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How it could happen, part four: crossing the line

This week’s post is the fourth of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.  As the war ends, the price has to be paid—and paying it will push the already fractured United States toward a crisis few citizens could have imagined a short time before.

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The church bells rang all night; perfect strangers embraced and kissed each other or fell on their knees and prayed together, depending on inclination; a baby boomlet nine months later revealed how many Americans celebrated the sudden discovery that life would go on.  Around the world, crews in missile silos, bomber bases and submarines sagged with relief as they got the order to stand down. In the US, the few police and National Guard units still barricading freeways and guarding government assets melted into the cheering crowds.  The threat of nuclear war was past. 

As a cold gray morning spread over Washington, though, Jameson Weed surveyed what was left of his presidency, and dropped his head into his hands.  A negotiation team would soon be its way to Geneva to meet its Chinese and Tanzanian opposite numbers and settle on a peace treaty. No matter how hard the spin doctors worked it, he knew, that treaty would mean a bitter defeat for America, and his solid grasp of the realities of American politics told him exactly who would be blamed for it.

The treaty, as it turned out, was surprisingly generous.  No one had to admit fault or pay reparations; the United States simply had to accept the status quo in East Africa and assign its rights over Diego Garcia—which was owned by Great Britain anyway—to the Peoples Republic of China.  Since the United States had no effective way to contest either demand, there was clearly no point in quibbling.  The treaty was signed at the beginning of October, and ratified by a glum Congress three days later.

Before that happened, though, two things pushed the country deeper into crisis.  The first was that one of the television networks broke the story of the naval disaster.  That was partly political—the network had close ties to the most likely presidential candidate from the other party—and partly the ordinary business of the news media, but it dealt a body blow to the nation’s morale.  The network found surviving crew members who had been evacuated to Europe before Mombasa fell, and brought in testimony from analysts who spent decades trying to warn the Navy of the obsolescence of carriers in an age of cruise missiles. The rest of the news media quickly joined the feeding frenzy. 

The second was more serious still.  As the world began to grapple with the fact that the United States was no longer the world’s strongest nation, investors began selling dollar-denominated investments.  The selling began in the most risky kinds of speculative paper, but spread rapidly from there, sending the dollar down hard. Frantic attempts by central banks to stop the collapse crumpled in the face of a self-feeding panic, as investors all over the world and in America scrambled to get out of the dollar at any cost.  As the dollar plunged against foreign currencies, the price of gasoline shot upwards to $12 a gallon and kept climbing, and many other imported goods became unavailable at any price.

Then, a week before the signing of the treaty, one of the nation’s biggest investment banks went broke. Its traders had used inside knowledge of US policy to take huge positions in derivative markets that would pay off once regime change took place in Tanzania.  The possibility that the US might lose had never occurred to them, and the unhedged risk left them hopelessly in the red.  Bankers hurried to Washington, only to find that printing trillions of dollars for a bailout when the dollar was already in freefall was not an option.  The following Friday, after markets closed, a grim-faced executive from Goldman Sachs announced that her firm was bankrupt and would go out of business.  Over the next six weeks, US stock market averages lost a third of their value, erasing tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth, and eight other major financial firms that had been considered too big to fail failed anyway.

Well before that process was over, though, the country had a new president.  Two days after the peace treaty was ratified, as planeloads of American POWs were leaving Nairobi Airport to begin their trip home, Jameson Weed stood behind the presidential podium one last time and resigned his office. His final speech was simple and dignified; he took full responsibility for the mistakes made during his presidency, expressed his total confidence in his vice president and successor, and asked God’s blessing for the nation. When he was finished with the speech, he went to his private quarters, took a revolver from a desk drawer, and shot himself through the head.

*  *  *
The new president, Leonard Gurney, was arguably not the best man for the difficult job into which he was so suddenly thrown.  A gifted communicator, skilled at finding and shaping the pulse of the public, might have done much, but Gurney had no such talents.  The scion of a wealthy family, brought onto the ticket to conciliate a powerful faction of his party, he had little grasp of practical politics and no sense of the plight into which the East African war and its aftermath had flung most Americans.  To him, the crucial issues were reestablishing the authority of the executive branch and funding a military buildup that would enable the United States to retake the lead from the Chinese and regain its former role of global dominance. 

