The Beginning of the End
Continuing Thoughts on the American Crisis in the First Part of the 21st Century
March 3, 2023
Setting the Stage – A Summary
In the early 1990s, decades of reading and contemplation led me to the conclusion that the United States would enter a crisis period in the early 2000s. The crises would be driven by economics, principally debt and entitlements, combined with political inability to react to the crisis due to voters’ enjoyment and demanding of seemingly-free lunches. The crises would include a movement toward more authoritarian government, civil unrest, a challenging of US primacy on the geopolitical stage and the loss of the dollar as the sole reserve currency. Since this level of crisis often / essentially always leads to war, I felt that there would be a good chance of war.
In the late 90s, I read The Fourth Turning, which includes some of the themes I had been contemplating, and expressed them better than I could. (My thoughts, however, did not encompass the concept of generations.)
Some 30 years later, and at the beginning of the end game of the Fourth Turning, the world has broadly followed my predictions - my broad themes are still intact. In fact, we have taken what I thought would be merely a severe crisis and have made it existential.
Neil Howe, one of the authors of The Fourth Turning, places the beginning of the Fourth Turning in 2008 and its ending around 2030.
After having continued to read and contemplate, I believe I am now at the point at which I can begin to discuss a broad framework for the next five years or so. That framework will include America’s financial condition, geopolitics and war, politics and the future of the dollar.
As always, the prediction business is fraught with peril. Hopefully, my successes so far are an indication that my methods, thought processes and axioms are sound.
We shall see.
We have really, really screwed up
It is difficult to discuss America’s financial condition with a straight face. It is basically incomprehensible how seemingly-intelligent people could do such a large number of blatantly stupid and masochistic things.
It was a fundamental axiom of my original thoughts that doing stupid and masochistic things is what humans do. I had no idea, however, that when faced with a clear crisis, we would double down, and then double down again. Actually, I had no idea that the system would hold together in the face of multiple double-downs. The momentum and accumulated wealth and power of the US are impressive.
But, here we are.
Debt amounting to some 94% of GDP, calculated conservatively.
Multi-trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.
Entitlement obligations in the hundreds of trillions of dollars.
The need to spend gargantuan amounts on war, reshoring and climate change.
Following is an outline of my thoughts. Each section could easily be tens of pages long. I am sacrificing detail for readability. Each thought is presented carefully, so, while you may agree or disagree, please take each sentence seriously.
There is no way for the US to continue in the long term without first going through a fundamental, wrenching restructuring.
(This is the area I discuss most frequently in my weekly comments, so I will keep this part of the summary brief and to the point.)
When I first began predicting, the long term I had in mind was 20-40 years; now the “long term” is probably fewer than 10 years.
What that means in practice will be a loss of the value of the dollar, erosion of its status as a reserve currency and recurring bouts of very high inflation that will cripple the economy. All of this will lead to a significant reduction in living standards and increasing civil unrest. (“Civil unrest” includes withdrawal from employment and opioid deaths – symptoms of decline and loss of vigor.)
There is an irony that generations which are concerned with pronouns and climate change will begin to face existential challenges. Given their sensitivities, it is likely that they will not respond resolutely or constructively in a time of crisis. A culture that embraces outrage, conflict and divisions will likely be willing/eager participants in the battles ahead.
I will discuss geopolitics, below, however, other countries will take an interest in our internal strife and will take advantage of it. American dominance is at its end, to be replaced by continually-shifting coalitions of countries.
Although I am not predicting it, the loss of the United States altogether has a non-zero probability.
Politicians (it does not matter whether Republican or Democrat) will continue to give the voters what they want – which is free stuff - until they cannot do it any longer. Politicians will continue to occupy the left of the political spectrum and will address climate change without giving attention to the economic elephant in the room. (Leftist ideas and climate change may be valid, but are the moral equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Icebergs trump pronouns every time.)
One, very fundamental problem is that our government has all-but ceased functioning at the legislative level.
