Before the Fall

Piers Brendon, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, wrote an interesting op-ed for yesterday’s New York Times. In it, he points out why those bemoaning—or cheering—the end of American global dominance may be premature. I think the article is an interesting read, and I agree with Brendon’s ultimate conclusion the the American “empire” is not heading for imminent collapse—in the short to mid term. I am less optimistic in the long term.

Brendon points out numerous differences between the Roman and British Empires as they headed towards dissolution and the contemporary American situation, pointing out America’s advantages over these previous imperial hegemons in terms of military superiority and economic and political stability.  American decline, accordingly, is neither predictable nor inevitable from these examples.

Brendon criticizes fellow Brit and Yale historian Paul Kennedy for the inaccuracy of many of his short-term predictions in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In so doing, however, Brendon misses Kennedy’s most important point, which is simply this: All great powers become former great powers.  All dogs may have their day in the sun—and, indeed, may go to heaven—but no dog gets to dominate the global kennel ad infinitum. The question, therefore, is not really “if” the American Empire will end but “when.” The equally important followup question is under what circumstance will this end occur?

Rome fell, ultimately, because of the inability of the Roman political, economic and—as importantly and inseparably linked to the first two—technological systems to expand to encompass the millions of “barbarians” crowding in on its frontiers. With their faces to the window of the Roman world—and its prosperity—these peoples, uninvited to the Roman party simply sought to crash it (and burn it to the ground, in the process.) Once the barbarians rough parity in military technological superiority with the Romans circa the third century AD, the fate of the empire in the west was probably certain. The collapse of Roman hegemony led to The Really Great Depression: the collapse of the Mediterranean market system know as the Dark Ages. It took the European world a millennium to recover. One most hope that the American Empire does not go out with a similar bang.

With 2 billion people living on a dollar or two a day and billions more living on only marginally more, however, such hope is not a certainty. Half of humanity has its nose pressed against the glass of the global banquet the richer half has been enjoying for the last century or so. Like the barbarians of yore, if these poorer people don’t get into this global game, they may be tempted to try and kick it over. The biggest lesson of Saddam Hussein and the case of the missing WMDs is not that a tin-plated third world dictator should aspire to nuclear weapons. That biggest lesson was that, in this the 21st century CE, a tin-plated third world dictator CAN acquire nuclear weapons. The even scarier lesson is that sub-national groups like Al Qaeda MAY and, probably, eventually WILL be able to acquire such weapons as well. America’s wars from Vietnam onwards have shown that superior battlefield technology does not always translate into assured victory and does not prohibit significant costs. Should the destructive capacity of radical groups achieve anything approaching parity with American military technology than America might well find itself in this century in the same situation as Rome. Which, again, would be  a double-plus ungood outcome.

Going out with a polite, chin-thrust-forward-carry-on-wot-wot British-style whimper need also not be the American future.   The British decline, however, has more in common with America’s position that that of the Romans. England was already losing its dominance in industrial production by the turn of the last century. By World War I, England’s role as the global financial hegemon led by the pound sterling as the default global currency replaced industrial output as the most important measure of the Empire’s global economic power. Pound hegemony slipped in the 1920s and crashed permanently in the 1930s, culminating with the replacement of the pound by the dollar as the global anchor currency at Bretton Woods in 1944. Soup to nuts, it took about 50 years for the slide in English industrial and financial hegemony to result in a final fade in its global military and political hegemony.

Though the United States is still the largest industrial economy measured by output, the EU is collectively larger. China holds the title of largest exporter, and its industrial sector continues to expand. Finance, meanwhile, has been the faster growing sector of the American economy and much of America’s continued global economic power comes from the role of the dollar, diminished as that may be against other major currencies, as the continued defacto global currency. By 2050, it is extremely likely that both China and India will have eclipsed the U.S. in industrial output. The ability of the U.S. to maintain the dollar as the global reserve currency while simultaneously dealing with a declining share of global industry, carrying decades worth of accumulated negative balances of payments and with an increasingly aging, cost-intensive and productivity diminished population will become problematic. Over the next half–century, therefore, a scenario in which a gradual decline in American hegemony mirroring that of the English a century before is most plausible. Except that, in America’s case, there is not likely to be a new, friendly emerging global hegemon under whose financial and security umbrellas the fading power might seek refugee. Perhaps the Indians might some day play that role, with American presidents going hat in hand to 7, Race Course Road like British prime ministers to the White House. China seems a less likely to serve as such a munificent benefactor.

Except, again, that the United States may, if it’s both lucky and wise, beat the hangman’s noose Dr. Kennedy (and history) placed around great powers. Until China has had a democratic revolution, the People’s Republic is unlikely to be able to generate enough confidence from the global capitalist class to turn the yuan into a global brand. The EU is still too unstable for the Euro to take this role, and the Yen does not have the domestic demography to pull off the job. The dollar is likely to remain, for decades to come, the global reserve currency if only by default. It will take decades, under the best of circumstances, for either China nor India to generate the economic and military hard power of the U.S. Both countries’ per capita income levels are a fraction of America’s. Nor is it likely that either will be able to eclipse American cultural soft power and capture the hearts and minds (as well as imaginations) of the world’s peoples. (Though Bollywood gives India a much better crack at this than Sino-cinema has).

In short, while Britain had the U.S. to replace it, there is currently no heir in the wings to snatch the American hegemony crown away. Which leaves the barbarian option as a possible trigger of American demise. Or leaves the U.S. with the option of cheating the game and being the last great national power in human history. The U.S. has, since WWII, worked to great a global order based not just on the power of an individual state but upon the rule of international law as established and maintained by international institutions. From the U.N. to the IMF, these global institutions have been America’s baby. Perhaps with more commitment and nurturing, the U.S. can, over the next half century, shape a global-system government by international consent rather than national hegemony. When the time inevitably comes for the U.S. to turn over keys to the global hegemony machine to the next contender (as will happen, be it years, decades or centuries from now) wouldn’t it be nice of that contender is actually a cooperative community of mankind in which Americans play a major and prosperous role?

Americans have been, without question, the luckiest (as in dumb, stupid lucky) people in history. Come on, get real. If Americans couldn’t make a big go of being handed, by quirk of geology and human geography, the biggest, resource-richest unclaimed—but for a few millions of people 4,000 or more years behind on the technological curve—lands on the planet, we’d have had to be the DUMBEST people in history! Americans have also, on the whole, been a relatively wise people. Let us hope that, as the century unfolds, wisdom is not replaced by hubris, least Mr. Brendon’s optimism prove to be unfounded.

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Goodbye Ruby Ridge Tuesday (and Hello Joe Stack Thursday?)

A crazy man with tax trouble and a chip the size of the US debt on his shoulderplows his plane into an IRA office in Austin.

Bloggers on the right immediately (and correctly) react by saying you can’t pin this nutjob on Tea Party anti-tax activists.

Bloggers on the left, off course,  immediately began crowing that the excesses of the anti-Obama, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-stimulus, anti-healthcare reform, anti-fluoridated  Tea Partying  honchos  have come home to roost.

Yes, the more extreme (or is it “mainstream”?–sorry, couldn’t resist) of the  Tea Party activists have been carrying  signs around depicting Obama as a commie fascist and calling  the Federal government an oppressive totalitarian tyranny.  It’s one thing, however, to carry around signs stating stupid things.  It’s another to do a really evil thing and try and kill people with a plane.   Joe Stack was whacked.  That should be the end of it.

It doesn’t help matters when a newbie politician to put his foot in it, forgetting that campaign trail rhetoric doesn’t  always serve the post-campaign world.   Scott Brown’s comments  working the words “people are frustrated” and “no-one likes to pay taxes” into the discussion of Stack’s attack is evidence that behind Brown’s  good looks and successful campaign slogans is possibly a whole lot of empty intellect.  Which makes the junior Senator from Massachusetts a natural addition to what has become the world’s greatest debased debating society.

His–let us just call them “unfortunate”–remarks .  also provide fodder to the left-wing blogosphere trying to link the attack to stupid statements on the right.

Of course many of conservative bloggers  wasted no time in making a similarly specious connection between the nutjob who shot up a US army base and radical Islam and, indeed, Islam in general.  But extrapolating from the deranged actions of the one to the  foolish actions of the few and from there to corned actions of the many does nothing to contribute to a vital national debate on anything.

As, unfortunately is par for the course of current American discourse.

