The recent US presidential election found the Republican Party on the losing end of a political and economic argument. It was Mitt Romney’s contention, both privately and implicitly when he selected Ayn Rand enthusiast Paul Ryan as his running mate, that 47% of the electorate was dependent on government handouts and therefore had no intention of voting for any Republican who threatened to reduce government entitlement spending. Mitt Romney after the election “doubled down” on this statement, insisting that Obama voters were bought off by government largesse.
Romney was defeated handily in the public vote – he achieved, ironically, slightly less than 47.5% of the popular vote – and he was thrashed in the Electoral College vote, which is what really matters. These results are being interpreted by the press and the pundits as a repudiation of Republican policies, and a rebuke to Mitt Romney for his perceived insult to Obama voters that they are lazy and, like parasites, live off the hard work of others.
The problem with this view is that Romney was half-right: there is a dependency class in America, and they do tend to vote Democratic. He was wrong on his interpretation of the motives and work ethic of this dependency class. One man’s handout, after all, can be another man’s means of survival. He was also wrong on his campaign promise to fix this situation by creating millions of jobs so that the moochers and parasites will have no excuse but to find work when the entitlement payouts end. Obama was wrong on this as well; no politician can pretend that they have some magic tool to create millions of jobs and return entitlement payouts to more sustainable levels. Not only is this not possible, but as I will contend here, such thinking makes the problem worse. The dependency class in America is growing, and it is here to stay for many decades into the future. It is a consequence of decades of government and business policies that let such an infra-class arise, and it is a consequence of very long term economic and social forces that operate on a global basis and are beyond the control of any one country. The United States is turning into a third world country, complete with vast pockets of poverty and idleness, and a small elite that dominates wealth and income. A dependency class is a prime feature of third world countries, and the political party which most successfully caters to this dependency class is more than likely to enjoy decades of political power.
The Rise of the Dependency Class
The creation of the dependency class can be linked to the oil price shocks of the early 1970s. Up until this point, real personal income followed an upwards trajectory that was in line with productivity, which implies that labor was benefiting from improvements in productivity as much as corporations were. This link was broken around 1975. Productivity continued on an upwards path, but real personal income began to stagnate.
At the time, the productivity improvements were the result largely of the introduction of computers to the work force. Enormous numbers of man-hours spent on simple tasks, such as typing documents, organizing files, tracking sales orders, or managing cash accounts, were freed up for more useful and profitable purposes. As companies began to appreciate the magnitude of the profit opportunities that were opening up, they began to rethink where that profit should go. The long ingrained concept that companies worked to benefit customers, employees, and communities gave way to the idea, pushed aggressively by consultants, that companies should be working first and foremost for the benefit of the shareholders. The cult of the shareholder was born, along with the rather dubious theory that if management concentrated almost exclusively on creating shareholder value (meaning increasing profitability), overall success was assured. Conveniently for management, all this was happening at a time when executive stock options were being invented, which gave management a direct pocketbook interest in boosting the company’s stock price over anything else.
The average worker, who may have received small stock grants but did not participate in the executive stock option program, did not benefit very much from the productivity gains that were feeding into stock market performance and enriching executives. An unprecedented stock market boom, unseen in 200 years of stock trading in the US, began in 1982 and extended until 2000 at an annual growth rate of 16%. The stock market was reflecting the enormous improvements in productivity, enhanced by the “peace dividend” that the US enjoyed in the 1990s when defense spending was reduced as a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The stock market boom entered its final spurt upwards in the mid 1990s when the invention of the internet led to a frenzy in technology stocks.
The tech mania came to an end in 2000 with the crash of many of the dot.com stocks. The NASDAQ index, heavy with technology stocks, lost over 50% of its value in one year. White collar workers lost heavily in the market collapse because most had invested passively in the stock market through their 401k plans, which corporations were increasingly offering their workers as alternatives to the traditional pension plan that corporations were abandoning. The dot.com crash added yet another burden to the middle class worker, who was already coping with paltry salary increases and bonuses, plus cutbacks in benefits, that companies were imposing on the work force.
