Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Sources of America's Deepening Irrationality

by Richard Heinberg

MuseLetter #157 (May 2005)

The perception is inescapable: the United States of America is a nation going collectively insane. This observation is a topic of frequent discussion among people elsewhere in the world; however, like most victims of delusions, Americans typically do not view themselves as mentally deranged.

Nevertheless the examples in support of the assertion are almost endless. Consider, for instance, the ongoing collective obsession of the American populace with ephemeral dramas that mean almost nothing to persons not directly involved - Michael Jackson's legal saga would be a current example - while matters critical to the very survival of billions pass with little notice.

Of course, it could be argued (and it is true!) that the American people have not spontaneously abandoned their senses; they have been deliberately encouraged and provoked to do so by powerful economic forces acting via advertising and the mass media. But it is not just the dumbed-down masses who are departing from reason; the pampered occupants of the citadels of power are doing so as well: witness Mr Bush telling his subordinates he wants to hear only good news, or a nameless neocon being quoted by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine (10/17/04) as saying that only losers pay attention to "reality".

This burgeoning irrationality is taking a disturbingly recognizable political form, one which we have seen in other times and places. Political scientist Lawrence Britt studied the characteristics of several rightist authoritarian governments of the twentieth century (including Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco's Spain, Suharto's Indonesia, and several Latin American regimes), and concluded that all had the following fourteen characteristics in common:

1. Powerful and continuing nationalism;
2. Disdain for the recognition of human rights;
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause;
4. Supremacy of the military;
5. Rampant sexism (including opposition to abortion and persecution of homosexuals);
6. Controlled mass media;
7. Obsession with national security;
8. Religion and government are intertwined;
9. Corporate power is protected;
10. Labor power is suppressed;
11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts;
12. Obsession with crime and punishment;
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption; and
14. Fraudulent elections.

For the full text of Britt's paper, including discussions of each of these characteristics, see

While the US has not yet become an overt police state to the degree of Chile under Pinochet or Germany under Hitler, this nation, which prides itself on being a beacon of freedom and democracy, is arguably exhibiting all of the above characteristics in increasingly clear and potent ways.

This requires an explanation. Great nations do not succumb to irrationality and authoritarianism for no reason; in our own instance a full analysis of the factors leading to political dementia would necessarily be complex, and would include discussions of the Civil War and its aftermath, the growth of American capitalism and Christian fundamentalism, and more. One easily graspable but important contributing aspect of the situation is portrayed below.

Consider the economic situation of the US during the period from 1900 to 1950. Quantities of available resources grew remarkably, as did rates of savings, investment in infrastructure, and manufacturing capability. (For the sake of argument I omit reference to the Great Depression and the World Wars; these events certainly punctuated America's march of progress, but the nation's overall trajectory remained upward.) The result is a picture of a healthy industrial economy - to the extent that such a thing is possible, given that industrialism is probably an inherently unsustainable form of economic production.

This same upward trajectory also characterized Americans' expectations for the future. People could hardly avoid noticing that life was getting easier: everywhere new inventions were appearing, and more and more people were being freed from back-breaking agricultural work by fuel-fed machinery. If life is good for us (they thought), it will no doubt be better for our children. Even rural homes were being electrified and supplied with machines. It quickly became possible for people of even modest means to own an automobile, a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a vacuum cleaner; a radio and then a television, and a telephone. We who take these things for granted have a difficult time appreciating the immense psychological and physical comforts and opportunities they offered their first users.

Of course, these benefits were purchased at a cost. During the early twentieth century per-capita consumption of energy and resources exploded. In 1900 the typical American family lived rurally or in a small town, grew most of its own food, and owned not a single fuel- or electrically-powered machine. By 2000 the typical family lived in a city, bought all its food in stores, and owned two or more automobiles plus dozens of other powered machines or gadgets.

But that cost was hardly felt. A gallon of gasoline contains about 125,000 BTUs of heat energy; humans can deliver roughly 635 BTUs per hour if they're working hard. Therefore a gallon of gas equals in the neighborhood of 200 hours of solid human labor, or a month's hard work with no weekends off. The Federal minimum wage (unchanged since 1997) is $5.15 per hour; thus one gallon of gasoline should cost about $1,000 in order for humans to be able to "compete" in energetic terms (or, looked at the other way, human labor would have to be devalued to $.005 per hour - that's half a cent per hour of hard work).

