This financial crisis is the transition to a new world; like birth, it is painful

Summary:   This is an attempt to gain a historical perspective on our time, speculation about our present and future — seen in terms of past cycles.

Here is a surefire way to get economists’ attention:   tell them that we are only in the second “inning” of this downturn.  Their incredulity results from belief that the trough is near — with the recovery (fast or slow) starting this Fall or Winter.

Perhaps.  Posts on this site describe an alternative view, that the post-WWII era has ended.  We have entered a transitional period.  This has been the pattern of modern history. 

  • The old world ended with American and French Revolutions,
  • followed by a transitional period called the Napoleonic Wars. 
  • The “British Century” — aka the “long peace” — began with Congress of Vienna in 1815,  
  • then crashing and burning in 1914 (WWI).
  • Then came another transitional period, lasting 30 years until 1945, followed by
  • the “American century” lasting 60 years (almost a century if dated from our entry into WWI),
  • aborted by demographic trends and feckless mis-management of our domestic finances.

We can only guess about the duration and difficulty of this transition to a new world order, and the nature of the new global system.  These periods are like singularities — like birth itself.  The passage is painful, and one has no idea what awaits on the other side.

The fall of the British Empire, a victim of failing social cohesion

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VlI of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.

After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

—  The opening of The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

The “British century” — its period as global hegemon — ended in part due to internal dissension.  The rebellion of Ireland (started in 1916, the embers still burning today) and class “warfare” weakened the UK’s cohesion and its ability to respond to threats.  Even during WWII Ireland remained neutral (the UK desperately needed its ports), while strikes damaged its already war-wrecked economy. 

This poor social cohesion contributed to it having one of the slowest recoveries from WWII in Europe.  (West Germany ended food rationing in 1948.  In Britain it became stricter (bread rationing began in 1946), ending in only 1954. 

It is a common story for nations.  Growing fractures in social cohesion brought many South American countries from prosperity in mid-century to poverty by the century’s end.  By social cohesion I mean the ability to work together under stress, usually resulting from shared beliefs and goals.

About America

Some future historian might pick some event in 2000 to mark the end of the American century, some spectacle of American confidence and power following the fall of the Soviet Union and the inflating of the tech bubble.  It was a brief moment of world hegemony.

America has been weakened by the cumulative burden of  our foolish errors during the past 40 years (starting in the late 1960’s, with the weakening of the Bretton Woods system, race wars, and Viet Nam — plus our disastrously poor responses to all three problems.  Still, we retain our core strengths: 

  • a hard-working, innovative, people
  • a largely free-market economy (these things are relative)
  • a strong republican government (as in “republic”, not the party)

However, something might have changed in America during the past generation or so.

What’s happening in America?

Is something similar happening in America?  Consider the following.

  • Rising cynicism towards government, a loss of confidence in its honesty and efficacy.
  • Rising alienation, reaching near total levels in some minority communities.

And in turn the government may becoming alienated from its people.  As seen by…

  • the steady increase in the ranks of government employees who are armed, and
  • the massive expansion of SWAT teams, and the grim toll of deaths they reap each year, often when delivering warrants (see here for details).

Two trends to watch:

  1. Fading allegiance to the Constitution, and decreased willingness to fight in its defense.
  2. The US is rapidly becoming a multi-ethnic society — and these seldom show high degrees of cohesion.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts about the Constitution and our government:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008

57 thoughts on “This financial crisis is the transition to a new world; like birth, it is painful

  1. Glubb would probably say that Britain fell because it played out its imperial lifecycle from the defeat of the Armada through the Victorian flowering, and failed to heed the lessons of how earlier empires fell due to overextension and enervation. The loss of internal cohesion in Ireland and more recently Scotland is the imperial movie playing backwards, as internal consolidation is the phase before fighting it out with major global rivals for dominance. The fall of the crowned heads of Europe actually began with our revolution, then the French one, and was delayed by the Conference of Vienna and capitalist distraction, until they were so discredited by WWI and its insane carnage that the system could not stand.

    Technology seems to have hastened everything about the US, and but for the Constitution we would probably be doomed to playing out the same cycle as the British but on steroids. However, we do have the ability to learn from the history of empires and avoid their fate, and it is possible that technology could assist us in doing so rather than hastening our demise… technology seems to be a value-neutral intensifier.

    Doubters of the Obama phenomenon should at least be willing to admit that he is making both conscious efforts and perceptible headway in reversing the trends of cynicism, minority alienation, and the like. Those who doubt his sincerity or efficacy a priori, which will have self-fulfilling effects as always, will take at most cold comfort if they are right, as that would be bad for the country they claim to want to succeed.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What evidence is there that “{Obama} is making both conscious efforts and perceptible headway in reversing the trends of cynicism, minority alienation, and the like.”

  2. The section “What’s happening in America” really ought to give some mention to the Intertubes. While I would not dispute the point about rising alienation amongst minority communities, particularly non-English speakers, I submit that people locating like-minded others.

    For example, a rally on 23 May 2009 in DC might be of interest to the readers of this blog/

    We need only enter a new dark/feudal age through collective indifference.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Improved communication technology can build cohesion — or weaken it, by increasing cohesion among groups within the whole. As usual, technology cuts both ways for vital social dynamics.

  3. I dont disagree with the general thesis here, that a global economic regime, led by America, is coming to an end, and a multi-polar world is taking its place.

    This has nothing to do with a failure of character, loss of belief in the Constitution, or shift of the population toward multi-ethnicity. These are red-herrings disguising deep structural factors like falling rates of profit starting in the seventies, shrinking areas for investment, outsourcing, deregulation, privatization, special tax treatments — and many other measures which attempted to stem the tide of falling profitability. The final phase of these was the bubble economy, now crashing, based on inflated valuations and lax standards of credit..

    If Americans consumed unwisely, it was because the economy needed them to. The whole system of popular culture, including education, changed to promote these habits. Political leaders simply went along, following the dictates of their donors, making palatable what was in fact a slowly moving shafting of the American worker.

    The majority of us simply live from day to day, taking care of what we have to, getting whatever in the way of pleasure we can. Very few have the time to think about how they are governed, what their leaders are really doing. We do, on this site, but can’t really blame the rest for not.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “The economy needed them to.” Sounds like a an old sci-fi b-movie. When will “the economy” crawl thru the streets, Fay Dunaway gripped in its talons? Can we stop it, regaining control of our fair land?

  4. Don’t worry. It will all be moot soon: “Slippery Slope: Ice Age Cometh in Five Years“, By Philip V. Brennan, Newsmax, 3 February 2009 — Brennan is a veteran journalist and World War II Marine who writes for Newsmax.com. He is editor and publisher of Wednesday on the Web (http://www.pvbr.com) and was Washington columnist (Cato) for National Review magazine in the 1960s. He is a trustee of the Lincoln Heritage Institute and a member of the Association for Intelligence Officers.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I prefer the Road Runner shows when watching the Looney Tunes channel.

  5. Is this not, perhaps, also conflated with the decline (and soon, perhaps, disappearance) of the state as the dominant institutional model?

    If so (and I would argue so) we need to find new primary loyalties, as well as new means of assuring ecological integrity, democratic / distributed governance, livelihood and security.

    Finally, this is a global reality, not simply what’s happening in / to America. Time for new structures to emerge.

  6. Your description makes the situation sound as though people have changed their attitudes as a result of whim, or perhaps because they’re spoiled or infantile. The reality seems a little different.

    Social cohesion toward state and federal governments and respect for the law in America is distingegrating because of a huge rise in the number of crazy and unsustainable laws and fines, mainly as a thinly disguised form of legalized banditry by the federal and state and local authorities.

    For example, the $3000 traffic ticket is now becoming commonplace. The banditry conducted by muggers with badges is so outrageous that judges are condemning these crazy laws, as for example in the case where single mother Jammie Thomas was recently found guilty and sentenced to pay $200,000 for downloading a couple of songs over the internet. (The judge in that case announced that “The Court would be remiss if it did not take this opportunity to implore Congress to amend the Copyright Act to address liability and damages in peer-to-peer network cases such as this…”)

    These crazy laws have gotten so far out of control that ordinary law abiding citizens are now starting to rebel. We’re now seeing signs that whole states are rebelling.

    As long as corporate thieves and greedy corrupt Pentagon and drug war and prison-industrial complex bureaucrats are given carte blanche to write laws that serve only to enrich themselves while impoverishing and brutalizing the ordinary American for no sensible reason, disaffection from and mass resistance to government will grow. At some point, if the situation isn’t rectified, there’ll be a social explosion. People are not going to tolerate $3000 traffic tickets or 50-year-old husbands getting deployed to a hopeless lost war in Iraq in the midst of a major depression.

  7. When I first read a review of Van Creveld’s “Transformation of War”, it concluded that “you would not like” his conclusions about where our societies are going. I didn’t; and having to agree with them didn’t help matters any either.

    For some reason I have always been fascinated (and alarmed) by turns with the concept of political legitimacy. I would suggest that the fund of it in the US has been prodigally squandered over the last 40 years, and that there is precious little of it to go around now. A classical scholar could probably make interesting connections with individual and collective virtue, and I would be inclined to agree with him.

    We certainly have our work cut out for us.

  8. A multi-polar world will not be stable for long under capitalism. The end of dollar hegemony would be a very bad thing. It would start a series of turf wars with nuclear weapons in the mix. The Chinese know this too, that’s why you won’t see them dumping dollars on a destabilizing basis.

    How many people died in WW 1 and 2 ? The last transitional period.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You’re guessing. Why not guess about pleasant outcomes, since we have no basis for our guesses (a sample set of one means zip).

  9. I actually think the US is doing all right with the multi-ethnic part. Most kids, and people under 30 have no problems with it. ‘Mixed’ relationships are almost the norm. It’s just some old-timers who are a little uncomfortable.

  10. All that and no mention of Gramsci, the disintegrative effects of industrialism (post-modernism and modernism?) or the loss / intentional destruction of traditional morality. Hmmmm… Methinks you have identified the symptoms but not the underlying disease.

  11. I don’t WANT to have “cohesion” with an overlord class that seeks at every turn to control me, belittle me, regulate me, cheat on its taxes, take 50+% of my marginal income, and to top it off, expect me and my children to pay more and more and more FOR THE REST OF TIME to bail out a bunch of criminals who should be in jail.

    And I don’t want “cohesion” with a Democrat-welcomed ever-growing slew of resource-consuming illegal aliens and their sociopathic g*ddamn gang-member children.

    The fault lies in your basic assumption that we should have all this “It-Takes-a-Village” cohesion in the first place. Robert Frost had it right: “Fences make good neighbors.”

    I want to be LEFT ALONE. I especially want my income to be left alone.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Ah, the cry of aristo’s and Bourgeoisie throughout history: “I especially want my income to be left alone.”

    “‘Tisn’t morals, ’tis money that saves,
    Shall we dance to the sound of the profitable pound?”

    Of course you don’t want cohesion, because you have no idea what loss of cohesion means for a society. Close your eyes really tightly and you can avoid seeing the history of Latin America, the decline and fall of its rich and peacefuly nations. Ignore anyone humming the tunes of Evita!

  12. I once read an analysis of the fall of both the Roman and British empires. The core to this conversation was 1) a disconnect between the responsibilities and direction of those in power and 2) a desire within the society to accept and include social/moral standards outside of those that made the nations as strong as they once were. The people became focused on themselves over community. It does sound familiar.

  13. The analogy is the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In sum, the people decided to build a tower tall enough to reach God, God didn’t much cotton to the idea and so made the people all speak different languages. The people could no longer talk to each other and so their society dissolved, collapsed, whatever. Cruise around to the various bloggers, Left and Right, and read what they are saying, and then more importantly read the comments thereto.

    We no longer speak the same language. Not even close.

  14. The scales have fallen from my eyes on the US constitution, which I used to revere, in the strictest sense of that word. I admire George Bush, but in defending him from charges that he shredded the constitution, I realized, not that he did, but that the president has basically unlimited powers in times of war. “Commander in chief” does not have a congressional kibitzing clause. As well, the looting of the treasury by the current Congress is perfectly allowed as Congress has absolute power in that area. Not to mention that the first and second amendments are widely interpreted to mean the opposite of what they plainly say, it is clear that with the right judge interpreting it, the US constitution is the communist manifesto. I am done with it. Won’t vote again.

    Not that I think that there is a better system out there.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The Founders would be astonished at your view of the Constitution. I suggest you look at the posts listed in the FM Reference Page “America – how can we reform it?“, esp section I “About the Constitution and our government”.

  15. The British Empire began in 1497 with the Newfoundland colony being set up and is thought to have ended with the handover of HongKong to China in July 1997, making a good round 500 years. All past empires seem to have lasted around 500 years. Sometimes the same people set up a new empire when the old one ends; such as the surfacing of the Mongol Empire in India as the Mughal Empire. The secodnary empires also last on average another 5 centuries.
    So it would be interesting to know why the American empire is thought to have reached a terminal stage. The British people set up a huge Navy and Cannons, and dominated the world militarily and diplomatically, with the focus being mainly on diplomacy and trade first; and political colonization later.
    The American Empire is still just a toddler trying to find its feet, less than a century old. It will last another 4 centuries at least till the point of its final decline.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Your description of the British Empire is a bit much. There was little to the Empire before 1600, and little remaining after 1960. It was a hegemon for only a century, which is the sense I discuss in this post.

    You might as well start the clock on the American empire with the purchase of Louisiana, and end it at some distant date when we give Hawaii back to the natives.

  16. Do you think what really brings down the U.S. is simply the weight of all its laws?

    It simply nearly impossible for any of us not to be criminals–that is why they say you should ALWAYS exercise your right to remain silent, even if you’re not the one being accused of a crime and are only being called upon to testify. How can you feel cohesion when you might be prosecuted at anytime for a crime you didn’t know you did?

    I’ve seen so much evil done in the last two years by corrupt local prosecutors and CPS in my husband’s hometown in Indiana…it makes me afraid to leave my own neighborhood of Chicago. Sure, its really corrupt here, but we have deep connections–one degree of separation from Mayor Daley, and that gives some (possibly false) comfort.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The excess of laws is IMO a symptom of more serious and deeper problems. It was a concern of the Founders, as described in The Federalist Papers #62:

    “The Senate will not only provide stability in government, it will reduce the tendency of the House to pass too many laws. Unnecessary legislation produces chaos and favors the wealthy. The people cannot be expected to keep up with too many new laws and regulations; farmers and merchants will be reluctant to start new business ventures if they feel that new regulations will hurt their investments.”

  17. One of the major forces favoring social cohesion is the perception of an external threat that has the power to cost individuals in the group more than the cost of belonging to the group.

    The Bush administration knew that well and attempted to exploit it first with building up China as a military threat and then 9/11. The knee-jerk patriotism after 9/11 was everything they could ask for until it started wearing off in 2006.

    One has to wonder if the current administration need a similar threat to prevent the US from falling apart in a few years if the current economic downturn persists.

    On a side note, FM is concerned about the US becoming a multi-cultural nation. We were a VERY multicultural nation because of immigration until 1930’s (roughly a generation after the immigration floodgates were closed). The key factors keeping the US together back then was that people generally wanted to be here and everything was so loose and disconnected that there was emotional room for all of the different cultures. I cannot say whether these conditions persist today.
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    Fabuis Maximus replies: One thing distinguishing us from previous generations of Americans is their concern about the machinery of society. Those waves of immigrants were peacefully assimilated in part due to a comprehensive (and somewhat coercive) effort by private and governmental organizations. Now we expect the same result, but without bothering to make it happen. I suspect we will be disappointed.

  18. So it would be interesting to know why the American empire is thought to have reached a terminal stage.

    Wishful thinking by liberal academics. The US is trying to establish an empire without being imperial. It will eventually succeed where others have never ventured if only because no one else can succeed them and they will not tolerate a Dark Age, much as the academics yearn for one.

  19. Have you read “The Fourth Turning” by Howe and Strauss? They discuss a generational cycle of crises and highs. According to their cycle we are at the end of an”unravelling” period and entering a crisis period. During an Unravelling cynicism, lack of civic participation, and unwillingness to sacrifice a little for the greater good are paramount. However, during a Crisis the national mood changes.

    I think the present administration is following the politics of the Unravelling. I don’t think, at least I hope, that they are not uniting the country for their policies, since there policies will destroy us.

    Take a look at the book. It would be interesting to hear your view on it.

  20. FM: “What evidence is there that “{Obama} is making both conscious efforts and perceptible headway in reversing the trends of cynicism, minority alienation, and the like.

    Let’s see… starting with his speech in 2004 and continuing throughout his campaign and early presidency, his themes have been around unity rather than division, bridges across race and class, and he embodies a fusion of minority and majority DNA. In contrast with his predecessor he was elected with large majorities among minorities. Notions such as ‘yes we can’ and ‘hope’ are as far as possible from cynicism as they can be in simple and few words. His efforts to include everyone at the table, include Republicans in his cabinet, build more of a bridge between progressives and the military and their families, actually appearing before and freely interacting with unscreened citizens, in person, all act against cynicism, and his pattern of interaction crosses racial and gender boundaries, emphasizing citizenship. One can make the claim that this is all rhetoric, but a major part of it is behavior that is consistent with that rhetoric and again, in all possible ways it is anti-cynical and inclusive.

    Comment to Indian Investor: Yes, your statements about imperial lifecycles are reasonably accurate… the question, and I think unfortunately the answer is yes, is whether modern technology has telescoped the time scale in the case of America. Consider, for example, what just happened in the financial system… the severity of it all, and even the relatively stealth nature of it, was utterly enabled by computers. Even in a micro sense this was true about Madoff (who before his Ponzi days was most noted for… promoting electronic automation in finance!). The nonsense that just happened would have taken a lot longer, and been exposed a lot sooner, it says here, if old analog processes had been in place, if papers needed to be written and signed, and objects transported (at sailing ship speed in many cases), and dozens of additional people involved at each firm on a mere logistical and administrative level, in order for these ridiculous transactions to happen. Instead they were relatively invisible and instantaneous, and all the more accelerated and egregious.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not consider speeches alone as “conscious efforts” — talk is cheap. Nor have you cited any indications of “perceptible headway.”

  21. The rising alienation of some minorities is worth exploring. Consider if you will that large numbers of Japanese-Americans volunteered for the US Army while in the camps they were sent to.

    Today, the extraordinary and magnificent leaps and bounds America has made in racial relations culminating in Mr. O means, to many, nothing. Their contempt for “racist” America is quadruple anything held by those genuinely and appallingly wronged Japanese-Americans.

    How can this be so? And cui bono?….. Who benefits…. from driving this trend forward?

    The beneficiaries are in fact…. racists. Ones who hold their race superior to others. There are many such people. One wonders if even a majority of them are non-white.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for reminding us of this history from WWII, it is a powerful and inspirational example.

  22. I think St. Augustine had something to say on the matter:

    “For when Carthage was destroyed, and the Roman republic delivered from its great cause of anxiety, a crowd of disastrous evils forthwith resulted from the prosperous condition of things. First concord was weakened, and destroyed

    “… that those Romans who, in the days of their virtue, had expected injury only at the hands of their enemies, now… suffered greater cruelties at the hands of their fellow-citizens. The lust of rule, which with other vices existed among the Romans in more unmitigated intensity than among any other people, after it had taken possession of the more powerful few, subdued under its yoke the rest, worn and wearied.”
    — City of God, book 1, chapter 30 (text here).

    Not too hard to draw analogies here in the post Cold War era. The US, the hegemon, without the great enemy of the USSR has turned to fight abstractions, enrich itself, and began the slow implosion of vitriolic partisan infighting. We have a whole new reality awaiting us.

  23. This ‘cohesion’ issue is as important as it is also fascinating, as the many comments above demonstrate.

    I agree with one poster who said that the multi-ethnic thing seems okay. And yet I am not sure if this is quite the same as cohesion although outright, entrenched racial strife (a form of class war in the literal sense) might be a sign of lack of cohesion. Hard to say, though, since sometimes a country that fights itself hard comes together more cohesively later. Sort of male bonding approach to running countries, maybe?

    What is also echoed above in many posts is the seemingly ever-increasing divides between those at the top and the ‘rest of us’. This is a potential class war in the making and I suspect one that could prove much more potent in scope and effect than the multi-cultural divides, if indeed they are significant at all.

    Finally, cohesion does not come about by accident but through leadership. You can get it by scaring everyone to follow a clear path, but usually the end is violent and murky, if occasionally a bit glorious (WWII). But to have cohesion in a sane, peaceful society, well that is very advanced stuff, for which history provides very few examples.

  24. “Two trends to watch:

    1. Fading allegiance to the Constitution, and decreased willingness to fight in its defense.”

    I think this is already well advanced, particularly among the elite. You can see it in the general absence of the wealthy and privileged in the military (even among the officer ranks); I think you can also see reflections of it in the pattern of tax evasion one we’ve seen recently among Obama’s appointees (I don’t think we’d see much difference if they were Republicans). As long as it’s open season for Roman Empire analogies, it calls to mind the abdication of social responsibility by the senatorial class in late antiquity. I’m not sure the analogy goes too far, as our society even in its best days was never long on noblesse in general, much less noblesse oblige. Nonetheless I think it’s a troubling sign for social cohesion when an elite that draws a disproportionate share of benefit from collective effort refuses to contribute its fair share to onerous duties supporting that effort. Specious moral and political arguments — “this war is just immoral” — provide convenient cover for the abdication.

    Bravo for your answer to #15. The founders would indeed be amazed at the notion that a pretension to sweeping powers of command over civil society could be extended from very specific constitutional language concerning authority over the armed forces.

  25. America is a different kind of country — not a super-sized tribal ‘nation’ state, but a country of some kind of ideals (or another — that’s part of the polarization). Everybody in the world could, theoretically, become an American, if they chose (and the laws allowed it).
    I’ll never be a Slovak, no matter how long I live in Slovakia.

    The American hegemony was deliberately undermined by the Marshall Plan, and by the general Free Trade principles. The two generations of Americans after WW II were in a ‘golden age’ of rapid growth and extremely limited competition; success by America at exporting democratic capitalism insures more competition, and thus lower relative wages (perhaps thru stagnant, no-growth wage changes while others grow to reduce the differences).

    But America was there, the obvious successor to Great Britain after WW II. The American era won’t end until there is a successor … or until it’s clear there will be no successor. But both China and India seem more likely to support America on top, while asking for more influence for their own interests, than they are to actually challenge the US or to support a true multi-polar world.

    Radical Islam terrorists, when they succeed in gaining and using a WMD, will likely lead to far more US ‘national unity’ than civil libertarians will be comfy with.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: To say that the Marshall Plan and free trade (GATT, WTO) were designed to weaken American hegemony is an odd interpretation of history. Very odd to think we would do so during the cold war.