Congress has become performative and reflects the divisions in the voters. It gets not-much done, which creates a vacuum for the Executive and the Judicial Branches to fill. As a result, the Executive follows its natural tendency to become more authoritarian. The Judicial effectively makes laws of necessity without the legitimacy of the democratic process – in turn compromising its own legitimacy. These processes create outrage and are destructive of societal bonds, which will be needed during a time of civil strife.
In my original thoughts, I predicted that this trend would probably end with a (man) on a white horse. I still think so, although there is a small probability of some form of coming apart. We will probably lean left until the dysfunction is so great that there is an overwhelming demand for order.
It was a great run, but no empire lasts forever. Actually, our reign will wind up having been fairly short in the history of empires – say, 85 years from 1946 to 2030. But we were really, really impressive at our peak. We ruled the narrow world like a Colossus. But, we are joining Rome and Britain and the Abbasid Caliphate and the Incas (which only made it 95 years) and the Chinese and myriad African empires. It is far from clear who the next, great empire will be, since China and Russia have begun their demographic declines. Turkey? Brazil? Probably no one for a while.
The great, underlying dynamic is that we are beyond economically exhausted. Our debt, deficit and entitlement burdens mean that we will not be able to rise to the occasion when challenged. We are also morally exhausted, which is a discussion for another day, but is not a good situation when having to come together to meet a challenge. As reader DE put it, “What is the US’s message, today?”
It will be ironic that we defeated the Soviet Union partially by stressing them economically in an arms race. We are now faced with an economically-robust Russia and are vulnerable to the same tactics we used to take the Soviet Union down as we face war, reshoring and climate change. Worse, we are dependent on China for critical materials and medicines. Although it is probably not in their best interest, China could cripple us overnight by simply refusing to trade with us.
Add in internal divisions and we are extremely vulnerable.
One problem is that the whole world sees it. Not just Russia; not just China; not just Iran. The whole world. Our current allies are having to make continual calculations of self-interest to decide what is best for their futures. The US is no longer seen as solid and reliable. Germany was on the brink of leaving the Western alliances because their energy future lay with Russia and their trade future lay with China. Others are wondering about our strength, resolve and reliability. Africa and South America are in various stages of cozying up with China.
We are no longer strong enough, in the multifaceted sense of the word, to hold the world together.
We created our very own Frankenstein’s monster in China, and Russia is being Russia. Then there is the pesky problem of a nuclear Iran, Israel and the Middle East.
The dynamics are fascinating. Both China and Russia have begun their declines down a fairly steep demographic incline. They are both at the peaks of their powers, and it is all downhill from here. Therefore, if they are going to make geopolitical moves, now is the time.
Since we cannot hold the world together, it will break into chunks, with alliances continually forming and changing. However, even a shadow of our former self will be formidable.
Broadly, the world will gather around the US and around China, with Russia’s attempting to re-create their empire. Many nations, notably including India, will try to play both sides. The Great Game of the 19th century is back.
China is buying up natural resources around the world and lending countries money for infrastructure, while rapidly building military capabilities.
Countries are actively associating in non-US groups, most notably the BRICS+ group of countries.
The playing field has become very dynamic and very unstable.
I haven’t discussed war that much, primarily noting that, historically, the ends of the processes I have been discussing often – or actually mostly – involve a war. Fourth Turnings were punctuated by the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II.
And here we are, in the midst of a war among great powers at the end of the current Fourth Turning.
Time for additional discussion as I begin to focus on the shorter term.
War is what humans do. We are a violent species.
It is what Americans do. Jimmy Carter called the US “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” I’m not sure I agree, but we are definitely somewhere near the top. According to Charles Beuck, there have only been 15 years in our history when we were not at war with somebody – from skirmishes to world wars.
America is a warrior country. The military is praised and valued far more than in essentially any other country. Our self-image as being peace-loving is at strong odds with the facts.
No sooner do we ignominiously disengage from 20 years in Afghanistan than we get involved in Ukraine.
Although there is much trivialization of the war in Ukraine, it is the focus of the American 21st century geopolitical crisis. It is the epicenter of the re-forming of the world’s geopolitics. Its importance cannot be overstated.
