Why I Was Wrong About Inflation


Back in 2007, I was much more interested in finance and trading than I was in macroeconomics. When the crisis — and the government’s macroeconomic response to the crisis — began in 2008 what was really needed to get a strong grasp of the situation was an understanding of macroeconomics, which I did not have as it was a topic I only really began studying in depth at that time. This led to some misconceptions, particularly about inflation. I mistakenly assumed — as did many at the time, and as do many today — that the huge expansion of the monetary base would lead to stronger inflation than the timid and low inflation we have seen in years since the programs began. While I strongly doubted the claims of individuals like Peter Schiff that hyperinflation might be nigh — as I understood that most historical hyperinflations occurred due to a collapse in production, not solely due to money printing — I thought a strong inflationary snapback was likely, Why? A mixture of real effects and expectations. If central banks are printing money at a higher rate, people will fear that money is becoming less scarce. If having more money in circulation does not begin to bid prices upward, producers will soon begin to raise prices to anticipate any such rise. Simply, I thought that central banks couldn’t print their way out of disaster without some iatrogenic side-effects. I assumed the oncoming pain was unavoidable, and that the onset of inflation was the price that would be paid. As Ludwig von Mises put it: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

So why did that not occur? After all, plenty of internet goldbugs — and very serious people following the advice of people like John Taylor, Eugene Fama, and Niall Ferguson — were talking about the potential for a strong inflationary shock. The gold price was soaring — hitting a peak above $1900 an ounce in September 2011 — as people anticipating inflation sought to buy insurance against it. Well, for a start it seems like the public did not really buy into the notion of an oncoming inflationary shock. Expected inflation as measured by the University of Michigan has remained very close to the post-1980 norm since the crisis:


But above and beyond this, the real monetary effects were not the ones I first assumed them to be. The total money supply — most of which is generated not by the Fed but in the private sector through lending — has been stagnant, even while the Federal Reserve is expanding the monetary base. So while the financial sector is flush with cash and has bid the stock market up above its pre-recession nominal peak, other goods in other sectors just have not had enough of a bid behind them to send inflation strongly upward because other areas of the economy (for instance housing, consumer electronics and real wages) have continued to deflate in the context of continued deleveraging, accelerating offshoring driving down wages and the receding effects of the 2008 oil shock.

Yet even more importantly the supply of goods in the West — flowing as it does from East to West, from the factories of the Orient to the consumers of the West — has remained strong and stable. There has been no destabilising, chaotic Chinese crash or revolution, even though many wished there would be in the wake of the Arab spring. And for all the talk by the Chinese and Russians of bond vigilantism, starting a new global reserve currency and dumping the dollar, that has not happened either. And why would it? Certainly, the Asian bond-buyers might have suffered a few years of negative real interest rates. This might have pissed them off. But undermining the Western recoveries further (which have been quite pathetic thus far) when such a high proportion of their assets — dollars and treasuries and increasingly real assets like land and industrials — are related to the economic performance of the West would be to cut off their nose to spite their face, while simultaneously risking conflict with the American military, whose capabilities remain unmatched. The Chinese and Russian talk of de-Americanisation and a post-American world is all bluff and bluster, all sound and fury signifying very little. In the long run, America will have to accept a world where it is no longer the sole global superpower, but there is no incentive for America’s competitors to hasten that way with the kind of aggressive economic warfare that might cause an economic shock.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that much of the new money entering the system is sitting as excess reserves. Is that a symptom of the inflation simply being delayed? Until the middle of last year I thought so. Now I very strongly doubt it. The existence of excess reserves in the system is not a symptom of stored-up future inflation, but a symptom of the weakness of the transmission mechanism for quantitative easing. Simply, the system is in a depression. The banking system is infected with a deep paranoia, and would prefer to sit on risk-free cash instead of lending money to businesses. If the money was lent out, there would be an increased level of economic and business activity. Therefore there is no guarantee of any additional inflation as the money is loaned out.