In other words, the average American using petroleum to run machinery benefits from work being done at a cost that is so low as to be virtually free. It is no wonder therefore that we have tried to get our machines to do as much work as possible, that we have invented new kinds of work for them to do, and that we have become overwhelmingly dependent on the tangible services deriving from that work. If all of the fueled work that we now rely on daily somehow had to be delivered via human muscle-power, each of us would need hundreds of slaves working day and night to keep us living in the manner to which we have become accustomed. These invisible "energy slaves" enable Americans to live like the kings and queens of old - except that Americans do not perceive themselves as having this advantage: after all, everyone else they know lives this way too, and the stresses that come with modern life obscure and discount what might otherwise be seen as lavish benefits.

With easier living and rising expectations came an expanding self-image. The US was the center of the industrial world: it was the foremost oil-producing nation and the global center of invention and manufacturing. These days major oil-extracting nations (such as Saudi Arabia) often do not benefit from the enormous energies released from their indigenous resources. The oil is sold, but the energies are unleashed elsewhere to create enormous economic benefit for others. But the US had it all- both the resources and the means to use them. It therefore became the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world. Americans could not help but assume that this accomplishment was earned; most, after all, were Protestant Christians who had inherited the Calvinist belief that wealth is a sign of Divine approval. Most US citizens were hard-working and well-educated; they or their ancestors had immigrated to this favored land to claim and tame it (never mind that it was already inhabited) and to prosper from its bounty.

Moreover, they had democracy. Like the forests, the rivers, and the land itself, this had been borrowed from the Natives; but European immigrants quickly and conveniently forgot the Iroquois roots of their participatory form of government and took credit for the invention themselves. In their own eyes, and in the eyes of millions around the world, Americans were good people: they were showing everyone else how to live in freedom and how to get rich. Surely they deserved the perks that went along with the work of being civilization's vanguard!

Now consider the general trend of the basic US economy in the second half of the century. I use the coined term "basic economy" to refer to such quantifiable factors as the rates of extraction of resources, savings, and development of manufacturing infrastructure; to contrast with other economic measures such as GDP or consumption levels. The distinction is important because, while GDP and consumption continued to rise during the decades from 1970 onward, the basic economy began to decline. One event encapsulates this shift - the peak in US oil production. From this point onward, if the nation were to maintain its citizens' lavish lifestyles, it would have to import its most important resource from elsewhere.

As resources and labor became more expensive, Americans turned to two strategies: globalization and the strong-dollar policy. Globalization manipulated global trade rules to favor countries with "intellectual property" - inventions and patents - while forcing resource-rich poor nations to forego industrializing and instead export raw materials at cut-rate prices in order to pay off dollar-denominated loans from commercial banks, the IMF, and World Bank. Gradually, countries like Japan and China figured out how to make the system work to their advantage and became exporters not of resources (of which they had few), but of manufactured goods - and at bargain prices.

The strong-dollar policy came about partly by default: because the US had been the economic powerhouse of the early twentieth century, its currency was everywhere favored. However, once it became clear that the US would be relying increasingly on imports, the masters of the economy knew they needed to ensure that those imports would be affordable. The denomination of IMF loans and global oil sales in US dollars accomplished this by creating artificial demand for the nation's currency. Americans thus enjoyed cheap Japanese- and Chinese-made consumer products and cheap Venezuelan and Mexican oil products; however, as a consequence, America's manufacturing base began to erode.

Nevertheless, Americans' expectations for the future continued to grow. In 1950 the average home size had been 1000 square feet. By 2000 it was 2200 square feet. In 1950 a typical family owned one car; by 2000 there were more cars in the US than licensed drivers. And the cars were growing in size and in their appetite for fuel. With stagnating or shrinking real wages, there was no way that Americans could indulge themselves in this way and still save money, so savings rates plummeted.

Americans' self image also continued its upward trajectory. By this time, democracy in the US was a farce. Everyone knew that the government was largely being run by corporate campaign contributors, but no one could do a thing to remedy the situation. At the same time, the US was invading or bombing countries across the world - always for a perfectly "good" reason (fighting communism, spreading democracy). Americans could rest assured that they still enjoyed the world's most lavish standard of living, and left it up to their leaders to figure out how to maintain it. Few bothered about the details. In general, Americans were happy to be flattered by politicians' assurances that they were the smartest and hardest-working; the most free, God-fearing, and deserving people anywhere.

