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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America’s Eurasian Endgame

I have written before of the Chinese aim in this great international game:

I believe that the current world order suits China very much — their manufacturing exporters (and resource importers) get the stability of the mega-importing Americans spending mega-dollars on a military budget that maintains global stability. Global instability would mean everyone would pay more for imports, due to heightened insurance costs and other overheads. China also recognises that while America falters and struggles under the weight of its military burden, its lack of growth, and its deep debt concerns, Chinese military strength can grow at a much faster pace thanks to Chinese domestic growth, and a high domestic savings rate. They are happy that their dollar pile — China has over $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves — can still buy plenty, and they want its value to remain as stable as possible. But above all they want to gradually diversify out of those dollars and into productive assets.

So, if China is happy with the status quo, or at least where the status quo is going, what does America want out of all this?

America wants to keep the free lunch of oil and goods for dollars and treasuries that is so swiftly evaporating. Someday soon America will have to bring more to global trade than its role as global policeman, its universities and a humungous stack of freshly-printed dollars. While some may carp about the demand created by the American consumer, consumption is not production — consumption does not bring anything to the party except dollars, and the rest of the world already has plenty of those. Some day soon, when the dollar is no longer recognised as the universal reserve currency, America will have to face up to the fact that consumer goods and oil will cost more and more in dollars — and she will either have to choose to be poorer, or to manufacture more, and generate more energy at home.

A sensible American plan going forward would recognise this, and would be developing the means and the infrastructure to end America’s free lunch — specifically, through redeveloping American manufacturing capacity and supply chains, and scaling back America’s role as global policeman. Unfortunately, I see no such thing from government, and very little from private industry. America is clinging onto the old foreign policy doctrines — that if America is powerful enough, and if she can retain its role as global hegemon and world policeman, then she will always be free to consume a chunk of the rest of the world’s production and resources, because her currency will forever be the global reserve. But that simply isn’t true — Russia and China have already ditched the dollar for bilateral trade.

Sadly, America’s foreign policy is ever-more fixated on interventionism, and maintaining the petrodollar standard.

Essentially, American exceptionalism has created a blindness to reality. Humungous debts to hostile creditors often makes an empire fall. Resource and energy dependency often makes an empire fall. Yet America just continues spending ever greater amounts on her military, and just hopes for the best. Every President since Carter has promised to reduce American oil dependency, but there has been no substance to that.

So — absent any real progress on reducing dependency — America’s endgame seems to involve taking the Arab Spring to Tehran, Islamabad, Moscow and Beijing, and having the new middle classes of consumerist Americanised zombies take out uppity creditor regimes — and replace them with Facebook-friendly State Department-endorsed place men, and adhering more closely to edicts out of Washington.

That way, America’s free lunch can go on forever.

The Abolition of Deflation

Modern economics has been a great experiment:

Economic history can be broadly divided into two eras: before Keynes, and after Keynes. Before Keynes (with precious metals as the monetary base) prices experienced wide swings in both directions. After Keynes’ Depression-era tract (The General Theory) prices went in one direction: mildly upward. Call that a victory for modern economics, central planning, and modern civilisation: deflation was effectively abolished. The resultant increase in defaults due to the proportionate rise in the value of debt as described by Irving Fisher, and much later Ben Bernanke, doesn’t happen today. And this means that creditors get their pound of flesh, albeit one that is slightly devalued (by money printing), as opposed to totally destroyed (by mass defaults).

But (of course) there’s a catch. Periods of deflation were painful, but they had one very beneficial effect that we today sorely need: the erasure of debt via mass default (contraction of credit means smaller money supply, means less money available to pay down debt). With the debt erased, new organic growth is much easier (because businesses, individuals and governments aren’t busy setting capital aside to pay down debt, and therefore can invest more in doing, making and innovating). Modern economics might have prevented deflation (and resultant mass defaults), but it has left many nations, companies and individuals carrying a great millstone of debt (that’s the price of “stability”):

The aggregate effect of the Great Depression was the erasure of private debt by the end of World War 2. This set the stage for the phenomenal new economic growth of the 50s and 60s. But since then, there’s been no erasure: only vast, vast debt/credit creation.

