Friday, March 27, 2009

7 Pillars of Folly: How to blow an Empire in 7 easy steps

The great gift and great curse of the student of History is the utter lack of surprise about current events. When one knows the Past, one can predict the Future, as Mankind has a propensity for repetition of behavior. There are no limits to human folly, and we are rather lucky, as there are rescuers who emerge from obscurity and swoop in and help us overcome ridiculous odds, during our darkest hours. The US has had more than its fair share of such souls: Washington and the Founding Gang, Lincoln, FDR, possibly Obama. It is our stupidity, greed and fear that leads us into dark corners, and so far, we have been graced with amazing human beings to lead us out into the Light again. Other cultures are not so fortunate.

The American Century may be coming to a close before we hit the 100 year mark. We are in the process of blowing an Empire, just as our proud Pappy, the United Kingdom, did around the turn of the last century. Is this a bad thing? Should there be Empires anymore? My only complaint is that I may be proven right about the American Sunset, which in many ways, will be a loss to the world. Our track record as a World Leader over the past 40 years has been rather dismal, and it is understandable why many in the World are losing faith in us.

Globalization isn't a new thing. Empires have been carving up maps and claiming large chunks of land as their own for eons. The Romans did it, the Spanish, the Chinese, anyone with a map and crayons and the egoistic belief that they had the right to draw the lines, has carved up the World, Old World, Middle Kingdom, and the New World to suit their own purposes again and again. World Trade has existed for as long as the map carving, probably even before the maps. The Slave Trade, The Spice Road, the Silk Road, the Tobacco Road, The Cotton Trade, Sugar Trade, and the Tourist Trade have entailed multiple nations and oceans, so Global Trade has been around for nearly as long as people. The Tourist Trade is the most fascinating to me as it spawned Crusades and countless Holy Wars. Armies and nations were formed just because a bunch of Pilgrims wanted to get some postcards and shot glasses from Bethlehem.

Most of us focus on the rise of Empires, but the decline and fall is packed with lessons and examples to make current events seem creepily familiar. As we shudder under our current state of peril, we can look back at our ancestor, Great Britain, and learn from her downfall. But how does an Empire, upon which the sun never set, crumble into a nation filled with Oxfam shops? It wasn't easy; it took years of poor management and loads of bad decisions, but we can break it down into seven easy steps, and feel slightly queasy when we consider that we have followed in the dinosaur's footsteps.

The British Empire was a splendorous conglomeration of slave states and outsourced manufacturing. She had a Navy no one could beat and the British Pound was second only to gold as currency. Sound familiar? Let's take a closer look at the Decline and Fall.

Poor Leadership at a Critical Time:

The UK: Have a boorish, nearly insane, King (hmm, his name was George), through bad manners, alienate your biggest cash cow – The Colonies – into a state of rebellion. The Colonies was the greatest money-making scheme ever created. This start-up had a no-cost labor model which consisted of conscripted, indentured, penal, slave, and ambitious-non-fist-born-sons. It turned Great Britain into an economic powerhouse that France, Spain and Russia were hard-pressed to compete against. And George lost it.

The US: Have a boorish, inept President (hmm, his name was George) start a “preemptive” war with a country in the Middle East with the supposition that our invading army would be greeted with flowers and song. The whole picnic would be paid for by Iraqi oil, which would flow, effortlessly from the fields as we grandly flicked the ON switch. Oh yeah, 50 years of good will towards to the US evaporates in a few weeks. And yeah, we alienate our friends and allies and delight our enemies. Oh yeah, we pay for the conflict with debt.

Open Conflict with your Prime Trading Partner:

The UK: Not only did George lose his primary supplier and leading consumer of goods, he earned a persistent, canny, eager-to-snipe enemy. He chose to go to war with the Colonies just as Napoleon was looking at the Royal Rear-End for the tastiest place to chomp. And Napoleon was a master of topography.

George chose to fight a war with very long supply lines and hostile natives. Warring with your prime trade partner and supplier of raw materials is just plain dumb.

In hindsight, I have no understanding for why he didn't make the smallest concessions for Parliamentary representation of the Colonies. It would have saved the Empire!

