policy involving animals automatically sounds ridiculous. And yes, given the title of this post, I can’t really complain about that. 

Disaster warning system — kind of a disaster

The FEC and FEMA carried out an unprecedented nationwide test of the U.S. emergency alert system today, which was supposed to interrupt television and radio coverage at around 2 p.m. eastern time. Results of the test were mixed, as the New York Times‘s Media Decoder blog reports:

Many of the reported failures affected cable and satellite television subscribers, and some were quite head-scratching: Some DirecTV subscribers said their TV sets played the Lady Gaga song “Paparazzi” when the test was underway. Some Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York said the test never appeared on screen. Some Comcast subscribers in northern Virginia said their TV sets were switched over to QVC before the alert was shown.

In some cases the test messages were delayed, perhaps because the messages are designed to trickle down from one place to many. A viewer in Minneapolis said he saw the message about three minutes late. A viewer in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she saw it about 10 minutes late.

In Greensboro, N.C., a local reporter saw the alert on all the cable news channels but on none of the local broadcast networks. In Los Angeles, some cable customers said the alert lasted for almost half an hour.

Many other viewers and listeners reported that the alert arrived right on time at 2 p.m. Eastern. It halted digital video recorder playback in some households and surprised radio listeners in their cars.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were the two federal agencies in charge of the test. “We always knew that there would probably be some things that didn’t work, and some things that did,” a FEMA official said an hour after the test, acknowledging that some glitches had occurred. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agencies had not publicly acknowledged the glitches yet.

Perhaps this was all according to plan, and the government thinks Americans would prefer to spend their last moments before nuclear annihilation shopping for costume jewelry and fishing equipment while listening to Lady Gaga. But assuming this wasn’t a coded message from the Illuminati and the glitches were accidental, it’s not that encouraging. 

Decline-o-meter: As a side note, as someone who almost never turns on the radio and does a good portion of my “TV” watching online, it occurs to me that I would likely be blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe my government was trying to warn me about. On the other hand, the idea of FEMA commandeering Gmail, Twitter, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, etc. feels pretty icky from a privacy point of view. 

I suppose we’ll have to count on someone to be watching TV at the time to tweet at the rest of us so we tune in. 

The New York Times has a very strange op-ed today from Paul V. Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. The piece makes the case that the U.S. should trade Taiwan to China for a deal on debt. Here’s the argument:

There are dozens of initiatives President Obama could undertake to strengthen our economic security. Here is one: He should enter into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the $1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan and terminate the current United States-Taiwan defense arrangement by 2015. 

This would be a most precious prize to the cautious men in Beijing, one they would give dearly to achieve. After all, our relationship with Taiwan, as revised in 1979, is a vestige of the cold war. 

Kane argues that with this one bold stroke, Obama can “correct the country’s course, help assure his re-election, and preserve our children’s future.” It could also “pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan.”

Decline-o-meter: Giving this a two for the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where a suggestion like this is being featured on a prominent op-ed page. I’m all for counter-intuitive thinking, and intelligent people can disagree on the wisdom of the current U.S. Taiwan policy, but like most magic bullet solutions to major international crises, this makes absolutely no sense.

1. Why would China take this deal? According to the figures Kane himself cites, Beijing will spend around $500 billion over the next decade on Taiwan-related defense spending. So a $1.14 trillion debt write-off isn’t really a bargain. Obviously Taiwan is a major priority for Beijing. But its trade relationship and relative economic position with the U.S. is a much, much bigger one. 

2. U.S. debt is approaching $15 trillion. Lowering that to $14 trillion isn’t going to “save our economy”. And I can’t imagine a write-off on the scale doing wonders for the U.S. credit rating.

3. How exactly will this help Obama’s reelection chances? I’ve always thought the argument that Obama is “selling out” U.S. allies was overblown, but it would be a bit hard to refute if he literally sold a U.S. ally. 

4. Even if this deal magically resolved the Taiwan situation, what does that have to do with Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Pakistan — countries where China has completely different interests at stake?  If anything, it takes a bargaining chip off the table. 

Flawed as it is, the idea got me thinking. Canada holds about $90 billion in U.S. debt. Maybe they’d take a Dakota or two for it. 

Update: Via James Fallows, I see that the good folks at Taiwan’s Next Media Animation have weighed in: 

Human Development Index highlights U.S. inequality

The United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index presents a very different picture of global wellbeing than the Legatum Prosperity Index discussed yesterday, though those smug Norwegians are still on top. 

The big headline from this year’s index is the secondary list, which adjusts scores for internal inequalities in health, education and income. On that scale, the United States drops from fourth place to 23rd. 

