Monday, April 4, 2011

The Dying Days of a Dinosaur

It takes long time for carcass of an elephant to decay compared to small animals like a rat. The signs are all too visible these days that the United States of America is dying or decaying. It is not as strong economically as it used to be some two decades ago. However, contrary to conservative right-wing claims, the process of its downfall did neither start with the bailout of the Wall Street moguls in 2008 or 2009 nor with the election win of Obama.

Pinpointing a definitive time for this beginning of decline in super status is not an easy one since pundits will differ for a plethora of reasons. I would like to believe that it started with Bush Jr.’s two wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). By all counts these American wars have been pyrrhic wars for this giant nation, the same way it was for King Pyrrhus of ancient Epirus in 279-80 BCE. In both of Pyrrhus's victories against the Romans, the latter suffered greater casualties than Pyrrhus did. However, the Romans had a much larger supply of men from which to draw soldiers, so their casualties did less damage to their war effort than Pyrrhus's casualties did to his.

GW Bush’s wars -- the first two of the 21st century – have been quite similar. With unmatched lethal power and raw brutality, his American forces were able to replace two unfriendly regimes and devastate those countries – turning the clock back to the pre-modern era. The casualties on the American side have been rather small – only some 6000 dead while it has managed to kill nearly a million – mostly unarmed civilians. And yet, the Afghan war shows no signs that it would end without a viable political solution allowing the Taliban to share power with the Karzai regime. Like the defeated Romans, the Taliban have a much larger supply of men from which to draw soldiers, so their casualties did less damage to their war effort than Bush's casualties did to his. The Afghan war – now continued by President Obama, is costing ordinary Americans more than a trillion dollar.

The US economy is on the brink of bankruptcy. If the Arab and Chinese investors pull their money away today, the entire economy would collapse like a deck of cards. It is not surprising that in spite of hundreds of billions of dollars of economic stimulus, some 10 to 14 million people are still out of job. The only jobs found are those seemingly linked with the Homeland Security Department, responsible for keeping America safe from outside terror attacks with insane measures that do very little towards quashing any real threat from a suicide attacker if it so chooses. Thus, the beneficiaries of the war have been those linked with the national/business/personal safety and war industries. The price of every consumer item - from bread to butter to oil - has skyrocketed. So have the education and insurance costs.

When I went to graduate school at the University of California some 30 years ago, as a foreign student I was paying a tuition fee of only $1700 per trimester (or a total of $5100 per year). The yearly cost for room and board was no more than $6000. Now my son is a sophomore at the U Penn, and it costs me nearly $60,000 a year for his education expenses. Even the tuition fees in state-run universities have grown several folds in the last three decades.

Optimism is in short supply these days within the USA. Most of the jobs now created or available for jobless Americans are not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living. Young people today will have to settle for a much worse future than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

As I noted earlier, Bush’s wars were the last straws that broke the American camel’s back. From that time onward, the US has been on a downward roller-coaster ride with little chances of recovering its past glory. Its uncontested status in the post-WW II era created the nostalgia for greatness. Unfortunately, its metric for greatness was wrong. It glorified war and invested on war machines that perfected the art of large-scale killing with pin-point precision rather than on its human capital to sustain the prosperity that was once the envy of the world. Instead of funding schools and colleges, research and development it chose to do the reverse. In the Pennsylvania state run university system, where my wife is a chairwoman and professor of a science department, the newly elected Republican governor has proposed 50% reduction of state appropriation of the budget for college education. Even the school programs are affected by such cost cutting measures. Last week, I got a similar message of reduced state funding from the superintendent of my school district.

It is no wonder that the contribution of American scientists and engineers in major peer-reviewed journals is now below 25 percent. This figure should be a sufficient wakeup call for America given the fact that it continues to host most of the best schools in our world with its unrivaled graduate school programs providing the most comprehensive education possible and that over the years the country has successfully absorbed some 90 percent of foreign students who had come for their doctoral studies. Only ten percent, mostly from the prosperous Arab world, Malaysia and South Korea would return to their native countries. [I remember when I was a student in a Canadian university, how I was repeatedly told by professors and graduate students that my education would be incomplete without a Ph.D. from a good American university.]

So scarce is the job market today that on the average there are ten applicants for each job. In certain sectors this ratio is unbelievably high. There may be hundreds of job applicants for a skilled position in science and engineering. With so much job outsourced in the last two decades, there are not too many left inside today for skilled jobless applicants.

As noted by Bob Herbert in his last op/ed column for the New York Times, income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. The current mal-distribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. Despite profits of $14.2 billion — $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States — General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year. And it is the nation’s largest corporation. What a mockery of tax laws!
Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income has inevitably resulted in enormous imbalances of political power. So while the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well the employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

Welcome to new America! It is dying like a dinosaur. But just like those in a big ship that is slowly drowning, its inhabitants are still unaware of it.

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