The US in Peril?

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

by Kevin Phillips
Viking, 462 pp., $26.95

Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips; drawing by David Levine

Phillips’s three major threats to the nation are well chosen, and he presents much information about them; but he could usefully have considered other perils to the US as well. The rising cost of health care, for example, is as grave a concern as the three issues on which he concentrates. Unless that system is radically reformed the US will face a future in which growing numbers of people will not receive adequate treatment. The cost of education is on a similar trajectory, as the chances of getting even a minimal education in the poorer neighborhoods become smaller. Similarly urgent are the failures of the economy. Despite rapid increases in productivity, which is historically the source of a rising standard of living, family incomes are not growing. In fact, after the five recent years of economic expansion, median family income is roughly what it was in 1999, even though wages at last rose early this year.

In foreign affairs, one could argue that oil dependency and born-again religion have much influence over this administration’s unfortunate policies. But they cannot alone account for its advocacy of preemptive war and its concerted efforts to update, improve, and build new weapons, including nuclear weapons, for conventional warfare. Bush’s assertion of presidential authority to ignore Congress and authorize wiretapping, torture, and illegal detentions threatens the principles on which America’s republican democracy is based. Phillips does not give these threats the attention they deserve.

Still, the damage being done by the administration’s irresponsible energy policies, more evident by the day, is an appropriate place to begin a book on American ills. Despite its having reduced the use of oil over the past thirty years as a percentage of the nation’s income, America is still by far the world’s largest user of oil, consuming 25 percent of the world’s daily production. Most of this is for transportation. Of the 520 million cars in the world, 200 million are driven in America, while the US makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population. It also has only 3 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves, meaning growing imports are a certainty. Domestic production has been falling for decades.

Drawing on previous history, Phillips argues that the price of oil, now more than $70 a barrel, could go higher than $100 a barrel as worldwide reserves begin to decline. If his predictions come true, this could drive fuel and gasoline prices to levels that could seriously slow down the American economy. At more than $3.00 a gallon today, gasoline prices may soon start restraining economic growth. But long-term forecasting of oil prices has usually been unreliable and overly pessimistic. Of greater concern than dwindling reserves is the increasing demand for energy by newly expanding economies, notably China and India. Prices are now more than double what they were two years ago, and are likely to stay relatively high as…

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