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January 27, 2005

At The Late Night, Double Feature, Picture Show

Much of the national conversation is flavored by two themes from the past. One is the 1980's "Republicans are evil and dumb" theme, which first appeared during the Reagan administration. The other is the recurrent idea of "America's inevitable decline," which pops up every 15 or twenty so years.

Essays where the two themes are yoked together in service of an author's courageous declaration of the truth to power are practically as common on the Internet as spam. Almost as common are the assumptions that some current trend or another will lead us all to an idyllic future sooner rather than later. Remember Dow 36,000?

So, hope is not the only thing that springs eternal. Calamitous anticipations do as well. Predictions of Utopia and predictions of doom are inherent to the human condition. Historically, they're by far our favorite entertainment, despite the fact that they inevitably end up as realistic as Gilligan's Island. This is why, of course, that they should be dismissed out of hand. That this happens so rarely is a testament to the race's ability to lie to itself.

Frankly, the minute one hears the claim that America, or the world, "is doomed because..." one should feel completely comfortable with dismissing the speaker as an intellectual lightweight, at least on the subject at hand.

Utopians at least enliven their castles in the air, thanks to a healthy dose of optimism, misplaced as it normally is. Prophets of doom tend to lack such mitigating entertainment qualities, tending to be wet blankets at best, as in their minds the only way that one may avoid the impending doom is to alter one's behavior to that which the prophet deems acceptable, a code that always seem to mean giving up something enjoyable, whether it is alcohol, pornography, or SUVs.

It does not matter in the least how accomplished your various prophets of doom happen to be in other areas. On the subject at hand, the vast weight of history suggests, nay, forcibly insists, that they are fruitcakes, chock-full-o-nuts, raving, spittle-flecked loonies. As with all loonies, it's far more efficient, not to mention polite, to simply ignore them, but tell them so, if you must. Their inevitable, instructive response is "Just because all the other prophets of doom got it wrong doesn't mean that I will." It's the same argument modern-day prophets of the Rapture respond with when they're questioned about the historical lack of success when it comes to that particular disaster.

Which brings me to Fred Kaplan, who displays a touching faith in the CIA by accepting its new report on the state of the world in 2020 despite that agency's recent litany of failure, much of which he has documented in his column at Slate.

Who will be the first politician brave enough to declare publicly that the United States is a declining power and that America's leaders must urgently discuss what to do about it? This prognosis of decline comes not (or not only) from leftist scribes rooting for imperialism's downfall, but from the National Intelligence Council—the "center of strategic thinking" inside the U.S. intelligence community.

The NIC's conclusions are starkly presented in a new 119-page document, "Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project." It is unclassified and available on the CIA's Web site. The report has received modest press attention the past couple weeks, mainly for its prediction that, in the year 2020, "political Islam" will still be "a potent force."

Ooooh, scary. Just because it got the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 and WMD wrong, there's no reason to think that the agency will get anything wrong when it comes to the state of the world 15 years from now. By golly, this is the CIA! Never mind that this it could not even see eight months ahead with any degree of accuracy back in 1999. Everything has changed since then!

(Source: USA TODAY/AP, 2/24/1999 via THE YEAR 2000 INFORMATION CENTER)

At a SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE hearing, Air Force Gen. John Gordon, Deputy Director of the CIA, warned that the Year 2000 computer problem could cause serious disruptions abroad, including breakdowns in nuclear reactors and strategic missile systems, midwinter power outages and disruptions in world trade and oil shipments. He said that based on the latest intelligence reports, it is evident that most countries, particularly Russia, are far behind the U.S. in preparing for the crisis. Midwinter power outages could have "major humanitarian consequences." Gordon stressed that while the CIA currently does not see a danger of unauthorized or inadvertent launch of ballistic missiles from any country due to Y2K problems, there could be serious local problems with missiles if temperature or humidity monitors malfunction, and that problems in early-warning systems could lead to incorrect threat assessments. The developing world faces the greatest risk of disruptions. China, for example, will probably experience failures in key sectors such as telecommunications, electric power and banking.