So I was wrong to worry that inflation could become an imminent problem. But I was wronger than this. The entire paradigm that I was basing these fears upon was flawed. Simply, I was ignoring real and present economic problems to worry about something that could theoretically become a problem in the future. Specifically, I was ignoring the real and present problem of involuntary unemployment to worry about non-existent inflation and non-existent Asian bond vigilantes. The involuntariness of unemployment is a very simple fact — there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers that exist, and there hasn’t been enough jobs since the crisis began. Currently there are just over three job seekers for every job. So unemployment and underemployment are not simply things that can be dismissed as a matter of workers becoming lazy, or preferring leisure to work. Mass unemployment has insidious and damaging social effects for individuals and communities — people who are out of work for a long time lose skills. For communities, crime rises, and health problems emerge. And there are 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed as a practical matter it is not simply a case of sitting back and allowing the structure of production to adjust to the new economy. And worse, with unemployment high, spending and confidence remain depressed as the effects of high unemployment create a social malaise. This is a mass sickness — and in the past it has led to the rise of warmongering political figures like Hitler. So while it may be preferable for the private sector to be the leading job creator under ordinary conditions, while the private sector is engaging in heavy deleveraging this is impractical. Under such an eventuality the state is the only institution that can break the depressionary trend by creating paying jobs and fighting back against the depressionary tendency toward mass unemployment. Certainly, centralised bureaucracy can be a troublesome and distortionary thing. But there are many things — like mass unemployment and underemployment, and the social problems that that can bring — worse than centralised bureaucracy. And no — this kind of Keynesianism was not the problem in the 1970s.

By worrying over the potential for future inflation or future bond vigilantism due to monetary and fiscal stimulus, I was contributing to the problem of mass unemployment, first of all by not acknowledging the problem, and second by encouraging governments and individuals to worry about potential future problems instead of real-world problems today. As it happened, a tidal wave of evidence has washed these worries away. It is clear from the economic data that inflation is not a concern in a depressionary economy, just as Keynesian-Hicksians heuristics like IS/LM suggested.

Of course, if the depression ends of its own accord then inflation could become a problem again.  If the United States were to experience a strong unexpected spurt of growth sustained over a year or so, pushing unemployment significantly down and growth significantly up, inflation could rise appreciably. The Federal Reserve would have to quickly taper both its unconventional policies and probably begin to raise rates. Of course, that is rather unlikely in the present depressionary environment. But certainly, it is a small possibility. That would be the time for the Federal Reserve to start to worry about inflation. A strong negative energy shock — like the one experienced by the UK in 2010 and 2011 — could push inflation higher too, yet that would be a transitory factor in the context of the wider depressionary environment, and would most likely fall back of its own accord.

If the Fed was engaging in actual helicopter drops — the most direct transmission mechanism possible — there would likely be a stronger inflationary response than that which we have seen thus far. Yet ultimately, this might prove desirable. After all, if the private sectors of the entire Western world have a very large nominal debt load which they are struggling to deleverage, some stronger inflation would certainly begin to minimise that. Yes, that is redistribution from lender to borrower. No, creditors will not be happy about this. But in the end, creditors may find it easier to take an inflationary haircut than face twenty years of depressionary deleveraging as Japan has done. Although the West certainly does not have the same demographic troubles as Japan, such an outcome is possible unless people — governments, entrepreneurs, individuals, society — decide that unemployment and a lack of demand in the economy must be tackled, and do something about it. Then can we confidently expect to climb out of the lip of the deleveraging trap.


Of Joseph & Keynes

Although Keynes’ conceptual framework for macroeconomics was original, the economic ideas broadly known as Keynesianism — the possibility of unclearing markets, and countercyclical spending — are much older than John Maynard Keynes, and their continued predominating association with him is rather puzzling to me. Indeed, looking at Keynes’ ideas through the lens of his predecessors is illuminating.

According to Genesis in the Old Testament, in ancient Egypt, Joseph son of Jacob warned the Pharaoh that his dreams foretold seven years of abundant harvest to be followed by seven years of poor harvests. Farming in the Nile delta depended on good rainfall in the highlands of central Africa to flood the delta area with water and fertile topsoil. Without good rainfall, Egypt was susceptible to famine.

Joseph told the Pharaoh to store a surplus of grain during the first seven years so that the country would have grain during the drought. During the time of plenty, Joseph ordered the storage of 20 percent of farmers’ output in the Pharaoh’s granaries.

This was a countercyclical fiscal policy millennia before Keynes. If we are to be historically correct, Keynesianism might be better known as Josephianism. And although Joseph’s coat-of-many-colours might arouse the suspicions of certain homophobic critics of Keynes, it is noted that Joseph’s wife bore him two sons.


