Late Soviet America

In fact, many aspects of America’s current annus horribilis recall the final years of the Soviet Union, starting with the intensification of social and political conflict. In the Soviet case, long-suppressed ethnic rivalries and competing national aspirations quickly bubbled to the surface, pushing the entire country toward violence, secession, and disintegration. In the US, Trump’s response to nationwide protests against racism, police brutality, and inequality has been to stoke further the country’s historic racial divide. And, like statues of Lenin during the collapse of the Soviet empire, statues of Confederate leaders are being toppled just about everywhere.

Another parallel concerns the economy. The Soviet Union had a large, complicated planning and resource-allocation apparatus that attracted the society’s best-educated people, only to consign them to unproductive and frequently destructive tasks. The US has Wall Street. To be sure, America’s vast financial-services sector is not the equivalent of Gosplan (the Soviet State Planning Commission), but it does frequently extract value rather than create it, and thus will inevitably be part of any debate about the allocation of resources.

Up until the moment the Soviet system collapsed, very few thought it could actually happen. In assessing the state of the American system, it is important to remember that economists are not very good at prediction. The entire discipline relies on extrapolating from contemporary conditions on the assumption that the underlying fundamentals of what is being analyzed will not change.