As I was writing The Deluded And The Insane, I was reminded of the Boiling Frog. Paul Krugman referred to the famous amphibian on July 12, 2009—
Is America on its way to becoming a boiled frog?
I’m referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it’s in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.
And creeping disasters are what we mostly face these days...
It doesn't matter that real frogs don't sit in the gradually heated water until they are boiled alive. What matters is that human beings do. That's what makes it useful as a metaphor.
The American Empire has been in decline for almost 30 years now. Yet it is only in the last few years—specifically, since the financial meltdown in October, 2008—that a few Americans have figured out that the United States is not what it used to be. Therein lies the truth of the boiling frog story as it applies to us.
Think about it. Does it make any sense to say the country was doing just fine right up to the moment (more or less) when it wasn't? For example, did the Wall Street banks become overly powerful and greedy in just the few years before the Housing Bubble collapsed? Did their undue influence on our venal politicians begin during those years? Of course not! Events like the financial crisis don't just come out of nowhere. To understand them, you must examine the historical antecedents. You must understand that the ground for what happened today was prepared many years before.
It was the gradual deterioration of conditions in the United States over decades that set up the unfortunate situation we have today. In The Deluded And the Insane, I compared James Wolcott's view of current events with a graph that contradicts it.
Wolcott — "As America enters the downward slope of empire... the Richie Riches have a vested interest in misdirecting people by blaming the powerless for the sins of the powerful."
Share of total income going to the top decile (10%) with my annotations, from Emmanuel Saez's Striking It Richer
The not-too-subtle point I was trying to make is that the income data directly reflects the decline of the Middle Class in America. In my view, the decline of the Empire and the decline of the Middle Class are basically the same thing. The grotesque income disparity we have today didn't get going only yesterday. The gap has been growing for nearly 30 years now. This graph represents only one piece of evidence supporting the view that the Empire's decline has been long term. There's evidence everywhere you look—if you look.
I hope I have established this point. You don't move from Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon (in the 1970s) to Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga (today) in just a few years. As Joe Bageant observed, music became marketing, and it takes a long time for that to happen. Few people notice the steady, gradual deterioration in standards and quality in music, film, economic conditions, education, infrastructure—you name it!
Why does the boiling frog story apply to people if not to actual frogs? The answer is simple. Human beings are built to adapt to new conditions. Generally speaking, they don't notice gradual change, they simply get used to it. People were designed by Nature to react quickly to sudden changes. They were not designed to notice that this year, and for many years before that, conditions got a little worse than they were the year before. Humans live in an eternal present. This observation is well-known to those who study such things. It is not original with me.
These simple points explain a lot if you know how to apply them. Let's get back to Krugman—
I started thinking about boiled frogs recently as I watched the depressing state of debate over both economic and environmental policy. These are both areas in which there is a substantial lag before policy actions have their full effect — a year or more in the case of the economy, decades in the case of the planet — yet in which it’s very hard to get people to do what it takes to head off a catastrophe foretold...
To head off [a jobless recovery] — and remember, this isn’t what economic Cassandras are saying; it’s the forecasting consensus — we’d need to get another round of fiscal stimulus under way very soon. But neither Congress nor, alas, the Obama administration is showing any inclination to act. Now that the free fall is over, all sense of urgency seems to have vanished.
Now, I ask you: how would another round of fiscal stimulus reverse and make right nearly 30 years of growing income inequality? Obviously, it would not. Krugman's hidden assumption is that history doesn't matter, or only some history matters, but the rest of it—the part that really counts—doesn't exist. Everything will be OK if we throw another few trillion dollars at the problem now. Here's Krugman talking about boiling frogs, but he can't see the hot and warming water we're all sitting in. He's talking about future catastrophes but is not willing to consider the catastrophes that got us here in the first place. This is a perfect example of the futility of short-term thinking. It is also a perfect example of wishful thinking.
When I refer to the Empire's decline, it might be useful for you to remember that the owners of this country have been turning up the heat on you for decades now. Yet, most Americans act as though they were born yesterday. That's how Nature made them. America and the vast majority of its citizens are the metaphorical boiling frog. If you can still jump out the pot, do it now. I wish I could tell you exactly how to do that, but I can not.