Keynes’ notion of disequilibrium was a reaction against an idea that only grew wings roughly 130 before Keynes with the industrial revolution — Say’s Law, the notion that “products are paid for with products”, that “a glut can take place only when there are too many means of production applied to one kind of product and not enough to another” and that subsequently “a rational businessman will never hoard money; he will promptly spend any money he gets “for the value of money is also perishable.”

Say’s Law is empirically false. Under certain conditions — including the present condition —  savings levels can soar uncontrollably even while interest rates languish at zero, and while unemployment is elevated. In fact, Say himself foresaw the possibility of massive involuntary unemployment and like Keynes and Bastiat, advocated public works programs to decrease unemployment. Indeed perhaps Say’s Law — at least in its post-Keynes incarnation — is more reflective of the ideas of Nassau Senior or David Ricardo than Jean-Baptiste Say.

Although the human sphere has always been driven to disequilibrium by the divergency of human plans and imaginations, prior to the industrial revolution — like in the time of Joseph and the Pharaoh — the possibility of involuntary unemployment (and starvation, etc) arising out of flood, robbery, famine, plague, drought, barbarian raids or some other externality was everywhere. The difference between the modern breakdowns in the Great Depression and the Post-2008 Depression and pre-industrial breakdowns of production is that the cause of the former is psychological (investors become grossly fearful of markets, etc, allowing resources to sit idle rather than being reallocated to productive uses) while the cause of the latter is actual material scarcity. But in the worst case the result is the same — needs and wants go unsatisfied and skills and trades stagnate. The outcomes of pre-industrial scarcity can seep into the post-industrial world through the channel of human psychology.

Keynes’ and Joseph’s recommendations on saving in the fat years to spend in the lean ones are ultimately apolitical in nature and apply just as much to the private sector as to the public sector. There is a widely-held conception that spending in the slump and saving in the boom is statist and favours central economic planning. This is not necessarily true. If a stateless society — let’s say, a future moon colony led by radical libertarians — becomes depressed, unemployment rises and resources lie idle, one solution to lift economic activity would be voluntary private infrastructure and capital spending. While Keynes himself rather unfortunately noted that “the theory of aggregated production… can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state”, infrastructure spending of private origin would be just as helpful in a depression in a stateless economy.

Yet Keynes sometimes pushed his arguments too far. Keynes suggested that “digging ditches is preferable to doing nothing” and proclaimed that the dawn of the Second World War meant that “the end of abnormal unemployment is in sight”. But wasting idle resources on unwanted projects like ditches or giant space lasers to repel a nonexistent alien invasion, or actively harmful projects like wars even though it may raise aggregate demand is still wasting resources. If the point of countercyclical policy is to avoid excessive levels of stagnation, it seems self-defeating to take idle resources and spend them on something entirely unwanted and unwarranted. Spending labour and capital on a destructive life-ending and infrastructure-destroying war rather than on useful infrastructural and scientific projects is akin to Pharaoh spending grain in a famine to support a war where just as many Egyptians die fighting as would have died in the averted famine.

So for successful countercyclical policy, I think it is important to emphasise quality projects that people actually want rather than simply emphasising aggregate levels of spending. In  Pharaoh’s Egypt, that was a store of grain…

In The Long Run We’re All Dead

Niall Ferguson’s bizarre attack on John Maynard Keynes which he has now apologised for — claiming that Keynes’ lack of children led to him taking an irresponsible attitude to the long run — has prompted many apt responses regarding the fact that Keynes and his wife tried multiple times to have children, and that Keynes wrote many works that showed an acute thoughtfulness regarding the long run in essays such as Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren. 

But as soon as I heard Ferguson’s remarks, I re-read Keynes’ famous quote in full:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

Keynes is actually saying the opposite of what Ferguson implied he was saying. Keynes is saying that economists who say that in the long run unemployment will fall and markets will move back toward equilibrium are making themselves useless. That unemployment will sooner-or-later fall is almost inevitable — eventually storms end, and rough seas become calm again.

