This is a long winded and winding post. Sorry there isn't more spit and polish on it but sometimes I write just to put thoughts down before they flit away like butterflies at dusk.
The veneer of civilization is pretty thin. However like all veneers, it is also pretty broad so if a piece gets scratched away it isn't too hard to fill in the gaps again. I've been pondering the quesiton "what is civilization?" quite a bit lately. Is it roads? Is it agriculture? Is is book learning, such as engineering? Or is it culture such as sculpture?
Here in Afghanistan they have a sort of a civilization. They could have more and better everything if they decided that they wanted more and better. Often times they are simply content with what they have and don't see the benefits of drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation. In Iraq they had plenty of roads, plenty of relatively modern agriculture, but still have horrendous corruption and tribal conflicts. So civilization isn't just any sort of infrastructure, or any sort of art or culture, it is the appropriate mix of infrastructure, legal standardization, and social culture.
Infrastructure allows economic mobility. Legal standardization combined with a culture that respects honesty minimizes the corruption that eventually hurts everyone. China is a good example of a "civalization" that is rapidly turning from agriculture to industry. However, because of the social climate of corruption corners are cut, contractors pay party officials to look the other way, and next thing you know a major earthquake flattens substandard housing. But the corruption continues, because it is good for business in the Chinese culture. And the Chinese know that business is good for China.
So what frightens me most about the United States is the death of Rule of Law. When the Administration breaks contract law to support the UAW in the GMC Bankruptcy, when MF Global is legally allowed to raid customer accounts to pay off debt in total violation of established practice and law, when "Recess Appointments" fail to meet recognized legal standards, we have POWER unconstrained by our Laws. Our civilization is falling apart. Rule of Law is good for business in America, and the only replacement for rule of law is corruption. However multinational corporations have learned how easy it is to operate in a corrupt society like China, do you think they will have any compunction of applying those lessons to a corrupt American Government?
It isn't our "crumbling infrastructure" that makes economic powerhouses like China, India, and Brazil drool with envy that is causing our civilization to fail. It is our rising culture of corruption. Corruption allowing a modern Cesaer to turn the Republic into a Dictatorship.
Now, I believe that you should never assign bad intent to an action when simple incompetence will do.
But right now Americans are worse off economically than any time since the Great Depression. This is creating a culture of reliance on Uncle Sugar. A culture of reliance that is tolerating the obliteration of the Rule of Law one piece at a time.
Of course this time the Barbarians won't invade in a horde from the north. They will emerge from the underbelly of our society. The Crips and the Bloods, the Mafia, the Cartels, each will do their best to attach themselves like life sucking tics to the bloated imobilized behemoth that our society will become. In turn the bloated behemoth will turn into a rotting carcass and the tics will keep order in order to keep the money flowing.
The real losers are the people. Would Cesar have killed himself if he knew his actions would cause the downfall of the Roman Empire? No, in the history of the world very few men seize power only to serve the people. Hate Pinochet all you want, but once he was done putting the country back on course he let go the reins.
The old saying "Rome wasn't built in a day" also has a corrolary "Rome didn't fall in a day" either. The UAW was protected because they had "their man" in power. So far everyone has lost, and the only "redistribution" that has gone on is the spread of poverty to an ever growing population of "the underclass." But we have our bread and circuses. Or as we like to call it "foodstamps and Kardashians."
There are those who believe, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back their claims, that this collapse has been engineered by those who want to "take all the worlds wealth." I don't believe that. I believe that we are in an death spiral of our own creating. Congress buys votes with social programs. Social programs start costing more than Congress can cover. We borrow from China. Social program spending increases. More votes for bread and circuses. The public coffers are dry, and the only question now is will their be real cannibalism as a result of the inevitable collapse?
Our civilization is ending by all the measures that I can see. I cannot see any avenue of saving it that will fly under the current system (we have too many people voting to keep Uncle Sugar handing out the dole). So the question remains, what will replace the current system? If we are smart and put the pieces in place now, we will plant the idea of a Republic and Individual Rights and Responsibilities so deeply in the American psyche that we won't fall into a worse sort of despotism that always seems to follow the fall of an Empire (Rome to Cesaer, France to Napoleon, Russia to Lenin, Germany to Hitler, China to Mao, etc).
This isn't exactly cause for alarm. Many Empires have rebuilt themselves and maintained a national identity and character. The Germans got rid of a Monarchy, built a Republic, turned it into a Dictatorship, then into a Democracy all in the last 120 years. History does march on, even when you are in the middle of making it.