The Triumph of American Big Business and the Tragedy of Modern American Amorality
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Earlier this year, I was in London on a business trip. The following weekend, my wife traveled across the pond to join me for a weekend jaunt to explore Brussels — which hosts the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO — and attend an art fair in the Netherlands. During that weekend, we traveled through the Brussels airport twice and a Brussels train station to pick up a rental car. Less than two weeks later, Brussels was hit by a major Islamic jihadist terrorist attack, in that same Brussels airport, as well as a nearby train station.
The human element of course is preeminent when considering this event, and our hearts go out to the many families that will suffer for years with the loss of loved ones in this senseless, cowardly assault on innocent noncombatants. How hundreds if not thousands of westerners have found it attractive to join ISIL is hard to fathom, but that is precisely the state of affairs we find ourselves confronting in the modern era.
During our time in Belgium and the Netherlands, we were struck by the complacency, moral relativism, and ennui in both countries, especially in Belgium.
Less than two weeks before the bombings, our tour of Brussels focused on the heart of the city. The beauty and opulence of the Grand Platz, the beautiful central park where the struggle for Belgian independence from the Netherlands took place, and the many classical style marble structures in the center of the city all spoke to the concentrated wealth of a bygone era (eerily similar actually, to the riches of the top 1 percent so decried in our modern era). Although 19th century Belgian empire-making was on a much smaller scale than that of other European powers, the legacy of King Leopold II’s reign of terror over and economic rape of the Congo stands unmatched in the history of colonialism. Millions of Congolese lost their lives in barbaric, horrific fashion to build Brussel’s towering palaces and public monarchical monuments — edificial testimonies to Leopold’s empire. The Congo has yet to recover economically, socially, culturally, or spiritually, despite gaining its independence decades ago. A cynical or hateful perspective would view the bombings as a twisted form of karma, boomeranging around to strike European (and American) victims in a merciless path. I don’t believe in karma. But the eerie calm over Brussels, and nonchalance prior to the storm, serve as a Cassandra-like alarm to Americans who still believe in exceptionalism, and who have ears to hear the wailing siren song of recent events.
As our tour played out, it gave evidence as to both the diversity and moral relativism of the European continent. Our tour guide was a charming Belgian of Italian descent, whose family had immigrated to Belgium following World War II in search of economic opportunity. When the guide found out my wife and I were religious (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian, respectively), she mentioned that she was a Protestant as well, a committed and outspoken one. However, later in the tour she mentioned that a theme in Belgium (and Brussels in particular) was to go through every door and experience what could be found inside. I failed to pick up her meaning at the time, but later was filled in by my spouse that she was inquiring into whether we wanted to pursue more risqué activities in Brussels than the light, breezy, innocuous tour of the land of chocolates, diplomacy, and government bureaucracy that we had planned and pursued. The amoral and “anything goes” philosophy propounded by our guide could not have been more plain. Nor the irony of a professed practicing Christian encouraging us to pursue more decadent activities, presumably with the aim of a healthy referral fee for our guide.
While winding through the streets of central Belgium, we were struck at the lack of visible police or security in the capital, despite the recent catastrophic terrorist attack in Paris and the ISIL saber-rattling towards Belgium as well. Our guide informed us that the Belgian people loathed an overt show of security and valued their autonomy, and that this restricted the security presence in their capital predominantly to plain-clothed officers. But we were skeptical. It appeared more likely to us that the Belgian government had made a choice to deemphasize security in favor of social welfare and safety net spending, with Belgium’s aging citizenry desirous of government largesse to aid quality of life in retirement. The fact that only a very small minority of NATO members satisfy the minimum defense spending commitment of 2 percent of GDP also provides compelling evidence of Europe’s lack of readiness to meet both external and internal threats to civilian safety. Belgium’s most recent figures indicate defense spending at 0.90 percent of GDP. Its armed forces stand at only 41,500, including reservists, which is just a fraction the size of the U.S. Marine Corps, our smallest service. The Cold War peace dividend resulted in complacency, reduced defense spending, and a lackadaisical and ineffective effort to “win the peace.”
Our foray into the Netherlands left a similar impression. My wife commented that the architecture was eerily similar to Soviet-era East German structures — instead of Marx’s workers’ paradise, Western Europe is transformed as a socialistic paradise. Europe leaves the impression, with the sole possible exception of Great Britain, as a sleeping old giant ripe for terror from a motivated, theocratic opponent such as ISIL.
What does any of this have to do with American exceptionalism? More than you might think. The deterioration of a once proud continent which was the center of the world for many centuries might be a glimpse into the future of the United States absent a rapid reversal of our priorities, choices, and values.
But all is not dreary and foreboding, for those with a futuristic bent — there are clearly distinct areas in which the United States remains exceptional. Our military remains the world’s most powerful, our economy the largest and most stable, and American culture and language infiltrate every country and region of the globe.
American exceptionalism remains a construct of idealism, pride, and nationalism. Millions of Americans still subscribe to this vision that we as Americans are a “breed apart,” a “cut above,” an exceptional people destined to lead the world indefinitely. America does remain exceptional in one clear area — global economic might. But on the flip side, we are rapidly losing our more important source of exceptionalism: traditional morality and classical values. The soul and safety of America are threatened first and foremost by our directionless moral compass, trending aimlessly towards the ennui and weakness of Western Europe.