But when unemployment has been high for years, and when the unemployed become so discouraged that they drop out of the labour force in vast numbers it is useless to merely quip that sooner or later markets will restore equilibrium. Having soaring unemployment, discouraged workers, rusting skills, dilapidated infrastructure, weak growth and idle capital now and potentially for years to come is a grossly and grotesquely irresponsible position. The effects of mass unemployment are damaging and lingering to families:

The stress of unemployment can lead to declines in individual and family well-being (Belle & Bullock, 2011). The burden of unemployment can also affect outcomes for children. The stress and depressive symptoms associated with job loss can negatively affect parenting practices such as increasing punitive and arbitrary punishment (McLoyd, 1998). As a result, children report more distress and depressive symptoms. Depression in children and adolescents is linked to multiple negative outcomes, including academic problems, substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, physical health problems, impaired social relationships and increased risk of suicide (Birmaher et al., 1996; Chen & Paterson, 2006; Le, Munoz, Ippen, & Stoddard, 2003; Verona & Javdani, 2011; Stolberg, Clark, & Bongar, 2002).

And damaging to wider communities:

Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).

Keynes’ point in the quote Ferguson was discussing was that economists should seek ways and means to minimise such damaging long-term effects. So whether or not we agree with Keynes’ philosophical and political conclusions, it is absolutely misleading to claim that “in the long run we’re all dead” was a call for hedonism or economic irresponsibility.

Any serious criticism of Keynes’ thought requires that critics have actually read and understood Keynes and not just absorbed second-hand caricatures of his ideas.

The Absurdity of NATO

The whole world knows the name Gavrilo Princip, and that of he man he assassinated, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip’s shot triggered the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia that set in motion the chain of events leading to the Great War of 1914.

After Serbia appealed to Russia for help, Russia began moving towards mobilization of its army, believing that Germany was using the crisis as an excuse to launch war in the Balkans. Upon hearing news of Russia’s general mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. The German army then launched its attack on Russia’s ally, France, through Belgium, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Great Britain into the war as well.

Is it possible that a similar chain of events may have already begun unfurling with the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet? Turkey have already invoked a full meeting of NATO,  claimed that Syria have fired on a second Turkish plane, and vowed that Syria’s actions “won’t go unpunished”.

The vast and sprawling system of national alliances that existed prior to the events 1914 were considered by policy makers of the time to be a counterbalance against excessive tension and the threat of war. The great powers created alliances ostensibly for the purpose of deterring war. The dominant view was that the potential for dragging in allies reduced the chances of an attack. In reality, it just meant that one spark could set the entire world aflame.

This is functionally the same as the interconnecting mesh of derivatives and shadow intermediation that foreshadowed the crash of 2008. As financial parties sold each other more and more “hedges“, the consensus of the time was that this made the system safer, as it allowed risk to be dissipated around the system. The theory was — and there were plenty of inaccurate mathematical models to back this up — that spreading risk around the system made the financial system safer. As it turned out, it didn’t. In the wake of MF Global and the London Whale, we know that the financial system has not learned the lessons of 2008. But it seems even more absurd that the diplomatic system has not really learned the lessons of 1914. 

The NATO system — set up to oppose the Warsaw Pact system, which no longer exists — functions the same way — rather than dissipating risk, it allows for the magnification of international tensions into full-on regional and global wars. In the late 20th century the threat of nuclear war proved a highly-effective deterrent which limited the potential for all-out-war between the great powers, offsetting much of the risk of the hyper-fragile treaty system. Yet the potential for magnifying small regional problems into bigger wars will continue to exist for as long as NATO and similar organisations prevail.

We do not know exactly what arrangements Syria has with Russia and China — there is no formal defensive pact in place (although there is one between Syria and Iran) though it is fair to assume that Russia will be keen to maintain its Syrian naval assets, a view which is supported by the fact Russia heavily subsidises the Syrian military, and has blocked all the UN-led efforts toward intervention in Syria.

After the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was allowed to disintegrate. Until NATO is similarly allowed to disintegrate, the threat of magnification will remain large. Could a border skirmish between Syria and Turkey trigger a regional or even global war? Under the status quo, anything is possible.

Another Day, Another Nation Dumps the Dollar

From South Africa’s City Press:

South Africa will this week take some initial steps to unseat the US dollar as the preferred worldwide currency for trade and investment in emerging economies.

Thus, the nation is expected to become party to endorsing the Chinese currency, the renminbi, as the currency of trade in emerging markets.

This means getting a renminbi-denominated bank account, in addition to a dollar account, could be an advantage for African businesses that seek to do business in the emerging markets.

The move is set to challenge the supremacy of the US dollar. This, experts say, is the latest salvo in the greatest worldwide currency war since the 1930s.