(I am going to ignore the fact that we cannot “afford” to support Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars, and just discuss the geopolitical implications. Whatever we send them is contributing to, exacerbating and accelerating the coming fiscal crisis.)
The way to bet is that the war in Ukraine will end in a negotiated settlement. Russia would then cease hostilities and wait for its next opportunity. Putin’s pre-war analysis was that the US was weak, Biden was weak, and Europe, particularly Germany, could be blackmailed by withholding energy. In the future, continuing US weakness combined with increasing uncertainty within Western alliances may lead Putin to a similar conclusion.
Having said that, a negotiated settlement will be extremely difficult for both sides. Russia has destroyed Ukraine and committed many outrages. For its part, politically, Russia cannot leave Crimea. Although a negotiated settlement is the way to bet, it will be very difficult to achieve.
Russia has made it clear that Moldova and Poland are next on its list, and Ukraine will remain on its list. This is not going away, but could calm down for a while, particularly if the West gives Russia assurances about expansions of NATO and the EU. (Of course, such assurances have been given in the past and violated, so Russia would be justified in being skeptical.)
In the event that there is not a settlement, the outcome of the war becomes very consequential. Basically, the West has said, Russia, we see what you are doing and it stops here. This is not about Ukraine, which in the cold-blooded eye of geopolitics is easily expendable. Ukraine is viewed as the first move in a 3-dimensional chess game and the West is putting its pawns, rooks and knights into a tight defense. The West is not going to let Russia run Hitler’s playbook.
Not only are the actual stakes very high, but, again, the world is watching. Can the US and the West pull it off? Are they credible? What moves are in my best interest?
China is the wild card in all of this.
China, with the West’s financing and support, has become militarily and economically powerful in its own right and presents a very different competitive profile than Russia. Russia is power hungry and possesses a significant amount of natural resources – particularly oil and natural gas, and is a nuclear power. It is not much of an overstatement to say that Russia is all about brute force – a predatory gas station having nuclear weapons.
China is not resource rich, but is an insecure nuclear power. China feels that its destiny is to be the primary country in the world, and is extremely tired of having to kowtow to the US, both economically and geopolitically. It wants to carve out its sphere of influence and get the Americans out of it. China is sophisticated, strategic and insecure.
China’s relationship with Russia is complex. On the one hand, the two countries, which share a very extensive border, do not have shared values and do not trust each other. On the other hand, China is a perfect market for Russia’s natural resources.
And, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
America’s and the West’s nightmare is that China would support Russia militarily. Although China has been clear in stating that nuclear weapons should not be used, they have not been clear about whether Russia will be supported otherwise. The combination of Russia and China would create a very formidable opponent.
If that were to happen, escalations would probably include sanctions against China. That is a dangerous game, given the US’s critical dependence on goods from China.
My view is that Taiwan is generally not actually a pressing issue. It is a political issue for China and a way for the US to irritate China. Over time, Taiwan and China will become so interdependent that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be moot. And China knows this. And Taiwan is facilitating it. On the other hand, the US could force China’s hand with a confrontation as part of some widening conflict. That could lead to multiple, undefined, significant consequences.
The US and the West must succeed in Ukraine to stop Russia and to maintain status and influence in developing and third-world countries.
Russia must not be defeated in the sense of a physical defeat. Putting Russia into a corner is the best way to create a nuclear conflict. Deposing Putin could easily result in someone “worse” taking power.
China is calibrating its self-interest, and it is not entirely clear what that is. It knows that the US is weakening and it may decide that the fight in the Ukraine is the way to put maximum pressure on an already-stressed country. That would be Xi’s use of the Reagan approach to defeating the Soviet Union to defeat the US.
On the other hand, China does not want a strong Russia, so that elongation of the war would work to China’s interests in this regard. While Russia looks to historical ties to Ukraine, China looks to territory annexed by Russia in the 1800s. China is dependent on its exports to the rest of the world and would be significantly affected by sanctions by the US and Europe.
IMO, China will refrain from substantial support, while enjoying frustrating the US. However, it will be looking for opportunities to advance its agenda, and if alliance with Russia will do that, China will align with Russia.
The rest of the world, including India and Turkey, but also Brazil and Indonesia, is also watching and calibrating. The Middle East has already begun hedging its bets with Russia and China. That trend will continue.
Look for the number of participants in BRICS+ to increase over time.
Whether the US “wins” or “loses” in Ukraine, it will continue its decline. However, a win will slow down the erosion of its alliances and the creation of competing alliances, and will deter Russia for a while.
I am focusing on Ukraine because it is a pivot-point in geopolitics and is the current flashpoint for war. It could end with negotiations or spread to create World War III.
However, war more generally is a reasonable probability over the next decade. The firm grip of the US is loosening, enabling Russia to flex its muscles, China to create a sphere of influence and other countries to jockey for position – looking for resources and territory.
Even if the Ukraine war ends, there is much to be considered with regard to the future of the US at the end of the Fourth Turning.
If I am correct about the reincarnation of the Great Game, the US cannot afford it, but must play the game.
The Game will be played in every nook and cranny on the globe, in cyberspace and in outer space. From time to time there will be physical skirmishes, and accidents are always a possibility.
The subject of war would not be complete without consideration of Iran.
The Middle East is a very complex place, and there are no solutions to its problems. The Middle East would be the proper subject for at least one book, and I am going to describe parts of it in a few paragraphs. Many details and much nuance will be lost.
A simplified view of the Middle East would have as its foundation a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel is thrown in as an irritant and complicating factor, and perhaps the trigger for any larger conflict. Iraq, a traditional Iranian adversary, was neutered by the Iraq War with the US, disrupting the previous balance of power.
That power struggle is multi-faceted, including intra-Islam religious differences that resonate with the Catholic / Protestant clashes during the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries.
The US sided with Saudi Arabia in the grand bargain in the 70s, under which the Saudis agreed to price oil in dollars in return for the US’s military protection. At the time, Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was a friend of, and supported by, the US. When the Shah was deposed in 1979 by a fundamentalist religious faction, the dynamics in the region dramatically changed. The US sanctioned Iran for overthrowing the ruler the US supported, and Iran’s threat to Saudi Arabia increased.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been reevaluating its self-interest with regard to the US, given the weakening of the US and the US’s temporary “energy independence.” It has joined with Russia in OPEC+ and has become a significant supplier of oil to China.
Iran began a nuclear program, attempting to enrich uranium to bomb levels. A nuclear-capable Iran would become essentially unassailable.
Over the years, agreements to limit Iran’s enrichment program have come, been violated (including by the US) and gone. Iran is now said to be up to 84% enrichment, where 90% is the critical threshold.
Israel has had a complicated relationship with the Middle East. The status of the Palestinians, while a definite humanitarian concern, is mostly a political football. Unfortunately, essentially no one deeply cares about them much beyond their political value.
After several wars against its neighbors, which Israel won, Israel began being grudgingly accepted, or at least tolerated, by an increasing number of Islamic countries and by Turkey, which is Islamic, but has historically presented itself as secular.
It should be noted that Israel is a nuclear power having a very competent military.
One primary exception to this acceptance of Israel has been Iran. Iran publicly calls for the wiping out of Israel.
Israel has had a complicated relationship with the US, but in recent decades has been strongly supported by America. America has assisted it in cyber-attacks and military attacks against Iran, primarily by providing intelligence and weapons.
Israel has firmly stated that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and Iran is on the verge of going nuclear, with no existing treaties to stop it.
Israel must either take action now, or decide to live in a world within which Iran is a nuclear power.
(It is likely that if Iran becomes a nuclear power, other nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will begin programs of their own.)
Iran understands all of this and has undoubtedly made extensive plans in the event of an attack by Israel against its heavily-fortified nuclear facilities. It is likely, for example, that, if attacked, Iran will create an oil crisis, perhaps by sinking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and by closing the Strait of Hormuz. This basically creates a mutually-assured-destruction scenario.
This would lead to unpredictable actions by at least Saudi Arabia, the US and China, which is dependent on the Middle East for much of its oil.
This is what scholars call a fucking mess.
Many critical decisions to be made by many players in a short period of time.
My original theses have held up well over the decades. The US has weakened, the world is fracturing and the end game has begun.
What can we expect in the end game?
The US will continue its decline, which, at some point, perhaps in the next year or two, will probably accelerate.
No processes continue in a straight line, so there will be times during which things will get “better,” only for the downward trend to continue, later on.
My original thoughts of social unrest and continued fracturing of the country remain valid. As do the predictions of continuing demands of the government by voters and of increased authoritarianism. At the same time, government will become less and less effective.
One significant outcome will be the continual, relentless erosion of living standards.
The fundamental problem is that debt, deficits and entitlements are placing increasingly severe pressures on America’s financial system and culture. Several results of that pressure are inequality, fragmentation and indignation, which in turn lead to a toxic political system – reinforcing the downward spiral.
Doomberg said it well in a podcast discussing the Ohio train wreck: “My big takeaway is that this entire affair and all of the strains of it that we’ve pulled apart are nothing more than the manifestation of our broken political system. We are incapable of having lucid adult conversations about serious topics anymore. It’s a huge challenge, and I don’t know what the answer to that is. It’s scary, frankly. It bodes ill for our society in the next two, five, 10, and 15 years. When politics break down and everything becomes a gotcha team sport, I don’t know how you go from serious problem to authentic debate to imperfect but better solution.”
I indicated that this update would address America’s financial condition, geopolitics and war, politics and the future of the dollar. Over the next five years or so (remembering that nothing goes in a straight line):
America’s financial condition will continue to deteriorate. Debt, deficits and entitlements are now past the point of no return. A restructuring is necessary, but not necessarily in the next five years.
Politics – the debt, deficits and entitlements will continue to increasingly weigh down all parts and sectors of American life. Internal conflict will continue to intensify in multiple dimensions. Partially as a response, the Executive Branch will continue to try to gain increasing authoritative power.
Geopolitics – as the US weakens, a vacuum will be created which several players will attempt to fill. The world will fracture and attempt to coalesce around several factions. China and the US will be frenemies, in turn dependent on each other and trying to dominate and outflank the other. Russia will be opportunistic in exerting power and playing the energy card. The Middle East will continue to be an ever-changing flashpoint. Other nations, such as Turkey and perhaps Poland, will attempt to create minor spheres of influence.
War is likely, but it could take several forms. The most benign forms will be in space and in cyberspace. Dominance in space will be particularly acutely contested, with preliminary efforts to dominate the Moon. Given Russia’s (and the US’s) belligerence, kinetic wars are possible. Accidents will happen, including, potentially, the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The dollar will slowly fade away as the sole global reserve currency due to inflation and geopolitical hostility. The dollar will undergo significant devaluation – as much as 50% from current levels over the next few years. The dollar will likely continue to be a key part of the international financial system, although not THE primary part.
In general, the standard of living in the US will deteriorate significantly, adding to the internal tensions and conflict.
It will only continue to get worse.
Until it gets better.
There will be a First Turning
At some point, after the restructuring of the current order, the world will begin to heal. Given the exhaustion of capitalism and the decline of the US as the champion of democracy, it is not yet clear what the principles will be on which the new world, or at least America’s part of the new world, will be based. Given current levels of debt, it is not yet clear what level of wealth will have been preserved – my guess is that there will be an extreme amount of wealth destruction in the end game.
One, unlikely-but-non-zero, possibility is a Dark Age prior to a new Renaissance.
Following the Revolutionary War, there was only mild interest in a country, only in states. A whole government and financial system had to be constructed.
Following the Civil War, the country had lost 620,000 people out of a population of some 19 million. The South was devastated. Freed slaves had nowhere to go in a devastated economy. The President had been assassinated.
Following World War II, a new, social-democratic political system had been created. Millions of soldiers had to be accommodated into the economy. The war economy had to be transformed to what would become the consumer society.
America has done it before and will most likely do it again.
But it will be a different world from the one we have now – for better and for worse.
I will continue to think about what that world will likely look like. Join me for my weekly musings at http://www.contemplatingoutloud.com .