As I have long noted, in the end the debt load will have to be erased, either by direct default (or debt jubilee), or by indirect default (hyperinflation). Deleveraging in a credit-based economy, is very, very difficult to achieve, without massive damage to GDP (due to productive capital being lost to debt repayment). The irony is that the more central banks print, and the more the Krugmanites advocate for stimulus, the tetchier creditors (i.e., China) become about their holdings being debased, when the reality is that the only hope that they have to see any return on their debt holdings is for governments to print, print, print.

How long can America and the world kick the can? As long as the productive parts of the world — oil exporters, and goods manufacturers — allow the unproductive parts of the world — consumers and “knowledge economies” — to keep getting a free lunch. Keynesian economics didn’t abolish defaults in the long run — it just succeeded at making mass defaults much less frequent. My hypothesis is that it also made these moments of default much more catastrophic.

This is akin to the effects of dropping rocks on humans: drop a hundred 1-pound-rocks on a man over the course of 50 years  (at the rate of two per year) and he will most likely be alive after those years. Drop one hundred-pound-rock on him after fifty years and he will more likely be dead aged 50. Perhaps in reality it is not as extreme as that, but that is the principle: frequent small defaults, small depressions, and small contractions have been abolished, in favour of occasional very, very big depressions, contractions and defaults.

Where does that leave Keynesian economics?

Well Keynes was right that intervention can save lives, families and businesses. What Keynes and Fisher were wrong about is that stabilising credit markets and prices (resulting in the abolition of deflation) is completely the wrong kind of intervention. Government’s role during depressions is to preserve and stabilise the productive (i.e. physical) economy, to prevent the needy from starving, to prevent homelessness, and create enough infrastructure for the nation to function (and eventually, to thrive). The financial economy (and all the debt) should go the way nature intends — erasure, and resurrection (in a new form).

Old Hatreds Flare Up…

It looks like I’m not the only political commentator to evoke the spirits of the past on Europe’s current breakdown (or breakdowns).

From the Daily Mail:

Greeks angry at the fate of the euro are comparing the German government with the Nazis who occupied the country in the Second World War.

Newspaper cartoons have presented modern-day German officials dressed in Nazi uniform, and a street poster depicts Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as an officer in Hitler’s regime accompanied with the words: ‘Public nuisance.’

She wears a swastika armband bearing the EU stars logo on the outside.

Attack: A street poster in Greece has depicted Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform with a swastika surrounded by the EU stars. The accompanying words describe her as a 'public nuisance'
The backlash has been provoked by Germany’s role in driving through painful measures to stop Greece’s debt crisis from spiralling out of control.

From a Greek perspective, it seems shatteringly obvious. For them, the Euro has become a battering ram for a kind of fiscal austerity that is set to benefit Germans (price stability) and penalise Greeks (austerity).

As advantageous as the Euro once seemed, it is becoming ever clearer that the union is suffering from deep political fracture. It is a union built without a common language (other than perhaps the belief in bureaucracy — and an unwillingness to give bankers haircuts), without a political head (or even a coherent political structure) without a common culture of work, and without an integrated economy.

That’s why decisive action is proving impossible, in spite of all the rhetoric.

Worse (because it shows contagion at work), it looks like Portugal is about to sink into the mud.

From Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph:

Cashflow problems (making it much, much harder to pay down debt) — that’s what you get when spend-as-much-as-we-want-and-then-print-money mediterranean nations entrust their nation’s monetary to stern-looking austerity-minded German central bankers.

Most startlingly, it looks like Paul Krugman finally got something right:

European leaders reach an agreement; markets are enthusiastic. Then reality sets in. The agreement is at best inadequate, and possibly makes no sense at allSpreads stay high, and maybe even start widening again.

Another day in the life.

Of course, his solution — much, much deeper integration, with a good dose of money printing — is politically impossible, so whether or not it would work (clue: it won’t) is irrelevant.

Meanwhile Americans smoke their hopium (“GDP is up! Stocks are up! The recovery is here!“) hoping that the whirling Euro conflagration will just go away.

It won’t just go away. The global financial systems is an interconnected house of cards — a full Euro breakdown will bring down American banks with European exposure, like Morgan StanleyHank Paulson was telling the truth — either the thing is bailed out (again and again and again) or it will collapse under its own weight.

Creditors — starting with China (who are acquiring gold and Western industrials at a rapid rate) — will be hoping that the system can hold on for a few more years while they try to cash out with their pound of flesh.