Causes of Dependency
If the stock market had been booming up until 2000, and if the economy had been growing healthily all throughout the 1990s, why was worker compensation stagnant? There was of course the fact that executive management enjoyed siphoning off the benefits of company profits to themselves - the relationship of compensation of executives to the lowest level of worker exploded during this period, from a ratio of 40:1 in the 1960s, to 400:1 by 2000. Second, in order to keep stock prices rising, executives felt obligated to ratchet up internal company profit targets. Return on equity targets were set at a minimum of 15% annually, but in many industries a 20% return was expected. This put tremendous pressure on corporations to keep costs low, because profits had to double every four or five years. White collar worker compensation was an easy target for cost cutting, as were blue collar costs where unions were weak or did not exist.
A third and very real pressure on corporate costs and compensation came from competition abroad, first from Mexico, then the former members of the Soviet Union after 1991, and finally from China (which became the manufacturing arm of the world) and India (which hived off white collar jobs from the West). Under the threat of globalization, companies engaged in manufacturing found it nearly impossible to continue production in the US given the high level of worker costs, the greater regulatory burden (especially for environmental protection), and the fact that overseas manufacturers were able to drastically lower prices by cutting back on product quality. It was a rare US worker in the 1980s and 1990s who did not have personal experience with job loss or compensation pressure due to globalization.
The stock market performance in the 1990s had been one of the pillars of strength still buttressing the financial health of the average US worker, given the fact that income growth was nil during the decade. The other pillar was growth in the value of housing stock for those workers who owned residential real estate. When the stock market crashed in 2000, all that was left propping up the middle class in the US was their largest asset – their home. Conveniently, or perhaps deliberately, a housing bubble erupted in 2002 when the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to near zero to cope with perceived risks of deflation. Home prices began accelerating rapidly, fueled by flippers and other speculators who wanted to cash in on price increases of 15% annually in hot markets like California, Florida, or Nevada. Not surprisingly, this was the same rate of increase the stock market experienced at its peak, and not surprisingly, it could not be sustained. The housing bubble peaked in 2006 and burst in 2008 with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers brokerage house. With it went most of the major brokerage houses and many of the large banks heavily involved in the mortgage market, a financial collapse which rivaled the massive bank failures of 1933.
The US Slips Into Third World Status
From the period 1982 to 2008, times were tough for white collar and blue collar workers. Salaries and wages effectively went nowhere when inflation was factored in. Benefits, especially for health care, were cut back severely by companies, so that by 2008 the average person was paying $7,000 a year for health insurance, not counting any out of pocket costs for health care. Within this group of workers, most held equities (if they owned stock at all) in their passive retirement funds, which were devastated by the dot.com crash and came back only 50% by 2008. Housing values went up dramatically, allowing a lot of middle class workers to cash in on their rising home equity by taking on more debt and receiving cash for their equity. Unfortunately the housing crash of 2008 has wiped out enormous amounts of equity, so that around a third of homeowners are now “underwater”, meaning they owe more on their home than it is worth.
If you were among the few people in the executive class, times were wonderful. The stock market boom was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for wealth creation, and executives in particular were able to avoid the crash either by getting out early through inside information about what was to happen, or actually shorting the market to hedge their asset holdings or profit from the crash in 2000 (and again in 2008). The housing bust did hurt some of the wealthy over-invested in real estate, but the class as a whole kept amassing a greater portion of the nation’s wealth over this period. The George W. Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were a particular bonanza, transferring $1.3 trillion from the middle class to the wealthy by 2008.
Income inequality throughout this era widened tremendously. The OECD organization of developed nations measures income inequality for all 34 of its member states, and found by 2010 the US ranked among the worst, at 31st. The UN uses a similar measure, but for 146 of its member states, and in this ranking, the US was 77th. If you think these might be biased against the United States, the CIA’s own ranking of income inequality puts the US at 100 out of 140 countries. The company the United States is keeping when it comes to income inequality are the poorest of the developed countries (like Greece), and some of the better-off but struggling third world countries. The US is increasingly looking like Mexico and is moving further away from any resemblance to its other neighbor, Canada. In fact, in terms of income inequality, Mexico is a fairer society than is America.
