Mark Steyn’s After America

After AmericaI might not have purchased this book except that my local bookstore was holding a fire sale and the price was too tantalizingly low to pass up on. All the same, one of the store employees encouraged me not to purchase the book, offering only a “He’s the devil’s advocate” by way of explanation. Maybe so, but even the devil deserves representation, and I can’t help but think Steyn would rather enjoy that sobriquet. But in fairness to the store employee, the incendiary title (After America: Get Ready For Armageddon) and the cover image of a toe-tagged Uncle Sam, coupled with complimentary blurbs from famed bloviators like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, do make it somewhat hard to take seriously.

Despite the blush-inducing cover, I burned through this book in a day or two, alternating between fits of anger and bursts of laughter. Steyn is witty and provocative, even as he acts as an apocalyptic tour guide, confronting us with the various monuments to our social and political failures. I like him best when he takes aim at our complacency, our naive, unstated belief that we can remake the very fabric of our society and yet still enjoy the fruits of living in a first world economy. What does it mean to live in a society where more adults are single than married? When the private sector shrinks and the public sector expands? When manufacturing is outsourced? When education and literacy rates fall? When a $14 trillion dollar debt hangs over a population of 300-odd million people?

One of the mantras Steyn repeats like a refrain throughout the book is, “When money drains, power drains.” He cites the post-WWII transition of global power from Britain to America as an example of such a transfer of power before amending Jonathan Swift: “They have our soul / Who have our bonds.” For Britain, America was a comparatively benign benefactor, a country produced in its own image, in many respects. This time around, it is China that possesses America’s bonds, and we have less reason to be optimistic about how this transfer of power will play out, particularly because China is itself a country on the verge of demographic collapse:

The People’s Republic has a crude structural flaw: thanks to its disastrous one-child policy, it will get old before it gets rich, and, unless it’s planning on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, the millions of surplus young men whom the government’s one-child policy has deprived of female companionship is a recipe either for wrenching social convulsions at home – or for war abroad, the traditional surplus-inventory clearance method of great powers.

By conservative estimates, the interest alone on America’s debt to China will suffice to cover all of the People’s Republic’s annual military budget. The problem itself may not be surmountable, Steyn argues, but we have not only failed to meet the challenge it presents – we’ve swept it under the rug, content to watch the debts mount. Alexis de Tocqueville, astutest of all of America’s many appraisers, warned that “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” How else do you make sense of the following, except that his warning has come to pass:

In the eighteen months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, over seven million Americans lost their jobs, yet the number of federal bureaucrats earning $100,000 or more went up from 14 percent to 19 percent.[…] At the start of the “downturn,” the Department of Transportation had just one employee earning more than $170,000 per year. Eighteen months later, it had 1,690. In the year after the passage of Obama’s “stimulus,” the private sector lost 2.5 million jobs, but the federal bureaucracy gained 416,000.


In 2009, the average civilian employee of the United States government earned $81,258 in salary plus $41,791 in benefits. Total: $123,049. The average American employed in the private sector earned $50,462 in salary plus $10,589 in benefits. Total: $61,051.

And yet it is from the private sector that these lavish public wages are furnished. We have been insulated from the rioting and social unrest that has been visited upon Greece and Italy and Spain, where youth unemployment has risen to ludicrous levels, and few 20-somethings manage to escape their parents’ basements, but our situation is rapidly worsening.

[…] consider two sixtysomething white-bred Wasps living side-by-side in Yonkers, New York: At Number 27 is a lady who retired from teaching in the local school at the age of fifty-nine and lives on an annual pension of $75,255, exempt from state and local tax, with gold-plated health benefits, and everything inflation-proofed. At Number 29 is a guy exactly the same age who owns a hardware store, can’t afford to retire, has health issues and crummy provision for amelioration therefore, yet will be working till he dies, while his neighbor enjoys a lavish two-decade retirement that he paid for in his taxes. This is a recipe for civil war…

I don’t know if civil war is where we are headed, but we are naive to think that such extravagant social spending – the benefits of which are enjoyed in the present even as the bill is deferred – can be sustained, particularly as the foundations of western society have shifted so drastically.

Steyn covers many topics in this book, from our bloated social services to our failing education system (“For most who wind up there, college is a waste of time, and money, and life. Hacks pretend to teach, slackers pretend to learn, and employees pretend it’s a qualification”) and the destruction of the nuclear family. Not every section is equally convincing or forceful, but all are thought-provoking. At one point, he quotes from the historian Arnold Toynbee (whose life encompassed both the height of the British empire and its swift decline) as he watched Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in 1897: “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside of all that I am sure.” I fear that Western society is overdue for an uncomfortable history lesson.