Issue #25, Summer 2012

The Coming Resource Wars

To read the other essays in the “Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics” symposium, click here.

Asking where our politics will be in 2024 can be reduced to a simpler question: What will we still be fighting about in 2024? And on the flip side, what fights will we all have gotten tired of? I’ll take a crack at that shortly, but first here are six trends that I think are likely to continue for the next dozen years and beyond.

Trend #1: America will continue getting older. Today about 13 percent of the population is over age 65. Within 20 years this will be close to 20 percent.

Trend #2: Unless the Supreme Court overturns it, Obamacare will soon be solidly entrenched and well on its way to becoming as popular as any of the big New Deal programs. This means the social welfare state started by FDR and extended by LBJ will finally be more or less complete.

Trend #3: Slower economic growth is going to be the norm. Partly this will be due to the aging of America, partly to global energy constraints, and partly to plateauing educational achievement. From 1940 through 1980, the number of high school graduates doubled from 40 percent to more than 80 percent, and the number of college graduates skyrocketed from 5 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the past three decades, however, both have grown only a few percentage points.

Trend #4: The fact of climate change will become undeniable. The effects of global warming, discernible today mostly in scary charts and mathematical models, will start to become obvious enough in the real world that even the rightest of right wingers will be forced to acknowledge what’s happening.

Trend #5: The Republican Party will continue to become ever more dependent on the white vote, while the Democratic Party will depend ever more on minorities.

Trend #6: Computational horsepower, even if Moore’s Law doesn’t hold up forever, is going to continue growing, with benefits accruing mostly to the well educated and to owners of capital. This may not lead to true artificial intelligence by 2024, but it will certainly lead to much more intelligent artifices. The uneven distribution of benefits means that income inequality is likely to keep growing, and high school graduates are going to fall ever further behind.

So what does this all mean? With the usual caveats taken—world events can change things, anything can happen, etc.—here are some guesses.

One: Certain aspects of the culture wars will heat up. In particular, thanks to the increasingly polarized demographics of the two main political parties, fights over immigration and race may well be even more acrimonious than they are today.

Two: Some other aspects of the culture wars will start to fade away. This has always been a generational fight among children of the 1960s, and as the boomer generation ages, the battles will start to run out of steam. By 2024, fights over gay marriage will seem as antique as fights over mixed-race marriage seemed by the 1990s. Drug legalization will become more widely accepted, and even abortion politics may start to fade, perhaps with a shaky consensus on the European model, which generally allows most abortions between 12-24 weeks and forbids them after that.

Three: At the same time that the generational fight over values starts to cool off, the generational fight over resources will heat up. Partly this will be because of the increase in the elderly population. Partly it will be because of slower growth and the increasing stagnation of the working class. And partly it will be because the parties will be increasingly split by age group.

Four: With national health care steadily putting down roots, fights over the expansion of the welfare state will largely die off. With all the big-ticket items in place, the economy growing slowly, and health-care spending continuing to rise, there won’t be any appetite for big expansions even among Democrats.

Five: As a result, we can expect increasingly vicious fights over how to divide the existing pie. With slow growth, declining opportunity for the modestly educated, and an expanding elderly population, interest-group protection of existing perks and programs for the working-age population will become the primary battleground of domestic politics.

Six: Energy policy and national-security policy will become more and more intertwined and important. Constrained energy supplies combined with climate change will produce more frequent resource wars, many of which the United States will take sides in. Proxy fights with other major powers, along with American occupation of foreign countries that have newfound strategic value, may become a routine part of our future.

This is a fairly bleak picture. But it seems likely given current demographic trends, current energy trends, and our worsening political paralysis. That last is important, though, because things don’t have to turn out this way. If we recognize the natural effect of increased computing power on the fortunes of the working class and commit ourselves to responding in a fair-minded way, and then combine this with a serious devotion to renewable energy, resource wars could fade away instead of dominating our future, and economic growth could reach its postwar levels once again.

I’m not sure how likely I think this more positive alternate future is. It will probably happen eventually regardless of what we do. But if we recognize it now, and start preparing for it instead of continuing to fight over the reactionary dreams of the Tea Party, we could get there a lot faster and with a whole lot less pain.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

The Looming Showdown by Peter Orszag

Read More »


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

The Looming Showdown by Peter Orszag

Read More »
Issue #25, Summer 2012
Post a Comment



Rising inequality, deeper tribal divide, constrained resources, endless war...


A Pony.

I agree with your analysis. The alternate ending is not credible, and does not follow logically....

Jun 12, 2012, 1:28 PM
Keith G:
Slower economic growth is going to be the norm. Partly this will be due to ... plateauing educational achievement.
Kevin, I want you to bust out some of your famous ability with charts and show how this will play out. I hear this notion echo around a bit as cliched conventional wisdom, but I have doubts.

This is not the 1960s . Let's say we can increase our STEM degree rates by between 5-10% per year, Show me the math(s) that such increases in degree rates lead us to stronger economic growth.

Also, my hunch is that one reason HS grad rates have dropped is that so many schools have turned to the assumption that if they force feed college prep on all students, more will go to college. Maybe, but my assumption is that without vocational ed options many kids get really frustrated and take a hike.

