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The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.
November 8, 2010 7:58 AM   Subscribe

A Superpower in Decline: Is the American Dream Over? Der Spiegel's take.
posted by Wordwoman (85 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Declining empires get really good horror stories and monster movies, so there is that.
posted by The Whelk at 8:00 AM on November 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


It began with me imagining America, after the collapse of its empire, as the bitter broken-down drunk at the end of the bar boring everyone by going on and one about his former exploits back in the glory days. I have to say I sort of look forward to the day when, inevitably, our hubristic ambitions fall apart on us and we lose our empire and can then, hopefully, concentrate on becoming the greatest country on Earth again, instead of just the strongest. Former empires are generally nice places to live, with charm and grace, fine cuisine, and world-class museums.

(drawn bosom in link)
posted by The Whelk at 8:05 AM on November 8, 2010 [20 favorites]


Fine cuisine, heh? *runs*
posted by ZeroAmbition at 8:07 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read the whole thing and was put in mind of the decline of the Roman Empire, which took centuries to "fall", and at many points within that span appeared to be rebounding, or at least still an excellent place to be a Roman in comparison to the rest of the known world. It also wouldn't be that wrong to say that the Roman Empire didn't disappear, so much as it diffused into unidentifiability (the Western half, at least).

Talk of the end of American Empire seems to have a flavour of apocalypse to it that isn't historically accurate. Britain today is inarguably a better place to be than Britain of a century ago.
posted by fatbird at 8:07 AM on November 8, 2010 [22 favorites]


Lots of unsubstantiated assertions in that there. Not to say America doesn't face many challenges, and certainly a lessened place in the global economy, but rumors of America's demise are a bit premature methinks.
posted by sfts2 at 8:08 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an American, I look forward to the day that the US is simply a larger, sort-of-younger nation than its European peers, and doesn't try to be a WORLD-STRIDING SUPEROWER.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:11 AM on November 8, 2010 [14 favorites]


We probably just should have gone ahead and had a nice depression. It would have been painful, but there probably would have been a lot of corrections going on as we actually had to live with the consequences of shitty decisions.
posted by nomadicink at 8:12 AM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


"The fundamental bargain, the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity," Putnam says. "If that is no longer true, then the core bargain is being violated."

But it was NEVER true. This is a hard premise to swallow.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:17 AM on November 8, 2010 [26 favorites]


"This is the climate in the country leading up to the Congressional elections on Nov. 2. It isn't shaped by logic or an interest in rational debate. The United States of 2010 is a country that has become paralyzed and inhibited by allowing itself to be distracted by things that are, in reality, not a threat: homosexuality, Mexicans, Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, health care reform and Obama. Large segments of the country are not even talking about the issues that are serious and complex, like debt, unemployment and serious educational deficits. Is it because this is all too threatening?"

Well when you put it like that....
posted by dig_duggler at 8:19 AM on November 8, 2010 [11 favorites]


The United States of 2010 is a country that has become paralyzed and inhibited by allowing itself to be distracted by things that are, in reality, not a threat: homosexuality, Mexicans, Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, health care reform and Obama. Large segments of the country are not even talking about the issues that are serious and complex, like debt, unemployment and serious educational deficits. Is it because this is all too threatening?"

Fantastic comment a few weeks ago, that I now can;t find which went along the lines of

"China can pump out roads faster then thought possible and France can be run on safe nuclear power and Germany's economy is booming despite having some of the strict environmental laws in the world and the US can't even a build a tunnel from NY to NJ. "
posted by The Whelk at 8:25 AM on November 8, 2010 [47 favorites]


Civilization is always failing. Those Euro-states are also decades from collapse (again.) It's just this time we are toying with global collapse.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:25 AM on November 8, 2010


The Whelk: Interesting link and quote. It reminds me of some random thoughts that may be of relevance - an MBA classmate who was from Annapolis pumping his fist up and down yelling "0 for 2 man; 0 for 2" when we beat the exchange students from Germany at inflatable mountain climbing; the prompt bombardment of the moon to discover water after the Chandrayaan announced their discovery; the incessant need to beat the iPhone drum as world leader even though 4.5 billion minus however many iPhones sold number of people in the world are mobile phone users and so on and so forth.

Then again, I'm just rambling here - anyone read Morris Berman's Twilight of American Culture (bad reviews not withstanding)

p19
... four factors are present when a civilization collapses:
(a) Accelerating social and economic inequality
(b) Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems
(c) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness
(d) Spiritual death-that is, Spengler's classicism: the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas-kitsch, in short.

posted by The Lady is a designer at 8:27 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, umm, Germans have some experience here, no?
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:27 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


We're going down, and taking the rest of you with us! Yeeehaaaww, USA USA USA!
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:27 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gloomy predictions of American decline have a distinguished three-century history consisting of 100% misses, a percentage matched only by predictions of the Second Coming. Nothing real lasts forever but knowing when the belly-flop will occur, whether in 10 years or 500, well... when it happens, you'll know, if you're still around. I'm thinking of all those prescient predictions of the USSR's sudden evaporation, of which there were none. (Wishful thinking does sell copies of Der Spiegel on EU newsstands, though.)

PS imminent death of internet predicted.
posted by jfuller at 8:28 AM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


There is a bit of irritating smugness about the article, although I can't really disagree with any of it. It just has a bit of finger-wagging, 'there but for the grace of God...' undertone, which is perhaps nothing more than a reflection of the audience that they're playing to, but it's unfortunate because I think the content of the article is something t that really needs hammering-home more in the U.S. than abroad.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:31 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Was always thus.

We are far from perfect, but I would challenge you to find a country of equivalent population and standard of living.

