How Might We Make Britain (and America) Great Again?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The UK's many problems have become too obvious for even the most obtuse anglophiles to ignore or deny.  That country's post-Brexit meltdown, which has (among many other things) renewed the possibility of Scotland declaring independence -- Sexit, it seems -- continues to get even worse, with the empire on which the sun once never set now seeing an acceleration of its long, agonizing decline.

In yesterday's column here on Dorf on Law, I asked whether the US or the UK will be the first to fully implode, economically and politically.  I acknowledged that the Brits have a significant head start on the Americans in terms of frittering away their many advantages, having begun their decline in 1945 (at the very latest) and showing no signs of rejuvenation at any time since then.  On the other hand, the US's particular pathologies -- most obviously the chaos that Republicans are unleashing via debt-ceiling-based threats of Armageddon, although in fact it all comes down to our constitutional infirmities, such as a Supreme Court that laughs off gerrymandering -- might allow us to speed past our former colonial overlords on the highway to hell.

Moving from predictions of doom to the possibility of changing our fates, what might be done to stop all of this?  A brief conversation with a British colleague earlier today sparked some thoughts.  A possible alternative headline to this column captures the basic idea: "National Renewal and Soaking the Rich: What Must Be Done to Reinvest in Our Future?"

Over the last few years, I have become less and less convinced by the idea that the Brexit and Trump phenomena are a matter of "people being left behind," which was initially a quite convincing explanation of what had gone wrong in both countries.  Despite my skepticism about that argument, however, yesterday's column included an unmistakable reprise of that idea.  Indeed, I argued that the Brexit vote was driven in large part by the anger of left-behind Brits who turned their anger at their declining lot in life against European elites and foreigners more generally.

The early diagnoses of Donald Trump's Electoral College-enabled win (a clear symptom of constitutional pathology) stressed a "Can you blame them, really?" excuse for former Democratic voters giving up and voting for the guy who promised to tear it all down.  Similarly, the best explanation of the Brexit vote continues to be that the UK's economic decline evoked a backlash.

As I noted above, however, that economics-based explanation has become less convincing as time has passed.  The evidence shows that the vast majority of Trump's base is the same as the Republicans' base has always been: people who are economically comfortable in the extreme.  Indeed, one of the January 6 rioters was a business owner who flew in a private jet to join the insurrection, which neatly captures that surprising paradox.  People who had no reason to feel economically abandoned were very much a part of a screw-the-system backlash.

There is, however, a way to square this circle.  Two, actually.  The easier explanation is that it is possible for most of Trump's support to have come from standard-issue hardcore conservatives, but the votes that made the difference in 2016 (something like 40,000 total votes across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) were supplied by the disaffected people who might otherwise not have been so desperate as to vote for an obvious con man who had grown up with every advantage and who oozed contempt for working people.  Desperate people do desperate things, and maybe there were just enough such people who thought, "Hell, at this point, I'll try anything," to make the tiny difference that changed history.

The second explanation, however, both makes more sense and in a sense supersedes the first explanation.  This might best be thought of as a one-way ratchet effect.  That is, whatever the reason might be that barely enough people voted for Trump in 2016, his very presence unleashed their pent-up bigotry in a way that is impossible to undo.  Choose your metaphor -- you can't un-ring that bell, the glass is shattered, whatever -- and the bottom line is that Trump's supporters are now almost certainly unwinnable, even though they were not inevitably lost causes before the fact.

Similarly, when the Brexit referendum did not go down to defeat earlier in 2016 (which is what everyone, including the craven Prime Minister who brought it to a vote, David Cameron, expected to happen), the immediate response was for people to say that it was all a mistake.  Interviews showed people saying that they voted for Brexit as a protest vote, not as an actual preference to leave the EU.  Just as many Americans said that Trump would not even last through his first term, many Brits thought that the non-binding Brexit vote was a wake-up call that would cause the country's leaders to heed the anguished cries that had been registered at the polls -- not by leaving the EU (or, in the US, by falling in line behind Trump, even in the face of his high crimes and misdemeanors) but by pulling back from the abyss and making people's lives better.  What a concept.

As we know, however, the post-2016 actions of the conservative elites in both dying empires decided instead that "Brexit means Brexit" and that "Democrats are trying to undo the results of an election."  This was, to offer a bare-minimum defense of those conservative elites, rational in the sense that their earlier failures had opened the Pandora's box of hatred, chauvinism, and racism that I mentioned above.  To amp up the mixing of metaphors, once the dispossessed had tasted blood, their lost their virginity.  No backsies.

Does all of that mean that there truly is no way to undo what has been done?  If so, that would be a tragedy in many ways, but it would be especially poignant for it to happen to two countries whose former greatness was in large part built on the brutal exploitation of others.  The US's origins in genocidal murder against indigenous peoples is even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and slavery was written into the Constitution.  Britain's long history of ugly exploitation around the globe is so well known that there is no need to go into detail here.

I said above that these awful histories would make it a "tragedy" for the US and the UK to squander their ill-gotten advantages.  That is because there is now no way to undo the things that put them into their positions of power.    Even people who reject history and insist on believing that our two countries emerged at the top of the heap through some combination of ingenuity, moral superiority, and perhaps the accidents of geography and history would have to admit that moving backward -- no matter why one was able to move so far forward -- is simply bad stewardship of our inherited legacies.

So again, no matter what one thinks about how or why these two powers reached the positions that they reached, is it possible to stop them from continuing their recent declines?  It is not as if either country is becoming poorer or less consequential as a result of deciding to disgorge those ill-gotten gains, rewriting history by, say, pouring money and resources into former colonies as compensation for the terrible things that our countries have done.  Our losses are no one else's gain.

Why not?  In a relative sense, of course, any decline makes others look stronger.  But the reason that the US and the UK are getting weaker is, as I argued yesterday, a result of refusing to reinvest in their own prosperity.  As but one example, I mentioned that the New York subway system has been allowed to rot for decades.  Once a person, a company, or a country has built up an asset, it becomes dangerously tempting to sit on one's laurels and put off the hard and expensive work of keeping it all going.

In the aggregate, the US has not only been pretending that it does not need to replace 1910's-era electrical wires in its biggest city's transit system.  As the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been tracking for many years, we have failed over and over again to fix our bridges, our water systems, and everything else on which economic prosperity depends.  The amounts are staggering.  Every year that we cheap out on what we should be doing makes it more likely that avoidable tragedies will occur (such as bridge collapses that kill innocents), and it only delays and increases the costs of repairs.

The ASCE's latest assessment of the "infrastructure gap" now amounts to $2.59 trillion of delayed repairs.  This will, according to the engineers' calculations, result in $10 trillion of lost economic output and three million fewer jobs by 2039.  Again, that is not a loss at the hands of a competing country that will do better as a result of our foolishness.  This is lose-lose, because our decisions to impoverish ourselves and future generations of Americans will in fact hurt other countries, not help them.

I will not bother reciting the parallel problems in the UK, but I can assure anyone reading this column that the Brits have gone all in on the neoliberal idea that government borrowing is always bad, even when borrowed funds would be used to do good things for the country's economy and future growth.  I went on at some length about this in yesterday's column.

And to return to my most immediate interests, the system of higher education in the UK is at a breaking point, with professors being paid only a fraction of what tenured and tenure-track professors are paid in the US, even as they are expected to do enormous amounts of administrative work that people like me rightly view as outside of our areas of expertise and a poor use of our skills.  I should add, of course, that the US system shamefully exploits nontenured faculty, who do the vast majority of teaching in American universities and colleges.  So although a few of us still make a good living, we are not representative of the whole.  And with politicians on the right now attacking us for being "woke," everything could go wrong very quickly, taking what good remains in our systems and flushing it down the tubes.

Again, until these investments finally collapse, it is possible to imagine that we can continue to benefit from previous investments in perpetuity.  At some point, however, the music stops.

Having said that the US and UK both suffer from political decay that reinforces economic decay, and that economic decay in turn degrades our political cultures to the point where people who were not always beyond reach are now digging in their heels against The Other, am I saying that there truly is nothing that could be done?  While I cannot deny that there is scant hope, I am willing to argue that this might not be a one-way ratchet.  That is, it might yet be possible to reinvest in our future in a way that saves both countries from permanent decline.

I mentioned at the beginning of this column that I had a conversion earlier today in which a a colleague here in the UK offered an intriguing idea: tax the rich.  "Wait," readers are surely thinking, "That's the big idea?"  Bear with me.  The intriguing aspect of this colleague's argument is that the situation in the US and the UK provides quite a different reason to tax the rich than the usual distributional arguments that appeal to people like me but that go nowhere in US or UK political circles (even outside of the Republican and Conservative Parties).  This is not about Robin Hood.  This is about saving our countries.  (Coincidentally, I did deliver a lecture at the University of Nottingham the other day, but I never mentioned the man in green tights.)

As my colleague (who will remain nameless, because British academics have enough to worry about without my turning any of them into political targets) put it, even an anti-tax libertarian should understand that certainly the UK is teetering on the edge economically, with the only hope being a huge infusion of public investment in making the country's non-EU future something less sad than it will otherwise be.  There simply are not any other sources of the economic resources needed than the fortunes of the super-rich.

Notably, this argument sidesteps the usual retort that the rich will flee if they are taxed.  Even if they do, it does not matter.  The UK (and the US) can collect the money before those people can get out the door, and even if they never come back, the reinvestment programs that the money could fund (supplemented, of course, by whatever level of borrowing the governments can arrange) will spark economic growth that will be based on shared prosperity.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem, of course, which is that our red-baiting political systems would prevent this from happening in the first place, even though our politics would become less toxic if only my colleague's idea could move forward.  Again, however, even smaller changes can have incremental effects.  The British equivalents of Mitch McConnell and David Koch will win a lot of battles, but every fight that is won by those who would use the money to fund national renewal is a victory that matters.

Even so, this is more fun to approach as a thought experiment.  If we could overcome the political opposition and move forward with significant wealth taxation for the purpose of rebuilding our declining countries, what would happen?  Most likely, the vast majority of people who hate Big Government will refuse to change their minds.  But nothing succeeds like success, and some people might wake up and notice that things are getting better.

At the very least, we know that we are currently failing.  Amazingly, however, we have not yet squandered everything.  There might still be time to reverse the decline.