The US: Not only did George start an unsuccessful, expensive war with a certain Middle Eastern country, his poor fiscal policies resulted in the massive deflation of US currency. We happened to owe a lot of our currency to the Chinese Government. By deflating our currency, we basically thought we could underhandedly “reduce” the trade gap with China. The Chinese aren't pleased with us. In fact, they have proposed the creation of a new currency in favor of the dollar.

Manufacturing Mishaps, Outsourcing Yourself out of Existence:

The UK: Once the Cotton Trade was restored, Britain outsourced a lot of manufacturing to India, only to be nearly crushed by the Civil War which engulfed the Dis-United States. Crippling cotton prices and reduced supply put the squeeze on the British Economy. They got lucky and the Industrial Revolution, the Cotton Gin, global demand for steel, and the Railway saved their bacon.

The whole thing could have been avoided had the Crown agreed to dissolve Slavery, when Colonists, nervous of being replaced by no-cost labor, petitioned to ban Slavery in the Colonies, the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery was the earliest noted in Wikipedia.

The US: As part of globalization, in the spirit of “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em”, in an effort to compete with slave labor ,we exported our manufacturing base to Asia and with it, most Middle Class jobs, thus making most Americans downwardly mobile and reducing the tax base. Even worse – guess who is now making most of the products that we buy with our devalued currency? The very same country that wants to start a new currency.... The only upside was that Kathy Lee Gifford was given some grief for her clothing line being manufactured by slaves.

Social and Economic Policies that Concentrate most Wealth into a Tiny Percentage of the Population

The UK: until WWI, this was standard practice, and it didn't appear to hamper the Empire building, but once the cracks were there, the Empire crumbled so quickly because there wasn't a middle class to absorb the blow.

The US: At the turn of the this century and last century, there was a large gap between the classes. At the turn of the last century, we had a tiny, struggling middle class. We also had multiple panics, social unrest, and a stagnant standard of living. Our Golden Age was 1950 – 2000, when we had an expanding, strong middle class. During these 50 years, we enjoyed greater economic and social stability compared with the last century, and an impressive rise in the standard of living. Granted this was partly due to our being the only country on Earth not bombed to bits from the aftermath of WWII.

I am still a strong proponent of the Middle Class. Their conservative investments and hopes for a better future for their children truly builds Empires like nothing else.

The Wealthy Few Fail to Manage their Assets

If you concentrate the wealth in the hands of the few and they blow it, then the country goes broke rather fast and hard.

The UK: During the Industrial Revolution, the Merchants and Industrialists made big bucks, but the Landed Gentry, those who held most of the wealth of the land, couldn't recognize that wealth transitioned from land-ownership to less concrete investments, like stocks and ownership of businesses. By the 1880s, the landed gentry was hurting and marrying the wealthy offspring of American capitalists to support their estates. While Winston Churchill was the result of one of these unions, most Brits wish they could have saved themselves from Yankee wedlock.

The US: Our wealthy few got addicted to unrealistic yields on investments made via globalization. They figured out a way to set up businesses that could take advantage of the perks of the Modern Economies of US and others, eluding taxation while reaping the huge profits in slave labor, which is plentiful, but not within Industrialized Nations. They literally had the best of both worlds for almost 20 years. They became addicted to enormous profits, and when the Third World started to perk up, and workers started getting a decent wage, that cut into the huge, unrealistic profit margins. Investors got antsy and so purveyors of “investment instruments”, felt compelled to invent some really crazy, leveraged-risk schemes like credit default swaps and all kinds of other risky “investments” that were thinly disguised shell games. This greed started in the US, and unfortunately, it has infected the world economy.

But the US will fall very hard in this because the Middle Class has lost its earning base with all the outsourced manufacturing, and hasn't been able to save for about 15 years, and isn't in a position to cushion the blow as most folks in the Middle Class are living on credit.

Corruption and/or Bankruptcy of the Middle Class

The UK: Here is where my thesis wavers. I can find how this happened in Rome, but not the UK. Perhaps since the Middle Class is still kind of a shadow thing in the UK, they haven't ever gotten large enough to become corrupt.

So let's go to Rome instead: Lead poisoning? Orgies? What was it that caused Roman society to fall apart? But Fall it did; it could have been from poor governance, but the only way democracy rots into this kind of failure is when constituencies stop making demands from their leaders.

