Rethinking America, Richter Scale

The United States as a Failing State?

A country’s success or failure must be measured against its inherent potential.

Credit: argus -


  • A country's success or failure has to be measured against that nation's inherent potential.
  • When measured against its potential, the US must indeed be considered a failing state.
  • To view the US through the same lens as Somalia does a disservice to both the US and to Somalia.
  • US elites live in a splendid bubble, immune to the frustration and destitution of ever more of the population.
  • The wallet is there, but not the will. The money is in the country to fix many issues.
  • The old racism has morphed into color-blind classism.
  • Literal thinkers will state categorically that the US, unlike Somalia and Afghanistan, does not have warlords.
  • Lateral thinkers understand that warlords can also exist at a much higher level of economic development.

The very title used to beg disbelief – until now. We have all heard of “failed states” – the Somalias, Chads and, quite possibly, Iraqs and Afghanistans of this world.

They are, in fact, easy pickings. Even so, in the Washington think tank world, the “failed states” concept has great currency — no doubt because it might indicate fertile ground for terrorists.

But can one seriously refer to the United States in a similar fashion? The answer, it turns out, depends on what your yardstick is. More specifically, should the assessment be made by measuring a state against its potential? Or does it only come into play when there are clear signs of the total collapse of civic order?

What complicates the analysis is that states don’t fail overnight. And their collapse may not be obvious. The seeds of their own destruction may be sown deeply within the fabric of their political institutions.

Properly understood, what makes the contemporary United States a possible candidate for a failed state is to measure where it now finds itself against the nation’s inherent potential.

Very few countries have as large an amount of natural factor endowment as the United States. To be sure, its natural riches and other assets provide a strong buffer, making it much less likely that the country will ever fail outright.

By the same token, a country endowed with great natural beauty and other riches may be tempted to act rather recklessly and actively undermine its potential. Recent U.S. events, like recent episodes such as the complete shutdown of the federal government and near default on U.S. debt over political disputes, clearly attest to that danger.

15 items in urgent need of fixing

Look at this stunning list of shortcomings:

1. Washington, the U.S. capital, is riveted with a forbidding level of political infighting that mirrors how deeply divided the country is, not least across the urban/rural divide.

2. The U.S. Civil War in the 21st century may be fought out in a very different territory than Somalia’s, but it is not really that much more forgiving. Plenty of people even get shot.

3. For all its riches and for all the celebration of the civil rights era, the United States still has to overcome the legacy of racism. For evidence, look no further than the incarceration rates of young black males.

4. Also look at the blight of the downtown areas of some of America’s formerly proudest and richest cities. Think Detroit, Cleveland or Chicago. There are entire parts of these cities that are “no go” zones.

5. All that misery is certainly not because too little money is available in the United States to fix these issues. The wallet is there, but not the will.

6. The United States also still suffers from the belief that only short-term strategies can fix its problems, including when it comes to education and training.

7. It is mainly Republicans who resist any systematic efforts to tackle this and other challenges. They facilely declare them as “socialism,” while deluding themselves with the quaint idea that “being American” is enough to succeed.

8. Despite a lot of entrepreneurialism, on the two big challenges of our time – energy and the environment – Americans have come up with plenty of ideas, but at least so far with no real policy or successful track record either with regard to innovation or investment.

9. The country remains astonishingly wedded to the promotion of feudalist economic values. Politicians of both parties are remarkably eager to serve the upper crust. Seeking to counteract the market-driven excesses of further increases in income inequality always takes second place – if it is tried at all.

10. Hispanics continue to be considered an inconvenient afterthought across much of the nation. If prudence and an ounce of longer-term thinking prevailed, they would be the focal point of social and economic planning for the future, given the importance of the Hispanic demographic for a viable U.S. economic future.

11. Workers of all colors are often still treated as aliens – and unions even worse. In the supposedly refined American capitalism, those who hold the economic and financial power basically still hold to an inimical view of the workforce. Worse, people in the workforce are often viewed as disposable assets.

12. For decades, middle-class Americans wanted to convince themselves, and were convinced by their politicians, that the problem for the United States was just a black underclass. How wrong that was. Economic destitution is an equal opportunity destroyer, regardless of race. The old racism has morphed into color-blind classism.

