Interview: Mark Steyn on After America, One Year Later
Last year, as the month of August began, I received a copy of Mark Steyn's After America from his publicist on Wednesday, the Dow Jones dropped 512 points on Thursday, and S&P shorted America’s credit rating on Friday.
Mark’s crack PR team earned their keep once again this year, staging riots across the Middle East, a feckless "Quantitative Easing" program by the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and a First Amendment-trampling POTUS, all in the past week, as a sort of extended infomercial to promote the paperback edition of the book, which is now out today.
Mark spoke with me late last week to discuss the new edition of the book, and the breaking events in the news it foreshadowed.
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DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we're talking with Mark Steyn of Steyn Online.com who writes on stage, screen, and demographic and economic apocalypses, and is the regular guest host for a talk radio star you may have heard of called Rush Limbaugh. He's also the author of the After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, now out in paperback.
Mark, last year, when After America debuted, we had Moody’s lower America’s debt rating and the British riots. This year, Regnery seems to be paying off rioters in Egypt and Libya to promote both the new book, and America Alone, your look at America during the War on Terror, back when we still called it the War on Terror. How do you manage to consistently gin up such great publicity for your books?
STEYN: Yeah, I know. The -- my book ends with a fairly sort of apocalyptic nuclear finale. And you might want to be out of town once Regnery decide to do the publicity tie-in for that.
But it's true, when it came out last year I had the great good fortune on the day of the launch to actually have the Moody's downgrade. And I -- and basically in the British riots they were reenacting pretty explicitly my chapter on Britannia's post-imperial decay.
This time around you're right, what's going on in Libya and Yemen and various other U.S. embassy compounds around the region I think is the next phase of that. Decline always starts with the money, but it then moves on to other things. When money drains, power drains. I didn't agree with Condi Rice's -- a lot of Condi Rice's speech at the Republican convention, but she had one very good line in that when she said that a nation that loses control of its finances eventually loses control of its destiny. And that's actually what you're seeing on the streets of the Middle East.
DRISCOLL: While all that’s going on, Mark, what do you make of the Pentagon having Pastor Terry Jones on speed dial, and ringing him up after this year’s 9/11 riots?
STEYN: Yeah. I would fire General Dempsey, the Chief of Staff, for that. I say that, by the way, as an immigrant to this country. One thing you notice about this country is the U.S. government is actually quite coercive. The United States Department of Justice if it decides to can bring unlimited resources to bear. When you soak in the United States Treasury the IRS has far more powers to freeze your kid's bank account than equivalent revenue agencies in most free societies.
So it's not a small thing when the most senior military officer in the United States government calls you at home over a film you've made. And it's simply not appropriate. Kathy Shaidle, my compatriot, the great Canadian blogger, had a joke about the -- after the Manson killings, the Pentagon calling up the Beatles to warn them not to release “The White Album” -- or whichever it was, that it allegedly provoked Charles Manson. But this is simply something that the United States government should not be doing. It's legitimating, essentially, the view of these loons that the content of films and novels and cartoons and everything else is the business of the state. And that may be true in Islamic states, but it's not true in free societies.
And again, there's a sort of futuristic chapter towards the end of my book where, sort of looking back on our time from around whatever it is, 2020, 2025. And when we look back from that time we will marvel at how quickly western elites were willing to trade core western principles such as freedom of speech. We see it in those -- that disgusting Twitter chain from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, we see it in the weaselly words of Secretary Clinton and President Obama, and we see it in that outrageous phone call that General Dempsey made to Pastor whatever-his-name-is.
DRISCOLL: Mark we’ll get back your take on current events in just a moment, but perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. For those who didn’t read After America when it originally debuted last year, you could you quickly outline in its thesis? The title alone must sound like crazy talk to someone trapped in the New York Times’ information cocoon.
STEYN: Yes. I mean, I think a lot of people have seen those sort of Congressional Budget Office graphs that sort of show the straight line going all the way up and sort of circa mid-century disappearing off the top of the page and going up through the ceiling and out through the roof timbers. And I think that's the way people -- even people who are aware of the multi-trillion-dollar debt and the entitlements and all this, they think of it as a problem for mid-century. That if we don't get that -- yes, in theory if we don't get this stuff under control then it will be consuming, you know, 800 percent of GDP by the year 2080 or whatever.