This last election was a reactionary backlash, a roar of the dumb and scared, and they still didn't manage to knock out both houses of Congress a la Clinton in 94. What's more, Pelosi and Obama have managed to pass some of the most significant legislation in 25 years.

Our problems are not small, but we have nowhere near the economic and social messes of Europe (c.f. Greece's implosion, Sarkozy's Roma repression), the cultural and economic regression of Japan (c.f. parasite singles, mummified centenarians) the authoritarian repression of China, or the endemic corruption of India.

We're the best worst option out there, even today. Once the economy picks up a bit more, all of this will be forgotten until the next recession.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:32 AM on November 8, 2010 [15 favorites]


No, there won't be a collapse. Just like there won't be another major world war. It's bad for business. Police actions are excellent, good moneymakers. "Corrections" are wonderful, too, because desperate times call for desperate measures, which always benefit business too. No, no, these ups and downs are part of the design, folks. Little bumps and curves on the roller coaster carefully designed to keep people distracted from the end of the line with its soundproof walls, rotating knives and 12" blood drainage pipe.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:34 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


What's more, we're one of the few industrialized nations not facing a massive demographic train-wreck of aging.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:35 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, umm, Germans have some experience here, no?

I would argue that the Germans have spent quite a bit of time going up and down split in two and one-up one-down and back together and up again.

The idea of America collapsing is sort of silly. The idea of America no longer being the world's superpower is either present-but-unacknowledged or inevitable. I'm okay with this. The country is not going burst into flames and capsize simply because it's no longer on top.

And frankly, it hasn't really been on top of very much for a very long time.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:36 AM on November 8, 2010


Nothing symbolizes America's dream more than ownership, that fetish that politicians, culture and the media have glorified and inflated since the beginning of the 20th century.

No, that may be the manifestation of the American Dream, but it's not the Dream itself. The power of the Dream is that it is what you make it. At its heart is freedom and the ability to become what you want to become. That is why we have a tug of war in the U.S. between those who see government as an intrusion (limiting the individual Dream through taxes and control) and those that see government as an enabler (providing a social base to allow individual Dreams to flourish instead of being snuffed out).

Not everyone shares the same manifestation of the Dream, and to try to sum it up as "ownership" is silly and misguided. Yes, many people want material goods to help provide a comfortable living. They over-extended themselves in search of those goods. I also think a great many people were lulled into giving up their American Dream in favor of the gentle lull of materialism. There have been just as many movies making fun of this distortion of the Dream as there have been promoting materialism as the Dream. See everything from Office Space to American Beauty.

Part of what swept Obama into office was a sentiment that we all wanted change. We wanted to dust off the American Dream and return to its roots. We wanted reinvention and reinvigorating, and if that meant a lot less material comfort, we were ok with that. We just wanted our souls back.

The trouble is, and I think this is the real point, the US and global economy has been built on materialism. If we don't keep demand rolling, we don't keep our jobs. If we don't keep our jobs, it's really hard to make any sort of Dream come alive.

How will we dig out of this mess? Well, as far as I can tell we actually must return to our base Dreams. We have to innovate for ourselves, think creatively, and come up with products and services the entire world wants because, damn, they're pretty great (not just flashy and useless). If we can make that shift, not only will the economy revive, but so will our true American Dreams.
posted by Muddler at 8:44 AM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


More science.
Canada can be the control and do everything as normal. America can be the crazy political experiment, and whole heartedly embrace some ideology.
We'll see what happens. Maybe I'll invest in old bomb shelters.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:46 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking of all those prescient predictions of the USSR's sudden evaporation, of which there were none.

i keep thinking of that, too, but i get something different from it - that countries can change drastically, in the period of a few short months, whether anyone expects it or not

did people see the american revolution coming? basically, no

did people see the civil war coming? - i think it's fair to say that a lot of people did

did people see WWI coming? - no, not at all

did people see WWII coming? - yeah, it was pretty obvious by 1938

my point is that you can't look at a situation and say it won't develop into something drastically different by looking at how many people are predicting it

No, there won't be a collapse. Just like there won't be another major world war. It's bad for business.

and yet, they have happened anyway - the elites only think they're in control - and as long as things stay in certain parameters, they can continue to believe they are - then something happens, and things change whether it's bad for business or not

we, meaning the world, are in for a serious time of trouble and readjustment
posted by pyramid termite at 8:52 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


That photo essay was really weird. Sad people in line looking for work [actually they look pretty cheery] contrasted with people at a beach party in the fifties? "Some 47 percent of Americans don't believe that the America Dream is still realistic." is their sort of capping statistic. Does that mean that 53% of Americans still believe in the American Dream, even with all the eveidence to the contrary? That's some powerful mojo. The end of the article has one of the commenters talking about how people were still dreaming this dream right before Obama was elected. And for some reason two years later and they're half over it? Or what?

It may be hard for me to have any distance from how people in other countries view the weird American Dream construction since I've mostly lived within American culture, but it strikes me that it's a dream in part because it's far off and difficult to attain. And I think one of the bigger points in the article was that it's based on a fiction [equalizing of the classes, everyone can work hard and attain creature comforts and the occasional luxury] and it's only lately that the fact that it was fiction (and the reasoning) has become undeniable to everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance -- it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past. They devote almost no effort to reflection, and they condemn cleverness and intellect as elitist and un-American, as if people who hunt bears could seriously be expected to lead a world power. Demagogues stir up hatred and rage on television stations like Fox News. These parts of America, majorities in many states, ignorant of globalization and the international labor market, can do nothing but shout. They hate everything that is new and foreign to them.

Boy, aren't these krauts confused?! The people they just described love America and want to take it back to its roots!!!
posted by orville sash at 8:56 AM on November 8, 2010


The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:57 AM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


You have to consider the competition.