In third world countries, most of the population is poor, and the middle class is fewer in number than the poor. This is the situation that is developing in the United States, though it is not there yet. Another characteristic of third world nations is that the large numbers of poor people are sustained with government handouts, for food, housing, and medical care. College education is often free, and energy costs are usually subsidized. None of these subsidies is enough to move people entirely out of poverty, but they are enough to keep social peace by preventing starvation, and giving most people an opportunity for some employment and a means of reaching that employment by automobile or public transportation. Health care is basic, but in many less developed countries it is free. Staples of food, such as wheat and rice, are kept under price controls.
To a degree, this situation has prevailed for quite some time for poor people in America. Especially in the inner cities among ethnic groups like African-Americans and increasingly Hispanics, food stamps are an essential for survival, bringing up to $700 a month for a family of four. Low income housing is available for poor people, and college loans are easy to get because the lenders receive a back-up guaranty for the loan from the federal government. Medical care is essentially free, because poor people are encouraged to go to hospital emergency rooms for care, since by law hospitals must treat any sick person who shows up. The rest of society pays the bills, which contributes to rising health care costs for everybody else.
What has happened since the 2008 depression arrived is that this safety net has been forced to absorb millions of middle class people as they slipped close to or into poverty. Food stamps are the most visible manifestation of this problem, having gone from 27 million users in 2007 to 47.1 million users in the most recent tally. As unemployment widened to a double digit rate, unemployment payments had to be extended twice by Congress, which allowed the unemployed to receive these benefits up to 99 weeks. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, charts what it calls the Dependency Index, which has risen inexorably higher since the onset of the depression. The Foundation says, regarding the most recent all-time high in the index:
Today, more people than ever before depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions. The United States reached another milestone in 2010: For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes.
It is the conjunction of these two trends—higher spending on dependence-creating programs, and an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers who pay for these programs—that concerns those interested in the fate of the American form of government.
The Heritage Foundation expresses its concern that fewer taxpayers are paying in to the federal government to support the entitlement programs that more and more Americans are using, but this situation is exactly what exists in many third world nations with tremendous concentrations of wealth. The wealthy become the only class of people with enough income to pay meaningful taxes, and the burden falls on them to support society’s poor. This is considered by the wealthy in these less developed countries to be a fair trade-off; the wealthy get to keep most of the nation’s resources while everyone else is in poverty, and the poor are granted a subsistence living through government subsidies, at just the right level to avoid social disruption or a revolution.
Third world conditions in the US lead to significant social problems. Around 15% of the population is now officially classified by the US government as living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau, which said this is the highest level of poverty it has measured since beginning this survey 52 years ago. Not surprisingly, the number of Americans in poverty is very close to the number of Americans who are now relying on food stamps.
Children who live in poverty in the US are often subject to third world conditions. UNICEF reported that the US ranks near the bottom of developed nations in the health care, educational, and social services available for children in poverty. Looking at the overall level of health care in the US, the nation spends far more than any other country on health care per capita, but the benefits are heavily concentrated with the wealthy who can afford insurance or pay the costs directly for the most advanced treatments. Everyone else has to make do with a system that charges exorbitantly for even the most minimal care and the smallest of benefits. As a consequence, the US ranks first in health care spending, but ranks 39th in infant mortality, 42nd in adult mortality, and 36th in life expectancy. Again, numbers such as these, and the direction they have been taking, place America much closer to Mexico than to Canada.
Why the Dependency Class is Here to Stay
The general mood of policy professionals at all levels of government, in academia, and in the press, is that the conditions just described are temporary. Politicians talk constantly about getting America “back on track”. The Federal Reserve is pulling out every lever to recreate yet another bubble in order to spark consumption and revive the economy to its former state of glory, irrespective of the fact that the previous bouts of income growth were all created by financial bubbles which burst. Some politicians are calling for massive amounts of additional fiscal stimulus, but the greater impetus in Washington is to cut back on federal spending before the $16 trillion federal deficit engulfs the entire economy should long term interest rates rise. These are contradictory impulses but they both have an underlying theme in common: to restore America to its previous strength. None of these politicians or commentators recognizes the sea change, and the permanency of the change, that has hit America.
One observer who is seeing beyond the trees, and has taken a much longer perspective, argued in a recent paper that the age of growth for the United States was over. Indeed, Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, in his paper Is US Growth Over? argues that six trends will make it difficult if not impossible for the US to recover from the current low growth environment: “demography, education, inequality, globalization, energy/environment, and the overhang of consumer and government debt.” I’ve mentioned income inequality and globalization already in this paper, but let’s look at these other causes of a dependency class, and add a few more of my own.
Demography: The US population is rapidly aging as Baby Boomers are beginning to retire from the work force. Unfortunately, the Baby Boomers are seriously under - prepared for retirement; the average Baby Boomer has less than $50,000 in savings, and their asset, their home, has lost enormous value in the housing bust. Tens of millions of retirees are doomed to live in poverty, and within the next five or so years, the US will be forced to accept a permanently high level of food stamp, housing, and medical entitlements just to prevent a social disaster from occurring, including large-scale starvation among the elderly.
Energy/Environment: Commodity scarcity, including energy but more particularly for food, is about to meet up with climate change, forcing a potentially life-altering set of circumstances for the entire human species and most other species on the planet. The most dire scenarios project a virtually uninhabitable planet that will support human life only at the polar regions. Such models are usually classified by climate change critics as scare-mongering, but the problem has been that climate change is already occurring at a speed and at temperatures that exceed those projected in the mainstream models. For the US, recent modeling indicates that it is singularly exposed to damaging weather conditions on the east coast, and a loss of most of its food crops through persistent drought. Just about any of the scenarios presented in climate change models suggest that the US will find it very difficult to maintain its current living standards.
Consumer and Government Debt: The US is at debt levels that already exceed reasonable standards when measured against GDP. It has become absolutely essential for the US to continue with its zero interest rate policy (which imposes serious economic constraints on its own) if the country is going to continue to afford to pay interest on its government debt. Moreover, the Federal Reserve can only control short term interest rates; should the global bond market ever tire of owning US Treasuries, the economy will be devastated because so much of the tax revenues taken in by the federal government will have to go to paying interest on the debt.
Lack of Political Will for Change: The political system in the US is now geared to supporting the status quo, and it is highly unfriendly to change. President Obama has campaigned as an FDR populist, but he has governed to the right of George W. Bush on many issues, and is clearly a defender of the status quo. Politics at all levels is infested with money, which gives access exclusively to lobbyists, but also wealthy people and now corporations directly because of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court (vesting personhood rights on corporations). Poor people have virtually no constituency on Capitol Hill or in the White House, and there is a well-organized and well-funded campaign to reduce or eliminate all variety of entitlements for the poor and middle class. At the same time, the Republican Party is openly and arrogantly the defender of the wealthy, and has fought every step of the way to preserve the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
Rise of an Aristocracy: The most important tax any democracy can impose is the death tax. Traditionally in America the death tax has been set at high enough levels to be able to whittle down the largest fortunes over two or three generations. Today, after a deliberate campaign by wealthy people and the Republican Party, the death tax is set at am all-time low of 15% and might be eliminated altogether. This will guarantee the existence of a permanent aristocracy of very wealthy people. On the current list of the 10 richest Americans, six of them are heirs or heiresses to large fortunes. Most of these six, including Charles and David Koch (each worth $31 billion), and several children of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart (each worth about $26 billion), are substantial contributors to conservative causes, and are especially active in working for the elimination of the death tax. Another feature of an aristocracy is the rise of nepotism, which is becoming epidemic in American society, as the children of the wealthy and influential get plum positions in universities, in business, the media, entertainment, politics, and now even sports.
Deliberate Actions by Corporations: We have already cited how corporations are subject to the pressures of globalization. What is unappreciated is the degree to which corporations actively contribute to the creation of a dependency class in the US. No greater example exists than the largest employer in the US, Wal-Mart. This retailer keeps its employee expenses down to a very small number – around 10% of its total expense base. It does this by paying low wages averaging around $11/hour, and making sure that employees are not allowed to work more than 39 hours a week, so as not to trigger overtime. Consequently, the average pay for a Wal-Mart employee is $1,700/month, which is classified as poverty wages that make it impossible for a worker to support a family. Because Wal-Mart is very stingy with health benefits, it actively encourages employees to use hospital emergency rooms for their health needs. The result of this is that Wal-Mart employees are the single biggest users of Medicaid, which is health care for those in poverty. Also, Wal-Mart employees are the single biggest users of food stamps. On average, a Wal-Mart employee receives $1,000 a year of public aid from the federal government. Yet the children of Sam Walton – Christy, Jim, Alice, and Rob Walton – each of whom as mentioned inherited $26 billion after the death of their father – actively contribute to Republican politicians who want to cut back on Medicaid and food stamps because such services are used by poor people, whom they consider parasites on society.
The Collapsing Military/Industrial Complex: The US simply cannot afford its military/industrial complex when so much of its resources will be devoted to providing the basics of life for so many citizens. The US military is destined to go the way of the Soviet military – perhaps not to such an extreme extent, where the entire military simply collapsed. But the country will not be able to support 800 overseas bases, 2 standing armies, new armaments every five or ten years, private chefs and jets for celebrity generals, and a national guard armory in every Congressional district in the country. It will be hard enough simply for the country to meets its medical and pension obligations to the existing military forces. In fact, the admirals and generals will be able to keep their generous pensions ($200,000 a year or more in retirement), but the great majority of military retirees will find the government reneging on their pension promises, thus pushing these people into the dependency class as well.
Long Term Political Implications
Much has been made after the 2012 elections of the Republican Party’s problems with demographics. The white electoral vote is shrinking as a percentage of the total, and will be a minority by 2020. The voting population is becoming much more ethnic in composition, and much more inclined to vote Democratic, since the Republican Party has made a specialty since Richard Nixon of appealing to white voters on the basis of overt and covert appeals to racism.
This is all largely true, but the real problem facing the Republicans is not simply demographic. It is that the voting population is increasingly being made up of the dependency class, which is a group of people that the Republicans have lately made a target of ridicule. Mitt Romney did so in his infamous secret recordings of his comments about the 47% of the population who will never vote for him because they are bought off by entitlement spending from the Democrats. Rush Limbaugh, the spiritual leader of the Republican Party and conservatives in general, after the election derided the fact that the nation consists of a majority of people who want “free stuff”, which now has to be paid for by the minority of people (read, white people), who still pay taxes.
This theme of people relying on “free stuff” comes directly from the Republican commentariat, including organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, cited earlier. It is a theme that comes from the genetic makeup of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Republicans adopted the mantra of defense of the country after World War II, when they learned that being isolationists (as they were before the war), did not pay off politically. Republicans became the party that marketed itself as best able to defend America against enemies, especially foreign enemies like Communists. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and China converted to unbridled capitalism, the Republicans had no enemies abroad to fight, so the party turned inward, looking for people to castigate and turn into the new enemies set to destroy America. They set their sights on liberals, feminazis, gays, abortionists, and various minorities, including illegal immigrants.
The virtuous side of Republican philosophy is that it wants to give Americans the tools to avoid poverty in the first place. It preaches self-reliance, independence, limited government taxation and regulations, and great personal freedom (especially the freedom to own and use a gun). With such tools, any American who works hard can reasonably expect to participate in the American dream, including becoming a financial success. This philosophy ties into a strain of thinking that comes from the Ayn Rand wing of the party, which worships ultra-individualism, and which makes a fetish out of Rand’s fictional heroes John Galt and architect Howard Roark, men who with their entrepreneurial genius created what most benefited society, and then took what they wanted when they wanted it, because men of genius are entitled to act that way. Everyone else in Ayn Rand’s fictional world is a parasite, feeding off the work of the productive members of society.
This is how the white minority who constitute the base of the Republican Party often think of themselves: as the productive members of society increasingly asked to support the lazy, useless, degenerate, immoral idlers who feed at the government trough. There are several problems with this way of thinking, beyond the fact that demographics make it difficult for a political party to survive on the votes solely of the white voters. First, the 47% of the electorate Mitt Romney described as lazy and bought and paid for by entitlements are anything but lazy; many scramble for whatever odd jobs they can get to support themselves. Second, a huge amount of government largesse goes to big business. Consider just the bank bailouts in 2008, which amounted to trillions of dollars of loans and back door capital injections. Third – and this is the point of this article – the dependency class is here to stay. It is not only not going away, it is growing.
The dependency class will constitute probably the majority of the US by 2025. The country will still have Madison Avenue, Michigan Avenue, and Rodeo Drive – pockets of luxury here and there, next to gated communities. Less visible will be the extensive poverty, not just in the inner city, but in the suburbs and rural communities where roads, bridges, sewers, and other elements of the national infrastructure will be severely corroded. This American version of third world poverty won’t be as extreme as the poverty seen in the slums of Rio or Lagos, Nigeria. The US will look more like the former Soviet Union, or its former vassal states in eastern Europe. Parts of the country will look wealthy on the surface, because that is where the oligarchs will reside, but the rest of the country will look bleak and distressed, with much of the poverty hidden behind closed doors.
A fourth problem rests with the whole Ayn Rand philosophy of Objectivism, which is a core intellectual belief of the Republican leadership. It is generally unappreciated, or unnoticed, that Ayn Rand formed her philosophy from the 1930s to the 1950s, a period when the United States was in the ascendant politically and militarily, and in due course after the Depression, economically. It was an environment very conducive to entrepreneurial efforts, and Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes were molded on the assumption that this environment was permanent. It clearly wasn’t. Everything John Galt or Howard Roark did was accomplished nationally, in a country very much like the US. John Galt didn’t have to deal with the reality of Chinese competition, as has been the case in the real world of manufacturing. Howard Roark obtained all his architectural commissions locally, as did the real architect who was his inspiration, Frank Lloyd Wright. A modern architect, such as Frank Gehry, has been obliged to find most of his commissions in Asia, Europe, Latin America, as well as the US – any place with deep pockets. In a world prone to global recessions, the architecture business can dry up completely. The point of this is, Objectivism sounds interesting in a world of rising global expectations where one is working in an industrialized country. It is going to make no sense to voters in a country with a destroyed manufacturing base, where most people are dependent on the government for survival, and not for “free stuff.”
If the Republicans are the party of the Enemy, able to fight off foes domestic and foreign, and fight off the enemy of poverty by giving people the tools and the freedom to prosper on their own, then the Democrats are the party of the Victim. They are concerned with the people who fall through the net despite their best efforts. They see a world where hard times can befall anybody, often through no fault of their own. They are willing to help such people until good times return or the person can stand on their own two feet.
This is a philosophy tailor made for a permanent dependency class. The results are already evident in the 2012 election. The commanding electoral college lead that Barack Obama built up was concentrated in those states with substantial urban populations (even VP candidate Paul Ryan made this observation after the election). There are other correlations that have been uncovered, but one interesting one I noticed showed that states which went Democratic tended to have higher rental costs relative to the minimum wage. In other words, the more expensive it was for someone on the minimum wage to afford an apartment, the more likely that person, and therefore that state, was to vote Democratic.
Correlation is not necessarily causation, but this does belie the Republican concept that people voted for Barack Obama because they wanted free stuff. Being able to afford a place to live, even on a rental basis, means being able to afford shelter, and that is the opposite of wanting free stuff – this is wanting a necessity of life.
The Democrats cannot just sit back and wait for demography and the establishment of a permanent dependency class to allow the votes to come flooding their way. The transition to a permanent dependency class is fraught with considerable social upheaval. The Democrats will have to convince people that permanent reliance on food stamps is not a matter of shame or personal failure. The current Obamacare health plan is going to have to be reformed to a government-sponsored national health care system, as this is the only cost efficient means of bringing basic services to the majority of the population. The rich are going to be forced to share the bulk of the burden of taxation for the country, and they will have to be convinced this is in their personal interest, unless they want the equivalent of a French Revolution to hit America.
Probably the greatest challenge will be managing the political system. Third world countries with a large dependency class are notoriously unstable politically. Crises between the government, the parliament, and the courts are regular features (see Egypt at the moment). Constitutional rights in third world countries are not guaranteed, and they have already been severely whittled down by George Bush and Barack Obama in the US. The ability to keep millions of people in poverty without complaining is a constant preoccupation for these systems, and governments which fail at this task are overthrown or subject to military coups. This is the lesson of the Arab Spring. The United States is entering a period when its democratic traditions will be tested and under ongoing strain. Such traditions may not survive if the political and military players make false steps, and given the challenges facing the US ahead, especially on the environment, it is easy to see how the wrong decisions can plunge the country into a political crisis that imperils democracy in America.