And in a sense people think well, that's going to be a problem for my grandkids but nothing I need to deal with right now. The thesis of After America is that we're way beyond decline. We're worse than Greece, we're worse than Iceland, we're worse than Portugal and if we don't get this stuff fixed by mid-decade, not mid-century, then it's over. And by over I mean that the United States as we've known it will simply cease to exist. It doesn't necessarily mean Mad Max on I-95, although I wouldn't rule that out, but it does mean that everything gets worse. And it gets worse on a scale unknown to relatively small European countries in a bad way. In the end, anyone who's been in sort of rural Greek villages knows that they could take quite a bit of decline and societal collapse, and when the dust clears they'd be pretty much as they were. Iceland, for example, which was the sort of first country to go belly-up when the downturn hit in 2008, Iceland's dreams of sort of, you know, being a major global finance power are over. But Iceland is still pretty okay if you're Icelandic, and if you're not, who cares.
It's not going to be like that with the United States. When the U.S. goes over the cliff it lands with a much bigger thud than Iceland. And it's in real danger of slipping past the point of no return, circa 2015, 2016.
DRISCOLL: As we’re recording this interview, the Fed are announcing that QE3 is sailing, another round of what it calls quantitative easing, which is the Newspeak euphemism for firing up the printing press and printing more money. How’s that going to work out?
STEYN: Yes. You know, one of the things that’s interesting to me about After America is I think there's an element of delusion on the right, too. For example, I was -- when I was making the rounds when the hardback addition came out and it was around the time of the downgrade and everything. And I said, well, you know, say what you like about Greece but Greece can't do quantitative easing because it doesn't print its own currency; Greece is on the euro. One can have an argument about whether Greece should have got into the euro in the first place, but the fact is that Greece is in the euro now so those guys have to figure something out without being able to do quantitative easing. And a reporter on the Fox Business Channel said to me well, that just shows how much -- how superior we are, how great we are. I don't think so. I think quantitative easing is basically your left hand writing an IOU to your right hand. The idea that -- which has been happening more or less since After America came out, but basically seventy percent of debt issued by the U.S. Treasury is bought by the Federal Reserve. And if you -- that's basically like paying off your Mastercard with your Visa card at the end of the month. You can do that for a while, but eventually that's going to -- that's unreal. That's unreal, and quantitative easing is unreal.
And I think in that sense -- again, that's a reason why whatever the insanity of euro -- I mean, the euro is a make-believe currency for a make-believe jurisdiction. But one thing is does do is it eliminates a government's ability to quantitatively ease their way out of their irresponsibility. And in that sense, whatever you say about the Greeks, the Greeks aren't lending money to their right hand with their left hand.
DRISCOLL: QE3 involves lending money on a gigantic basis, but there’s also the money banks lend to individuals and families. Glenn Reynolds, my colleague at PJ Media.com, has linked to articles on “the coming middle class anarchy.” Our entire nation’s economy rests on the idea of owning a home and paying your mortgage each month. If enough people who are underwater say the system is rigged, and nuts to all this, America’s already fragile economy could be in deep trouble.
STEYN: Yes. I think that's certainly the case. I mean, I think if you look at what has been wrecked by government, they include all the things that prudent people -- we're not talking about people with, you know, great ambitions. We're not even talking about, you know, dreams. We're not talking about fancies. We're talking about just what prudent, responsible people do. People say oh, you know, buy property. What is it? The Mark Twain line, they're not making any more of it, you know, whatever.
Buy a home. Buy a house. Own your own home. The government through Fannie and Freddie and subprime mortgages wrecked the property market, so the idea of the whole sort of safe as houses concept is gone. Then they said oh, you know, get an education. Get an education. Get a qualification; you'll always have something to fall back on. Most American qualifications are worthless and people stack up six figures of debt to acquire them, so they've wrecked that element too.
So these are things that, as I said, not dreamers but prudent, sensible people that get an education, buy property -- look after your health, that's another thing that's wrecked now. So in other words, all the props of prudent, sensible middle-class life have been hacked away at by government -- big government interference with them. And there's not a lot left to wreck once you do that.
DRISCOLL: And as you write in After America, starting a business is also increasingly anathema. Whether it's a kid with a lemonade stand or a hardware store who wants to put out its own coffee and donuts without being over-regulated to death.