Me, I plan on learning Chinese in the coming couple of years.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2010


Comparisons to Rome should acknowledge the dynamic nature of the modern world. Indeed Rome took hundreds of years to fall, but there is precedent for movements simply taking longer to occur in historical times. See for instance the hundred years war. There is no way to draw a firm comparison between the far past and present in terms of the functional rate-of-historical-change. Look at the nature of capitol then and now, the mechanization of industry and economy, etc. In fact, isn't it now a cliche that the economy is so flexible and technology so disruptive that we will see radical change in far less than a hundred years? This is a belief in the popular imagination, is it not? There is no guarantee that this "disruptive" change will be positive for us, especially if we continue this train poisonous, vindictive political discourse. We will create the world that we deserve.

That said, America is still incredibly wealthy, by any standard. There is the good chance that we can coast for an awfully long time. The real unknown here is the massive debt, and the structure of a larger world economy that is propping us up.
posted by kuatto at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Single page version (warning, tries to auto-print).

I think comparisons with the slow dissolving of the Roman Empire are interesting, but the end of the British Empire is probably a more useful comparison - things move a lot quicker than they did in the days when it would take several weeks to get from Rome to the barbarian chill of Hadrian's Wall.

Personally I'd like my own country (the UK) to get over its imperial hangover a bit quicker - despite being physically and population-wise pretty middling, our politicians insist on us getting involved in lots of intensely expensive international actions, mostly military, that we really have no business doing anymore. I'd much prefer to have a military and foreign policy more like the Swedes or the Dutch.

I think the cartoon linked at the top of the page is quite apt - when post-war Imperial chestbeating was at its high watermark, the Empire was already crumbling, so the constant refrain of American Exceptionalism would seem to be a replay, with BRIC on the rise. The challenge for the US will be managing decline as a world power without some serious issues at home, given the proportionally greater population, infrastructure and resource challenges you have to deal with compared to us.

Of course, the alternative is that the US continues to slide to the authoritarian right and resource depletion leads to some really nasty, high intensity wars. The major downside of that being that the US would probably do some pretty severe damage to the rest of the world if its death throes were nuclear. I'm talking about 50 - 100 years from now, but still conceivably within our lifetimes.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just like there won't be another major world war. It's bad for business.

This was a commonly-held mindset prior to World War I. We should not, as a species, underestimate our ability to screw ourselves.

That said, I'm not much for doom and gloom prophecies of destruction and collapse. One needs to actually consider what the definition of "collapse" actually is. Are we talking about a complete failure of economic, cultural and social institutions so that anarchy and violence become the law of the land? Or do we just mean that our standard of living might not be *quite* so awesome and that we might not project our military/commercial power quite the way we used to?

I somehow doubt that any other nation-state is going to be interested in attempting a military takeover of the US anytime soon. Nor would any other nation-state really be that interested in buying us out; we're a toxic asset, after all.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:06 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


leotrotsky: We're the best worst option out there, even today. Once the economy picks up a bit more, all of this will be forgotten until the next recession.

Some fair points there (and I suspect you're right that once the economy recovers we'll hear a lot less of this). Seems a bit unfair to compare the US with "Europe" and then cherry-pick examples from different countries though. I suspect the US would stack up very favourably against Greece or France, sure. But maybe not so much against the Scandanavian countries, or the Netherlands.

What's more, we're one of the few industrialized nations not facing a massive demographic train-wreck of aging.

Interesting article, though as I read it, it says the US will face those difficulties eventually. Also worth noting that part of the reason the US has a relatively youthful population is immigration. There's nothing stopping Japan or France or whoever from just letting in more immigrants, in order to maintain an age balance (which is why these sort of predictions need a sackful or two of salt - they assume that nothing else changes, whereas quite probably governments will be motivated to do something about aging populations).
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:07 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I somehow doubt that any other nation-state is going to be interested in attempting a military takeover of the US anytime soon. Nor would any other nation-state really be that interested in buying us out; we're a toxic asset, after all.

The Russians sold Alaska to pay off debts. Maybe our children or younger siblings will have to sell it off to China to pay ours.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Gloomy predictions of American decline have a distinguished three-century history consisting of 100% misses, a percentage matched only by predictions of the Second Coming.

To many people, an American decline is not gloomy at all. I mean, England may have its problems but it's not really all that bad off. And yet it is precisely the U.S.' position as world power, the things our spy agencies have done in our name, and the various pressures our leaders have brought to bear upon the world to advance our interests, that has made us the target of all these terrorists. And for all our super-poweredness, it's not like we found ourselves able to do much of a damn thing to help anybody when Katrina hit.

There would be bad things about China taking the lead, for sure, but it'd also be nice if the crosshairs moved onto some other nation for a change.
posted by JHarris at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm thinking of all those prescient predictions of the USSR's sudden evaporation

Other than George Kennan's long telegram, published as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in 1947 and a pillar of Cold War containment policy: "But the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced."
posted by shivohum at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2010


leotrotsky: What's more, we're one of the few industrialized nations not facing a massive demographic train-wreck of aging.

Perhaps, but they'll figure out how to deal with it, and every country is going to have to deal with it eventually. The world is a finite place with limited resources, and technology will only carry us so far - eventually, populations must stabilize. Either society has to get used to an older population on average, or a whole lot of people have to die young; barring miraculous technological advances we cannot depend on, there is no third option here.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:15 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Russians sold Alaska to pay off debts. Maybe our children or younger siblings will have to sell it off to China to pay ours.

Considering what Alaska has given us lately, we should probably be accepting offers.
posted by JHarris at 9:17 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


The USA has already collapsed. The concentration of wealth is third-world. The government corruption is third-world. The incarceration rate is third world. Health and education measures are headed toward third-world quality. Heck, even women's rights could be headed that way if the anti-choice nuts get their way.

