We humans are designed to not to notice how much we want and work to achieve status; we often misunderstand our behavior by ignoring underlying status drives. Similarly, discussions of national politics too often ignore status explanations for national policies.
I recently heard an Iranian democracy activist explain that more democracy would be good for Iran because democracy is more respected by the world. I’ve heard Russia indulges inefficient industries over exploiting its vast natural resources because resource selling nations are low status. And I recall a famous explanation for missteps by declining empires like Spain and England is their refusing to acknowledge falling relative capabilities.
Such status stories help explain recent events here in the US:
1. We think we have the world’s largest homes and biggest homeowner fraction. So we subsidized more folks to have more bigger homes. Even though that went terribly wrong, we refuse to admit we went too far and are still trying hard to subsidize home ownership.
2. We think we have the world center of finance and banking. When that badly stumbled and threatened to greatly shrink, we instead saved it at enormous expense. When those banks and their execs then quickly bounced back, we needed to show them who’s boss. To show we run them, they don’t run us, we are passing finance reform to “protect consumers,” though unprotected consumers had little to do with the crash.
3. We think we gave cheap cars to the world, and so can’t stand to see US auto companies collapse and be replaced by foreign ones. So we bought and are subsidizing our still-bleeding car companies.
4. We are proud of being the only folks to send men to the Moon, and so still spend billions on a manned space program even though we have little interest in whatever it is they are doing.
5. We think we saved the world from both Nazism and Communism, and are now saving it from radical Islamists. Even though our Iraq venture has not gone well, we are staying there, and greatly increasing our presence in Afghanistan. We are expanding a military larger than the rest of the world’s military combined. We are proud of our elderly, especially veterans, for helping us to save the world, and borrow to ensure they retire in comfort.
6. Many in the US are ashamed that Europe seems greener than us, and want to fix that by taxing carbon more to get closer to European green levels. But many of us are proud of having bigger homes, cars, TVs, etc, and so aren’t actually willing to go that green. Unstoppable force meets immovable object, here we come.
7. We think we brought modern med to the world and lead the world in med innovation and med tech. So we spend far more on med than anywhere else, and let others free ride on our innovation. But many of us are ashamed that we seem less caring of our own than Europeans, who make sure everyone gets med. So we are trying to add more regulation to ensure more med use here. While in most nations regulation reduces medical spending, we won’t cut back on med use since we are so proud of being med leaders.
8. We are proud of being world leaders in music and movies. Since those industries are threatened by tech induced loss of copyright, we are willing to give up lots behind the scenes to get others to help save copyright. My guess: we will give away meaningful protections for free speech; we are proud of having the most free speech, and so don’t really mind others having less, or even us having less, as long as we still have the most.
9. We are proud that we constrain our police via civil rights, we don’t use torture as punishment, we aren’t so nosy as to care if neighbors are criminals, and yet we are “tough” on drug crimes. We manage this via unparalleled rates of (and cost of) prison.
The pattern: each time we fail in something where we see (or want to see) ourselves as a world leader, we double down, borrowing money to gamble that we can win it all back and stay ahead in everything. But that extra spending stresses the rest of our systems, making them more likely to fail. It is hard to see how this ends well; pride, indeed, goeth before a fall.