STEYN: Yeah. I think this is not small stuff. And I think there's a problem here. Again, there's a sort of element of delusion on the right about how important this stuff is. Because people do get annoyed about it, but again, it -- they don't -- I think a lot of people don't quite fully understand the implications of it. A society in which you need 500 dollars worth of permits to put a lemonade stand on your lawn is not a free society.
You could have the Second Amendment. I mean, a lot of people when I mentioned -- I think it was on Rush I mentioned the lemonade -- like, half a dozen lemonade stand stories from around the country. And a couple guys e-mailed me and said oh, this isn't important stuff, Steyn, you shouldn't be talking about this. We've got the Second Amendment, so nobody's going to do all the -- you know, nobody's going to come and take away our freedoms.
That's all very well, but you could -- you can easily wind up in a situation where you still have the Second Amendment and every other freedom has been lost. A society in which you cannot legally sell lemonade in your front yard is not a free society. A society -- you mentioned the hardware store. A society in which a hardware store in Ventura County, California cannot put out complimentary coffee and donuts for its customers is not a free society.
And at some point people have to get real about this. I think this is the way -- this is one of the reasons, by the way, where the sort of codification of the U.S. Constitution actually gets in the way of looking at things clearly. Because clearly what's happened over the course of the last eighty years is that successive governments at the national level, but also at the state and county level, have ridden a coach and horses through the principles of the U.S. Constitution. But because it's still there on a piece of paper that some guy put down on parchment with ink and quill feather and it's actually written down, people still think that it's there and it’s effective even though eighty years of big government expansion has basically driven a coach and horses through it.
DRISCOLL: A number of America's woes seem to come down to academia. They've created what Yale's David Gelernter calls "America-Lite," in which the culture of America has basically been hollowed out from the top. And they've created what the aforementioned Glenn Reynolds calls the higher education bubble. And now in Rahm Emanuel Chicago we're seeing the lower education bubble as his teachers are on strike. Do these bubbles give conservatives an opportunity to reform that broken and increasingly fiscally broke system?
STEYN: I would like to think so. In a strange way I think the Rahm Emanuel situation is actually more serious because it's more disturbing to me that you've got this kind of social engineering in kindergarten and grade one, then by the time people get to middle age like Sandra Fluke. Because basically by that point you've had -- how old is she? Thirty-one. So she's basically had twenty-five, twenty-six years of this stuff. So in a way I regard the smashing of the teachers union monopoly as absolutely critical to this country. I think the Right abandoned almost all the levels of society that mattered apart from electoral success.
And I think we saw in 2008 -- by the way, Obama and Mrs. Obama are themselves superb embodiments of the worthlessness of this over-credentialed society. If you look at Obama, he's had basically a million bucks of worth of elite education between Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law and then he goes and becomes a community organizer. If he hadn't become president nobody would think that was any kind of, you know, return on investment for what that guy's education is supposedly worth. Mrs. Obama, likewise, goes to Princeton and becomes basically the diversity outreach consultant for the University of Chicago hospitals. A job so essential that they pay her 380,000 dollars a year. And when she becomes -- when she has to leave it to become First Lady it's so indispensable, that diversity outreach consultant job, that they don't even bother replacing her.
I mean, these two, in their disconnect from any kind of primary wealth creation I think embody the sort of decay of America in that they -- if you recall, people mocked Sarah Palin because she'd been a mayor and before that she'd run a commercial fishing operation in Wasilla. And people thought that was -- for some reason that was a kind of snare. She'd been in trade as opposed to thinking big thoughts like Obama.
I mean, the elites in this country now are like kind of dowager duchesses in an English social comedy from the late nineteenth century that, you know, they're horrified by mere tradesmen: oh, my dear, Sarah Palin, commercial fishing operation. Why couldn't she have been a supposed community -- or done a little light community organizing like Obama. Nobody would want to live in a community that had been organized by Obama; the community he did organize, they have -- what are they up to now, a dozen murders on a good weekend in Chicago?
This, I think, the sort of decay of the elites and the decay into a kind of Latin-American setup where you have this super-privileged elite at the top and then a vast dysfunctional mass underneath and no middle class. I think that's where we're headed if we don't change course.
