Life is Not Binary

>> Friday, February 26, 2010

I read an editorial yesterday, someone arguing that Biden was right to pooh-pooh the notion that we are going the way of Rome. After all, Rome was largely agrarian, was politically unstable, and could be overrun with barbarians, whereas our mighty army could keep all horrible foes at bay. He went on about the British Empire, but let's just focus on Rome for a second.

Now, I'm not going to say we're doomed. There are plenty of people out there saying it and, though there are some pretty scary things happening, I'm not ready to throw in the towel. But, I find the notion that we're untouchably at the top just as frightening.

And the arguments they're using are a case in point. The US is not strictly agrarian. It has a great deal of industry, though that dominates far less than it once did, and other countries are picking up. However, nearly 70% of the US GDP comes from the service industry. Stop and think about that. The service industry. The service sector is the part of the economy that doesn't grow/mine/raise/use natural resources. It's the part that doesn't make things from raw materials into something else (manufacturing). It's the part that sells a service to someone else.

Don't get me wrong. Service can be good. We all need services. Banks to manage money, internets to share info, doctors to fix us, and repairmen to come fix whatever manufactured items we have in our homes. But more than two thirds? 81% of those employed are employed in the service industry. I'd like to know how that is more comforting than having an economy based on growing anything. I mean, the service industry is all about moving the things we need, things grown/mined or manufactured, to everyone who didn't grow/find/build it. When no one's making/growing/mining anything, what will those service industry folks have to move around?

As for political instability, we have a government of the people, by the people, where those "running" it give every appearance of being sold at auction to whatever greedy sector of selfishness will pay highest, no matter the effect on the people. A government where vastly unpopular things are routinely passed and things that are vastly popular languish. While once a yearly thing to reach a stalement in government over this or that potential law, the past few years have made it a daily event. True, our government is not changing hands via assassination, as ancient Rome was doing for some appreciable time, but our lawmakers are as self-absorbed and isolated from the public as they were then. And that is troubling.

As for the last bit (army too strong to be threatened), don't make me laugh. Rome had one of the finest armies ever for the time. But barbarians don't fight like the Roman armies did. They don't stand out in the open in large groups and wait to be clobbered. They sneak in in the dark of night and sabotage you. They wait for you to venture out and pick you off one by one. They convince your allies you can't be trusted and leave you isolated. They give you the scorched earth treatment as they scurry off to fight another day. The US spends more than the entire REST OF THE WORLD on defense. That's everyone else in the world, allies and potential enemies, combined. Yet we failed to accomplish our mission in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan, unless the intent was to leave a country shattered in a our wake. In Iraq, we accomplished the mission of taking down Saddam. I'm sure the average Iraqi is very grateful. Documented "unnecessary" violent civilian deaths number near 100,000 while the estimates of unnecessary death go over a million.

And what does can our fabulous defense do against today's barbarians? The kind that leave roadside bombs and take out civilian markets, the kind that turn planes into weapons of mass destruction? Not a damn thing. The people of this nation are safe from armies like ours. Except, who has one? That's not what we should be worried about.

The US has had a large number of advantages - mild climate, a wealth of natural resources, and, in my opinion, our strongest advantage, a plethora of original thinkers. Per capita, there aren't many, if any, countries in history that have moved us forward as quickly as US inventors. In fact, if there's anything that frightens me most, it's the trend that schools move to rote learning to pass tests instead of challenging the minds that could be building the future of tomorrow, sending those potential minds running from engineering and science into something less insulting. If we lose our originality, stagnation may be unavoidable.

I'm not saying all this because I hate America. Far from it. There's a great deal to love here. But I want the best for this country, for my children.

So, if I tear their argument apart, why don't I think we're doomed? Because there are still thinkers here. In amongst varying degrees of inanity, there are thinkers and questioners and dreamers and skeptics. Because there are people who still know how to remind their children to think. Because information and history is still available freely in this country, more available than in any time in history. People in this country, despite a few pockets of the unmitigated greedy, are still largely generous and hard-working and honest, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good.

I don't think there are any problems here that couldn't be fixed with a little humility, hard work (which we do like nobody's business), and clear thinking. Pretending nothing's wrong isn't going to do it. Throwing up our hands in despair isn't going to do it. It's not a binary problem. It's not an either/or. It's a complex convoluted issue and we aren't going to get there by sliding all the way one direction or the other or thinking there's one answer and only one. And we sure aren't going to solve it by playing point the finger.


  • Project Savior

    Well said.
    A couple points, when Rome went into decline it also had the largest Army in the world. It was the cost of maintaining that huge Army that weakened it internally.
    It also started to contract out the functions of the Army to mercenaries. As far as our military we are doing exactly what Rome did.

  • The Mother

    One can always draw comparisons. Finding a few things that are "like" is easy.

    The times, however, are completely different. Service industry barely existed in the ancient days; technology didn't, at all, unless you count architecture.

    Rome largely collapsed because they were too big, and encompassed too many disparate peoples. Thanks to telecommunications and the internet, the world is much smaller now.

    The disparate peoples thing, though, is a problem. We have a polar differentiation in this country, and it seems to become more polarized every day.

    As for the schools, you know how I feel about the way things are taught. But in all honesty, I'm not sure it was much better ever before. The days of a schoolmarm standing over her pupils with a ruler while they recited "Ozymandius" don't seem terribly conducive to teaching thinkers, either.

    I, like you, tend to err on the optimistic side. We have a lot of thinkers. Lets think positive thoughts, and hope the non-thinkers don't sink us.

  • Roy

    Not only is the return to rote learning upsetting, so is the trend to regard school, especially on the college/university level, as job training rather than as a place to learn mental discipline and expand intellectual horizons.

    Good article, Steph. I wonder if anyone who really needs to see it will?

  • Aron Sora

    Furthermore, our armies are extremely weak to EMP blasts and hackers. I remember a lecture where the person told us how easy it is to install backdoors in hardware and his research to fix those doors. Just one nuke, detonated 250 miles above Kansas, would wipe out all of the electronics in the US, a far more devastating hit then using the nuke on a city. Yes, our army trains for fighting without their shiny gadgets, but they would be doomed. I remember an episode of The Space Show where the guest citing a paper that claimed 50 men could control an area the size of Rhode Island because of satellites, without them, they can barely cover on town. (Let me see if I can find it) Thus, our army isn't that strong.

  • Jeff King

    No matter what our limitation on any situation... our army is stronger than any other country. If our econ goes down so will the worlds, if we have a big problem knock out our "gadgets" we'll find a way and over come: adapt to any situation.

    The main reason I see why were not like Rome, or go the way Rome went, is because we’re not conquering land and trying to rule said land... thus spreading our capabilities too thin. We give freedom not enslaving people... huge difference.

    GO USA.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Project Savior, that's a good point. One reason Rome was so successful was that they had a professional standing army. But it's expensive. When you stop taking over new territories, or it becomes too expensive to keep them up, it's hard to afford.

    I was challenging the three points he made pooh-poohing the connection to Rome. I feel strongly education is more available today than it is now and never intended to indicate otherwise. Still, innovation and ingenuity have been as much a US resource as steel and wood. I'd hate to see us squander it. I hope we won't.

    Roy, I have to admit, I was expecting more push back. That's OK. I bet I'll hear about it when Relax Max sees it.

    Hi, Aron. Good point. The point wasn't and isn't that our army isn't able and willing. It's that more people, better weapons, more money, higher technology aren't enough to really defeat people on their homeland, unless you're willing to kill everyone and leave it a barren husk. People fight like hell when defending their homeland and fight dirty. Hell, we could have learned that in the Civil War.

    The thing about empires...if one of your territories far away wants its freedom, it can get its freedom, and there's not much you can do to stop it. We're one of the first countries to prove it.

  • Descartes

    I tend to think that we are more like Victoria England than Ancient Rome. England is still there, and America will still be here, but we are not be what we once were-while Rome is merely a story in a history book.

  • Relax Max

    I can't find much to agree with here, so let me say I agree pointing fingers is never good.

    I made a list, but that seemed pretty rude, so I threw it away. :)

  • Stephanie Barr

    Descartes, I suspect you are right.

    I can appreciate that, Relax Max. Some arguments aren't worth starting.

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