Debt-ridden Americans and European would be forgiven for accelerating its collapse…

Junkiefication

What does the market slump of the past couple of days show?

When the market prices in favourable government intervention (endless free cash), and the government doesn’t meet expectations the easy-credit junkies slouch into a stupor, suffering harsh withdrawal symptoms.

From BusinessWeek:

Goldman Sachs Asset Management Chairman Jim O’Neill said the global financial system risks repeating the crisis of 2008 if Europe’s debt crisis escalates and spreads to the U.S. banking industry.

“This is where the parallels with 2008 are relevant, even though I think they are being over exaggerated,” O’Neill said in an interview on CNBC today. “It was when the financial system really imploded that financial firms stopped extending credit to anybody that the corporate world had to destock and we know what happened after that. We are not far off the same sort of thing.”

More than $3.4 trillion has been erased from equity values this week, driving global stocks into a bear market, as the Federal Reserve’s new stimulus and a pledge by Group of 20 nations fails to ease concern the global economy is on the brink of another recession. O’Neill said the Fed’s plan to shift $400 billion of short-term debt into longer term Treasuries hasn’t convinced investors it will strengthen growth.

“The fear that it’s all dependent on the Fed, together with this mess in Europe, is really getting people more and more worried as this week comes to an end,” O’Neill said. “The markets have taken the latest FOMC move rather badly, which adds a whole new angle to it. It’s the first time since the global rally started in early 2009 that the markets have rejected a Fed easing.”

“As the problem in Europe spreads from Greece to more and more other countries and in particular Italy, the exposure that so many people bank-wise have to Italian debt means the systems can’t cope easily with that and it would spread way beyond Europe’s borders,” O’Neill said. “This is why the policy makers need to stop being so sleepy and get on and lead.”

Yes — of course — what the market junkies need is another hit, another tsunami of easy liquidity, money printing and endless “bold action”. Otherwise, the junkies would be left shivering in a corner, cold turkey.

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China Beats War Drum Over Taiwan?

As I have stated before, China has no reason to be belligerent to America, or to accelerate the death of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Firstly, this is because the current world order is strengthening China, and weakening America. Second, this is because China has accumulated a huge swathe of American debt, and wants to use it to acquire American (and global) productive assets and wealth.

America on the other hand, as the declining power, has every reason to be belligerent to China.

From the Economist:

An new book, discussed in this week’s Economics focus, by Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics argues that China’s economic might will overshadow America’s sooner than people think. Mr Subramanian combines each country’s share of world GDP, trade and foreign investment into an index of economic “dominance”. By 2030 China’s share of global economic power will match America’s in the 1970s and Britain’s a century before. Three forces will dictate China’s rise, Mr Subramanian argues: demography, convergence and “gravity”. Since China has over four times America’s population, it only has to produce a quarter of America’s output per head to exceed America’s total output. Indeed, Mr Subramanian thinks China is already the world’s biggest economy, when due account is taken of the low prices charged for many local Chinese goods and services outside its cities. China will be equally dominant in trade, accounting for twice America’s share of imports and exports. That projection relies on the “gravity” model of trade, which assumes that commerce between countries depends on their economic weight and the distance between them.

So should it come as no surprise that America continues to arm and train China’s enemies.

From Reuters:

China’s top official newspaper warned on Friday that “madmen” on Capitol Hill who want the United States to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan were playing with fire and could pay a “disastrous price,” as the Obama administration nears a decision on a sale.

The People’s Daily, the main paper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said the United States should excise the “cancer” of the law which authorizes Washington’s sale of weapons to the self-ruled island of Taiwan that China considers its own territory.

Taiwan’s biggest ally and arms supplier, the United States is committed under a 1979 law to supply it with the weapons it needs to maintain a “sufficient self-defense capability.”

Is America making a mistake? Should they instead be looking to integrate with the rest of the world, so that the necessity of a shared future means that war, threats and belligerence are in nobody’s interest?

I think so.

America Priced in Gold

Let’s imagine that the gold standard was not abolished in 1971, and was instead maintained — or, alternatively, assume that only gold is money and that other things are merely paper intermediaries. What would be the shape of economic data under that paradigm? Here’s retail gasoline:

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