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American empire in decline

Published September 5, 2004

Scripted political conventions may please the imagemakers but they don't do much for democracy. The great questions like "Where are we going as a society?" and "What are our core values?" go unanswered by the major political parties, substituted by turgid platforms on abortion and stem cell research.

In her new book Dark Age Ahead, writer and thinker Jane Jacobs makes an uneven but intriguing attempt to answer some of these questions, describing a dangerous precipice at which North America currently stands. Jacobs says that the fall of every empire, from the Romans to the Chinese, is hastened by "internal rot in the form of fatal cultural turnings."

She points to Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, as an example, where for 9,000 years "almost every major innovation adopted in ancient Europe had originated in or very near the Fertile Crescent" of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But when the region in the 15th century purposely isolated itself from the outside world and embraced fundamentalism, learning and advancement withered.

What are those "fatal cultural turnings" here and now? Jacobs says there are ominous signs of decay in the "five pillars of our culture that we depend on to stand firm." If these pillars are jeopardized, Jacobs says, we are in danger of entering an age of cultural malignancy and decline.

She identifies them as 1) family and community, 2) higher education, 3) the effective practice of science, 4) localized taxing and government power and 5) self-policing by the learned professions.

Her choices are not entirely the obvious ones but they all have a place in protecting society against a catalog of harms.

According to Jacobs, the family, our nation's chief economic unit, is under assault, not because of loose divorce laws or loose morals, but due to the increasing gap between a family's finances and what families are expected to deliver. She says the skyrocketing cost of housing has demanded an ever larger share of family income. At the same time, says Jacobs, the necessity of cars saps precious family resources while destroying communities.

Jacobs is at heart an urban planner. She detests our car-centric culture and sees the decline of cities and the vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods they offer, as a terrible social plight. I think she overstates this case. Americans create communities in all sorts of ways, including online, but she is on track when talking about the attrition of the middle class as a warning sign.

The downfall of labor unions with their collective power to provide job security and better wages and working conditions, coupled with the rise in the cost of the basic package of life's necessities, is putting a terrible squeeze on the middle class. Today's burdensome expenses - housing, health care, college tuition - are rising at rates far in excess of the Consumer Price Index and average wages.

The growing income disparity between rich and struggling Americans has been exacerbated by President Bush's reckless tax cuts, further shifting the nation's tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class. Capital is being granted a wealth of advantages at the expense of labor, thereby deteriorating a social equilibrium that is the bedrock of America's stability.

Jacobs also laments what she calls "credentialing versus educating," accusing most institutions of higher learning of changing their mission from turning out thinkers to producing successful job applicants. "A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding," she argues.

It has always astounded me the way that simplistic, negative campaign ads can deliver an election. I'm not sure that colleges should take the brunt of the blame, but when baseless fearmongering is more effective than speaking to complex issues, serious education has obviously gone missing.

Jacobs is also worried about science that is manipulated by deep-pocket or parochial interests, taxes and governmental power disconnected to local needs and responsibilities, and a mendacity that has crept into the professions. Here she uses accounting and the great Enron debacle as an example. Accountants, Jacobs says, have been "trusted to oversee and guarantee honest financial reporting by business. . . . When a profession with responsibilities like that goes rotten it is a cultural and economic nightmare."

Much of what Jacobs has identified can be summed up as a dearth of integrity and ethics. When the dollar is more powerful than the truth, when shortcuts become the norm, and when business cares only for its investor class at the expense of its employees, society is dangerously deteriorating.

Is there a dark age ahead, as Jacobs warns? Who knows? But I think her worried outlook is worth exploring more thoroughly, and I wish our political leaders did too.

[Last modified September 4, 2004, 23:35:33]

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