It was an agenda hopelessly out of touch with the times.  The wildly cheering crowds in Beijing were welcoming a new international order in which America was no longer the sole superpower, and might not be a superpower at all for much longer.  In the wake of the East African war, a growing number of erstwhile US allies told the US military units based on their territory to leave, and made overtures to the Chinese.  For that matter, between plunging tax revenues, the collapse in the dollar’s value, and the ongoing bear market in treasury bills, the US could no longer afford the bases it maintained around the world, and the carrier groups that had been the keystone of American power were as obsolete as Old Ironsides.  Gurney and his advisers could not grasp this, and demanded money from a nearly bankrupt nation to fund the grandiose military projects they thought could rebuild America’s power.  Meanwhile China scrapped its one carrier and fielded a new navy of small, fast, expendable ships, a move copied promptly by such rising powers as India and Brazil.

Worse still, Gurney’s efforts came at a time when economic issues had taken center stage in the minds of most Americans. The collapse in the dollar and the drying up of imports gutted the economies of both coasts; while the farm belt enjoyed a modest boom and manufacturing firms that produced goods for the domestic market found themselves profitable again, these upticks did not begin to balance the impoverishment of tens of millions of Americans whose wealth depended in one way or another on the imploding financial sphere.  From retirees on fixed incomes to upper-crust families with hereditary wealth, those whose fortunes depended on paper assets found themselves plunged into poverty. 

There had been tent cities surrounding most American cities before the war, but their number and the number of people living in them soared as autumn turned to winter.  Stories about deaths from cold and malnutrition began to appear in the media.  Added to the failed war, the Trenton Massacre, and the utter disconnect between the new adminstration’s policies and the new realities of the postwar world, the ongoing implosion of the American economy pushed the nation into a crisis of legitimacy—a crisis that Gurney and his advisers apparently did not notice at all. Speech after presidential speech insisting that the solution to the economic crisis would come from defense jobs and a restoration of American power in the world bred resentment and, worse, contempt.

Lacking meaningful leadership from the White House, the pressure on Congress to do something, or at least to appear to do something, about the rapid increase in poverty became too great to ignore.  The gridlock between parties rewarded by their constituents for refusing compromise remained frozen in place, and though the speeches grew more shrill as the crisis deepened, few substantive steps could be acceptable to both sides. One party insisted on increased spending, the other party insisted on lower taxes, and the bear market in treasury bills made it increasingly clear that the old days of borrow-and-spend could not be revived without turning the dollar’s ongoing slump into a death spiral.  

It was out of desperation at that gridlock that the New American Prosperity Act was drafted by a bipartisan committee. It was thicker than the Los Angeles phone book and packed with giveaways to a galaxy of pet causes and special interests, but the core of the proposed act was an expansive new social welfare program, the costs of which would be borne almost entirely by the states.

Unfunded mandates—programs imposed on the states by the federal government, which provided no money to pay for them—had been a bone of contention for decades.  NAPA was arguably no more onerous for the states than earlier unfunded mandates, but it came when many states had suspended payment on their debts, and some were struggling even to pay salaries. State governments lobbied hard to keep NAPA off the books, to no avail; the act passed the House in January and the Senate in early March, and was signed into law by President Gurney a few days later.  The following week, the state legislature of Arkansas passed, with no dissenting votes, a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to pass an amendment that would outlaw all unfunded mandates.

*  *  *
The initial reaction of the Washington establishment and the national media to the Arkansas bill was hilarity.  The US constitution gave state legislatures the power to call a convention if two-thirds supported the proposal, and pass the resulting amendment if three-quarters of the states approved it, but that provision had never been used; it had been more than a century since it had even been tried.  Jokes about rewriting the constitution in Arkansas dialect made the rounds of the late night talk shows.

The next week, Montana and New Hampshire passed identical resolutions, and the laughing stopped. Pundits churned out essays explaining why tinkering with the constitution should be left to Congress if it had to be done at all. Canned polls insisted that most Americans opposed a convention. The state legislatures ignored them.  They had their own ways of gauging the temper of the public, and what they heard was that people were eager to see the constitution amended. It wasn’t just unfunded mandates, either:  somewhere in the course of the past year, most Americans had become convinced that the system under which they lived was broken, and needed much more than cosmetic change.

Four state legislatures called for a convention the following week, and five the week following. After that, the floodgates opened, as state governments realized that the chance to force major change really was in their hands.  Two weeks later, the magic number of 34 states was only a few more votes away.

At that point Congress panicked, repealed NAPA, and began to draft an amendment of its own that would limit, though not ban, unfunded mandates.  It was much too little and far too late.  The idea of a thorough revision of the constitution was everywhere; state politicians were advocating this or that reform; a few members of the House of Representatives, sensing which way the political wind was blowing, joined the agitation.  President Gurney denounced the proposed convention repeatedly in his weekly internet videos on the White House website, but few people were listening.

