Tuesday, November 3, 2015

America's Brezhnev Years (Continued)

Vintage Soviet anti-alcohol poster

One of my favorite theories is that the United States has entered its Brezhnev period.  In case you don't know, Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, presiding over its long decline.  While he enjoyed giving himself medals and flexing Soviet power, the system began to rot and most people, even in the party itself, stopped believing in the party ideology.  Similarly, our political class profess to love freedom and democracy, all while democratic institutions crumble.  Elections are bought and sold, and voters can't be bothered to show up at the polls.  Gridlock and acrimony have led to a do-nothing government no longer even able to pass the most basic legislation.  Social institutions are hardly faring better. Our universities, once the pride of the world, have become money-grubbing enterprises whose high cost make debtors out of their students.  Roads crack and bridges fall due to lack of funds. As labor unions have been crushed, workers are seeing their wages shrink while the wealthy see unprecedented gains.  Abroad America's failed War On Terror has, like the USSR's ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan, exposed a once mighty empire's clay feet.  Belief in institutions has been broken, and the fact the military and police routinely come out on top when Americans are polled about institutions that they trust shows an authoritarian longing that belies all of the democracy talk.

This week brings more news to confirm my thesis.  A recent study found that middle-aged whites are now dying at a HIGHER rate than before.  This death rate is increasingly especially among the least educated, and death is coming at the hands of suicide, heroin, and alcohol.  I wish the data was broken down by region, because I suspect these trends are most pronounced in the Rust Belt and in rural areas.  Low educated whites used to be able to find work in farming and factory labor, work that could actually pay pretty well, too.  Those whites who are currently middle-aged and low-educated grew up at a time when they were told they could quit school and go right to work (a lot of guys I went to high school with did this), but deindustrialization has pretty much destroyed that avenue.  They put themselves at a disadvantage expecting a decent option, but then found themselves with the rug pulled out from under them.  Our society does, however, provide easy access to the tools for obliterating the mind and providing temporary pleasure.  Cheap booze and now cheap heroin make for tempting escapes.

I find this interesting because Brezhnev-era Russia also saw a similar rise in alcoholism and increase in mortality.  Things got so bad that when Gorbachev came to power he started a campaign to reduce alcohol consumption.  That plan would be short-lived, and in the 1990s after the fall of Communism, both mortality and alcoholism would rise in tandem, until recently.  Just as the Soviet system failed to provide a way forward for its workers in an age of stagnation, the shrinking prospects for so many Americans are also finding an outlet in drugs, booze, and eventually, early death.

As the Berlin Wall fell so many people in this country acted as if America was the great victor in the Cold War.  Perhaps that was not really the case, and that one of the Superpowers just happened to lose about thirty years before the other one.  Or maybe in the coming years America after the Cold War will be compared to Britain after World War II: a dying empire.

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