The US: Ben Franklin, when asked what kind of government he and his posse was going to give the Ex-Colonies, said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” ( Ben was convinced that the Republic would eventually fall when the average citizen became corrupt. Jefferson thought this was a ridiculous idea; the Republic would never fall in a land of independent farmers. They would be perpetually busy in the vital business of growing food for the populace. No chance of sloth here, Bennie boy! But then, Jefferson thought there might be living dinosaurs out West and was disappointed when Louis and Clark didn't bring any home. Genius has its limits. The authors of this link try very hard to guild the lily concerning Jefferson's erroneous beliefs.

Well, here we are. The Average Joe doesn't live within his means, is hoping to become a rock star or millionaire. Most women worship graven images of celebrities. We live on credit. Our communities are non-existent, and we are generally an ungrateful bunch. I think our addiction to television, crappy food and questionable heros are all symptoms of some sort of corruption.

An Un-winnable War in the Graveyard of Empires: Afghanistan

Don't let the cute costume fool you, those tribal leaders are tough, resilient, independent-minded, and government-averse. Oh yeah, and they are bred to fight. But don't take my word for it, check out all the Empires that have wheezed out their last in Afghanistan. If you don't feel like reading all of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, just read the bit about Afghanistan. It is a logistical nightmare for an invading or occupying army. It's infrastructure sucks, it has almost zero arable land (save for the poppies), and its terrain is mountainous – perfect for hiding people, arms and ambushes.

It reminds one of some mythic mirror which shows the tragic flaw of all Empires that have blundered into it.

The Romans – Pax Romana, met their end when they tried to conquer it to “preserve the Peace.”

The British – Why on earth did they bother? Probably to reduce border violence in the Pakistan/India 'hood, but they learned the hard way that no one wanders into the A-hood without serious losses.

The Russians – The Russians are extremely paranoid and haven't gotten over the many bloody invasions they have suffered over the millenia. They specialize in preventative military invasions. We lured them into Afghanistan in a effort to speed the decline of the USSR. It worked! We even armed the Taliban to better harass Russian soldiers. We taught Bin Laden a lot about Guerilla Warfare. Read Charlie Wilson's War for all the gory details.

The US – This just in: we are going to swing more soldiers and money into Afghanistan. I believe that Obama has all the right intentions and understands the difficulty of this endeavor, but history has proven this area to be impossible to control through organized force. It must be done tribe-by-tribe, and even then, their loyalty to outsiders, and to each other, is fleeting and volatile. Our best chance is to help them get those poppies to be legal. Once they are part of a legitimate economy, standardized, tested and taxed, a real economy could emerge from Afghanistan. And where are the oil and gas deposits? What is our real motive for this?

There we have it folks, the 7 easy steps to dissolution of an Empire. Personally, I like the John Lennon vision from his song, Imagine. Imagine all the people, living life in peace, without attachment to the material. This might be possible if we all believed in an abundant universe, and merciful god, and above all, if each of us believed in all the rest of us, and in ourselves.

This vision of the world is a rare one, but I know I'm not the only one. I hope one day you can join us, and the world will live as one.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Deadly Formula

Hopelessness(as a function of indifference) + poverty + time = genocide

Read the headlines and it’s there. Killing and more killing. 5 soldiers died today in Kabul. We hear of the small deaths and are only sometimes shocked when the totals are occasionally revealed. But the carnage is so far away that we don’t understand it and the individual deaths are only small drops of blood that don’t mean anything to us. We are steeped in the worst of conditions: indifference. We are the cause of global woe because by doing nothing, we indicate to the leadership that the situation is acceptable.

The reality remains. Our indifference is, was, and will be the cause of suffering; and eventually that suffering will come to visit us on our front stoop.

To understand the aforementioned formula for genocide, I humbly ask you to consider the following historical events and economic concepts. As these are not taught in our school systems, I have provided recommended reading if you’d like to expand your awareness of this sadly unknown part of World History. Our current oil woes and military debacle in Iraq are directly inherited from WWI and WWII. Iraq as a killing field is not a new thing. Us not knowing history has doomed us to repeat it.

