I've borrowed Kathy Shaidle's headline because I think that sums up John Derbyshire's column better than the one he and his editors chose: "The Impotent Eagle." It's not that we are incapable of doing anything, it's that we can't rouse ourselves to do anything.
John was my colleague at National Review for many years, where I regarded him as a gloomier version of me, and he regarded me as a hopeless Pollyanna. Nevertheless, much of what he writes today will be familiar to readers of both After America and The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which make kind and thoughtful Christmas presents and really aren't as suicidally depressing as you might think. Derb's mournful refrain was taken from a throwaway line a correspondent made re immigration:
Replied my friend:
'I think that withdrawing birthright citizenship from the children of illegals would be a good move, and highly appropriate. I don't see why we couldn't do it going forward. But of course we won't, because we can't do anything.'
It was that closing phrase that stuck in my mind. We can't do anything. It's so damn true.
John focuses on the big headlines: the Afghan war... immigration... law enforcement in Ferguson... America can't win wars, enforce its borders, prevent looting. He could have added a bazillion others: build a flood barrier that prevents one measly not-so-Superstorm Sandy ruining people's lives for years after... replace the dingy decrepit dump of LaGuardia with an airport that isn't a total embarrassment to one of the world's great cities... upgrade the most primitive bank cards in the developed world... stiffen Republican spines to come up with plans for debt reduction that kick in before the middle of the century...
But I'm increasingly struck by how "we can't do anything" applies to all the small stuff, too. If you've ever spent hours on the phone going round in circles with your health insurer over some nothing little thing, you'll be aware that "we can't do anything" is not a monopoly of the big geopolitical strategists. The whole joint seems to be seizing up, and it bothers me. Americans now have less health-care freedom and less banking freedom than many Continental Europeans. But let's not get all comparative about this. In absolute terms - and certainly in comparison with the America that was - too much of daily life has become over-complicated and over-regulated and over-sclerotic, and too many people are content to string along with it. From The [Un]documented Mark Steyn:
You may have noticed those new lime green pedestrian signs sprouting across the fruited plain, in many cases where no pedestrian has been glimpsed in years. Some new federal regulation requires them to be posted wherever pedestrians are to be found, or might potentially be found in the years ahead. I just drove through Barre, Vermont, which used to be the granite capital of the state but, as is the way, now offers the usual sad Main Street of vacant storefronts and non-profit community-assistance joints and whatnot. For some reason, it has faded pedestrian crossings painted across the street every few yards. So, in full compliance with the Bureau of Compliance, those new signs have been stuck in front of each one, warning the motorist of looming pedestrians, springing from curb to pavement like Alpine chamois.
The oncoming army of lurid lime signs uglies up an already decrepit Main Street. They dominate the scene, lining up in one's windshield with the mathematical precision of Busby Berkeley's chorines in Gold Diggers of 1935. And they make America look ridiculous. They are, in fact, double signs: One lime green diamond with the silhouette of a pedestrian, and then below it a lime rectangle with a diagonal arrow, pointing to the ground on which the hypothetical pedestrian is likely to be hypothetically perambulating. The lower sign is an exquisitely condescending touch. A nation whose citizenry is as stupid as those markers suggest they are cannot survive. But, if we're not that stupid, why aren't we outraged?
What's the cost of those double signs — 300 bucks per? That's the best part of four grand wasted on one little strip of one little street in one small town. It's not hard to see why we're the Brokest Nation in History...
Why would you expect a society that needs downward diagonal arrows pedestrian-crossing signs in order to cross the street to be able to win a war or enforce its borders? If you can't resist it at the lower level, why be surprised that it infects everything else? The fatalistic acceptance of a thousand minor bureaucratic impositions leads to the fatalistic acceptance of all the big stuff. Or else why is this not a big story?
It's Official: America Is Now No. 2
Chinese economy overtakes the US's to become the largest
As I wrote in After America:
Britain's eclipse by its transatlantic offspring, by a nation with the same language, same legal inheritance and same commitment to liberty, is one of the least disruptive transfers of global dominance ever.
Think it's likely to go that way next time round? By 2027 (according to Goldman Sachs) or rather sooner (according to other analysts), the world's leading economy will be a Communist dictatorship whose legal, political and cultural traditions are as foreign to its predecessors as could be devised.
"Rather sooner" was right: Twelve years ahead of Goldman Sachs' forecast. But relax, "we can't do anything" - except more regulation, more paperwork, and more downward-arrow signs as far as the eye can see.