What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:20 AM on November 8, 2010 [19 favorites]


The idea of America collapsing is sort of silly. The idea of America no longer being the world's superpower is either present-but-unacknowledged or inevitable. I'm okay with this. The country is not going burst into flames and capsize simply because it's no longer on top.

Well, I hope not. But it's a country with a vast millitary, nukes, a lot of religious nuts, and a national myth of righteousness, a combination which makes for some pretty alarming possibilities in the "poor loser" stakes.
posted by rodgerd at 9:23 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some of the U.S. data points in the article become rather less scary when you compare them to other nations, rather than just looking at America in isolation as the article does.

For example- if you look at the change in the % of Germans employed in the industrial sector over the last decade, it dropped just as much as the US. source

I don't know why that factoid should necessarily imply doom and gloom.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 9:29 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

We have cameras.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:35 AM on November 8, 2010 [10 favorites]


fourcheesemac: You have to consider the competition.

Me, I plan on started learning Chinese German in the coming couple of years two months ago.


fixed that for me
posted by paisley henosis at 9:38 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fuck it, lets just take a break and coast for a while huh?
posted by Ad hominem at 9:44 AM on November 8, 2010


Read it in Werner Herzog's voice.
posted by phrontist at 9:47 AM on November 8, 2010


What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

living space full of ugly buildings, oversized cars, wide screen tvs, shopping malls full of crap and lots of overdue notices
posted by pyramid termite at 9:48 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

Dunno, but whenever I see pics of those miles wide shanty towns in Mumbai and Mexico City I don't remember ever seeing that in the US but maybe I haven't looked hard enough.

Just because 1 percent own most of the shit doesn't mean everyone else has nothing.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:50 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The USA has already collapsed. The concentration of wealth is third-world. The government corruption is third-world. The incarceration rate is third world. Health and education measures are headed toward third-world quality. Heck, even women's rights could be headed that way if the anti-choice nuts get their way.

What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?


Have you ever been to a developing country?

I don't know exactly what you have in mind when you say "third world"--that particular phrase brings to mind India in 1982--but there are quantitative measures of development. The most well-known is the UN's Human Development Index. It takes into account health, education, and income. The US ranks 4th globally. There's also a version of the HDI that accounts for inequality (the IHDI PDF). The IHDI can be expressed in terms of how much HDI would decrease if inequality were taken into account. The developed world average is about 10%; the US is about 11%; developing countries sit anywhere between 20% and 40%.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:55 AM on November 8, 2010 [14 favorites]


What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

American Idol. McDonalds. FOX News.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:55 AM on November 8, 2010


what i'm trying to figure out, fff, is why 60 - 75K canadians insist on illegally staying and working in a third world country like the u s when they could just stay in 1st world canada
posted by pyramid termite at 9:58 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


It may be hard for me to have any distance from how people in other countries view the weird American Dream construction since I've mostly lived within American culture, but it strikes me that it's a dream in part because it's far off and difficult to attain.

The American Dream strikes non-Americans as strange mainly because its many cognitive dissonances with American socioeconomic reality seem to do nothing to weaken its enduring appeal and because it gives rise to such inexplicable policies and institutions. It may be difficult to attain, but its basic premise - that anyone of any circumstance can find a wholly satisfying life and achieve anything they set out to achieve, based primarily on the merit of their own actions - pervades the collective national psyche much more deeply.

On the cognitive dissonance front, I read a multinational survey of working-class opinions and attitudes back in undergrad - can't remember the title, alas - and the US was the outlier in almost every regard, particularly in the near-total absence of shared class consciousness and in a marked cognitive dissonance around what hard work could get you. All working classes surveyed more or less agreed that for most people, there were limits to social mobility and managers worked no harder than factory workers, they just had better opportunities. But sitting on top of this attitude like a thick layer of gloss for American blue-collar workers was a deep sense of personal responsibility, a pervading idea that their lot in life - everyone's lot in life - was ultimately of their own making. Their fault, was mainly how it was phrased. American workers tended in the main to believe they were both limited in opportunity and primarily responsible for those limits, which is as close to a perfect manifestation of Gramscian dual consciousness as you'll find in a working class anywhere.

On the inexplicability front, American health care is the sort of ne plus ultra e.g. I have many, many American friends and some extended family and I lived in the US for three years growing up, and I don't think I've met an American who truly grasps how baffling and appalling American health care appears to those outside the US.

Not long ago I was having a dinner conversation with some good friends in New York - Upper West apt, both with Columbia degrees, she a prof on a tenure track and he a composer, their one-year-old daugther gurgling at us - and I was describing the ordeal we'd had around the birth of our second child. Several weeks in intensive care, ultrasounds and ECGs, geneticists and cardiologists, all that.

My friends stopped me. "And while this was going on," one of them asked, "you didn't have to pay for any of this?"

"Of course not," I answered. "Our son was in intensive care."

As you'd expect from Upper West Side intellectuals, they were deeply frustrated at their own system, exasperated by its grotesque commercial qualities. The level of bafflement they don't understand - which in some sense ties back to that American Dream notion that they lived within a system at least in the ballpark of the best anywhere - is the one where you, as a non-American, can't fathom even having that question occur to you. That in such a critical life-or-death moment in a baby's life, you'd have to even think about what it cost to make your kid well.

This is the thing that trips up non-Americans - that (for example) you could live under the constant worry that health care costs could bankrupt you or permanently compromise your health, and yet in the face of that you could maintain the illusion you lived in a place that was, as leotrotsky put it, "the best worst option out there."
posted by gompa at 9:59 AM on November 8, 2010 [54 favorites]


Well, I hope not. But it's a country with a vast millitary, nukes, a lot of religious nuts, and a national myth of righteousness, a combination which makes for some pretty alarming possibilities in the "poor loser" stakes.

