We go on about the decline of the West and the rise of the East but that seems to be an oversimplification of a more fundamental problem. A couple of centuries before, when colonial empires were at their height, we may have proposed the reverse. I have tried to come up with my own reasons for why civilizations grow and decline, in particular our present one.
A Declining Population: “Me, Myself and I” is the motto of boomers (and to a large extent, of those who come after them as well) in the West. There is so much to “do” today in order to define who we are: education, career, home and car purchase, retirement savings, vacations, marriage, divorce, writing our memoirs. There is no time for children, and if there are any children, their arrival has to be carefully planned, because there is private school and college to pay for, extra-curricular activities to drive them to, designer clothes to adorn them with, teenage therapy sessions for those difficult years, the odd abortion or two for when they get careless. The list is endless. Oh, and lest we forget, our kids need to be equipped with laptop, cell phone, internet account and charge card before they can even figure out the bills. Bottom line: affluent societies procreate increasingly self-indulgent citizens who are unable or unwilling to regenerate themselves. Even Ancient Rome ultimately fell when citizens were more interested in feasting while barbarians lurked outside the gate.
Surrender to the Corporation: by empowering corporations with the same rights as citizens, we have created entities with huge amounts of citizen wealth (i.e. shareholder funds) that can be moved to where the best production deals are with no respect for national borders or needs. So we outsource jobs to cheaper locales, and reduce wages and buying power at home. Ultimately the newly emergent outsourced countries also suffer because the products cannot be sold back in the once-wealthy West. Global corporations ultimately die or change, leaving their hosts stranded; remember the great East India Companies of the Dutch, English and French? Where are they today? And did not their demise also spell the beginning of the end for their respective countries’ colonial empires? Closer to home, there is a historic echo taking right now in Waterloo, Ontario – the home of the once mighty Blackberry.
Weak Governance: when politicians lack the will to make tough decisions that may lose them the next election but will place their countries on paths to prosperity, then we are facing the inevitable ticking time bomb. Printing money and providing failed companies with unconditional bailouts are signs of this weakness, and we have seen a lot of this in the last five years.
Death of the Middle Class: when the tax base (aka. the middle class) erodes by its members going upmarket (where they usually don’t pay taxes due to umpteen loopholes for the wealthy) or sliding downhill into subsistence (where they don’t need to pay taxes because their contribution is insignificant), or when they just simply evade taxes (as we have seen in some European nations that imploded recently), then the great levelling instrument for providing a decent lifestyle to all citizens fails.
The death of fair competition: when markets get cornered between a few players (aided by weak governments) who can raise prices out of whack with the demand/supply curve, it creates reduced demand, reduced employment, reduced taxes and begins the downward race to the bottom. The telecom market in Canada is a good example.
Countries that avoid these signs of decline seem to be those that have community bases, where wealth is not the sole measure of success and where the battle for survival is ever present. I seem to think that the West was like this after the end of the Second World War, when the personal losses and rebuilding effort brought people together in a shared purpose. While I am not advocating another global cataclysm to shock the complacent West out of its dazed march into decline, I wonder if that is exactly what is required to get everyone working together again?