  26. I’m interested in interviewing you to answer 5 brief questions about geopolitics, due to this initiative I’m holding. Unable to find your e-mail anywhere on this blog, would you be kind enough to mail me back, if interested in the proposal? Thanks in advance, keep up the good work.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The email is on the About page, and in the Afterword section of every post.

  27. To Underscore, and others who make parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire:

    I don’t think the parallel is very close, simply because of the vast differences between the two societies. The key difference, I think, is that the US is a primarily industrial society composed of free laborers and entrepreneurs (both individuals, and collectives called “corporations”), while Imperial Rome was an agrarian society that relied to some extent on slaves. I’m not enough of a sociologist to point out exactly how the two societies would differ in the behaviors of their peoples, but one would expect their differences to be vast, and their likely futures to be vastly different.

    To Fabius, about his response (“dance to the sound of the profitable pound” from the musical “1776”) to Chester White, who only wanted to be left alone:

    Fabius, what’s wrong with wanting to be left alone? Surely the freedom to associate is also the freedom to NOT associate. And it is wrong to want to retain the fruits of one’s labors, parting involuntarily with only as much as is needed to maintain the VITAL functions of government? I think Chester’s complaint is only natural (if overstated) in this day and age of government staffed by people who believe that they have a right to extract from us as much tax money as is needed to implement THEIR idea of what are the VITAL functions of government, a government that the Founders would excoriate as “Leviathan”, come to destroy us all. (And yes, I’m fond of overly-complex sentences.)

    To everyone:

    I think there’s hope for us and the world yet. It seems to me that we’re reverting in some ways (not in ALL ways, thank goodness) to the status quo ante 1900, and that the present follies in Washington are the frantic doings of people who have the most to lose in a return to the de-centralized, de-massified ways of doing things before the Progressives arrived to screw things up.

    I’d rant here on the subject of what is sometimes called “political Taylorism”, but I don’t want to bore Fabius and company to tears with my purple prose. Just look up Frederick Taylor, the father of industrial engineering, and how Herbert Croly (of “New Republic” magazine fame) and Croly’s fellow-travelers applied Taylor’s ideas to the engineering of whole societies.

    Here’s a link to get you started: “Croly Ghost”, from Reason magazine, December 1997.

    I believe that the present uneasiness our ruling classes and the turmoil in our social arrangements has little to do with an impending dissolution of the Republic and everything to do with the downfall of the soft totalitarianism that has dominated the thinking of too many public intellectuals over the last century or so.

    My two cents’ worth.
    Hale Adams Pikesville, People’s Democratic Republic of Maryland
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    Fabius Maximus replies: In what ways are we “we’re reverting in some ways (not in ALL ways, thank goodness) to the status quo ante 1900”?

    “Surely the freedom to associate is also the freedom to NOT associate. And it is wrong to want to retain the fruits of one’s labors, parting involuntarily with only as much as is needed to maintain the VITAL functions of government?”

    There is little in western political theory to support this “me me me” view of government. Consent of the governed is a collective right, not an individual one. Our political regime is not a consumer’s smorgasbord, in which one selects governmental benefits off the shelf.

  28. My list of top three technological effects acting against cohesion/governability.
    1. The echo chamber effect caused by fragmentation and diversification of our media. Daily Kos and Huffington post versus NRO and American Thinker combined with CNBC versus Fox News sums this up pretty well. You have to be old enough to remember the power Walter Cronkite once had to really understand this.
    2. The breakdown of control over information access around the globe. Mushroom governance; “Keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit”, is not working any more in China, in Iran, and a whole lot of other places it once did.
    3. The speed at which events are now unfolding. We are on internet time now. The news cycle is less than one day. Markets react to new information in minutes, trust is lost in hours and panic sets in in days, our leaders must appear to be thinking and acting in real time or they appear “behind the curve”. They are so busy performing high speed Kabuki theater they end up “Behind the curve” due to this preocupation.

  29. In re. the government perhaps becoming alienated from the people, a couple of questions:

    — “the steady increase in the ranks of government employees who are armed” Has this percentage outpaced the nearly 100% population growth since the “golden years” when I was growing up (50s & 60s)?

    — Yes, we have more SWAT and that is troubling. But we also have much, much better armed criminals, thanks to the proliferation of assault rifles and advanced handguns. Back in the day only a handful of fortunate criminals could get their hands on a tommy gun, but now anybody can score an AK-47, it seems. So there’s an argument of sorts on behalf of more SWAT.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The number of government (State and Fedeal) agencies allowed to arm their people has greatly increased over the past few decades. Hence I suspect the ratio of armed government personnel to citizens ratio has risen.

  30. What’s an advanced handgun? I don’t know that much about pistols, but one of the most effective designs today is the M1911. It’s been modified some, but not much, from it’s original design. I bet you can guess when it was first issued. Here’s a hint, it was before 1912…

  31. I would like to clarify that I don’t believe the US and Rome are perfect parallels, not only for the reasons Hale points out but also because a bloody pillage by barbarians just isn’t in the cards for us. A more graceful exit such as Great Britain has seen is probably more likely–still influential but no longer the only game in town. The real parallel is that without the USSR we have not been able to restrain ourselves (hence overreaching in Iraq and on Wall Street) and that our own gluttony is very much a part of our current troubles. In this case as well as the parallel Mr. Jones brings up with the entitlement and accompanying disengagement among our elite, Rome is a useful study.

    As for the right to be left alone, there’s a big flaw in Chester’s (Clint Eastwood from Gran Torino?) post–the misunderstanding of Frost’s poem. Consider these lines:

    “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offence/Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.”

    A society is not founded upon agreeable hermits. Whether its Elves or immigrants (are they all really illegal gangbangers?), no man is an island and all that. Social cohesion is important because it is the precursor to collective action–a consensus view that Japan and Germany were dangerous led us to WW2. Political uncertainty and disagreement kept us from intervening in Rwanda (no comment on the right or wrong here, just that consensus leads to action). While there are HUGE differences between those two events, it should be troubling to anyone if we see a proliferation of people in this country who prefer to be left alone rather than engage with our current problems.

    I understand that we all want to protect what’s ours, but we’re losing sight of the fact that government is a compact between leaders and the governed–I give up so much freedom and autonomy in return for protection and service. It’s not always a good deal, but let’s not forget how many people voted for Obama, the Democrats, and petitioned their congressmen for action. Maybe some crazy media oligarchy has brainwashed the general public into a huge stimulus package, but we got what we asked for (last I checked, most Americans were in favor). That there are vociferous dissenters is noteworthy, but I think we can close the book on a silent majority of objectors. This is the intrinsic problem with (and virtue of) democracy–the majority wins, right or wrong. Dissect Croly’s quote, that the government should be responsive to the demand of decisive majority of the people to act in the public welfare, and you get straight democracy. We got the imperial welfare state we asked for.

  32. FM, here’s the problem… you posited these:

    * Rising cynicism towards government, a loss of confidence in its honesty and efficacy.
    * Rising alienation, reaching near total levels in some minority communities.

    In November, 53% of the public voted for the rhetoric that goes exactly against these things, and as of right now, 75% of the public approves of the person who used that rhetoric. Those percentages are facts that run very counter to what you posited with absolutely no evidence.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Your voting machines differ from those in my area. Nobody here ‘voted for the rhetoric”, just for specific candidates.

    As for public opinion polls, the most recent I see is this by the Pew Research Center, which show his support only slightly moderately higher than Bush’s at this point, and slightly higher than Clinton’s (no error bars given):

    Obama himself is more popular than his party’s legislation. His job approval rating is 64% and 56% approves of his handling of the economy so far. George Bush’s initial approval rating as president was 53 percent and Bill Clinton’s was 56 percent.

    I love the “approves of his handling of the economy so far”. As if we have any basis on which to judge this.

  33. Trust of government. The people in the government should all be audited. Just some personal thoughts: 1) since am over 50, the younger people who will be paying for this – have voted themselves into slavery for the rest of their lives; 2) My portion of the stimulas check = buy gold – $ = zero going forward; 3) More income tax = less sales tax or any other personal spending; 4) the identity theft question (w/ illegal immigration) will cause a lot of problems between groups no matter what the government does unless they treat that as a real crime.

  34. America is hardly in decline. Certainly crisis. The world is returning since the fall of the S.U. to a multipolar universe. Depending how the current fiscal crisis plays out, how we reorganize ourselves over the next decade — deficit finance is a dead letter, we can, should and will I think reindutrialize, avoid autarchy which we could pull off for a while; fix our borders and expand legal immigration a lot. By midcentury America could be 400 million. Hopefully we will abandon all memory of the cold war, develop new strategic partnerships, pursue development worldwide, stand resolutely opposed to religious extremism and support a new nuclear control regime. The central issue for America is the deterioration of government service, the expansion of its expense, the dying of state governments. We could use new and empowered regional government, reducing Washington. They all talk about it but never do it. If it is not done in the next several decades, we will become an imperial behemoth at some point, embracing both Canada and Mexico. Not my idea of a happy development, but America’s greatest times are in the future.

  35. Appropos my earlier comment, I agree with you that the British Empire had global hegemony only for a much more brief period.

    My view of the value of the US dollar is, unfortunately, the same as Dick Cheney’s. I can’t attest to the veracity of this, but Dick Cheney is supposed to have said that the US dollar gets 90% of its value from the US military. I think the united states’s global dominance is powered by military power, soft power, and economic diplomacy. So a great deal will depend on how the US military fares in Afghanistan.