I think that there is nowhere near as much marginal utility being gained by the next unit of college educated kids as there was a generation ago.

A degree is a great individual accomplishment, but I fear the national ROI is trending down.

Jun 12, 2012, 2:36 PM
Dan Miller:

@Keith G--doesn't that lead to the same conclusion as Kevin, though? Either educational attainment is increasing slower than it used to, or else even large increases in educational attainment will no longer increase economic growth as fast as it once did. Either way, it leads to slower growth.

Jun 12, 2012, 4:06 PM
Sean Alan:

@Dan M. , I think what Keith G. is saying is economic growth is a function of something other than how many graduate. He says , what is an important factor is trade education in High School. That higher academics are unsatisfactory to a large population of young people, so they drop from intensely college oriented programs which are most of HS, now and have been. I think the understanding here is that THAT KIND OF EDUCATION will profoundly effect economic growth. Small business and manufacture should be the major contributors to a healthy and stable economy. and i think the middle class and young people know that implicitly, especially now that satisfaction employment is fading fast.

Jun 12, 2012, 4:44 PM
Keith G:

@Sean: Yes that is basically what I was getting at. How many more engineers (of all types) per 100,000 do we need?

I recently saw a film clip advocating the need for more engineers. Its evidence of such demand was a manufacturing company where assembly lines of dozens of low skill workers was replaced by robotics supervised by one engineer and three assistants.

I just do not see the evidence that we need to produce engineers at a rate much higher than replacement rate - as one example.

I do not think that the depth or width of our educational output has been a primary driver of economic growth lately and all things being more or less held constant, I do not see it being a significant driver in the future.

Jun 12, 2012, 7:56 PM
Evil Overlord:

I'd add that by 2024, our tortured 1st amendment religion jurisprudence will be preparing to blow up in our faces. Christians have fought long and hard to give (their) religion a privileged place in American society, despite the Constitution. "Ceremonial deism", special exemptions, state support - all of this will suddenly look different to them as the share of the electorate with different religions, or different versions of Christianity, grow and begin to demand similar treatment.

I suspect that by 2024, one of the important fights will be about rebuilding the wall of separation between church and state that so many are now working so hard to tear down.

Jun 13, 2012, 10:41 AM

The only pint I would quibble with is that we may very well be energy independent in 10 to 15 years due to efficiency gains and natural gas discoveries.

Jun 14, 2012, 11:17 AM
Dave Thomas:

#1- Institute a much freer immigration policy to offset the aging population. Also reduce the tax burden on married couples who produce the next generation. How many decades have we had the marriage penalty.
#2 Obamacare will lead to the same type of horrendous rationing and substandard care that is evident in Canada, Britain, and all over Europe accompanied by the inescapable fiscal unsustainability. Medical services made up 6% of GDP before Medicare and Medicaid, but not constitutes 17% of GDP. Government is not the solution to medial care. The answer is ending the third party payee system that destroys the link between the consuming patient knowing the exact cost of the charges from the supplying doctor. The only medical procedures that see a decrease in their costs are the ones insurance doesn't cover, like elective cosmetic surgery. Go figure, the market works.

#3 Slower economic growth is only the norm if government crowds out the private sector. Reduce the size of government at all levels with its wasteful overhead and receive vibrant economic growth from the private sector. The historical examples are endless.
#4- pure speculation
#5- Exanding the pie is the only answer. Malthus predicted slow growth as the norm in 1798 and it is astonishing that Kevin ignores the three centuries of stupendous growth that totally refuted him to be another discredited Malthusian.
#6. There is absolutely no energy shortage. Just a shortage of energy production and extraction due to government intervention driven by a slow growth agenda.

As far as income inequality the IRS statistics show that 50% of the top 1% in 2000 had fallen by 2010. This gaining and losing of wealth and income was also shown to pervade the IRS statistics in all income levels. So social mobility is the rule in the American economy not monolithic class stagnation. People improve and diminish their own economic situations every day, and the hollow rhetoric that claims the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor is a fantasy that ignores the factual evidence that is available at

Jun 14, 2012, 2:09 PM

"As far as income inequality the IRS statistics show that 50% of the top 1% in 2000 had fallen by 2010. "

This sentence is lacking something. I assume that it means that 50% of those in the top 1% in 2000 were not in the top 1% in 2010.

This doesn't mean much. If somebody is bouncing along in the top few %, they're still richer than 95% of the US population in a *bad* year.

Jun 27, 2012, 10:13 AM

The coming war will be between the producers and the takers. We are nearing the point where 51% of the voting populaton lives on government handouts. They will not vote to cut off their source of food, clothing, shelter, health care, entertainment, etceteras, and will continue to vote socialist (let's call it what it is). The 49% who are expected to support them will eventually give up. Either the takers will force the producers into slavery, or the producers will kill the takers. That war will be fought in the streets and it's going to be ugly.

Aug 31, 2012, 10:24 AM
mike keels:

nothing is for certain ,just to many factors unseen we can only hang on as a very young species and hope someday to make it off this rock,together,

Nov 24, 2012, 5:42 AM
Lee Luhrs:

As a conservative I must say I agree with your trend analysis. My hope is that technology will make more resources available and that we really start to tackle global climate change

Dec 27, 2012, 12:56 PM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.