The Decline of the United States

Writing in the New York Times, Stephen King, the chief economist of HSBC, quotes Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

“It is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the labouring poor, of the great body of the people, seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state.”

The developed world, he suggests is in “the declining state” with consistently anemic economic growth rates. For sure, the condition of ‘the great body of people’ is miserable.

Add to that the massive increase in inequality in the U.S. The result is a recipe for political instability. That is precisely what we now have.

Of course the recipe does not help us understand the form that instability will take. The surprise is the extent to which the Tea Party, assumed to be a fringe and declining force, has managed to mount an attack on the American system of government.

More than 70 percent of the Tea Party members of the House of Representatives are from states or territories that were part of the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln’s election as President in 1860 led South Carolina to declare the Federal Government their enemy.

In his 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln declared “You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”

For the Old Confederacy, the Federal Government is still the enemy.

How this crisis will play out, especially in regards the coming debt ceiling, cannot now be predicted. Rumor has it that John Boehner has promised not to let the government default. Whether this crisis will result in greater popularity for southern Tea Party Representatives or less is unclear.

But what is clear is that a small minority has found a way to exploit the protection of minorities embedded in out Constitution to paralyze the Government. Just another step in the decline of the United States.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago.