A week ago, the day after the U.S. elections, I had my teeth cleaned over at my dentist in Vancouver. While he was inspecting my mouth, to make conversation he said, “And what about the election down southwere you following that?”
“Not really,” I said. “I think they’ve got systemic problems that are beyond the power of party politics to fix.”
My dentist quickly skated away to a different subject, maybe sensing that I might be a fanatic of some kind. I’m notat least, I certainly don’t want to be. But maybe I’ll try to elaborate on my thought here.
I’ve reflected on what exactly I meant by my term systemic problems, and have put my finger on three specific ones. If I had to list them in order of increasing toxicity to the society in which they occur, this would be it:
- credit expansion
Each of these is a virulent cancer in the body politic; together they constitute a formidable and probably fatal disease.
My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines militarism as:
1a: predominance of the military class or its ideals b: exaltation of military virtues and ideals 2: a policy of aggressive military preparedness
I believe that these definitions fairly describe the United States, at least at the official level. The huge size of its military, the profligacy of its military spending, and the increasing reliance on force as its primary foreign-policy tool all speak to this. The turning-point seems to have been World War II, when the vast forces mobilized for the war were not fully demobilized afterwards, as they had been after World War I. The arrival of the Cold War put the country on a new, more militarized footing. This new militarism was symbolized by the creation of the Pentagon. When President Roosevelt, shocked at the grandioseness of the proposed structure, told its project managers to halve its size, they ignored him and built what was then the largest piece of enclosed space on Earth.
Next: imperialism. Here my trusty Webster’s gives this definition:
the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation esp. by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly: the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence
When I was growing up, the Vietnam War was a staple of the evening news; as it dragged on all through my childhood, I took it for granted. My understanding of it could probably be summarized thus: Communism was something so bad that you had to spend years dropping napalm on villages in Indochina to try to stop it. I remember watching TV alone one day when I was maybe 9 years old, and a documentary showed a Vietnamese woman sitting in a field, clutching her dead baby to her. The woman had been shot three times, including once in the head. I experienced a strange mix of horror and disbelief: it was only on TV, and yet I knew it was real. War somehow was about shooting women and their babies. “She must be about to die,” I thought.
I never found out. But that scene has haunted me through my life, arising with a chill when new situations arise that remind me of it, such as when General Tommy Franks famously said “We don’t do body counts” when asked about civilian deaths in Iraq. Capturing territory from people who don’t want to give it to you is messy work; corpses will pile up. But whatever the official or unofficial reasons for invading Iraq, it was an instance of the United States’ effort to extend its power and dominion. Other instances have not been so spectacular or so costly, but they have been many, and they all conform to the definition of imperialism.
The third cancer, credit expansion, is the worst of the three. Surprised? You may never have heard of it before. Indeed, it does not have its own entry in my Webster’s, but its definition would be something like
the deliberate, persistent increase of the amount of money and credit in a society
The benefits of credit expansion are the same as the benefits of counterfeiting, but they are on a much larger scale, and they have the advantage of being legal. Money is created from nothing, and those who do the creating get to spend the free money before the price-rises that will eventually result from its creation can occur. In effect, wealth is transferred involuntarily and by stealth from those who are far from the money printing-press, who find that their money now buys a bit less than it used to.
To practice credit expansion on a large scale over a long time requires persistence, ingenuity, and the concentration of state power. The methods used in the U.S. have included the creation of a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that fixes interest rates and other banks’ reserve requirements; the introduction of “legal tender” laws that oblige citizens to accept the government-issued currency; and the gradual severing of the convertibility of the dollar with gold. This last, seemingly unconstitutional, measure was fought out in a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 19th century. (Interestingly, Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president, was elected on a “sound money” platform in 1829; back then a stable currency was seen as a populist policy.)
But what makes credit expansion a cancer? The fact that it’s used by governments to fund projects and policies that they could never fund through direct taxation, and the fact that it ruins economies and eventually brings about mass impoverishment and civil unrest. Because credit expansion is a zero-sum game, there is never any net benefit to society; but the process of surreptitiously enriching the few at the expense of the many eventually brings about the destruction of society. It is this cancer that allows the first two, militarism and imperialism, to grow. For what taxpayer would agree to a 500% or 1000% increase in his taxes to fund foreign wars? Credit expansion means that he will pay anyway, but it will happen gradually and unpredictably and untraceably over time.
Party politics cannot cure these cancers. In the U.S., neither of the mainstream parties has any desire to address them. Whoever comes into power gains power over that printing press, and with it the means to fund their agenda. And both Democrats and Republicans have big spending plans.
Meaningful change in this situation will have to come from the grass roots, as suggested by Dwight Eisenhower in his “military-industrial complex” speech of 1961. That change will certainly come, for people will revolt before they’re bled dry. The question is whether that change will be relatively orderly, informed, and principled, as it might be if led by, say, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or instead chaotic, violent, and vengeful, as it will be if led by just about anyone else.
This then is my response to the U.S. election results. To our neighbors down south I say: good luck. You’re going to need it.