Naysayers of America have predicted the downfall of American might and its underlying economic framework ever since the United States rose to preeminence in the post-World War II era. They’ve been wrong every time. The Pax Americana, undergirded and fortified by the U.S. Navy, has allowed American capitalists to roam the globe freely for decades. When Japan arose as the principal rival to American global commercial leadership in the late 1980s, many saw the pending eclipse of U.S. economic might. Instead, Japan’s growth rapidly faded, due to a lack of commercial creativity, entrenched business structures, asset overvaluation, and demographic headwinds. Japan’s equity markets have never recovered from their fall a quarter of a century ago. Recently, China’s rise and hyper-economic growth resulted in even more shrill calls for the inevitable eclipse of the United States, now by the People’s Republic instead of the House of the Rising Sun. Although China will probably eclipse America at some point in terms of reported/nominal GDP — and according to some, already has — this would be a misleading indicator of the American global economic position. China’s reporting is highly questionable at best and fraudulent at worst — in terms of gross domestic product, economic growth, real estate pricing, and on many other bases. China’s currency the renminbi has recently weakened, their real estate and infrastructure is grossly overbuilt, their corporate profitability is anemic, and their per capita GDP is a small fraction of per capita GDP in the United States.
From the ashes of the Great Recession, corporate America has driven the U.S. economy to new heights. Inflation is nonexistent, the unemployment rate is around five percent, corporate profit margins are at or near all-time highs, corporate balance sheets are flush with cash, and the banking system is once again healthy. A strong argument can be made that this economic progress has been made in spite of excessive regulatory, tax, and other friction costs imposed by the federal government. The Obama administration has clearly been skeptical of U.S. business at best, hostile at worst. Corporate tax rates are among the highest in the world, and have gone even higher with Obamacare. Regulatory red tape chokes young businesses in the crib and stultifies the growth and progress of mid-sized business. Only the largest of U.S. corporations are in a financial position to hire the best lobbyists and effectively rent-seek the government and avoid excessive regulatory restraints.
The lack of growth friendly governmental policies makes the American economic advancement of the past eight years even more impressive. Big business, whether on Wall Street, Main Street, or Sand Hill Road, trounces its global competitors. American companies are the 800 pound gorillas in the global economic order. Despite catastrophic public and private debt, overwhelming free cash flow generated by American business keeps the U.S. economy the greatest, grandest, and strongest the world has ever seen. Foreign and domestic calls for American decline remain the modern day equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. As we say in Texas, such naysayers are all hat and no cattle. The data supporting American economic exceptionalism overwhelms empty voices to the contrary. So if American exceptionalism endures in the land of mammon, where is it waning?
One only has to open People Magazine, Star, Us Weekly, or any mainstream American newspaper to find out — American culture, values, and religion are on the decline, perhaps irreversibly. Although the American military remains the world’s mightiest, less than 1.5 million men and women serve in the active duty U.S. military, far less than one percent of the American population. And while the military retains great respect and trust among those it is pledged to serve and defend, fewer and fewer Americans understand the values, culture, and ethos of those serving in its various branches. “Duty, honor, country” has become a shallow or largely unknown and unappreciated phrase for the vast majority of Americans.
Our deep and rich history is largely unknown and underappreciated by our youngest citizens. Members of Gen X and Gen Y (the “millennials”) know far more about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than Abraham Lincoln. Forty percent of all births in the United States are to unwed mothers. In the past 30 years, the number of people professing faith in a Supreme Being has noticeably declined, and those claiming God does not exist have tripled in number. Illegal drug use continues its rise. Popular culture has embraced and celebrated moral relativism and nihilism, as indicated in part by anti-heroes becoming the norm in popular film and television. The traditional family is under assault from all sides and routinely mocked. In an era of political correctness, one is much more likely to find a news article chronicling the fight to allow transgender and transvestite citizens to access any bathroom they choose than to find an article chronicling a fireman saving a cat out of a tree or the latest moral initiatives of Pope Francis. The bedrock foundations of our society, the U.S. Constitution, Judeo-Christian moral values, the rule of law, and the like are not only questioned but routinely ignored or bitterly fought over.
We can see these trends at play in the reactions to the horrific shooting in Orlando. The political left blames homophobia and inadequate gun control. The political right blames radical Islamic jihadism and poor federal leadership. The division in the national response and our accelerating loss of shared core values and principles will haunt the struggle against religiously motivated fascism and terrorism. Can we answer these challenges or any other with a unified voice?
Where does that live the most influential country in world history? Powerful, for sure. Rich, even more so. The envy of the rest of the world. But morally, spiritually, and culturally confused and empty and vulnerable to rot from within, internal strife, and external enemies. As Jesus Christ told us, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).
The American experiment, initiated almost 250 years ago, revolved around common values, faith, liberty, freedom, and a commitment to egalitarianism. While the vestiges of the revolution still echo across history and into our modern era, “e pluribus unum” seems to be cracking in the face of factions, division, and a lessening of the American people melting into one people, one country, one purpose. Our wealth, business and military preeminence, and abundance of natural resources still secure our present state and American exceptionalism in several areas. But our moral, cultural, and spiritual deterioration, evident to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, harbor prospects for a bleaker future, where historians someday may compare the current era with the latter stages of the Roman Empire, adrift from the nobility of the Roman Republic and headed for a fall. For the sake of all patriotic Americans and those who hope for global security and stability, we better hope for a revival in both the concept and reality of American exceptionalism, across more elements of the American experiment than commerce or the military alone. Otherwise, the tragedy of Brussels and Paris may morph into an American sequel to 9/11 sooner and more often than we would care to imagine.
George Seay is the Executive Chairman of Annandale Capital, a money management firm headquartered in Dallas, Texas he founded in 1998. Mr. Seay is also Chairman and Co-Founder of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, Chairman of the 7th Generation Foundation, and Co-Founder of Sky Ranch Ute Trail, a non-sectarian faith-based family and youth ministry in Lake City, Colorado.