· How much do you know about the Treaty of Versailles? Get some background on Wikipedia; it’s enough to help you see the big picture.
· Do you know what daily life became in Post WWI Germany? Do you understand the economics of the Weimar Republic and how its collapse affected the rest of Europe? Read Roth’s What I saw: reports from Berlin 1920-1933.
· Do you understand that all parties of the war bankrupted themselves and their citizenry and the devastation and ruin of WWI lead to the Great Depression?
· Do you understand the economic concepts of Sunk Cost and Lost Opportunity and how these costs become alarmingly magnified by wars and cause economic havoc for decades if not centuries? Read Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.
· Do you understand the folly of WWI and why the stupidest, largest waste of human life (if you include WWII as a continuation) even started? Read Tuchman’s Guns of August
· Do you understand why “Peace without Victory” could not stop the conflict?
· Do you understand Imperial politics and that Globalization existed in many disgusting forms that the English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian and French governments exploited for centuries? Any decent textbook on European History will cover this.

Our educational system doesn’t allow us to connect the dots. How does genocide get started? Is this a phenomenon just of WWII or did it happen before? Can it happen again?

Genocide is always a risk when you have weapons of mass destruction and an attitude of indifference in surrounding nations.

We are taught to be indifferent because our erroneous value system encourages us to believe that wars are good for the economy. This false notion is planted early, mainly by what we are taught about WWII.

As the “victors” we got to write the history (read Churchill’s excellent history on WWII). A typical American is taught minimally about WWI and WWII is presented in an American classroom as a “good war”. It is presented as an economic “cure” for the Great Depression. There is no such thing as a good war. And as long as we view wars as economic stimulus packages, then we are doomed to be perpetually at war, in constant conflict because we lack the ingenuity and faith to build a sustainable economic way of being. Read Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

The reality of the World Wars is this: WWI was a pissing contest that went out of control between France and Germany. By its end, WWI became a relentless oil grab that had to cease due to both sides running out of men and money. They needed the 25 years in between the wars to grow more men and to raise or steal the money needed to continue the conflict and the oil grab.

But whom should we blame? If blame must be assigned, and there is plenty of idiocy to satisfy multiple theories, let us rest the bulk of it on France’s leadership. France had a global empire for centuries and pissed it away through poor stewardship and inbred management principles. Her people wised up and during the French Revolution got rid of one of the worst governments to ever curse a populace.

But the culture of ruling with the passions was instilled in France and she continued to wage war, most famously with Napoleon. (The Napoleonic wars technically were the First World War because the wars were global conflicts. America famously avoided it by not getting sucked into either side; we merely sold arms to the fighters. We sought to emulate this model for WWI, but couldn’t stay out of the fray.)

Napoleon really pissed off the Teutonic tribes by invading them, humiliating them and stealing their land. But since warfare in those days was dictated by Sea Power, the Teutonic Tribes didn’t stand a chance as they were not united and were hopelessly landlocked. This lesson was not lost on Hitler and his generals.

So now we can lay the blame on France for not being the grown-up in the Franco-Prussian/German relationship. It was up to France to bind up the wounds after the Napoleon fiasco and make friends with her embittered neighbor. This did not happen and we are stuck with the grisly inheritance of 2 World Wars with millions of dead people; death on such a vast scale that we are unable to understand or place proper value to the loss.

Since France and Germany were unable to come to a satisfactory settlement of their issues on the battlefield, the fighting continued at the Peace Conference (what an ironic thing to call it!) in 1919. Since all the European powers were bled dry to the point where they couldn’t afford to bury the dead soldiers and left the many hundred thousands of bodies to rot where they fell, one has to wonder why France got to dictate the Terms of Surrender for Germany. Both countries lost that war, but since Germany was narrowly outmanned by the combined armed forces of Britain, France and the US the war was called in The Triple Alliance’s favor.

If you are familiar with the Great Disservice to Humanity cooked up in 1919, you’ll understand the cruel and stupid terms that Germany had to agree to after the war. These terms, as you know, were not tenable and resulted in the collapse of Germany’s economy, which triggered the Great Depression. Thank you, France!

