Every country goes through periods of mobilization followed by periods of maintenance which quickly turn into longer periods of decline. America has been a nation in decline for decades now. The Coronavirus crisis and our complete failure to mobilize to respond to it has brought this larger decline into the spotlight. After this passes, we will face an even greater crisis as our nation tries to restart a stalled economy, and our failure to respond to that could lead to a great depression that lasts years. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible for countries, even countries in decline, to intentionally turn back from continual decline. It’s possible for America to come out of this crisis more prosperous and capable than ever before, just like America did after World War 2 brought us out of the Great Depression. But to do that, we must re-enter a period of mobilization like we did during World War 2. Only this time, we need to do it without a war to force us.
During periods of mobilization, a country sets goals to tackle big problems and then mobilizes its economy to hit those goals. Because mobilizations require the involvement of almost all of society, they need the vast majority of society to be on board to succeed. Through intentionally developing itself, countries create vast amounts of wealth for most of its citizens, lifting the quality of life for almost everybody. Countries use every tool at their disposal--public banks to finance investment, markets, state-run corporations, increasing some regulations while decreasing others--to create huge jumps in progress. The mobilization is something that almost everyone in the country pays attention to and is involved in, and the traditional left and right political fights get superseded by a new consensus that the majority of people agree with that pushes for real solutions to big problems.
Mobilizations are the way almost every wealthy country today has gotten rich and improved the lives of its population. Japan mobilized its economy to develop itself as an industrial powerhouse in the post-WW2 world. Among the different goals it set for itself, one was to build an automobile industry. After decades of concerted effort that involved public investment, tariffs, and all kinds of other economic tools, Japan was able to establish world-class automobile companies like Toyota (which began as a loom manufacturer in the early 1900s).
Similarly, America most recently mobilized its economy during World War 2 to retool current industries and build entirely new industries to win the war. The leaders of the American war production machine used every tool at their disposal--markets, creating new regulations, getting rid of bad old regulations, retooling current institutions, creating entirely new institutions, --in the service of just upping the numbers on tanks, planes, and everything else we needed to fight the war. During the mobilization, government, industry, unions, and all of society worked together to pull off this production miracle. There was tension between different factions and political tribes, of course, but this was superseded by the larger goal of needing to win the war because the failure was simply not an option. This great mobilization not only produced the arsenal we needed to win the war, but created a whole new industrial base that we were able to use to improve quality of life in America drastically over the next few decades.
During periods of mobilization, countries or large parts of the mobilization tend to be led by people with drive, ability, and a vision for progress. In some cases, as in the case of South Korea with Park Chung-hee, there have been individual leaders with enough public support to drive the vision. In other cases, as in World War 2 with people like Roosevelt, Bill Knudsen, and others, there were multiple leaders aligned on a mission who were given the resources and authority to fulfill the mission.
However, mobilizing is difficult and requires active work. Institutions need to constantly be retooled or replaced entirely. Problems need to be diagnosed and fixed immediately. So often, after a period of mobilization that succeeds, inertia sets in and countries tend to fall into a period of maintenance. But as countries stop actively fixing problems through some constant mobilization, problems build up and the periods of maintenance quickly become periods of decline.
During these periods of decline, the visionary builders that run the country get replaced by rhetoricians. Under these leaders, institutions get neglected, infrastructure goes unrepaired, and long term problems go ignored even as they become ever increasing crises. Countries move away from creating long term plans and instead focus on short-term band-aid solutions that get them re-elected. Special interest groups with political power start determining what is or isn’t politically viable, leading to completely insufficient solutions to big, long-term problems. Managing the declining system becomes the number one priority as no one in power has the incentive or will to do anything big that might upset the most politically powerful groups. We see that today, for example, in almost every solution proposed to tackle climate change.
The richer a country is, the longer and more imperceptible these periods of decline can be. As the decline gets worse and worse, crises often strike that reveal just how bad things have gotten. In those moments, some parts of society suddenly realize that a mobilization is needed to at least solve the crisis at hand, but usually the institutions and leaders are too far gone to execute a mobilization like that. We are seeing that now with COVID-19 in America. Right now, most people realize that some simple tax incentives or regulation tweaks won’t create the PPE, hospital beds, and ventilators we need in time. Instead, there needs to be a holistic, concerted effort to tackle every aspect of this problem -- from stopping the virus, to producing the necessary PPE, to holding a frozen economy together so businesses don’t permanently get destroyed. But as I write this, our leaders can’t even mobilize to figure out how to buy the PPE that’s already been made in any sort of efficient way. But not only are our leaders unable to come up with solutions at the scale of the COVID-19 challenge, but the capacity to execute those solutions even if they existed has been destroyed over the last several decades of neglect.
But this isn’t the first crisis America has faced over the last several decades of decline. Other crises, like our falling life expectancy or increasing poverty, have crept up on us more slowly. And unfortunately, our current leaders will probably not suddenly turn around the country after this latest crisis. In the past, even the Great Depression was not a big enough crisis to force our leaders to act at a large enough scale to turn around the country. Only the threat of complete annihilation from Nazi Germany was enough to force us to mobilize our economy to win the war and create a new generation of wealth and prosperity.
So, do we just have to wait until we face a complete catastrophe? I hope not. I believe it is possible for a new generation of leaders to rise right now and take power as a team and with a plan to progress the country. These must be leaders who can take the long view to tackle our biggest problems and believe in an inclusive America that works to improve everyone’s lives. This new group of leaders won’t look like the traditional left or the traditional right because neither of those political tribes are able to propose real solutions that garner the support of the majority of America. And the task before this new group of leaders will be unprecedented -- fight against the massive forces propelling the decline of a world superpower to create a country that is better, stronger and more prosperous than it has ever been. But we must do exactly this because, just like we could not accept defeat at the hands of Nazis, we must not accept defeat at the hands of inertia.