I think there's some real truth to that. No matter how friendly the next country to climb to the top of the pile, they're going to be transformed into a threat simply by being not-us. We'll need to be glad-handled for the rest of our foreseeable existence, assured that The American Way is a wise and just way, and that the rest of the world is still jealous of our freedoms and superiority, so that we can be pacified and lulled back to our focus on the important things like gays and the myth of evolution. We'll be like a zoo full of cavemen, unable to understand how the people outside the glass have completely lapped us in education, health care, and overall happiness.

Hell, maybe it's already happened.
posted by Amanojaku at 10:02 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


We'll need to be glad-handled for the rest of our foreseeable existence

no, just entertained - you know how some parents will just plop a kid in front of a tv set to keep him from making trouble - yeah, like that
posted by pyramid termite at 10:10 AM on November 8, 2010


What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

*Music
*Movies
*Microcode
*High-speed pizza delivery
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:22 AM on November 8, 2010 [16 favorites]


(the UK) to get over its imperial hangover a bit quicker - despite being physically and population-wise pretty middling,

With all due respect, I would wish for this too, as citizen of a former colony and perceived current threat. Its tiring to have people (including my normally sensitive BFF) say things like "What we all end up living like all those poor people in India" or "You're the techie (eh?)" or "We're just the English teachers" or "We shouldn't allow them (Indian and Chinese grad students) to study advanced design thinking etc" - its like the UK is suffering from a massive inferiority complex in toto and when it moves from pages of The Guardian to your own friends worrying about such things, it shows how far its seeped into the national mindset and culture. Its also quite embarrassing, really, if charities etc now need poverty and LDCs in order to feel better about themselves.

It may be hard for me to have any distance from how people in other countries view the weird American Dream construction since I've mostly lived within American culture, but it strikes me that it's a dream in part because it's far off and difficult to attain.

On preview, since I was stuck on a call and gompa's wonderful screed leads me to delete mine, except to add to these words,

This is the thing that trips up non-Americans - that (for example) you could live under the constant worry that health care costs could bankrupt you or permanently compromise your health, and yet in the face of that you could maintain the illusion you lived in a place that was, as leotrotsky put it, "the best worst option out there."

This is the problem faced by so so many in the developing world where there is little affordable insurance for the majority nor national health services or social safety nets, yet there is the counterbalance (not always and not enough) of resilient community networks and the sense of "community as insurance" to at least make the landing a little softer.

The American Dream from one outsider's perspective has so long been packaged as home/two cars/shiny appliances/holiday abroad/iPhone etc and spread globally that its as much chewing away at a sustainable future if the oft repeated spectre of a couple of billion emerging consumers also want that very same aspirational lifestyle. That's the scary part, the "Dream" going global as mainstream consumer culture.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 10:24 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Five Fresh Fish, I will have you know that our incarceration rate is in no way third world, in that, at least, we are still #1 by a wide wide margin.

This article, though, is not so #1 in quality. It repeats a lot of the tired tropes that have been popping up ever since the housing bubble went pop, and, as jfuller noted continues a long history of speculating on the decline of the US. I personally like reading about those tired tropes, but I also like zombie movies, so maybe I just have a penchant for the apocalyptic. The article, and others like it, do a lot of hand-wringing over cherry-picked data points, but offers little by way of analysis of what the long term trends may be. For instance, it posits vague ideas about what may happen in a world with a radically devalued dollar, but offers no ideas on exactly how likely that could happen, or any of the fine grained detail of would that would entail.

There's a whole raft of other articles out there which directly rebut these kind of "US decline inevitable and imminent" pieces. None of them have any great detail either; they point towards the US's demographic advantage and then do some hand-waving about economic dynamism. Neither of these types of works ever offer an concrete details about the world would look like during an American collapse, or re-adjustment, or whatever, because neither of these types of works are really arguing about concrete economic realities. What they are arguing about is then end of the Idea of America that has been propagated since the end of WW2 and which gained fresh legs following the collapse of the USSR. It's the idea that the US is not just primus inter pares on the world stage, both economically and politically, but that the US's role is more like sine non qua, and possibly some other weighty latin phrases.

These articles have to do this sort of gauzy filtered look at the future, because, for all the predictive economic models and sociological theory, no one has any clear way of knowing what will happen next. So these writers for Der Spiegel and the NYT and Salon just keep asking, "Will the US economy topple over like the end of drunken Jenga game?" without ever serious considering what will happen if it does. No one knows if the US economic collpase will actually happen, and no one knows if that will result in the whole world being dragged down with it or whether it will result in various other economies flourishing. Will the impending collapse lead the US to radically restructure the government? Will the US break up into regional nations? Will the US go Fascist and elect Glenn Beck as Supreme Cincinnatus of the Republic? Will it all end in a bunch of mushroom clouds? Will there be a period of depressed economic activity followed by a recovery? The data needed to answer these prognosticatory questions are just too complicated and the discourse too far out there.



The article also commits some serious graphical sins, here's a better overview of the US deficit as percent of GDP.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:24 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think this article is quite informed and well-reasoned.

It's easy to call it a redux of zillions of older "doom-and-gloom-sky-is-falling" stories. I don't think it takes that tone at all.

The facts remain:

- Good or bad, the economic situation for most Americans is stagnant or declining.
- Good or bad, the income gap in America has increased dramatically.
- Good or bad, political partisanship among our leaders has become so all-ecompassing that political point-scoring has become more important than actually addressing problems. I don't think you can realistically argue otherwise.