As a result, a gulf has opened between America's basic economy on one hand, and Americans' expectations and self-image on the other. How can the latter be maintained in spite of obvious decline of the former? It takes some creativity - as well as hefty doses of debt, delusion, denial, and militarism.

The US debt load has become staggering, now consisting of consumer debt - based on advertising, credit cards, low interest mortgages, and home loans taken out on the collateral of overvalued real estate; national debt - mostly subsidizing the military; and trade deficits - going to pay for imports not only of oil, but of all those things that Americans used to make for themselves, but that they now buy from China, Japan, or Korea. Beneath it all, like a rotting floor joist, lurks the fragile derivatives market, the symptom and substance of an economy running on speculation far more than on actual provision of goods or services. As a cushion for the American consumer lifestyle bubble after speculative bubble has been inflated, the last of which will be the Wall Street windfall to be derived from the privatization of Social Security.

How does all of this help explain America's drift toward fascism? We are discussing a nation that is increasingly out of touch with reality, a nation that is afraid to know the truth that its burgeoning problems are self-generated, a nation that would prefer to think that nefarious plotters in distant nations are to blame.

If the US is to weather the transition ahead cooperatively and peacefully, self-reflection will be called for. For example, Americans will need to re-examine their notion of what is good and desirable in terms of personal and collective behavior: the elevation of personal material acquisition to the status of virtue was at least possible during the era of cheap energy (whether it ever really made sense), but in the new era of diminishing oil and gas availability only a tiny minority will be able to maintain such profligacy, and their self-indulgence will necessarily be conspicuous in contrast to the deepening misery of the multitudes. Self-reflection might also call into question the facile patriotism that most Americans evince reflexively, since a peaceful powerdown would require their nation to begin respecting the rights of other nations to pursue their destinies free of US domination. Rather than undertake such collective soul searching, leaders are far more likely to stoke the fires of nationalism to truly absurd lengths.

From the standpoint of America's leaders, authoritarianism seems perfectly justified in the current situation. They, with their teams of well-paid intelligence analysts, cannot help but know that present rates of consumption are unsustainable. When it is no longer possible to continue the consumerist bonanza, the natives will no doubt grow restless. Even if leaders take the high road and tell America the truth about Peak Oil and its consequences; even if they mandate extraordinary conservation measures and work to transform the economy toward a low-flow, steady-state ideal, the central government will need to take on significant new powers to control a stressed and restless population. In the more likely case that politicians merely seek to divert blame from themselves and to maintain material advantages for their corporate cronies, the powers of a secretive militaristic police state will be useful, indeed necessary to that end.

The Great Depression offers a historical analogue to the impending era of contraction and deprivation. During that period Germany turned to Nazism and Italy to Fascism; but even the relatively benign administration of Franklin Roosevelt resorted to unprecedented levels of intervention in the economy, control over media and the courts, and production of propaganda for the purpose of reshaping individual attitudes and behavior.

Thus America's exhibition of Britt's fourteen characteristics of fascism is understandable, perhaps even predictable. This may offer little comfort to those of us who watch with bitterness as freedom and democracy are turned into hollow slogans by a regime busy suppressing both. Nevertheless, I would argue that understanding is helpful - even if what one is attempting to understand is inherently horrific - if the knowledge is relevant and useful. One can only hope that America's descent into collective delusion and authoritarianism will be relatively brief, and that true patriots, acting within their local arenas, will be able to minimize the impacts on their communities not just of Peak Oil itself, but of the upwelling national delusions that are likely to accompany it.

Bill Totten


  • Here's a forward of an article by John Kaminski:

    ----- Original Message -----

    A spring morning
    in the autumn of America

    ‘Don’t it always seem to go that you
    don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’

    By John Kaminski

    Mornings on my porch these days are exquisite. I pry myself from my bed and shuffle out into paradise in this (what I call) cool Florida spring. Every day starts out at 70 degrees. Sun flashes through the dense foliage, creating lush shadows and undulating sunbeams flecked with shimmering dust motes. The mockingbird symphony (somewhere between Vaughn Williams and Wagner, I fancy) is backed by a chorus of owls chanting their baritone refrain. If you listen closely you can discern the words. In fact, you may discern any words you want. I choose to hear “what a world, what a beautiful world.” Eight o'clock on a sunny May morning. It's hard to see anything wrong with the world those first few moments each morning on my porch.

    Then I remember. Reality intrudes. The e-mails. That fascinating and disturbing window on the world. After careening through hundreds of them every day, disconnected thoughts begin flowing through my brain, even before I put on the coffee.

    When I write something, people are always asking me for references, links or citations, and I seldom can remember them, because I have traveled too fast through too much cyberterritory during the previous day to be able to cite chapter and verse. It's the ideas that stick, though I often don't remember which e-mail said what.

    This morning it's this one. We grew up thinking our leisurely middle class lifestyle was the way life has always been. Some of you white haired curmudgeons out there will remember a wacky TV show called "The Life of Riley," one of those carefree '50s half hour sitcoms where the bumbling head of household was lovably inept and perpetually bamboozled — and appreciated because of it.

    Such an innocent time. One recent e-mail pointed out that this social condition — the very existence of a middle class — was created by the aftermath of World War II, when the government assisted all its military survivors with generous loans. The result was a surge in college degrees and individual home ownership.

    First the first time in history, a legitimate middle class was created. It had never existed before, which was something I never realized. But now, today, in A.D. 2005, it was being deliberately exterminated. And might never exist again.

    One of the reasons this sad state had come to pass, as I recall, was that these same auspicious conditions for prosperity also created something very dangerous to the ultimate health of the planet — out-of-control human reproduction and an out-of-balance infestation of corpulent human locusts.

    It's like the climate in Florida. Every possible species of animal thrives here. Eagles live comfortably in towns. Alligators grow 14 feet long and aren't afraid to waddle anywhere, as some people with missing limbs will attest to. Heck, in Florida, the cockroaches — and their Schwarzeneggerean cousins, the mighty palmetto bugs — will stand up and fight you if you get in their way. No foolin'. Life thrives here.

    With such a rich country and a government that actually supported its population, after World War II, the population exploded. All over the world, too. The world’s population quadrupled in the 20th century.

    So it wasn't long before our controllers, the rich elite who get a very different education than we peons do, surmised that too many people put too much of strain on the world's resources. Or maybe it was just their control of the world's resources that they were talking about. In any case, they developed a plan — they being some think tank called the Club of Rome — that population had to be reduced radically if the elite were to continue to live comfortably in their opulent, Wackenhut-guarded enclaves.

    If you're old enough, you might remember the days when the medical profession actually tried to make you healthier. Rather than today, when all they try to do is rob you and kill you, or at least maim you for life so you'll be forced to buy more medicines.

    Now this Club of Rome thing has reached hyperdrive. Most of allopathic medicines are outright poison, as is most of the corporate food supply. You definitely can't trust what your doctor says.

    And the brave military men and women who devotedly follow the orders of our nation's so-called leaders? Well, instead of getting free college and a loan guarantee to buy a house, they get a guaranteed case of terminal cancer (cleverly inflicted by their own poisoned ammunition, as well as their toxic vaccinations, so they can spread their maladies to their families and thereby reduce unwanted and unsightly population more quickly, not to mention the benefit to the government that paying parsimonious death benefits is much more economical than shelling out for lifelong medical care) — all this, of course, assuming that they survive their military assignments, which, in this sad day and age, has become less and less likely.

    Now, some of you, particularly some of you young whippersnappers, might say to me: “You’re living in the past, Old Geezer. You’ve got to get with the program.”

    They don’t realize what the program is. They’ve reaped the harvest of living in a very fortunate time, for some. And they can’t see beyond the parameters of their own pleasant porches to understand the world is really not something of their own creation, but rather it is something they just happened to stumble into, and most of us never really perceive what we have been given, or who has given it to us, or what plans they — the ubiquitous, amorphous and unidentified “they” — have in store for us.