13. For a nation this rich, closing one’s eyes and letting poverty fester is as irresponsible as it is shortsighted. It is also extremely cynical. The same elites that celebrate America’s vitality also point to U.S. population growth. They interpret it as an indicator of future growth potential and a reason for optimism. However, many elites shy away from helping those groups to be properly equipped to become a productive part of the future workforce.

14. That matters greatly. After all, over 50% of new babies are born to minority families, minorities are becoming the country’s new non-white majority. Many of them are in the bottom third of the U.S. income distribution.

15. U.S. elites and many Republicans alike ignore the fact, especially critical under these circumstances, that well-functioning and well-resourced public schools are the key to maximizing these youngsters’ future potential. Witness the politicians in virtually every U.S. state who fight hard to keep these immigrant kids out (!) of community colleges. Arguing that these young people are stealing precious education dollars from Americans is not only blatantly selfish. Over the long haul, it is downright self-defeatist.

Literal vs. lateral thinkers

Literal thinkers will state categorically that the United States, unlike Somalia and Afghanistan, does not have warlords. Lateral thinkers, in contrast, would question that assertion. They understand that warlords can also exist at a much higher level of economic development. And for evidence, they would point to the way in which Republicans now operate in Washington and many state capitals.

A country can be destitute simply because it happens to be located in a God-forsaken place on earth. But it may not be failing, owing to great human efforts of its people to beat the admittedly long odds.

The United States, in its current constitution, seems to be adamant about showing the polar opposite – that even very rich and well-endowed nations can be on track of failing. Who would have ever thought that even imaginable?

This feature was updated by the author in June 2015.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter, from Berlin, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

Responses to “The United States as a Failing State?”

Archived Comments.

  1. On October 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm JD Bindenagel responded with... #

    Here are some helpful thoughts in addressing the fundamental issues on the points you have been making.

    American politics are dysfunctional because a minority is pursuing anti-democratic
    procedures. Under the constitution designed to ensure majority governance with
    respect toward minorities, these anti-democratic procedures are undermining
    democracy in the U.S. They include the House “Hastert” rule used by the Speaker
    to block votes in the House unless supported by a majority of the majority
    party, the misuse of the Senate filibuster, the cloture rule, a single senator’s
    ability to place a hold on a presidential appointment, and other parliamentary
    procedures that also deny the Senate majority from debate and voting. To that
    list partisan gerrymandering of election districts, either to favor a single
    political party or to create a safe seat for an incumbent, along with voter
    suppression distort the popular vote and allow a minority of the popular vote to
    govern as a majority. The Democrats won 1.5 million more votes for current House
    of Representatives, but the Republicans have a majority of the seats,
    undermining the one-man-one vote principle of our own democracy. These are
    issues that need to be addressed. Policy differences are not the problem; these
    anti-democratic procedures are.

    The tyranny of this minority has damaged America’s employment, prosperity and waged a war on the poor. We cannot afford further attacks on our government, which as Lincoln noted is of, by and for the people, not a minority. The founding fathers protected the minority in setting up our government; we now need to protect us from the minority.

  2. On October 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm Matt responded with... #

    Apparently the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. The US suffers a major crisis about 80 to 100 years since the beginning of the last crisis period. The last being from 1925 to 1945. Before that was the civil war. Before that was the revolutionary war. The latest crisis period going from 2005 to 2025.

    It’s not just the US either. Other areas moving toward some kind of crisis include Russia, China, Japan and the EU.

    It’s nice that you effectively blame the right for everything. How much longer will the US be able to borrow one trillion dollars a year just to stay even? The party is almost over regardless of the right.

    Finally, in essence the left punishes the successful and rewards the failed. Let’s meet in the middle where no one is better or worse than any other. So we’re all transformed into interchangeable bricks from stones, and people are just meat. Today you can already see people treating others like meat, except we aren’t bricky enough. The left needs to work a little harder to complete the transformation.

  3. On October 18, 2013 at 5:13 pm Craig Campbell responded with... #

    Who would have thought it? The Soviet Union fell are we next. Will we become a gangster state?

  4. On October 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm 20eric responded with... #

    Some, a lot of Americans have yet to learn the
    basic difference between raw Capitalism and Socialism. The first is based on
    the natural me, me, me factor not unlike animals, while the second brings a
    human element into the picture that recognises our inherent differences,
    abilities and failures. Alas, to spread that message requires an open mind, compassion and a decent education, something that seems to bypass about half the population in
    the US.