Well — like the rest of Africa alongside all of its natural resources which (in spite of Kony 2012’s best efforts) becomes more Chinese by the day — it is clear where South Africa’s allegiance lies. Most interestingly, though, this is the first nation with an Anglo-American economic elite to come out against the present global order and more or less endorse China.

Readers are reminded of this chart:

It is rather intriguing to note, by the way, that when the term “emerging economies” is used, the underlying reality is that these are the productive economies. America’s GDP is mostly spent on the consumption of foreign goods, (or goods made from foreign components), on the back of foreign oil. And the emergent reality of the 21st Century (forward-looking readers will already understand) is that consumptive nations need productive nations, but not vice verse. Right now, without “emerging nations” subsidising American consumption (and agriculture, etc), what would become of the dollar? I think the only thing standing in the way of it becoming toilet paper is U.S. military might. But what would happen to that military might as a result of a global trade slowdown resulting from — for example — the closure of the Strait of Hormuz? As I detailed last week, as a result of her addiction to fragile global trade networks, America has rendered herself extremely fragile.

From the Huffington Post:

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would create an international and economic calamity of unprecedented severity. Here are the crude realities. America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, our government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source recently told me: “We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k).”

Readers may be surprised to learn that I still have a lot of faith in America and the West. Only in the West is there an intellectual climate that allows for the kind of speech published on this blog. A free intellectual climate leads to innovation, and the free and honest exchange of ideas, all of which indirectly spur economic development. And certainly, while America is not perfect, it generally has a freer intellectual climate than most other nations. Further, America has huge reserves of energy and natural resources, and a low population density and thus room to expand.

But ultimately — as we shall over the next ten or twenty years — the present day American consumerism is a glittering economic dead end. The present world order is unravelling, and Americans — like many great empires before them — are in danger of suffering a lot of fallout.

War: The Quickest Way to Kill a Protest Movement?

#OccupyWallStreet is the second incarnation of “mad as hell” since the 2008 corporatist bailouts that effectively killed American capitalism. The first incarnation — the Tea Party, initially a furious response to government bailouts of failed banks — was too easy to astroturf and transmute into right-wing ideologues spouting fire and brimstone on right-wing social issues. It was too easy to discredit for what Fox News, Judson Phillips and Glenn Beck made it into — a non-spontaneous anti-tax anti-Obama ranting brigade. The Tea Party, at least at the leadership level, ended up advocating Bush-Reagan military-industrial hegemony on steroids.

#OccupyWallStreet picks up where the original intentions of the Tea Party were strangled by Beck, Palin and Limbaugh. It’s anti-corporatist. Anti-bailout. Anti-corruption. Yes, many of the people there are old-school statist leftists who want to abolish and not restore capitalism. But there is no doubt that with the global economic apparatus largely failing to appease anyone but insiders and bankers, the hopey-changey sentiments (“we have to give Obama a chance!”) that have been keeping the revolution down can’t be silenced for long. People need jobs, prosperity, fulfilment, and (for better or worse) they’ll make mayhem until they get it.

With global youth-unemployment and underemployment soaring I only expect this movement to balloon and echo around the world. There is a danger — just like the Tea Party was co-opted into the Republican political apparatus — that #OWS will be co-opted into the establishment left. If Obama removed Geithner and hired Krugman and Elizabeth Warren, a significant chunk of the protestors might be placated — for now. But the problems sucking economies down can’t just be wished away. They can’t be solved by printing money and pumping it. They can’t be solved by digging ditches. And thanks to the creation of the internet, and the rise of Facebook and Twitter, until the system functions well enough to give the indignants what they want and need, they will keep causing a ruckus. As Reagan put it:

Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders. … The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.

And so it might seem this totalitarianism might be ended — and God’s workers furiously demanding as much liquidity and favours as is necessary to “save the system” (and their bonuses) with no consideration that the system might itself be the problem is surely a kind of financial totalitarianism.

Sadly, we know how that aphorism from Winston Churchill goes: that Americans will do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.