    The thought that our middle class lifestyle is going the way of the dodo bird really saddens me. How lucky we had been to have had such an elysian existence for so long. I console myself by thinking perhaps it was only karma that it had to end, since the vaunted American way of life was constructed on the extermination of the native Indians, nourished by the blood of innocent black people lying dead in the fertile Alabama dirt, and sustained by the blood of the unsuspecting peasants all around the world who never possessed this kind of leisurely life in which we have for so long langoured. Perhaps it is only poetic justice that we would one day wind up in the same condition we ourselves (OK, or our forebears) have inflicted on so many others. What goes around comes around, right?

    In the same way that religious hysterics always predict Armaggedon in their own generation (trapped in a blindness that prevents them from seeing the mathematical unlikelihood of any such prediction), another e-mail pretended to know what the overall plan for the decaying United States was, that it was being brought into line by the global elite to simply be another province of the World Management System, and hence Bush and his psychopathic partners were being instructed to destroy America’s reputation and make it the pariah of the world, so it would be attacked by a new coalition of the outraged and dragged down to the level of, say, Zimbabwe, so it would be easier to control by those who control everything.

    That the U.S., with the help of quislings like Bush and Clinton, was simply being set up to look bad, so that the rest of the world would eventually get fed up and destroy us as being a menace to humanity, which we definitely are.

    It is hard to deny that this is the way it looks. More and more you read stories that America has lost its mind. And a cursory review of history, objective history, clearly reveals that it never had a heart. Oh sure, the people had a heart. People everywhere have hearts. But once things congeal into a monolithic government, the heart seems to disappear, and wholesale rape — even of one’s own self — seems to inevitably be the order of the day.

    So, as I sit on my porch, and a new strand of spring green ivy creeps eagerly up the weather-rusted screen, stretching out its tendrils to greet the infinite possibility of a new day, I review the two remembered e-mails, which forewarned of the death of the middle class, and the deliberate sabotage of the American dream.

    And then one other e-mail flits across the clouded screen of my bittersweet attention. It was from a doctor in Pennsylvania who often buys my books, and sends me both frequent contributions and books she thinks I need to read (and she’s always right about that).

    In her note was a stark fact. Since 1970, the percentage of population diagnosed as sociopathic (who the heck knows how they quantify these things?) has tripled.

    For those who have trouble with the word, a sociopath is simply someone without a conscience. “Sociopaths are interested only in their personal needs and desires, without concern for the effects of their behavior on others,” according to The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

    As you may have realized, this is now the new way of life in America. The diagnosis, according to standard medical textbooks, is clinically deranged.

    I mused momentarily on that scary fact. It explained a lot of things. Combined with the corporate consolidation of media in the late 20th century, it explained the death of popular music. And the loss of conscience in our nation’s newspapers. Perhaps it even explained how a whole society could fail to object to an unjust war ostensibly waged on its behalf that was murdering hundreds of innocent people every day.

    It explained the effects of Prozac, Ritalin, fluoride, and beyond that, the heartless zombification of America. It explained how everyone could overlook the facile lies being used to justify the sociopathic behavior of America, because sociopaths do not object to sociopathic behavior. Why should they care? It’s not their problem.

    As you know, a simple mind like mine tends to reduce these complexities to simplicities by saying the real problem is religion, on the theory that once they can make you believe things that you know in your reasonable mind are not true, they can make you believe anything. But I won’t bore you with any more of that just now, although this is definitely not to say I won’t in the future.

    So as the sun streams through my dusty porch, and little lizards frolic on the languid leaves of the elephant ear plant that climbs high up my mottled Australian pine, and the squirrels fight the sparrows for the last few fragments in the bird feeder, I make a mental note of things I must do to face the day, items to acquire, people to meet, foodstuffs to purchase.

    In the peace of the spring sun I notice that missing from my list is anything about whose life I may improve or what wrong I may attempt to right today, and as I write today I make a mental note that this may be the very difference from the world we have and the world we want.

    And the porch tells me, go outside now. You have done all you can do here. But keep your eyes open for something you can do for someone. It may make all the difference in the world, not only for the world, but for yourself.

    Love is contagious, you know. And the revolution for a decent world begins in your own heart.

    John Kaminski is a writer who lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. His numerous Internet essays are seen on hundreds of websites around the world. They have been collected into two anthologies, “America’s Autopsy Report” and “The Perfect Enemy,” and are for sale at

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:18 PM, May 17, 2005  

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