One can only hope that the Stack incident will be allowed to sink into the depths of  forgotten depravity  as is deserved and the Mr. Stack will find the justice he thought he sought in this life in the next.  I don’t think he’d like it very much.

Unless, that is, whackos on the right undermine  conservative bloggers attempts to disassociate the conservative movement from conservative whackos on the right  like Stack.    Eighteen years after a shoot out at Ruby Ridge left  two civilians and one deputy US marshal dead one can still find and buy Ruby Ridge long-sleeve T-shirt  o-line for a pricey thirty bucks.   Randy Weaver is still a folk hero.

So, will Joe Stack’s face start showing up on Tea Partier T-Shirts?  If it does then the movement has gone over the cliff.

Anyone want to start a pool on when the first Joe S. T-Shirts hit the stacks, by the way?

History is (de)Bunk

I am soooo relieved.  The pension crisis is all but resolved.  San Diego fiscal failure is almost certainly now averted.  The SS San Diegotanic, only inches from the belly-ripping ice berg of municipal debt has abruptly changed course and now heads for safe and serene waters.  All, now, is well at last.  At least that’s what your Captain, Gentleman, who told all you passengers on his fiscal ship in last Sunday’s UT.   Thanks to the bold actions of his administration, San Diego (just forty-nine months after his taking office mind you, but a nothing in glacial time) has  enacted the needed reforms  to solve the pension crisis, reign in the costs of government and avoid the false salvation of bankruptcy. 

Indeed, to hear his Honor tell it, its actually been these false prophets of fiscal futility, these nattering nabobs of bankruptcy negativity, who have been holding the City back from the promised land.  “In my view, the bankruptcy con job is nearly as irresponsible as the schemes that dug us into a financial hole in the first place,” Sanders said.  And bravo to that.  It was most certainly that Mike Aguirre (remember him?) and his constant whining about the fact that the pension deficit was getting worse every year despite the claims of the Mayor and the council to the contrary, that meddlesome maniac Mike and his dropping the “B” word in polite conversation, that’s kept San Diego on the fiscal ropes.  It’s been people like Pat Shea—the Igor to Aguirre’s  Dr. Frankenstein building the monster of municipal bankruptcy—who have systematically derailed real change by—gasp—talking about bankruptcy as an option to the City’s woes:

“For too long, progress in closing San Diego’s structural budget deficit has been sidetracked by a disinformation campaign that contends, against all evidence, that the city would be better off if it filed for bankruptcy… But the truth is talk of bankruptcy impedes progress on real substantive pension reform, and it poisons the climate for thoughtful solutions to our structural deficit. “

That’s right.  It hasn’t been the wholesale unwillingness of the Council, the Mayor or the people of San Diego to face fiscal facts and embrace substantial cuts to services and significant increases sources of revenues that’s kept the city out of budgetary whack.  It’s been the discussion of bankruptcy.  Oh, to have back all those hours all of us in San Diego have wasted talking about the dreaded “B.”  Why, its gotten so we can’t even have a discussion around the family dinner table about American Idol without someone or other sidetracking the conversation with a detailed analysis of Orange County’s old bankruptcy filing.  It’s a wonder the Mayor and the Council have had time to get anything else done at all.

Just one small point, though.  What is it that has changed since I talked about the danger of bankruptcy  here, here, here or even here that has actually changed in real terms over the Mayor’s watch?   How is the city budget and the pension plan on a truly more sustainable path than it was when Dick “Such a Lousy Thing to Happen To Such A Nice Guy” Murphy was being run out of town on a rail?  But, of course, as the Mayor says, any lingering fiscal unpleasantries  should be laid at doorstep of those suggesting a discussion of Plan B. 

Me thinks His Mayoralship does protest too much.  Why should Sanders go out of his way to bring up and bash the bankruptcy option—an option he pretty much says he settled back with his election in ’05 and reelection in ’08—unless that option really is potentially back on the table in a big way. 

But at least San Diegans can take solace. George W. Bush may have been the decider but Jerry Sanders is the “Debunker,” taking on all rival narratives to his overarching theme that it’s morning in San Diego.   Thank goodness. Now we can go proudly into the future completely forgetting about the past.  By golly,.  Jerry Sanders is our own Henry Ford.