Tuesday, December 01, 2009
If you have not yet read Niall Ferguson's story in the current issue of Newsweek, do yourself a favor and have a quick look because you'll be reading more and more of this sort of thing over the next few years. Sometime in the next decade, this will become mainstream thinking.
Call it the fractal geometry of fiscal crisis. If you fly across the Atlantic on a clear day, you can look down and see the same phenomenon but on four entirely different scales. At one extreme there is tiny Iceland. Then there is little Ireland, followed by medium-size Britain. They're all a good deal smaller than the mighty United States. But in each case the economic crisis has taken the same form: a massive banking crisis, followed by an equally massive fiscal crisis as the government stepped in to bail out the private financial system.He goes on to detail how our debts could someday do us in, what for many would appear to be a near certainty since, throughout history, empires tend to overreach and, at their peak, evolve into finance-centric economies where there's nowhere to go but down.
Size matters, of course. For the smaller countries, the financial losses arising from this crisis are a great deal larger in relation to their gross domestic product than they are for the United States. Yet the stakes are higher in the American case. In the great scheme of things—let's be frank—it does not matter much if Iceland teeters on the brink of fiscal collapse, or Ireland, for that matter. The locals suffer, but the world goes on much as usual.
But if the United States succumbs to a fiscal crisis, as an increasing number of economic experts fear it may, then the entire balance of global economic power could shift. Military experts talk as if the president's decision about whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan is a make-or-break moment. In reality, his indecision about the deficit could matter much more for the country's long-term national security. Call the United States what you like—superpower, hegemon, or empire—but its ability to manage its finances is closely tied to its ability to remain the predominant global military power. Here's why.
Also see Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.