The Cynicism of the USA; Our Decline and Fall? (Part 1)


CIvic Virtue

The United States has entered a slump, but one that is not able to be programmatically fixed like other cultural-economic events such as the Great Depression, the bond craze fall-out in the mid-1980s or the bursting of the Tech Bubble in the 2000s.  I am actually talking about a deep-seeded pit in the stomach, so severe that people are not sure how best to process their feelings.  Our entertainment industry has never been a better barometer of the national mood, or zeitgeist, than when we regard it as a mirror to analyze the current culture of the nation.  Remember the 80s?  Movies during that time had a clear theme of exploration and exceptionalism, as an industry our entertainment division is tapped into our consciousness.  But lately this mirror has started to project more than reflect: movies are getting far more graphic, wrestling and boxing have given way to the supremely more violent UFC, and headlines are made when a celebrity releases a sex tape, implodes on national TV or enters rehab, not for reaching out to the impoverished making lives better, or (ironically) not for exceptional work within their craft. 

Lacking that ability to articulate the larger nature of popular displeasure - but broadcasting our displeasure anyway - has opened up opportunities for entertainment and music to reflect our overarching schadenfreude. 

This is not the first time that history has reported on a general popular malaise.  Indeed nations can swing in and out of these slumps rather often and quickly.  It is when it becomes entrenched (as I believe it has in the USA) that we have to worry about the future.  The last empire to fall victim to this was that of the Romans.

"The Oath of the Horatii" Jacques-Louis David's 1784

The painting was an 18th century touchstone on the ideals of "civic virtue" which became foundational political theory.
Source: Wikimedia

Historian Edward Gibbon penned this theme about Rome in his book "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (publication dates: 1776-88).  He attributes the long decline of the Roman Empire to a growing sense of malaise, loss of Civic Virtue and the empire's outsourced security to paid (stateless) mercenaries -- not to mention a whole host of other internal political and social issues.

However, it is the ideal of civic virtue and the related general malaise that I want to focus on.  Gibbon states:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Through the decline of the Roman Empire, the multitude of historical accounts mention theories such as widespread malaise of the populace, outsourced military protection to stateless entities, agricultural stagnation (and lack of agricultural innovation) and a highly debased currency which started all the way back with Nero.  Of these possible cause of decline, one theme does seem to pull through, and that is the theme of civic virtue, or the ability for society to instantiate habits that are deemed beneficial to the larger society.   Ultimately, the situation that the Roman Empire found itself in saw many functional attributes that did not allow for agency within its populace and for civic virtue to erode.

Through the slow erosion of civic virtue was the increased need for security as levels of wherewithal increased.  Rome disintermediated much of their workforce through outsourcing allowing the richer classes to retain more money and forced the poorer classes to look for work elsewhere.

As one would expect with a destabilizing empire the wealthy began to find ways to maximise and protect their wealth.  They imposed policies through the Senate that would create, facilitate and enable laws to protect their way of life, how that life was funded and how that funding was protected.  Hence, the rich get richer and the poor got less.  

The widening devide between the rich and poor is something that we are experiencing in the USA.  This blog post is one in a series of posts that speak to the theme of the loss of American Exceptionalism and focuses on the widening gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and its manifestation in our entertainment culture. 

Widening Gap

Gini coefficient by OECD country (where available)
Source: OECD

Let us begin this thinking by reviewing a graph (left).

The Gini Coefficient is a measure of dispersion of income distribution of a nation's residents where "0" is perfect equality (all residents make the same income) and values that approach "1" show greater and greater inequality.  

I have ranked nations into tiers, where tier 1 is closest to '"0" and tier 4 is closest to "1".  Additionally, the countries along the x-axis are rank ordered from 0 to 1, left to right.  It is interesting that the US is ranked between India and Turkey -- two of the more corrupt countries, known to be more unequal in their distribution of wealth. 

Tiers 1-3 show a pretty stark difference in countries' income distribution, but tier 4 certainly shows the runaway nature of income inequality.  Developing countries will tend to be out of balance as a wealthy class will form first and (ideally) expertly develop industry to begin to develop a middle class that ultimately distributes the wealth more evenly across the country (Slovenia is a great example of that, and it's not a surprise that they are ranked #1 in the list).  Perhaps this is the sign of a maturing empire, but those empires that enabled such loss of civic virtue, and did not step in to correct and guide society, ultimately lost out to more disruptive empires (Rome, Russia, France, Macedon, etc).

As the wealthy become wealthier, and the gap widens, there is less of an expectation that the renowned "American Dream" can be attained.  It takes more money than ever to differentiate ourselves through education, abilities to network, and even clothing.  Professional (and alumni) networks are becoming more siloed and insular making it harder for those with less to succeed in affording what once was the key differentiator: education.  

Loss of civic virtue along with the increasing disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots" leads to rampant pessimism and rampant pessimism needs an ally. People need to see their discontent in culture and culture has answered in spades: Flawed and tragic hero television shows (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, etc), schadenfreude in pop culture figures' personal implosion, 24hr news coverage, and an overall lack of hope contribute to fueling the fires of our despair: we believe we cannot be great and those that society deems great are met with rabid excitement when they fall from grace.  

It is clear that we are not a happy nation, but we are not allowing ourselves to show our discontent, instead we fester and brood; anyone can tell you that that is not a healthy solution to a major underlying problem.