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The Rise of Decline

Experts say things are collapsing. Maybe they’re not collapsing fast enough.

Tim Cavanaugh
April 19, 2010

When Andrew Joseph Stack, a software consultant with a history of tax troubles and marital problems, crashed his Piper Cherokee into the Austin, Texas, office of the Internal Revenue Service in February, the crime was widely seen as a referendum on the national psyche. Stack, who killed himself and one other person while injuring 13, was said to represent a strain of legitimate grievances in America. 

In his syndicated column, Richard Parker credited Stack with summing up the American “continuum of disappointment, anxiety, fear and yes, anger” related to economic pressure and income inequality. “On the day of Stack’s violence,” Parker wrote, “everyone I interview who has read his suicide note has the same reaction: No, he should not have tried to kill anyone to make his point and so he deserved to die. And yes, the guy did have a point.” Writing on AlterNet, Rich Benjamin called Stack “an acute symptom of this nation’s neglected wounds,” concluding, “We dismiss his screed, suicide and crime as ‘lunatic’ at our own risk.” 

A similar reaction greeted a far less catastrophic act of destruction that occurred a few days before Stack’s attack. Terry Hoskins, an Ohio carpet store owner and landlord of several commercial properties, bulldozed his own home before it was foreclosed. Hoskins’ local TV station ran a very sympathetic story on the destruction of the house. A blogger at macedoniaonline.eu called it “the tipping point” for Americans who have “been taken advantage like no one on earth by greedy Banksters and corporations.”

Neither man made a very credible case for righteous everyman rage. Stack’s breakout-hit suicide note runs through such disparate peeves as banker bonuses, the Catholic church, the failure of health care reform, post–Cold War base closings in Southern California, Stack’s own accountant, George W. Bush, tax treatment of freelance engineers, and capitalism. Hoskins’ foreclosure resulted not from the real estate correction but from a 10-year battle against a family member and from his failure to repay commercial real estate loans for which the $350,000 house was collateral. The bank collecting on the loans is not some too-big-to-fail behemoth but Clermont County’s own RiverHills Bank, which as of 2008 had a mere $118 million in assets and $96.2 million in deposits.

The elevation of such unlikely folk heroes might be a sign of the current recession’s severity. Or it might not. A similar genre of morbid appreciation arose during the prosperous mid-1990s around Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s 35,000-word Luddite manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future. Elite society has a tendency to take the declarations of violent outlaws with great seriousness. As an unironic believer that the 1968 S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Andy Warhol shooter Valerie Solanas is the most important work on gender relations ever written, I fully understand the impulse. 

But outlaw intellectualism is part of a larger trend in declinism. The recession has not just hustled the U.S. economy back to a late-20th-century state of nature that resists all efforts at reinflation, stimulus, and outcome management. It has created a conviction that American society itself, rather than just its institutions of government and public/private rent seeking, is in collapse.

“The United States is not the Soviet Union,” writes Yale School of Management fellow Bruce Judson in his 2009 book It Could Happen Here: America on the Brink. “Our economy is not as terrible. Our government is not as despised. But nobody thought the U.S.S.R. could collapse. Could everyone be wrong again?” 

The first third of Judson’s book is taken up with a scenario in which the United States crumbles as terrorists furious about growing inequality bring the nation to a standstill with a dirty bomb campaign; politicians like “Sen. Bob King (R-Nevada)” and “Sen. Louis Roberts (D-Minnesota)” float a single piece of legislation that will solve the health care, education, and housing crises; Florida, Illinois, and New York secede (and the rest of the country fails to respond with the expected “good riddance”); and so on. It’s a bit like the old “Jeopardy 1999” sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which famous acts of nuclear terrorism turn out to have been committed by unlikely culprits such as the Young Republicans. After that jarring opener, Judson goes on to argue that asset bubbles, the decline of labor unions, and other factors have created a combustible disparity in wealth throughout the country.

It’s not hard to persuade people these days that they’re doing worse than they were 10 years ago. My own career and financial prospects are in every way worse and more hopeless than they were in 2000, and I’m ready to join any revolution that will reverse my catastrophically bad decisions and foil the shadowy enemies who have kept me down. But Judson’s remedies turn out to be the same old recipe—new financial regulations, more spending on education, more accountability—that you hear from every politician.

This is the problem with the new declinism. With no compelling vision of the apocalypse that doesn’t involve zombies, cyborgs, or outlaw bikers, we tend to miss something obvious: The problem isn’t that things are collapsing. It’s that not enough things are collapsing. General Motors, AIG, and the government of California have committed enough errors to merit immediate extinction, but there they still are.

Yet the political establishment continues to argue that the market needs to be prevented from delivering rough justice to sinners. President Obama, who one year ago gave us a worst-case scenario in which an unstimulated economy might hit 8 percent unemployment by this year, now presides over 10 percent unemployment but tries to bamboozle us with counterfactuals like this doozy from the 2010 State of the Union address: “If we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today.” 

The current recession has become the economic version of The Fantasticks, a show that keeps running long after the audience wants to move on. It’s becoming increasingly clear that by not letting anything collapse, by not allowing sweet, beautiful failure to happen, the government is helping to drag out the pain. That may not be indicative of anything new, but it’s enough to make you want to bulldoze a house or two. 

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) blogs at simpleton.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Tim Cavanaugh is Managing Editor, Reason.com


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