DRISCOLL: So with all of that as prologue; with the ongoing collapse of so many aspects of what make up Barack Obama’s worldview, why is Mitt Romney seemingly flailing in the polls as of the time of this interview?
STEYN: Yeah. That bothers me too, because this guy ought to be losing by ten points at least. And I know people say well, it's a fifty-fifty nation and it's going to be a tight election and all the rest of it. If it's tight this time around that says something very alarming. You know, a lot of people don't -- simply don't get the numbers. The word trillion doesn't really mean anything to people; it has no relation to their lives. And at a certain point it takes on a bit of unreality because if you can spend trillions of dollars you don't have and you do it for one year and you do it for two years and you do it for five years, people think well, why can't we keep on doing that. So that doesn't seem like a real problem to many people.
And then I think there's something even more worrying. That if you go back to 2008 -- and we all did this at the time -- we said basically those of us, you know, who however reluctantly supported McCain. When he lost we said well, the guy gave the impression he wanted to lose and people were exhausted by war and people were tired of the Bush administration and the Republicans hadn't covered themselves in glory in the previous couple of years and this guy would be the first black president and everyone's saying he's the greatest speaker of all time and he's a real glamorous celebrity figure.
You know, McCain did the thing where he was mocking Obama as the celebrity. Now we've had four years of him. He's a crashing bore. He's not a great speaker. He's got nothing new to say. He staggers around doing the same -- giving the same leaden speech as the economy flatlines, as the jobs market shrivels, as people in their early fifties go on disability and people in their late 20s move back with their parents.
If he gets sort of elected as the nonglamorous failure, what that would mean is that America is essentially saying there's no prospect of recovery. We’re sticking with big nanny Obama because at least he's guaranteeing our food stamps and our disability checks. And they would essentially be accepting -- they would be accepting, I think kind of -- a European nanny state view of America that would in effect spell the end of this country. They'd be basically saying there's no possibility of an American dream.
Yes, we could vote for Romney, but who wants to take a flyer on economic recovery. At least if we go with Obama we have the certainty of the food stamps and the certainty of the disability checks. That's a -- there's no hope -- he's basically offering them the hope -- the certainty of no change. And he's saying when everything gets bad, and it's going to be bad for as far as the eye can see, vote for me because you'll get your food stamps.
DRISCOLL: And that certainly sounds like After America to me, or at not the America I grew up in.
STEYN: Yeah. I think it is After America. And the difference, I think -- the point I try to make in the book, Ed, which is, you know, really I think very important is that Europe's post-war decline was cushioned by the United States; the successive power. The power that inherited Britain's global networks built up over the previous century and a half, that's the smoothest transition of global order ever in world history. To the point where I don't think historians in centuries to come will even look on it as a transfer. They'll look on the sort of Anglo-American imperium from the battle of Trafalgar for the next two centuries as one continuous period.
But the -- it's not going to go that way this time around. That's really what we're seeing on the streets of Benghazi and Cairo, is that there is no -- we will be living in a world with no order. And again, the isolationist right, the Ron Paul guys say well, you know, who needs the rest of the world; screw off. We can be a nineteenth-century isolationist republic and don't have to get mixed up with any of this stuff.
I mean, get real. Show me what's -- show me in your house something that's made in America. Where's your nineteenth-century Yeoman republic gone. Go take me to your local Walmart and show me something that's made in the United States of America. When everything in your home -- you know, it's easy to say we don't want to be the big global policemen; we just want to be rich and fat and happy and watch Dancing with the Stars. But when the TV you're watching Dancing with the Stars on is made on the other side of the planet, and when the clothes you're wearing are made on the other side of the planet, when everything comes from the other side of the planet you're engaged with the world whether you want to be or not. So don't give me this nineteenth century isolationist mumbo-jumbo. That ship has sailed. It's a container ship and it's sailed to Shanghai to pick up all the junk in Walmart that you guys want to buy because it's cheaper than trying to make it over here.
DRISCOLL: Sadly, perhaps much like America itself, we’re out of time. This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’ve been talking with Mark Steyn, of Steyn Online.com, the author of the last year’s New York Times best-seller, After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. It’s now out in paperback, at both Amazon.com and your local book seller. And Mark, thank you for stopping by once again.
STEYN: Hey, always a pleasure, Ed.
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