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.

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The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes

As I’ve covered in pretty excruciating depth these past few weeks, the Euro in its current form is sliding unrelentingly into the grave.

Some traders seem pretty excited about that eventuality.

Why? There’s plenty of money to be made killing the Euro, (just like there was plenty of money to be made in naked-shorting Lehman brothers to death):

Markets are ruled right now by fear. Investors: the big money, the smart money, the big funds, the hedge funds, the institutions, they don’t buy this rescue plan. They know the market is toast. They know the stock market is finished, the euro, as far as the Euro is concerned they don’t really care. They’re moving their money away to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.

I would say this to everybody who’s watching this. This economic crisis is like a cancer. If you just wait and wait thinking this is going to go away, just like a cancer it’s going to grow and it’s going to be too late.

This is not a time to wishfully think the governments are going to sort this out. The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.

A few points:

“They’re moving their money to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.”

Safer assets like the US dollar? Sure, that’s what the textbooks tell you has been the safest asset in the post-war era. But are they really safe assets? On dollars, interest rates are next to zero. This means that any inflation results in negative real rates, killing purchasing power. Let’s have a look at the yields on those “super-safe” 30-year bonds:

At 2.87%, and with inflation sitting above 3.5% these are experiencing a net loss in purchasing power, too. Yes, it’s better than losing (at least) half your purchasing power on Greek sovereign debt, or watching as equities tank. But with the virtual guarantee that stagnant stock markets will usher in a new tsunami of QE cash (or better still, excess reserves) expect inflation, further crushing purchasing power.” 

“The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.” 

Well Goldman Sachs are the ones who convinced half the market to price in QE3. And they’re also making big noise demanding action in the Eurozone. I’m not denying Goldman don’t have massive power — or that they are ready and willing to book massive profits on Eurozone collapse. But — like everything in this crooked and corrupt system — they are vulnerable to liquidity crises triggered by the cascade of defaults that both myself and Tim Geithner (of all people) have talked about over the past week.

Of course, we all know that as soon as that tidal wave of defaults start, global “financial stabilisation” packages will flood the market to save Goldman and J.P. Morgan, and anything else deemed to be “infrastructurally important”, and survivors will take their pick of M&A from the collateral damage.

And kicking the can down the road using the same policy tools that Bernanke has been using for the past three years (i.e., forcing rates lower and-or forcing inflation higher) will result in harsher negative real rates — making treasuries into an even worse investment. Eventually (i.e., soon) the institutional investors — and more importantly (because their holdings are larger) the sovereign investors — will realise that their capital is rotting and panic. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that China in particular is quietly panicking now. The only weapon Bernanke has is devaluation (in its many forms) — which is why he has been so vocal in asking for stimulus from the fiscal side.  

And — in spite of the last week’s gold liquidation, as China realised long ago — the last haven standing will be gold. Why? Because unlike treasuries and cash it maintains its purchasing power in the long run.

The Emperor is wearing no clothes.