On April 24, Oregon became the 34th state to call for a constitutional convention; five more did so over the course of the next month, making any legal challenge moot.  The Washington establishment fought to have the new convention in Philadelphia, but lost; the delegates would meet in St. Louis, Missouri at the beginning of September. Congress exercised its right to decree that any new amendment would have to be ratified by conventions in at least three-quarters of the states, rather than by three-quarters of state legislatures, in the hope that this might stymie a power grab by state governments.  It was a disastrous miscalculation, though no one would know that for months.

Rallies, speeches, and demonstrations framed the elections that, state by state, chose the 250 delegates charged with reinventing the constitution. More than two hundred books urging one or another reform to the constitution saw print during those frantic months. People at all points of the political spectrum placed extraordinary and incompatible hopes on the convention, extending to the wildest fantasies of left and right. Years afterward, rumors claimed that the national political parties had encouraged this explosion of extreme views, and helped extremists get elected as delegates, in the hope that this would cause the convention to deadlock. If this was true, it was an even more disastrous miscalculation.

*  *  *
The constitutional convention opened on September 5 in the full glare of the world media. At first, all went smoothly; an amendment banning unfunded mandates and several other abuses of federal power over the states was introduced, debated, and passed.   The leaders of the moderate factions then moved to declare the convention over and go home.

The motion was heavily defeated.  Most of the delegates who had come to St. Louis, and most of their constituents at home, wanted more—much more.  The difficulty that surfaced, as the convention continued, was that what the people wanted varied so drastically that common ground was impossible to find. Red states wanted the right to own guns strengthened; blue states wanted it abolished.  Some Americans wanted to make the right to private decisions about abortion sacrosanct; others wanted an amendment guaranteeing the rights of the unborn.  Nearly every fault line through American society gaped open in the debates.  New issues—hard limits on the power of presidents to wage war without consent of Congress, hard limits on the power of Congress to pass laws without consent of the states or the people, and many more—rose up to join existing divisions, and sparked fierce debates of their own.

It so happened that delegates to the convention were seated by state, in alphabetical order.  As a result, one of the delegates from Utah sat next to one of the delegates from Vermont. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, after a day of bruising debates, the Utah delegate slumped back in her chair and said wearily, “I’ve got an idea.  Why don’t we just dissolve the Union and let everyone have what they want.”

“I could live with that,” snapped the delegate from Vermont.

She considered him for a long moment.  “I’m starting to think a lot of people could.”

They worked out the details in the empty meeting room after a dinner of takeout Thai. Both were state representatives with law degrees, and every delegate had been issued a copy of the constitution with all its amendments, so it took only a short time to work out what would become the 28th Amendment:

Article I:  The Union of the States is hereby dissolved, and the several States shall be free to make other arrangements for their welfare.

Article II: All property of the former federal government in each State, at the time this amendment is ratified, shall become the property of that State.

Article III:  All property of the former federal government outside the territory of the States shall be divided by agreement among the several States.

The proposed amendment was presented by both delegates to the relevant committee the next morning. The response was stunned silence.  The amendment was found to be in proper form, and a hearing was scheduled for the next day.  Long before that happened, everyone at the convention from the delegates to the kitchen staff at the convention center sensed that something immense had happened. A line had been crossed, and there might be no going back.

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End of the World of the Week #45

Sudden ice ages, the theme of last week’s End of the World of the Week, got picked up and used for local color in a number of other apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most colorful was the prediction of cataclysmic earth changes retailed by psychic archeologist Jeffrey Goodman in his 1977 bestseller We Are The Earthquake Generation. Basing his prophecy on the future visions of seven popular psychics, Goodman painted a terrifying picture of cataclysmic earthquakes that would plunge the western half of North America beneath the sea, turn Kansas into a seacoast state, and tear huge rifts in the earth’s crust.  Meanwhile Europe would be plunged into an ice age as land rising from the Atlantic deeps cut off the Gulf Stream.

The New Age press fastened on Goodman’s prophecies with enthusiasm, and when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1982, there was no shortage of predictions that the rest of the Earthquake Generation scenario would follow shortly.  The twenty-year “season of catastrophes” Goodman predicted, though, somehow failed to show up.  Western Kansas was supposed to be beachfront property by 1992, and the whole world transformed by 2000; instead, the earth kept on producing distressingly ordinary earthquakes instead of the gargantuan (and physically impossible) ones Goodman expected.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not.

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