By Other Means

It Was Nice While It Lasted

Reflections on the end of America.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Despite the measly stop-gap measure presented on Wednesday in Congress, will we someday look back on the government shutdown of 2013 as the moment that America’s grand democratic experiment began irreversibly to disintegrate? Here’s a look into one possible future, from the perspective of the year 2060….

It was nice while it lasted. Having a government, I mean. You grandkids don’t remember the government, of course: We got rid of it long before you were born. I don’t remember why, exactly. Some people got angry because they thought the government was going to force them to get health insurance, which they didn’t want because — well, I’m not sure why they didn’t want it.

No, no — the government wasn’t going to send them to prison or anything if they didn’t get health insurance. It was just a tax: The people who could afford to get health insurance but refused to buy it were going to be taxed a little more than people who bought health insurance. The tax was to pay for giving health care to people who couldn’t afford to to buy their own insurance. But the same people who didn’t want to be told to get health insurance didn’t want to be taxed to pay for something that would help someone else.

Yes, those were the people who called themselves the Tea Party, after the Boston rabble-rousers who threw several boatloads of British tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. Though there was a big difference between the two groups: The Tea Party of 1773 was protesting the imposition of taxes by the British Parliament, in which the American colonies had no elected representatives. The Tea Party of 2013 was protesting taxes voted on by the American Congress. Our own government.

You didn’t know that? Well, no reason you would. Somehow the Tea Party managed to make it sound like the law requiring people to get health insurance or pay a tax had been foisted on them by an undemocratic, alien entity, but that’s not how it was. I’m not saying President Obama — you’ve heard of that guy — was perfect, but the American people voted for him twice, and Congress voted to pass the health care legislation Obama wanted, and the Supreme Court said it was constitutional. The Tea Party people in Congress kept trying to get everyone else to vote to overturn that law, but they kept on losing, vote after vote after vote.

And you know what happened? They shut the government down.

In 1773, the Tea Party fought for the right to have a democratically elected government in which hard decisions would be made by voting. I guess the Tea Party of 2013 decided they only liked democracy when the voting went their way.

I know, it all seems a little crazy today, when you can’t get decent medical care for love or money. Now that the government’s gone, and along with it the subsidies that enabled pharmaceutical companies to do research on new medications, and the rules that ensured drugs were actually safe, and the scholarship and loan funds that sent students through medical school-well, now almost no one has health care. Who can afford it? The few who still have money go to Canada for their health care, though of course it’s getting harder and harder to get to Canada. With no government around to fund highway maintenance, the roads got worse and worse, and with no money for policing, the bandits got out of control. By 2030, long-distance travel wasn’t really safe anymore for ordinary people, unless you traveled in heavily armed convoys.

And then the Canadian government built that wall along the border and stopped allowing commercial planes to fly in from the United States. I can’t say I blame them: Why would they want millions of desperate, hungry people flooding into their country every year? Sad to say, it’s not like we can offer them much of anything. Once the federal funds that supported public schools stopped flowing, the whole education system, which was weak to start with, collapsed in pretty short order. The teachers weren’t getting paid. At the top, the wealthy kept sending their kids to private schools for a while, but, pretty soon, most of them opted for private schools in other countries. And once those kids got a taste of life in places where they still had governments, they didn’t want to come back here. By the time the Canadian border closed in 2041, most of the educated people were already long gone.

Everyone else just had to make do with Bible schools or homeschooling, and, as things got worse, the Bible schools started being less and less about schooling in any traditional sense and more and more about the Bible.

Again, I can’t say I blame anyone. When you’re going hungry and just trying to keep your kids safe from the roving gangs, I guess maybe religion’s more comfort than math and science for a lot of people. But the fact is, the Canadians and the Chinese and the Europeans want immigrants who can do calculus, fix 3-D printers, and program nanosurgery robots. They don’t really need people who can quote the Bible but not much else.

