Like a cartoon character still running windmills, oblivious on air, suspended before the fall, “America...is over,” or so claims a recent article penned by Michael Ventura (via). I suggest you read the entire thing, but here are some of the meatiest parts:
The "exburbs" and the rural poor will feel it first and hardest. Exburbians moved to the farthest reaches of suburbia for cheap real estate, willing to drive at least an hour each way to work. Many live marginally now. What happens when their commute becomes prohibitively expensive, just as interest rates and inflation rise, while their property values plummet? Urban real estate will go up, so they won't be able to live near their jobs – and there's nowhere else to go. In addition, thanks to Congress' recent shameless activity, bankruptcy is no longer an option for many. What happens to these people? Exburb refugees. A modern Dust Bowl.
For the rural poor it's even worse. They are the poorest among us, with no assets and few skills; they earn the lowest nonimmigrant wages in America, and they must drive. When gas hits $4, their already below-the-margin life will be unsustainable. They'll have no choice but to be refugees and join in the modern Dust Bowl migration. So, too, will people who live where people were never intended to live in such numbers – places like Phoenix and Vegas, unlivable without air conditioning and water transport (energy prices will rise across the board, regular brownouts, blackouts, and faucet-drips will be "the new normal" everywhere). In the desert cities, real estate will plunge, thousands will be ruined, most will leave – while all over the country folks will have to get used to "hot" and "cold" again.
But where will the new refugees go, and what will they do when they get there? They will migrate to the more livable cities, where rents are already unreasonable and social services are already strained, and where the new refugees will compete with immigrants for the lowest-level housing and jobs. Immigration issues will intensify to hysteria. Native-born Americans will clamor for work that only legal and illegal aliens do now. In a culture as prone to violence as ours, that will probably get ugly...
A massive investment in railroad infrastructure could offer jobs to the unskilled and skilled alike, absorb much of the inevitable population displacement, and create a new social equilibrium 10 or 15 years down the line. Old RR cities like Grand Junction, Colo.; Amarillo, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M., could become vital centers, offering new lives for the displaced. Railroads are key, but the question is: how to finance them?
There's only one section of our economy that has that kind of money: the military budget. The U.S. now spends more on its military than all other nations combined. A sane transit to a post-automobile America will require a massive shift from military to infrastructure spending. That shift would be supported by our bankers in China and Europe (that is, they would continue to finance our debt) because it's in their interests that we regain economic viability. What's not in their interests is that we remain a military superpower.
And that's where things get really interesting...
Can America face reality? If the government responds to the coming changes by attempting to remain a superpower no matter what, there is no way to underestimate the harm. The numbers speak for themselves. Soon we'll no longer have the resources to remain a military superpower and sustain a livable society that is anything like what we know today. It happened to England; it happened to Russia; it's about to happen to us. England sustained the transformation more or less gracefully; it lost its dominance while retaining its essential character. Russia is still in a period of transformation, but has remained a player thanks to its oil reserves. Europe in general – France, Germany, Italy, and Spain (all world powers in the fairly recent past) – is creating a post-national society, the most experimental form of governance since America's revolution. We have no appreciable oil, and we no longer have a manufacturing base. So what will the United States do? Sanely recognize its declining status and act accordingly, or make one last ignoble stab to retain its position by force?
A tad apocalyptic, perhaps, in the spirit of any effective polemic. But if one thing seems to be growing increasingly certain, it is that the 'credit' of American power thrives on a certain threshold of near-expiration, one that, by definition almost, is unsustainable and cannot last.