To fully grasp how bad things were in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power, I beseech you to read Read Roth’s What I saw: reports from Berlin 1920-1933. This horrifying account of the economic devastation suffered by the Germans will open your eyes to the depths that people can sink even in the “modern” world. Her neighbors were also broke, so no one tried to bail Germany out except for the US. And when Weimar failed, we ignored Germany’s plight as we sank into the Great Depression.

Isaac Newton observed that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true of physics and of human interactions.

The economics of Post-WWI Germany was a breeding ground for war mongering. The violence of global indifference to the plight of the average German was turned into Potential Energy. This Potential Energy was turned into the Kinetic Energy of War when a man like Hitler came to power and sanctioned and focused the despair and hatred that average Germans felt because they had been treated with the worst of all human emotions: indifference.

It was indifference that allowed the stupidity of Versailles to prevail; indifference that left Germany alone so she could re-arm; indifference that lead to global pacification; indifference that allowed Germany to kill millions of her own citizens; indifference that allowed Germany to annex Austria and roll into Czechoslovakia; indifference that allowed America to be sidelined until it was nearly Germany’s game. And we only came into the war because the Japanese dared to encroach on “our” ocean ironically named the Pacific. For more in indifference, read Johnson’s What we knew: terror, mass murder and everyday life in Nazi Germany.

We all pay the price as young men who grow up in dire, hopeless poverty, turn into hating, killing machines. This is happening today on our continent in the Inner Cities of the US, and in Mexico’s drug cartels. It is happening all over the world. The Kamikazi fighting mentality is reborn in the men and women who will blow themselves up in endlessly futile gestures of violence that results in more violence.

This same economic foment is going on in Darfur, it existed for years in Somalia and Rwanda, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must learn this deadly formula over and over:

Hopelessness(as a function of indifference) + poverty + time = genocide


Author’s note:
The author has special knowledge of neither Iraq, nor Middle Eastern studies; this puts him on a level playing field with our esteemed national Deciders.

Tribalism in Arabia and America
Based on our simplistic approach to Iraq, it would seem we have no idea about tribalism. Ironically, the US has had a long history of it. From The Hatfields and McCoys to dueling politicians to the Trail of Tears, to the War Between the States, we have had first-hand experience with tribes. It is time for us to refocus the current strife in Iraq and consider how much we have in common with feuding tribal people.

Tribalism in Arabia
Long ago, there was a great civilization in Arabia. While we wandered through morasses of pig shit in Europe, the Arabs had an advanced culture and an excellent standard of living. For reasons unknown to the ignorant author, one day, there were only Tribes in Arabia. And they didn’t get along because of limited water resources and vastly differing codes of conduct that separated the tribes from each other, similar to tribal differences that caused unending friction among American Indians.
So the tribes warred amongst one another, and the West took no notice after the Crusades. Then in the 1880s, Imperial Europe turned to the Persian Gulf, at first purely out of trade routes in case the War to End all Wars should come to fruition. After all, they had spent so much time and money on military strategies, it seemed a terrible waste to shelve them.

Tribalism in Europe
Europe was a collection of tribes cleverly disguised as nations. The balance of power in Europe was an unstable mess and Germany, a late-comer to the Imperial game, was lagging behind the other powers. She feared trade wars and being cut out of the global game, so she did something very clever. Germany befriended the Turks and the Turks welcomed German money and engineering, as they were stumbling a bit as an empire, too. Since Germany was landlocked, she came up with the brilliant idea of building a railway across the desert that would give her direct access to the East and the ability to get around Britain’s all-powerful Navy and the profit-sucking tolls of the Suez Canal. In the event of war, the railroad would move troops and fuel out of range of the pesky British gunboats.

The British and French were non-plussed at this friendship, but allowed the rails to be built, since they had no reason to stop them until the war began. And once the fighting started, and the realities of mechanized war’s dependency on fuel sank in, oil became a deciding factor in armed conflict.

The Turks had already joined with Germany, so that meant that the Arabs needed to be courted to the British side. One would think this wouldn’t be so hard to do, since the Turks were cruel overlords to the Arabs and the normal foreign policy line of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” should have applied to the Arabs and British/French alliance.