    My interpretation is that Russia was offering a deal(Dmitry Medvedev’s two-liner), to have a shared development of oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan, similar to the Caspian pipeline consortium. This was after the Krygyz President announced the closure of Manas air base, and the US ambassador to Tajikistan announced that Tajikistan will offer its airspace for non military transport.But the Kuwaiti sheikh’s statement yesterday, that the crude price is expected to decline further, indicates perhaps a further effort to drain Russia and Iran of fiscal resources in the hope of bringing them to a currency crisis a la 1998.

    If I were Obama I would strike a deal with the Russians before surging into Afghanistan. On the other hand, all the towns of Northern and North Eastern Sri Lanka have been flattened with artillery fire, in most cases with civilians still inside the towns. Artillery fire was also used in Gaza. There were air strikes in Ossetia targeting the oil pipeline. This trend shows that if the US military is willing to decimate the entire civilian population in Afghanistan, along with the Taliban there, it can have a quicker and easier victory.

    This paragraph was for people who have a more detailed understanding that wars have always been fought for hidden financial motivations, rather than the propagandized ideological motivations for them.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Very few things are so foolish that rebuttal is unnecessary, but this is one of them:

    “Dick Cheney is supposed to have said that the US dollar gets 90% of its value from the US military.”

    The US military has near-zero effect on most of the world’s major powers, who have nukes and strategic delivery systems.

  36. What bc (#29) said, and on top of that I’d add the simple fact that Americans are becoming used to (albeit slowly and in fits and starts) the idea of living in a thoroughly globalized and intimately interconnected world. But the Westphalian model of the nation-state (much less the U.S. itself) was never designed to exist in such an environment as bc and I describe. And if the Westphalian model is in trouble, then by definition so is the U.S. as a nation-state regardless of whatever else it may or may not have going for it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: On what basis do you say this? Europe from 1648 to 1914 was a world in many ways more tightly interconnected than the EU today (let alone the world). Certainly far fewer barriers to movement of people and trade across borders (which barely existed). Probably higher rates of intermarriage, esp among the ruling classes. Also, there are no overarching institutions today with the combination of power and prestige of the Empire and Roman Catholic Church (both in decline from 1648 until now, of course).

  37. The world of 1981 was much less interconnected than today, let alone 1648 to 1914. I had a friend in grad school, an astrophysicist from mainland China. “Jo Jin”, I said, “Tell me what amazed you most when you came here.” “That’s easy.” He replied, “In China, we had much propaganda fed to us constantly. The most laughably preposterous example we thought was “Food for dogs”. “In America the stores sell food for dogs”, the government said. All my friends said, “How stupid do they think we are?”. Imagine my surprise when I come here and a whole isle is nothing but food for dogs. I thought,”What else don’t I know?””.
    The hype of the 90’s was not wrong, it was just premature. The internet really is changing everything. This story is unimaginable today, for any country on earth.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I said the world from 1650 to 1914; 1981 is not in this period. Communication is important — but it is not the only dimension of life.

    This is too peripheral a point to pursue, but I disagree. Looking at Europe before the 20th century, it was in many ways more open than the modern globe. There were few barriers to movement across borders of goods, people, and money — as States before 1800 had too few resources to maintain strong controls. Ruling elites intermarried to a very high degree, bringing an widespread awareness of foreign cultures (a true multinational awareness). Latin provided a common language (fading slowly in the centuries after 1650).

    The EU and EMU have restored some of this inside Europe, but as an experiment the ultimate outcome of which remains in doubt. But the overall world order remains less interconnected in many ways than pre-modern Europe.

  38. We’re talking past each other on what it means to be interconnected. My only point is that technology is powerfully shrinking our time scales for information propagation. At the same time it is changing the rules of the game for how governments relate to their citizens. Slowing down or countervailing against the ever rising rate of change in self perception and in the perception of others due to technical advances by bullshitting, or limiting access to timely information updates, is uniquely going away as a governing strategy. It’s happening right now, even as we speak here through this new medium.
    And I overstated my case. North Korea is a place where the internet does not reach…yet.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As for information flows, I agree. Ditto in the way this changes the nature of governing, as control of information is a powerful tool of tyranny (althought probably not, as sometimes said, a requirement).

    “bullshitting, or limiting access to timely information updates, is uniquely going away as a governing strategy”

    Unfortunately this seems less certain. People can be bathed in data and remain dumb as fenceposts. Education and a esteem for rationality are necessary for people to apply information. In that we might as a people be less capable than those of Lincoln’s day. Can you imagine a crowd of ordinary citizens listening to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in any medium?

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