The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

Does the hypochondriac who is ultimately diagnosed with a real, physiological illness have the right to say “I told you so”?

Well, maybe. Sometimes a “hypochondriac” might be ill all along, but those diagnosing him just did not conduct the right test, or look at the right data. Medical science and diagnostics are nothing like as advanced as we like to hope. There are still thousands of diseases and ailments which are totally unexplained. Sometimes this means a “hypochondriac” might be dead or comatose before he ever gets the chance to say “I told you so.”

Similarly, there are are many who suggest that their own nations or civilisations are in ailing decline. Some of them might be crankish hypochondriacs. But some of them might be shockingly prescient:

Is Marc Faber being a hypochondriac in saying that the entire derivatives market is headed to zero? Maybe. It depends whether his analysis is proven correct by events. I personally believe that he is more right than he is wrong: the derivatives market is deeply interconnected, and counter-party risk really does threaten to destroy a huge percentage of it.

More dangerous to health than hypochondria is what I might call hyperchondria.


This is the condition under which people are unshakeably sure that they are fine. They might sustain a severe physical injury and refuse medical treatment. They brush off any and all sensations of physical illness. They suffer from an interminable and unshakeable optimism. Government — or, at least, the public face of government — is littered with them. John McCain blustered that the economy was strong and robust — until he had to suspend his Presidential campaign to return to Washington to vote for TARP. Tim Geithner stressed there was “no chance of a downgrade” — until S&P downgraded U.S. debt. Such is politics — politicians like to exude the illusion of control. So too do economists, if they become too politically active. Ben Bernanke boasted he could stanch inflation in “15 minutes“.

So, between outsiders like Ron Paul who have consistently warned of the possibility of economic disaster, and insiders like Ben Bernanke who refuse to conceive of such a thing, where can we get an accurate portrait of the shape of Western civilisation and the state of the American empire?

Professor Alfred McCoy — writing for CBS News — paints a fascinating picture:

A soft landing for America 40 years from now?  Don’t bet on it.  The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines.  If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq in that year as the start of America’s downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this twenty-first century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no doubt: when Washington’s global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic, educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S. global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030.

Significantly, in 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council admitted for the first time that America’s global power was indeed on a declining trajectory. In one of its periodic futuristic reportsGlobal Trends 2025, the Council cited “the transfer of global wealth and economic powernow under way, roughly from West to East” and “without precedent in modern history,” as the primary factor in the decline of the “United States’ relative strength — even in the military realm.” Like many in Washington, however, the Council’s analysts anticipated a very long, very soft landing for American global preeminence, and harbored the hope that somehow the U.S. would long “retain unique military capabilities… to project military power globally” for decades to come.

No such luck.  Under current projections, the United States will find itself in second place behind China (already the world’s second largest economy) in economic output around 2026, and behind India by 2050. Similarly, Chinese innovation is on a trajectory toward world leadership in applied science and military technology sometime between 2020 and 2030, just as America’s current supply of brilliant scientists and engineers retires, without adequate replacement by an ill-educated younger generation.

Wrapped in imperial hubris, like Whitehall or Quai d’Orsay before it, the White House still seems to imagine that American decline will be gradual, gentle, and partial. In his State of the Union address last January, President Obama offered the reassurance that “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” A few days later, Vice President Biden ridiculed the very idea that “we are destined to fulfill [historian Paul] Kennedy’s prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended.” Similarly, writing in the November issue of the establishment journal Foreign Affairs, neo-liberal foreign policy guru Joseph Nye waved away talk of China’s economic and military rise, dismissing “misleading metaphors of organic decline” and denying that any deterioration in U.S. global power was underway.

Frankly — given how deeply America is indebted, given that crucial American military and consumer supply chains are controlled by China, given how dependent America is on foreign oil for transport and agribusiness — I believe that the end of American primacy by 2025 is an extraordinarily optimistic estimate. The real end of American primacy may have been as early as 9/11/2001.

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The Biggest Bubble in History

Regular readers will be aware that I believe that American government debt (and by extension, cash) is in a once-in-a-century bubble.

A recent article from Bloomberg typified this ongoing (and quite hilarious) insanity:

The biggest bond gains in almost a decade have pushed returns on Treasuries above stocks over the past 30 years, the first time that’s happened since before the Civil War.
Fixed-income investments advanced 6.25 percent this year, almost triple the 2.18 percent rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index through last week, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. Debt markets are on track to return 7.63 percent this year, the most since 2002, the data show. Long-term government bonds have gained 11.5 percent a year on average over the past three decades, beating the 10.8 percent increase in the S&P 500, said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.

The combination of a core U.S. inflation rate that has averaged 1.5 percent this year, the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks near zero through 2013, slower economic growth and the highest savings rate since the global credit crisis have made bonds the best assets to own this year. Not only have bonds knocked stocks from their perch as the dominant long-term investment, their returns proved everyone from Bill Gross to Meredith Whitney and Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrong.

"I CAN'T SEE A WOOD?! ALL I SEE ARE TREES!"

When will the bond bubble end? It will end when the people and governments of the world tire of giving their pound of flesh to creditors. Creditors and debtors have fundamentally hostile interests — debtors want to take money without paying it back, and creditors want to take value without getting their hands dirty. A history of the world (the decline of Rome, the decline of Britain, the decline of America) is in some ways a history of hostility between creditors and debtors.

This hostility has been tempered (and conflict delayed) since the Keynesian revolution, by mass money printing. Everyone (except savers) wins — creditors get their pound of flesh (devalued by money printing), and debtors get the value of their debt cut by persistent inflation.

But there is an unwanted side-effect. Debt mounts & mounts:

And eventually, debt repayment means that “kicking the can” becomes “kicking a giant mountain of debt” — a very painful experience that necessitates either painful austerity, or huge money printing — neither of which encourage savings, or investment.

Europe, on the other hand, has decided to skip the can-kicking (“price stability, ja?“) and jump straight to the cataclysm of crushing austerity for debtor nations. Unsurprisingly, Greeks don’t like being told what they can and cannot spend money on. Surprisingly, the Greek establishment have decided to give the Greek people (debtors) a referendum on that pound of flesh Greece’s creditors (the global banking system) are so hungry for. Default — and systemic collapse — seems inevitable.

(UPDATE: Greece, of course, has undergone a Euro-coup and is now firmly under the control of pro-European technocrats — creditors will get their pound of flesh, and Greece will get austerity)

Some would say Europe has forgotten the lessons of Keynes — print money, kick the can, hope for the best. But really, the Europeans have just hastened the inevitable endgame every debtor nation faces. With a mountain of external debt crushing organic growth the fundamental choice is default, or default-by-debasement. That’s it.

And that is why, however elegantly America massages its problems, American government bonds are in a humungous bubble.