The above is bad enough. The kicker is that the rest of the advanced world is now less and less inhibited in saying that the emperor has no clothes. They'd just as soon laugh in our faces as laugh behind our backs.

The rest of the advanced world has become more social, while we, for the most part, have declined to participate. We've wielded our stick and insisted that we call the shots or we won't play.

Yeah, I get it. We're special, we're the best, we're number 1.

We are getting left behind.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Addendum to what Benny Andajetz said: The US now ranks 49th worldwide in life expectancy (down from 24th just ten years ago) and 30th in infant mortality.
posted by gompa at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thing is, the American Dream isn't dead, really. I live in a town full of Southeast Asian immigrants who worked their butts off and saved religiously so their kids could have Nice Things and get a college education. And those kids are now ensconced in the middle class and taking care of their parents.

There's still value in working hard, saving money, and trying to climb into the middle class.

But what happens when the middle class starts to vanish, as it's doing right now? What happens when working hard gets you and your children no better a life than what you have right now, and only makes you tired and angry?

I think this is a lot of why you see so many 50-something whites at these Tea Party rallies. The returns on hard work, good work are now vanishingly small, and meanwhile you have all these wetbacks working for $3/hour still slingshoting their kids into the lower middle class. And a lot of fiftysomethings, the people who voted in Prop 13 and the Reagan Revolution in their 20s, are reaping what they've sown, and yet they're unwilling to accept their responsibility in it.

It's easier to blame the brown-skinned people for your own failings as a white American, after all.

As the child of some of those Reagan Republicans who's seen his mother sell her house to pay her massive debt while going begging for an office job, or really any job, in her 50s, and yet spend her days watching Fox News and blame Obama for bringing down America, I see the cognitive dissonance all the time. And it's sad. It's sad when you're struggling to keep yourself afloat in an economy where everything is going sideways and at the same time have parents who are begging you for help.

I see how this will all end. People stop being able to reach the middle class, and all hell breaks loose. The Baby Boomers get old and start dying off, clearing the path for Gen X and Gen Y to battle to the death over the scraps remaining. And the wealth disparity moves us back into the early 1900s, when the trusts battled the US government in Congress and in court, and the British class disconnect ended with the horrors of WWI. Meanwhile, a lot of people in the hinterland will suffer while waiting for their GOP savior, while a lot rich liberals on the Coasts will be torn in their desire to help the poor and their wish that the Red States will up and die already.

But at no point will we get real. At no point will we try to fix this loony taxation system. At no point will we ask what we should be spending our money on. And at no point will we realize that everything is falling down around us because we've got ours.

That's where the American Dream dies. It dies because we're too selfish to look around and ask whether it's still possible and whether we should do something about making it possible. You can be very cynical about the inaccuracy of that founding myth, but so long as there's a middle class to aspire to, the Dream won't die.
posted by dw at 10:35 AM on November 8, 2010 [16 favorites]


I think I can sum up the entire tone and content of this article by this sentence:

"It could certainly be a comfort to the Germans that the United States is no longer so powerful that it can foist its ideas on the rest of the world."

Yes, the US has a lot of problems. Yes, we have no freaking idea what we are doing and whether or not what is being tried will work out. Yes, there is a lot of bickering and distrust between different factions. There are a lot more question marks out there then periods.

But I think rumors of our demise are a bit premature, and articles like this, metaphorically throwing the US on a bonfire and dancing triumphantly around it, say more about our potential than our problems. No one roots for the underdog to fail.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:38 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


all these wetbacks

Was it just yesterday?

Ah yes, here it is

In polite circles, among our political and financial classes, this is known as “the free market at work.” No, it’s “wage repression,” and it’s been happening in our country since around 1980. I must invoke some statistics here, knowing that statistics can glaze the eyes; but if indeed it’s the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics, as I once read, surely this truly educated audience will be moved by the recent analysis of tax data by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefitted. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

That’s wage repression.

posted by The Lady is a designer at 10:46 AM on November 8, 2010 [12 favorites]


As an American, I look forward to the day that the US is simply a larger, sort-of-younger nation than its European peers, and doesn't try to be a WORLD-STRIDING SUPEROWER.

Well, thanks to our gigantic trade deficit and national debt, I expect we're going to be a superower for a long, long time.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:49 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had no idea Thomas Friedman wrote for Der Spiegel.
posted by electroboy at 11:49 AM on November 8, 2010


The government corruption is third-world.

Um, no.

Say what you want about the US government, but it is not corrupt, at least not in the way that many developing-world governments are corrupt. At the Federal and state levels, corporations may be able to buy (or even just write) the legislation they want, and buy favors via campaign contributions, but these are rather abstract things to the average person.

If you want to get a building permit, in most places in the United States, you do not need to figure into your budget bribes for every petty official whose desk it might cross, or who might decide to inject themselves in order to line their pockets by squeezing you for a few bucks. The process may be arbitrary, byzantine, and expensive, but not because of thumb-and-finger-rubbing extortion by the building inspector and his entire extended family.

If you enter the U.S., you probably won't have your camera gear held until you bribe the guys at Customs to release it. (Although they may confiscate it and search it for porn, because they can. And if they don't like your attitude, or if your skin is the wrong color, or if you talk with a funny accent, or if they're just having a bad or boring day, they might fuck with you, because they can.)

When you pay taxes in the U.S., chances are good that it actually ends up in a government account somewhere, and not in the tax assessor's wallet.

If you get pulled over for speeding, you probably won't get very far if you offer to pay the fine in cash. In fact, attempting to do so will probably only get you in more trouble.

This isn't to say that money doesn't talk, but to say that the US has pervasive government corruption on the scale that many other "third world" countries do is ridiculous. What corruption exists in the US is at high and abstract levels, which is why people who would absolutely pillory a cop for taking a $50 bribe to make a speeding ticket go away, nonetheless tolerate corporations paying $500k for pet legislation. It's a very First World sort of corruption.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:54 AM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Interesting read.

