Having borrowed Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy from libraries in California and Kentucky without finishing it, I finally just bought a copy. It’s a really fine book, but there’s so much in it that two weeks wasn’t enough.
The basic argument is that the American empire is going under. In this, Phillips agrees with Emmanuel Todd. But while Todd looks at general historical and demographic trends, Phillips is concerned with three problems that have plagued previous empires, particularly the Spanish, Dutch, and British:
The first item wasn’t too important to Spain, but applies to the Dutch and British. All three, obviously, apply to us in spades.
I’m currently in the third section, mainly concerned with the enormous debt burden the US has generated in the last couple of decades. All three sections are dense, and I’m not ready to characterize any of them yet. But I can’t resist some quotes.
Chapter 9, “Debt”, begins with these:
Historically, the financialization of society has always been a symbol that a nation’s economic position has entered a phase of deterioration. — William Wolman and Anne Colamosca, The Judas Economy, 1997
The lesson of history is that we don’t learn the lessons of history. — Thomas G. Donlan, Barron’s, 2005
Not that it’s much comfort, but we’re not alone in this. No one’s learned the lessons that we’re failing to learn.
A seventeenth-century Spaniard enthused: “Let London manufacture those fine fabrics, … Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her broaches; India and Flanders their linens … so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of parliaments, for all the world serves her, and she serves nobody.”
I understand the attitude. Gauss called mathematics the queen of sciences because all sciences learn from math, but math learns from nothing but itself. But only a fool would imagine that such a distinction is permanent in human affairs. Unfortunately fools are drawn to power. Witness the neocons, of whom we can hope that Saul Landau’s description will soon be true: one who is new to jail.
Here’s a British version of the sentiment.
The plains of North America and Russia are our cornfields; Chicago and Odessa are our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber forests, Australia contains our sheep farms, and in Argentina and on the western prairies of North America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of South Africa and Australia flows to London; the Hindus and the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar and spice plantations are all in the Indies, Spain and France are our vineyards, and the Mediterranean our fruit garden.
The Romans could say similar things. How’d that work out for them?