Tribalism and deal-making made this process a painful one and some tribes went with the Turks, because they believed the Turks would win and exact terrible revenge on the Arabs should they have taken up arms against their oppressors.

It is important to note the complexities for the Arabs in picking sides for WWI. The choices weren’t obvious for them then, just as they aren’t obvious now: there is no Arab identity. They are still inherently tribal. We can draw lines on maps until the camels come home, it ain’t gonna change the fundamental differences that our cultures have. Arabs don’t believe in lines on maps. They don’t stand in straight lines waiting at the market. They don’t observe traffic signs. They operate in a totally different way from us, and because the West has superior weapons technology, the Arabs have had to knuckle under to our power, but there is intense desire in them to live life the way they see fit. It is a way that makes no sense to us.

Until now, we have been the dominant culture and we have called the shots. And we are justifiably terrified that this may change because we need their crude.

The Arabs were able to unite, for a brief time, during their revolt against the Turks. The British capitalized on this and managed to eek out a victory in the East, which they added to the stalemate at the unsatisfying, and inconclusive, end of WWI.
In Paris, 1919, both sides were bled nearly dry and of course, the “victors” divvied up the spoils of war. They looked at likely places the oil would be and drew lines on maps according to the oil fields. This is how Iraq came into being.

Britain and France also denied the Arabs credit for their part in said “victory” and relegated them to being under French rule instead of allowing Arabs to have self-government. It is this essential betrayal that has fueled anti-West sentiments in this century. Let’s leave the Crusades out of this discussion.

Tribalism in America
America is a strange place. We can’t understand why Iraq is having such a rough time getting their governmental act together. But compare the arbitrary granting of Iraq’s existence at a cursed table in Paris, 1919 to the 400 year progression that lead to the formation of our nation. We evolved slowly over time. Our country was funded by British, French and Spanish sources, all of which used colonies to generate revenue for the respective motherlands.

We got this unbelievable break with the founding fathers and their ingenious system of distribution of power through representative democracy; checks and balances; separation of church and state; religious tolerance; and the Trinity of government: the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches. And these tenets of our government took years to evolve as well. And their evolution wasn’t easy or pretty. They were resultant of intellectual dogfights among intellectual giants. Jefferson was so disgusted with the process, and so convinced that we got it wrong, that after one such fight, he retreated to Monticello and didn’t talk to anyone for three years. How can we expect the Iraqis, whose intellectual base has been eroded through inprisonment, executions and exile, to suddenly spring up from oppression and start a healthy democratic debate?

We had 400 years of slave labor, which created a false economy and allowed for huge profits to be made from human labor. We eliminated Native tribalism through accidental germ warfare and military conquest. And finally, we ended American Tribalism with the War Between the States. And still, we are the red and blue states and seethe with differences.

To understand the Iraqi perspective, (and granted insurgents are mostly from outside Iraq, because the situation is so much more complex than anyone has guessed at) use the following flawed model.

Imagine, if you will, that during our revolution, the French came in. They took over operations; occupied our country with their military; and made us all eat snails; and we paid extra taxes so that the leadership in France could each buy extra powdered wig and support a mistress. How would the colonists have reacted? Maybe a few road-side cart bombs at first, but it would have escalated from there….

There is no solution to our predicament. If we leave, it will appear as though we triggered a long-suppressed civil war. If we stay, it will appear as though we triggered a long-suppressed civil war. We can’t stay. The supply lines are too long to support. Our allies are weary of us. And those we sought to “liberate” are also growing tired of our presence.

We will repeat the pattern of Vietnam. We’ll expand the war, just as we did in Vietnam (Laos, Cambodia, meet Iran). We will be chased out in disgrace. But the costs of this war are so much higher. We have lost international trust and after we get chased out, we’ll be seen as ineffectual.

To add to the mix, we are vulnerable to trade wars with China and Europe. Our currency is weak, our debts are high, our base for business has been badly eroded due to giving our manufacturing base away to our economic competitors. Our financial system, once seen as honest, transparent and trustworthy, has been wracked with scandal and financial failure. International trade and banking are shifting from New York to London and China.

Perhaps this happened to the splendor of Arabia – she lost her luster and spent her intellectual and monetary capital on things that failed to contribute to the greater good. She paid a high price, as we will.