Personally I'm under the impression that the US is still the place countries try to emulate to create areas of innovation like Silicon Valley and the top US universities are still the pinnacle of knowledge.
And the US still invests stupendous amounts of money in defence. I wonder whether that's not only to subsidise the military-industrial complex; I'd think that the US muscles a lot of benefits from that position in international relations.
So in that respect the reports of the demise of the US might be premature it seems to me.

Even if the position of utmost wealth and power diminishes it will be a significant country on a global scale.
It will take some time though for the US ego to adjust.
I hope those frustrations will not lead to more military aggression to make up for feelings of inadequacy.

I've wondered why the US seems to have relatively little explicit class warfare playing out in politics. I'm under the impression that the working class in a lot of european countries has claimed a big influence in politics by supporting left wing workers parties and unions.
Claiming universal healthcare and redistribution of wealth among other things.
I'm under the impression that there's very little of that in the US. Which looks very strange from a european perspective.
posted by joost de vries at 12:26 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


five fresh fish:

> What is first-world about the USA for the majority of its population?

Everything but (maybe) health care and supposedly the government is going to fix that soon.

I strongly recommend that you ask that question of people who have immigrated to the United States from Africa or Asia or even South or Central America. The ones I know all like it here so much they are trying to entice as many of their friends and family from back home to join them here as possible.

Would you rather eat shit or twinkies?
posted by bukvich at 12:47 PM on November 8, 2010


I guess maybe it is time to give this up, but the United States is tautologically first-world. First-World is defined as the United States and its allies.
posted by Justinian at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Everything but (maybe) health care and supposedly the government is going to fix that soon.

I strongly recommend that you ask that question of people who have immigrated to the United States from Africa or Asia or even South or Central America. The ones I know all like it here so much they are trying to entice as many of their friends and family from back home to join them here as possible.

Would you rather eat shit or twinkies?


I take it that we don't know each other, stranger.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 1:06 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, at least we know who the enemy of the future is: Poor, homosexual muslim Mexicans in need of healthcare...
posted by blue_beetle at 1:22 PM on November 8, 2010


The American Dream has been dead for a while now.

And Justinian is absolutely right about First World/Third World. The U.S. and its capitalist allies are First World, the Communists are Second World, and the rest are Third World.

"Third World" has since been redefined by some people (I don't know the actual criteria), but I don't think anybody did the same for "First World." I'm curious, though ...
posted by mrgrimm at 1:25 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, there won't be a collapse. Just like there won't be another major world war. It's bad for business.

Depends what business you're in. "When war began in Europe in 1939, [Sir John Templeton] borrowed money to buy 100 shares each in 104 companies selling at one dollar per share or less, including 34 companies that were in bankruptcy. Only four turned out to be worthless, and he turned large profits on the others."


Talking with a finance guy just this morning and according to a conference he had just attended, the fear was that within three years a bunch of European countries, and not just the peripheral ones like Greece, would be in effect declaring bankruptcy, the widespread belt tightening there notwithstanding.

Could be just nationalism, but on the other hand, the European too have been living beyond their means for many decades. They've just had different priorities for the money than the US has.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:43 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could be just nationalism, but on the other hand, the European too have been living beyond their means for many decades. They've just had different priorities for the money than the US has.

Well, that does sum up the problem. The US problem is that we've borrowed trillions and then spent the money on multiple wars and on huge tax cuts and entitlements. The Europeans, OTOH, the issues are mostly structural -- they've overpromised on entitlements such as having retirement ages that are too low given the longer life spans.

I'm more worried about a European financial collapse now than another American one. The US at this point is just trying to digest the bad money it's taken in, and the sooner the government can stop meddling in trying to keep things from playing out (e.g. the homebuyers credit, Cash For Clunkers) the better. The US prospects 10 years out are pretty good. Europe hasn't even begun to digest the financial problems in the PIIGS countries. Greece have hit bottom, but Spain is nowhere close, and Portugal, Italy, and Ireland's financial problems are still not fully known. Given the complexities of the European economy and how interdependent they are, I think they're at a pretty decent risk of a major financial dislocation in the next 10 years.

And such a dislocation would be good for the US (money flooding out of the Eurozone into the dollar and the markets) and bad (this is where the inflation fears kick in, and goodbye cheap exports).
posted by dw at 2:45 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]



Thing is, the American Dream isn't dead, really. I live in a town full of Southeast Asian immigrants who worked their butts off and saved religiously so their kids could have Nice Things and get a college education. And those kids are now ensconced in the middle class and taking care of their parents.


That's the Southeast Asian immigrant dream. The American dream involves more time in front of a television camera.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:14 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


And Justinian is absolutely right

I favorited your comment. I didn't actually read anything past this phrase, but I favorited it anyway.
posted by Justinian at 5:18 PM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


pyramid termite writes "what i'm trying to figure out, fff, is why 60 - 75K canadians insist on illegally staying and working in a third world country like the u s when they could just stay in 1st world canada"

I'd bet many are doing it for love. However few people are totally rational actors. Lots of that irrationality expresses itself as employment in less than ideal locals. See all those private contractors performing escort duty in war zones.
posted by Mitheral at 8:13 PM on November 8, 2010


Ha! I could only hope that the European economy will be next to go - I bought my mansion in Indiana for $8000 and I'd really like a summer home in Budapest to go with it. (I'm also watching the real estate market in Puerto Rico; it's starting to crumble.)