Mind you, it's not the CIA's fault that Fred picks and chooses data from a report a report that the agency itself would probably describe as a big "what if" before he concludes that we're speeding towards the edge of a cliff.

Fred seems most enamored with this section of the report, on the rise of India and China. I've highlighted the weasel words, which Fred seems to have glossed over in his rush to diagnose the US as a terminal case.

The likely emergence of China and India, as well as others, as new major global players—similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century—will transform the geopolitical landscape, with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries. In the same way that commentators refer to the 1900s as the “American Century,” the 21st century may be seen as the time when Asia, led by China and India, comes into its own. A combination of sustained high economic growth, expanding military capabilities, and large populations will be at the root of the expected rapid rise in economic and political power for both countries.

Most forecasts indicate that by 2020 China’s gross national product (GNP) will exceed that of individual Western economic powers except for the United States. India’s GNP will have overtaken or be on the threshold of overtaking European economies.

• Because of the sheer size of China’s and India’s populations—projected by the US Census Bureau to be 1.4 billion and almost 1.3 billion respectively by 2020—their standard of living need not approach Western levels for these countries to become important economic powers.

Barring an abrupt reversal of the process of globalization or any major upheavals in these countries, the rise of these new powers is a virtual certainty.

"Barring an abrupt reversal...." Say, like one brought on by shrinking demographics and a wildly out-of-balance gender distribution?"

China's low fertility means that its labor force will start shrinking by 2020, and 30 percent of China's population could be over 60 by mid-century. More worrisome, China's social security system, which covers only a fraction of the population, already has debts exceeding 145 percent of its GDP. Making demographics there even worse, the spreading use of ultrasound and other techniques for determining the sex of fetuses is, as in India and many other parts of the world, leading to much higher abortion rates for females than for males. In China, the ratio of male to female births is now 117 to 100 -- which implies that roughly one out of six males in today's new generation will not succeed in reproducing.

Damn, there's that pronouncement of what things will be like in 2020 again. Demographic trends I at least have some faith in, though to be honest, so did Paul Ehrlich.To its credit, the NIC report does make mention of the problem.

Faced with a rapidly aging society beginning in the 2020s, China may be hard pressed to deal with all the issues linked to such serious demographic problems. It is unlikely to have developed by then the same coping mechanisms—such as sophisticated pension and health-care systems—characteristic of Western societies.

Another feature of the report, and a fairly entertaining one, are the fictional scenarios peppered throughout the report, including one called "Pax Americana."

The scenario portrayed below looks at how US predominance may survive radical changes to the global political landscape, with Washington remaining the central pivot for international politics. It is depicted as the diary entry by a fictitious UN Secretary-General in 2020. Under this scenario, key alliances and relationships with Europe and Asia undergo change. US-European cooperation is renewed, including on the Middle East. There are new security arrangements in Asia, but the United States still does the heavy lifting. The scenario also suggests that Washington has to struggle to assert leadership in an increasingly diverse, complex, and fast-paced world.

I get the feeling Fred skipped over that bit, somehow. There are others as well, including "Davos World," and "A New Caliphate"--the point being, of course, that if one picks and chooses certain trends, one can quite literally create whatever world one desires, which is exactly what Fred ends up doing.

It's called "science fiction," and should be portrayed as such, rather than cast as some sort of informed analysis. Slate probably doesn't pay as much for sci-fi, though.

Posted by Bigwig at January 27, 2005 10:10 AM | TrackBack
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Fantastic article!

Posted by: Black Rabbit Amish at January 27, 2005 02:07 PM

Reminds me of that other idiot Erdman and his 1979 book How To Prosper During The Coming Bad Years. Out just at the beginning of the rich-making "Decade of Greed," which set the investment stage for the nine year dot com boom.

Haven't heard much from him lately.

Posted by: Stephen at January 27, 2005 06:31 PM

Oops, How To Prosper During The Coming Bad Years was (yet another) idiot Howard Ruff. Erdman's was The Crash Of '79.

Posted by: Stephen at January 27, 2005 06:39 PM
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