Why couldn’t we just force the Canadians to let us in? Well, that’s a good question. We used to have the best military in the world, you know. Really, we did. But, starting even before we shut down the government, we were piling more and more onto the military. We had our soldiers doing everything from fighting wars to listening in on people’s phone conversations, can you believe it? I guess they just got tired. Then, when we shut down the government, the military was the only part of the government that the Tea Party was willing to keep going. They didn’t want to pay for teachers or roads or hospitals or anything like that, but they wanted to pay the soldiers.

You ever see a chicken with its head cut off, still running around because its body hasn’t figured out yet that it lost it’s brain, and it’s dying? That’s what we were like for more years than I can remember. The country kind of staggered along for some years after the shutdown. Congress kept coming up with short-term fix after short-term fix, each time buying a few weeks or months, but it wasn’t enough. Even after the United States defaulted on its debts, things somehow kept going for a while. But, eventually, things started coming to a stop, and naturally the Tea Party people wanted the military to just pick up all the tasks the rest of the government used to do.

But, after a while, the military just kind of fell apart, too. I suppose the Tea Party people forgot that the military isn’t something completely separate from the whole rest of society: All those soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines had mothers and siblings and children and spouses. They couldn’t — wouldn’t — keep on just as if nothing had changed when their kids’ schools closed down and their parents lost their life savings in the crash of 2015 or the crash of 2021 or the crash of 2029. A lot of servicemembers left to try to take care of their families.

Also, crime was terribly high. People with military skills were in demand everywhere. For a long time, the wealthy were trying to lure them to provide private security, and a lot of servicemembers figured that was a better way to keep their families afloat than staying in the service. And then, after a while, the military couldn’t find any decent new recruits, what with the schools failing and the gangs and the resurgence of polio and drug-resistant tuberculosis in the 2030s. So that reduced the military’s strength, too.

Anyway, even though soldiers could still get paychecks, the money for training them and maintaining their equipment was mostly gone. Fighter planes were rusting in hangers, and companies stopped developing expensive new high-tech weapons systems, because their buyer was gone. So, to answer your question, by the time the Canadians closed the border we weren’t in much position to do anything about it. Wars take money, you know, and we didn’t have any left.

Somewhere out there I guess we still have nuclear weapons. But I don’t know if anyone really knows where, or if they’re still even usable. I remember back in 2035 or thereabouts there was some worry that gangs or terrorists or what have you would get hold of them.

Truth is, if it weren’t for the Chinese, I don’t know where we’d be today. When the Chinese sent troops in to safeguard the nuclear weapons in 2039, I honestly think everyone was pretty relieved. By then things were already pretty bad, and what was left of our military was happy to cooperate with anyone they could rely on not to do anything crazy.

And never forget that it was the Chinese who tried to bail us out back in the teens, when we first defaulted on our debts after a series of stop-gap temporary deals fell apart. Oh, I know it wasn’t exactly charity: They had bought up so many U.S. government bonds that they couldn’t afford to let us go belly up too fast.

I still remember how shocked my parents were when they saw the editorial published by China’s state news agency back in October 2013: It accused the United States of having introduced "chaos into the world" and said, "Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place."

Well, that’s what they did in the end.

Still, I’m certain we’d have fallen even harder and faster without the Chinese. And bad as things are today, think how much worse they’d be without the Chinese troops garrisoned in most major cities. They keep the gangs from getting completely out of control, and thousands of Americans have been able to find honest work cooking and cleaning on the Chinese bases. Even more important, having all those Chinese soldiers here makes the Russians and the Iranians keep a respectful distance.

It’s pretty ironic when you think about it. In 1773, the Tea Party protesters were trying to free America from what they saw as rule by unelected foreigners. In 2013, the new Tea Party wanted to put a stop to a government run by their own fellow citizens. Well, they got what they wanted: Now it’s the Chinese who make the rules for Americans.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? 

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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