The American Dream was always a dream, but this article failed to impress me. Housing developments in Florida aren't really the American Dream, now are they? They were just responding to cheap money.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:15 PM on November 8, 2010


Of course, there is no way to predict what is going to happen, because everything moves too fast, nowadays; this true both for corporate strategy, and political strategy. Combination and permutations of an interdependent world are mind-numbing; it's all guesswork. Looking at the global network of business (including currencies), communications, pure and applications-based R&D, environmental variables, etc. etc. leads me to think that adaptation in a way that preserves a lot of what we take for granted may not be in the cards. It's a Black Swan kind of thing. Essentially, policy makers of all stripes and persuasions are barely managing to keep up. There is no longer a strategic horizon; there is only riding the wave. What skill set will be necessary to ride that wave; the wave that heads for a shore we can't discern? even that is hard to say, because we have no easy way to predict the social and environmental ecology that we bring into being at light speed. All I can say is 'be prepared", and then take your best shot at what the future will bring. Some people will stockpile weapons and guns; others will maximize education and internationalization; maybe a combination of the two? It's going to be real hairy, and out of that will begin to emerge a new global citizen, but expect turmoil in the time being. My guess? A few decades of pain, slowly followed by new beginnings. Americans are going to feel a lot of pain; the American Dream has always been sold as an elixir to happiness. Bunk!
posted by Vibrissae at 11:26 PM on November 8, 2010


The US at this point is just trying to digest the bad money it's taken in, and the sooner the government can stop meddling in trying to keep things from playing out (e.g. the homebuyers credit, Cash For Clunkers) the better.

You know, I hear people say things like this in all seriousness, as if sitting on your hands and letting it "play out" were an option. The reality is we have an economy that is regulated, and the government is the spender of last resort. Behind the theoretical idea that things will get better faster by letting the economy simply go on its own accord are the real lives of human beings that are ruined quickly when you just let it "play out." People tend to cause social unrest when things like that happens, which exacerbates the problem. Let's not pretend that the economy is so fragile that it will break if we touch it without being pure of heart and government influence, and instead act like responsible adults with rational choices, OK?
posted by krinklyfig at 12:01 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The concentration of wealth is third-world.

Check.

The government corruption is third-world.

Not even close.

The incarceration rate is third world.

Really unmatched at all, but this in large part has to do with our misguided drug policies. This can change, as much as it may not seem like it right this instant.

Health and education measures are headed toward third-world quality.

For some people, in some places, yeah it blows, if it's available at all. On the heels of the Affordable Care Act saying health measures are headed toward third-world quality isn't really fair. We are now moving in the exact opposite direction of third world care and I suspect that even with 45 million or so Americans without access to health insurance we still stand a far cry above the third world when it comes to access to and quality of care.

Heck, even women's rights could be headed that way if the anti-choice nuts get their way.

There's really no indication that this is going to happen but it sure fills the Democrats campaign coffers, eh?

Of course if your definition of third world is "some shit ain't so good", then yeah we qualify, but that's a definition that would only come from behind a first world computer screen. Really it's nothing but hand-waving and hyperbole. Just like it was when Arianna Huffington said it.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:06 AM on November 9, 2010


Refrigerators. Safe drinking water. Wide spread immunizations. Universal primary education.
posted by Scoo at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2010


> I take it that we don't know each other, stranger.

I suppose we do not. I know approximately a Dunbar number of people (minuscule size of sample). The ones I know who are from Africa, Asia, and South America all like the United States just fine. The ones I know who are from Europe complain.

There is one exception. I know a person from Kazakhstan thinks we are a bunch of barbarians. She thinks she is European, though. Most of the people I know who bitch about America are Americans, and they tend to bitch about a lot of other things too.
posted by bukvich at 6:53 AM on November 9, 2010


You know, I hear people say things like this in all seriousness, as if sitting on your hands and letting it "play out" were an option.

I knew someone was going to object to what I said, so let me clear that up. I'm citing the housing credit and Cash For Clunkers for a reason -- they were short-short-term injections of capital into markets that weren't going to reboot lackluster markets, only inflate temporary bubbles in it.

There are some things the government needs to do in the short term to stop a calamity, e.g. TARP. There are things the government needs to do long term to cushion its citizens from the effects of a calamity, e.g. ARRA. But in the middle of that mess you still have all these MBSes and CDOs that need to be valued and written off, and you have a housing market that needs to find bottom in many cities before the market can start to recover.

So what I'm saying is we need to be smart about the ride down. Throwing money into a sinkhole like the housing market for a year thinking that will restart sales was a waste of money. I'm not anti-TARP, I'm not anti-stimulus, but I want some smarts about how we do it.
posted by dw at 8:43 AM on November 9, 2010


How about this:

First world nations have the wherewithal to provide social services ostensibly equally to all citizens. Universal healthcare, education, housing, food security, etc.

Second world nations substantially fail to provide equal citizen security/social benefits.

Third world nations don't have those resources in any meaningful way.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:07 PM on November 9, 2010


How about this:

Well, ok. That's something you just made up.

It's also wholly qualitative. "ostensibly" "substantially" "etc." "meaningful"

Not a very useful set of standards. I'll stick with the HDI and Gini coefficient.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:20 PM on November 9, 2010


I'll stick with the HDI and Gini coefficient.

That has nothing to do with First World or Third World either.

First World = U.S. and capitalist allies
Second World = Soviet Union and communist allies
Third World = everybody else

The terms simply have very little meaning or importance anymore. People in the Third World have lots of the things you are describing as First World.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:47 PM on November 9, 2010


If FW = USA+Allies, its a useless concept these days.
Perhaps we should talk of "developed", "developing", and "under-developed" countries.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:05 AM on November 10, 2010


Or "doing okay" and "going to hell in a handbasket."
posted by five fresh fish at 12:06 AM on November 10, 2010


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