I spoke with the UNDP’s chief of communications and publishing for the report, about why the effect of inequality was so striking in the United States:

In high income countries, there are many countries in which the years of schooling that adults already have wouldn’t vary that dramatically among, region, among gender, or ethnic minorities. In the United States, the opposite is true. All those variables have a huge effect. The average years of schooling that adults over 25 have in greater Boston as opposed to that in the Mississippi delta is going to be really different. The level of disparity is very unusual among high-income countries. 

The inequality-adjusted Human Development Index is an attempt to try to portray that. The United States isn’t the only country that’s effected but it’s certainly one of the most seriously affected. 

Other seriously affected countries include South Korea, which falls from 15th to 32nd on inequality-adjusted HDI and Israel, which falls from 17th to 25th. 

I also asked Orme what the big takeaway of the report was for rising powers like Brazil, India, and China: 

The whole question of distribution has been central to their national debates and the analysis of their development models. Take Brazil, which had long been portrayed as the most unequal large economy of the world. Income inequality was quite acute. 

What’s interesting [in Latin America] is that if you look at the education and health distribution as well as income, the picture is a little different than what we’re used to seeing.   They, the Latin Americans, especially countries like Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, have been doing much better at extending education and healthcare to their populations, including the poor, in the last 10 years or so. Even income gaps are beginning to narrow slightly, whereas in most of the world, including Asia and the United States, the trend is toward increasing disparity and widening gaps in income. 

Ivy League universities are now India’s safety schools

In its seamless blending of globalization, “rise of the rest,”  and the gnawing anxieties of upper middle-class American parents, the New York Times piece which arrives just in time for college admissions season comes pretty close to hitting the NYT trend story sweet spot. (All it needs is an animal and a health trend to achieve ultimate most-emailed status.):

NEW DELHI — Moulshri Mohan was an excellent student at one of the top private high schools in New Delhi. When she applied to colleges, she received scholarship offers of $20,000 from Dartmouth and $15,000 from Smith. Her pile of acceptance letters would have made any ambitious teenager smile: Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Wesleyan, Barnard and the University of Virginia. 

But because of her 93.5 percent cumulative score on her final high school examinations, which are the sole criteria for admission to most colleges here, Ms. Mohan was rejected by the top colleges at Delhi University, better known as D.U., her family’s first choice and one of India’s top schools.

“Daughter now enrolled at Dartmouth!” her mother, Madhavi Chandra, wrote, updating her Facebook page. “Strange swings this admission season has shown us. Can’t get into DU, can make it to the Ivies.”

Ms. Mohan, 18, is now one of a surging number of Indian students attending American colleges and universities, as competition in India has grown formidable, even for the best students. With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed.

This summer, Delhi University issued cutoff scores at its top colleges that reached a near-impossible 100 percent in some cases. The Indian Institutes of Technology, which are spread across the country, have an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent — and that is only from a pool of roughly 500,000 who qualify to take the entrance exam, a feat that requires two years of specialized coaching after school.

Decline watch: Like I said, this one’s going viral because, like Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it feeds into the fears of American parents that they’re not doing enough to prepare their kids to compete with a massive influx of smart kids of India and China. But the real story here is that India doesn’t have enough elite educational institutions to meet the demand of its qualified students. The fact that students like Moulshri are willing to pay$41,736 per year for Dartmouth instead of $500 for an Indian school says a lot. 

See Ben Wildavsky’s Think Again: Education for more on this topic. 

Governor of U.S. territory offers to lease islands to China

Small Pacific islands have something of a track record of selling their allegiance to larger powers, but usually not U.S. territories!

The governor of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean, said he is willing to lease some of the islands to China as long as it’s not for military purposes.

“If you are interested, I am offering these islands to China,” Governor Benigno Fitial told a group of Chinese governors and provincial Communist Party Secretaries at a conference in Beijing. “Lease these islands so that I can have enough financial resources to provide for more full employment for my people.”

There are 15 islands in the Northern Marianas with a total population of 46,050, the biggest of which is Saipan, according to the CIA World Factbook. There are 10 uninhabited islands available for lease, and he has the right to lease them to “anybody,” Fitial said in an interview after his remarks.

Decline-o-meter: It’s not really clear whether China actually has any interest in these islands, or if Fitial has the right to sell them, but it’s not very encouraging that he’s made the offer. 

 

No more fluoridation in Florida

In the 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove, Gen. Jack D. Ripper describes water fluoridation as “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist we have ever had to face.” Almost five decades later, Ripper’s wish to rid the country of this scourge may be coming true, though he probably wouldn’t like the reason:

MIAMI — A growing number of communities are choosing to stop adding fluoride to their water systems, even though the federal government and federal health officials maintain their full support for a measure they say provides a 25 percent reduction in tooth decay nationwide.

Last week, Pinellas County, on Florida’s west coast, voted to stop adding fluoride to its public water supply after starting the program seven years ago. The county joins about 200 jurisdictions from Georgia to Alaska that have chosen to end the practice in the last four years, motivated both by tight budgets and by skepticism about its benefits.

It also appears that Gen. Ripper’s arguments are alive and well: 

For decades, the issue of fluoridated water remained on the fringes. The John Birch Society took up the cause, seeing fluoride as a communist plot to poison the nation. References to Nazis using fluoride to pacify prisoners in concentration camps — a claim that was never proved — circulate even today. At least one person at the Pinellas County meeting made reference to both the Soviets and the Nazis.

Decline-o-meter: I’m not going to get into the debate about the benefits and drawbacks of fluoridation but feel free to fight it out in the comments. From the article, there seems to be a consensus that it’s beneficial in small amounts. It also seems from this story like towns are making policy based budget constraints and paranoia against the advice of doctors and dentists. 

City repeals domestic violence law in budget dispute

A.G. Sulzberger reports from Topeka:

Three arms of government, all ostensibly representing the same people, have been at an impasse over who should be responsible for — and pay for — prosecuting people accused of misdemeanor cases of domestic violence.

City leaders had blamed the Shawnee County district attorney for handing off such cases to the city without warning. The district attorney, in turn, said he was forced to not prosecute any misdemeanors and to focus on felonies because the County Commission cut his budget. And county leaders accused the district attorney of using abused women as pawns to negotiate more money for his office.

After both sides dug in, the dispute came to a head Tuesday night.

By a vote of 7 to 3, the City Council repealed the local law that makes domestic violence a crime.

Decline-o-meter: Thankfully, this doesn’t actually mean domestic violence has been decriminalized in Topeka. The move was a ploy to force the District Attorney to prosecute the offenses, which remain illegal under Kansas State law. But it’s a scary sign of the times and highlights the fact that the prosecutor’s office has recently been cut by 10 percent at a time that the city has seen a “recent uptick in violent crime.”

Also worth a read is Michael Lewis’ new Vanity Fair dispatch from California, which makes the case that state and municipal governments are the real ticking time bomb of the crisis: 

The market for municipal bonds, unlike the market for U.S. government bonds, spooked easily. American cities and states were susceptible to the same cycle of doom that had forced Greece to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. 

Lewis’ piece sketches out what this will mean for public-safety services like police and firefighting in debt-wracked cities like Vallejo. 

Can Americans afford to drive drunk anymore?

Drunk driving incidents have fallen 30 percent over the last five years. How can this possibly be a sign of decline, you ask? The AP’s Mike Stobbe, via Gawker, explains:

The decline may be due to the down economy: Other research suggests people are still drinking as heavily as in years past, so some may just be finding cheaper ways of imbibing than by going to bars, night clubs and restaurants.

“One possibility is that people are drinking at home more and driving less after drinking,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Decline-o-meter: Giving this a neutral score both for the uncertainty of the premise and the fact that, despite the reasons, this obviously isn’t a bad thing. 

Something doesn’t quite add up though. If Americans are getting their drink on at home to save money, shouldn’t there be an increase in the sales of inexpensive beers? As we noted last week, beer sales are down except in hoity-toity categories like microbrews and imports. 

In any case, don’t drink and drive whatever your income. America’s roads are dangerous enough already.  

 

The pioneering children’s show has always striven to include characters representative of its viewing audience. Sadly, that now increasingly includes children who don’t get enough to eat: 

A new poverty-stricken Muppet will highlight the issue of hunger struggles on an episode of “Sesame Street”, the show said in a statement on Tuesday.

Pink-faced Muppet Lily, whose family deals with food insecurity, will join Big Bird, Elmo and other favorites on a one-hour prime-time special featuring country star Brad Paisley and his wife Kimberly Williams Paisley called “Growing Hope Against Hunger,” to air Oct 9.

The new Muppet will bring awareness to the ongoing hunger struggles that families face in the United States, the show said.

“Food insecurity is a growing and difficult issue for adults to discuss, much less children,” the Paisleys said in a statement.

Decline-o-meter: Good for Sesame Street for taking this on, but it’s still a pretty grim sign.

I do have to wonder if the special will include Cookie Monster — a potent symbol of American excess and overconsumption if there ever was one. 

On a lighter note, be sure to check out the #OccupySesameStreet hashtag today.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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