So a new war in the middle east may seem attractive to some elements of the Western establishment:

  1. Create a new post-9/11-style hard-to-question patriotism — “There’s a war on — we all need to rally together around the flag — the complainers and protestors must hate America”
  2. Put America back to work — in weapons factories, and on the front lines.
  3. Give the economy a large Keynesian injection — through war spending.
  4. Take out Iran, a powerful enemy of America — and send a threatening message to other uppity Eurasian autocracies like Russia and China.
  5. Curtail civil liberties & censor the internet — “There’s a war on — we all need to rally together around the flag — and those who don’t must be working to undermine America”
Let the war propaganda begin in 3…2…1…
The problem is, starting a new Eurasian war carries with it a whole host of risks — not least the possibility of an oil shock and a massive oil spike — and the real prospect of dragging Russia, China, India & Pakistan into the conflagration.

So would Obama authorise and support Netanyahu in instigating regime change in Iran?

Perhaps he might consider it — how else can he get a big stimulus bill through Congress, and divert attention from a failing American economy and growing civil unrest? But more worrying, I’m not even sure Obama matters.

From GulfNews:

In recent weeks, intense discussions have taken place in Israeli military and intelligence circles about whether or not to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Apparently, the key question in the debate was how to ensure that the United States took part in the attack or, at the very least, intervened on Israel’s side if the initial strike triggered a wider war.

Reports of these discussions have caused considerable alarm in Washington and in a number of European capitals. Some western military experts have been quoted as saying that the window of opportunity for an Israeli air attack on Iran will close within two months, since the onset of winter would make such an assault more difficult.

Concern that Israel may decide to attack without giving the US prior warning is thought to be the main reason for the visit to Tel Aviv on October 3 of the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. His aim seems to have been to rein in the Israeli hawks.

Mitt Romney & American Imperial Decline

Mitt Romney’s cure for America’s ills?

More military spending:

Romney set himself apart on Friday, arguing that a weaker military and a smaller global footprint will compromise America’s leadership in the world.

“The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors, and to defend our allies and ourselves,” he said.

Romney said he wants to increase the military budget, mentioning specific projects from naval shipbuilding to a missile defense system. It’s a traditional Republican view of defense that was music to this crowd’s ears.

Romney claims that he wants to cut the debt and cut the deficits and then advocates even greater spending? Gee, that’s just what George W. Bush did:

That huge red spike of debt during George W. Bush’s term? That’s war-spending; Iraq, Afghanistan, and the 865 foreign bases maintained under Bush. That is the spending — not welfare, not medicare, and not infrastructure — that is out of control.

The reality of the American fiscal picture, as I showed in detail here, is that it is a permanent war economy. America’s greatest exports are war and weapons. When it comes to war and weapons, there is no austerity, and that is a sacred cow even to elements of the Tea Party. Look at the world’s top 10 nations in terms of military spending:

Is that a portrait of fiscal restraint? Or is that a portrait of ever-expanding military spending, flying in the face of the fact that the United States won the Cold war, and has no serious global rivals? And has this huge fiscal spending on war and weapons created a resilient and prosperous economy? No — there has been no real growth in the United States since 2007unemployment is persistently highfood stamps participation is rising,reliance on Arab oil and Chinese manufacturing is ever-present, road infrastructure is worsening, and so forth. That’s because spending hasn’t been targeted to what people need, but instead to the destructive and perverse racket that is permanent warfare, that serves the interests only of the military-industrial complex.

Humanity has been here before.

From Niall Ferguson:

Rome fell through a combination of external overreach, internal corruption, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion. That the United States—and, perhaps even more, the European Union—might have something to learn from his account is too seldom acknowledged, perhaps because Americans and Europeans like to pretend that their polities today are something more exalted than empires. But suppose for a moment (as the Georgetown University historian Charles Kupchan has suggested in The End of the American Era ) that Washington really is the Rome of our time, while Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, is Byzantium, the city transformed in the fourth century into the second imperial capital, Constantinople. Like the later Roman Empire, the West today has its Western and Eastern halves, though they are separated by the Atlantic rather than the Adriatic. And that is not the only thing we have in common with our Roman predecessors of a millennium and a half ago.

There is a well-established American tradition, perhaps best expressed by Gore Vidal in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, of worrying that the United States might go the way of Rome. But the perennial liberal fear is of the early Roman predicament more than the late one. It is the fear that the republican institutions of the United States—above all, its hallowed Constitution, based on the careful separation of powers—could be corrupted by the ambitions of an imperial presidency. Every time a commander in chief attempts to increase the power of the executive branch, pleading wartime exigency, there is a predictable chorus of “The Republic is in danger.” We have heard that chorus most recently with respect to the status of prisoners detained without trial at Guantánamo Bay and the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected insurgents in Iraq.

Gibbon could scarcely ignore the question of the Roman republic’s decay. Indeed, there is an important passage in The Decline and Fall that specifically deals with the revival of torture as a tool of tyranny. Few generations of Englishmen were more sensitive than Gibbon’s to the charge that their own ideals of liberty were being subverted by the temptations of empire. The year when his first volume appeared was also the year the American colonies used precisely that charge to justify their own bid for independence.

Yet Gibbon’s real interest lay elsewhere, with the period of Roman decline long after republican virtue had yielded to imperial vice. The Decline and Fall is not concerned with the fall of the republic. It is a story that properly begins with the first signs of imperial overstretch. Until the time of the Emperor Julian (A.D. 331–63), Rome could still confidently send its legions as far as the river Tigris. Yet Julian’s invasion of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, but then under Persian rule) proved to be his undoing. According to Gibbon, he had resolved, “by the final conquest of Persia, to chastise the haughty nation which had so long resisted and insulted the majesty of Rome.” Although initially victorious at Ctesiphon (approximately 20 miles southeast of modern Baghdad), Julian was forced by his enemy’s scorched-earth policy to retreat back to Roman territory. “As soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted [his] march,” Gibbon relates, “he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert.” The Persians harried his famished legions as they withdrew. In one skirmish, Julian himself was fatally wounded.

What had gone wrong? The answer sheds revealing light on some of the problems the United States currently faces in the same troubled region. A recurrent theme of Gibbon’s work is that the Romans gradually lost “the animating health and vigour” which had made them militarily invincible in the glory days of Julian’s predecessor Trajan. They had lost their discipline. They started complaining about the weight of their armor. In a word, they had gone soft. At the same time, like most armies, their fighting effectiveness diminished the farther they were from home.

Most of us take it for granted that the United States Army is the best in the world. It might be more accurate to say that it is the best equipped and the best fed. More doubtful is how well it is configured to win a protracted low-intensity conflict in a country such as Iraq. One sign of the times that might have amused Gibbon has been the recent relaxation of conditions for recruits undergoing basic training. (A friend of mine who was in the army snorted with derision on hearing that trainees are now allowed eight and a half hours of sleep a night.) Another symptom of military malaise has been the heavy reliance of the Defense Department on National Guard and reserve troops, who have at times accounted for about half of the U.S. contingent deployed in Iraq.

The real problem, however, is a simple matter of numbers. To put it bluntly, the United States has a chronic manpower deficit, which means it cannot put enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order in conquered territory. This is not because it lacks young men; it has at least seven times as many as Iraq. It is that it chooses, for a variety of reasons, to employ only a tiny proportion of its population (half of 1 percent) in its armed forces, and to deploy only a fraction of these in overseas conflict zones.

Rome, like America was a distinctly divided empire in terms of social class, in terms of its economy, in terms of ideology, and in terms of geography. Once, the threat of Soviet dominance kept America strong. But no longer. The culture wars are tearing America apart, and America’s imperial grasp for resources is bankrupting the nation’s treasury. Globalisation has ripped the heart out of American supply chains, manufacturing and its labour force. Financialisation has created classes of greedy parasites, and a hungry and furious class of have-nots. Without global goods and oil, a service economy is fundamentally unsustainable.

And that is what this is about — trying to tighten America’s grip on the things on which the American empire is dependent — oil, and foreign goods. Romney’s play is about trying to sustain the free-lunch economics of Nixon and Kissinger instead of undertaking painful and reforms (i.e. energy independence, reindustrialisation, welfare reform, and demilitarisation) necessary to make America competitive in a multi-polar world.

What Romney misunderstands is just how fragile the American Empire is to a global trade war, or an oil shock, or any number of externalities.

As I wrote last month:

In my view, America’s economic health is totally dependent upon two things: the flow of dollars to the middle east in exchange for oil, and the flow of dollars to China for consumer goods. Any disruption to either or both of these flows would result in sustained and significant disruption to America’s economy

More military spending, and subsequent debt acquisition will heavily devalue the already-devalued dollar, which in turn will merely hasten the decline and fall of the American Empire for ultimately the same reasons as Rome: external overreach, internal corruption, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion.