The end of US decline

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2011

There was another round of the more-or-less endless debate about the decline of the US not long ago, focused on the weak employment growth that has characterized the current ‘recovery’. I expect that the obvious inability of the US to exert significant influence, in either direction, over the fate of client regimes in North Africa and the Middle East will provoke some more discussion among similar lines.

As a public service, I’d like to bring an end to this tiresome debate by observing that the decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population[1]. Precisely because the US is comparable to other advanced countries in many crucial respects, there is no reason to expect any further decline. [2]

As I’ve observed before, the US is similar to other leading countries in terms of key economic variables like output per hour worked and employment/population ratio. Like other countries it has some distinctive features, that can make it look good or bad on particular measures. Features on which the US is an outlier, in economic terms, include long average hours of work per employed person (particularly notable for women), high levels of inequality in wages and other incomes, low levels of public expenditure and taxation, an exchange rate that has typically been well below most estimates of purchasing power parity, and an international balance characterized by large deficits on the goods and services account, matched by large surpluses on the capital account.

In geopolitical terms, the US spends a lot more on its military than anyone else (in fact, more than everyone else put together) and (contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) hardly anything on development aid or other efforts at promoting global public goods. The amount of sustainable influence generated as a result appears pretty trivial. The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero – nothing like what might be associated with an old style Great Power, let alone a superpower or “hyperpower”.As I’ve observed before, Americans of all classes (except those directly connected to the military-industrial complex) get very little payoff for their military expenditure – trillions of dollars of expenditure has been unable to produce positive outcomes in a couple of relatively insignificant countries, or even to put paid to a bunch of pirates in the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand, it has to be conceded that the record of non-military aid and public good promotion is not exactly one of stellar success either. The fact is that the world is a complicated and intractable place, and running your own country is hard enough – the fact that international efforts work as well as they do is more surprising than the fact that so many fail.

I suppose it’s necessary to mention that the US has the capacity to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. But unfortunately for the world, so can Russia, probably China and maybe France or Britain. If the nuclear winter analysis is correct, even the regional nuclear powers could bring a rapid end to civilisation as we know it. And lots of other countries could easily acquire such a capacity if they were silly enough to want it.

Like other developed countries, the US has some notable areas of economic and cultural strength (IT, Hollywood) as well as areas of relative weakness (consumer goods, fashion and so on). While the precise pattern may change, I don’t see any reason to suppose that the US will either decline or advance dramatically in comparison to other developed countries.

The main implication of all this, for me, is that Americans should stop worrying about relative “decline”, “competitiveness” and so on, and start focusing on making the US a better place to live. This advice may seem gratuitous coming from an outsider. I can only respond that Australia had its own period of concern about relative decline (relative to Singapore and other Asian countries) back in the 1980s, and I said exactly the same thing then.

fn1. That effect is amplified for English-speakers. The US accounts for something like 75 per cent of developed-country native English speakers, and this is reflected in the attention it gets on blogs like this one.

fn2. As other countries catch up to the advanced group that includes the US, those in that group might be said to have declined in relative terms. But this doesn’t seem to me to constitute “decline” in any important sense.

{ 133 comments }

1

b9n10nt 01.30.11 at 7:34 am

So the first comment. Hrrrmmph. If the stability of US power means continued episodes of US-enacted wholesale terrorism, I guess the necessary emphasis is on a counter view that reminds of us contingency that will stir and hone our efforts to democratically influence the United States.

What I see is that the M.I.C. is still historically unique and recent, whereas the quality of US mass terrorism abroad has been consistent over a longer period of time in its relationship to domestic politics. If a healthy state’s expansionist moment is either colonist or imperialist, the US is imperialist, and actually an extreme example. Imagine Rawl’s fetus (yes, I’m a dilettante name dropping so as to reach the CT mind-meld) constrained to a social reality of wealth and comfort wherein decadence is constrained to one’s relations to the lower orders: you are far less likely to care about military expansion as a US citizen than as any similarly-born patron of a strong and growing state in earlier recorded history.

Certainly the Khan and the Roman elite etc… identified themselves with the territory that they would be physically inhabiting. First the British and then the US upper classes were more likely to not imagine themselves as foreign-abiding traders/merchants. Of course, this is all banal: the US goes overseas (slash South) to fight while the domestic political imagination (focused on capital accumulation) remains planted in the concerns at home. In the US the link between the effective democratic populace (i.e. those who matter) and foreign policy is tenuous, more so than in cases of earlier Empires and Expansions.

So the bizarre and abstracted interface of democratic norms and military policy (I’m lookin’ at you Roosevelt-Cheney-CNN-others-whose-influential-hobbies-have-included- foreign-”adventures”) reveals a political moment: The car of US imperialism is not pushed by a stable power elite, but rather driven erratically by whomever and whatever can get hold of the steering wheel (for this metaphor the car is always in neutral). So an interest group such as a cadre of careerists who more closely represent popular priorities in the widest and most-genuine sense could in fact drive the M.I.C off its equilibrium.

Obama’s supporters actually represent a chance to matter by way of the US Military Industrial Complex, is my eventual point. The long view of US Imperialism (it is popularly weakly-grounded relative to earlier Great Powers) does in fact allow a romantic hope of change that motivates and legitimizes the short view: a contemporary anti-Imperialist league could do clearly effect the state.

2

b9n10nt 01.30.11 at 7:37 am

ummm…strike “clearly” and choose a better vowel for “effect”

3

b9n10nt 01.30.11 at 7:39 am

i mean strike “do” leave “clearly” and start thinking about your own response to the post.

4

Jack Strocchi 01.30.11 at 10:07 am

Pr Q said:

the decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population[1]. Precisely because the US is comparable to other advanced countries in many crucial respects, there is no reason to expect any further decline.

I date the beginning of relative US decline – its loss of decisive global power – when Nixon took the USD off the gold standard, way back in 1971. Not surprisingly this was correlated with an adverse outcomes for the US in the Cold War (loss of Vietnam, SALT). And of course the Culture War raging on the urban areas was a key index of moral decline. Around that time Houston lost its dominance in the energy business and Detroit fell by the wayside in the car making business. This was followed by a decade of soul-searching and malaise.

In retrospect the Reagan-Clinton period was a false dawn of US revival and triumphalism. Victory in the Cold War and an early lead in the digital revolution was temporary, based on the blunders of other countries rather than “American exceptionalism”.

The US’s relative decline is masked by its continuing occupation of the top-dog status in most key areas of power. It is still the destination of choice for high-status achieving elites the world over:

Pentagon for military;
Wall Street for finance;
Hollywood for pop culture;
Harvard for academia;
Silicon Valley for IT;
New York for real estate.

I don’t know whether the US can maintain its high status in these key areas. The obvious next candidate for addition to the loser list (Houston and Detroit) is Wall Street. I can’t see how it can continue its monstrous parasitism and reckless spendthriftyness without a drastic hair cut. There will be no more bailouts when the next crisis hits.

Ultimately power is based on industrial productivity which in turn is based on human capital accumulation. The PRC has over one billion workers with IQ’s north of 100 and a fanatical educational ethic (“Tiger Mom”). That is a recipe for long term global dominance once the nerds find gainful employment.

5

otto 01.30.11 at 10:23 am

“I expect that the obvious inability of the US to exert significant influence, in either direction, over the fate of client regimes in North Africa and the Middle East”

Is this not a wild exaggeration? If Obama went on the news and said its-time-for-Mubarak-to-go, would the current incumbent last a week?

There’s also a bit of a tension here: you dont seem to be denying that the US does in fact have client regimes, and having client regimes is indeed one of the attributes of great powers, not any old developed country. Where are Canada’s client regimes?

“The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero.”

Well maybe this is where a little dancing around the meaning of ‘directly’ and ‘substantially’ would begin. But I suppose a better question might be ‘compared to what?’. Almost all research on international outcomes finds that the US has a huge say in the outcome of international negotiations cut down only where, in a particular issue-area, it is forced, exceptionally, to negotiate with a party with approximately equal capacity, such as the EU on data protection.

“The main implication of all this, for me, is that Americans should stop worrying about relative “decline”, “competitiveness” and so on, and start focusing on making the US a better place to live. “

This advice would seem to be applicable even if the US were an old-style great power. The pre-1914 Germans would also have done better making Germany a better place to live. It doesn’t really follow with any specificity from your analysis of US relative power or its non-decline.

6

superdestroyer 01.30.11 at 10:36 am

Given the demographic trends of the U.S, the decline will continue. The U.S. is heading into Brazil/Mexico territory with a small group of elites and a large number of poor people.

As the U.S. becomes poorer, on average, the number of people who care about foreign affairs or competing in the world market place will decline.

7

Guido Nius 01.30.11 at 10:58 am

fn1. is the right place to start reading this post.

8

Craig Willy 01.30.11 at 11:36 am

It depends what we mean by “decline”. I would make a few points:
1) Americans receive more immigrants and have more children than virtually any other developed country. Developed Asia (Singapore, HK, Taiwan, RoK, Japan) and most of Europe have little immigration and fertility rates of 1.2-1.4. Their populations will shrink, the proportion of national wealth going to the old will grow, while the U.S. will bec0me ever-more massive, it “greying” somewhat slowed. The rest of the developed world will decline relative to America according to this trend.

2) America will “decline” relatively to the developed world.

3) America’s “power” and “wealth” are often not particularly enviable. So you’re richer, what does that mean? A more overweight, overworked, overmedicated population, a prison system more vast than the Soviet gulag, a vast environmental disaster, Brazilian levels of inequality, a totally defective political system (hostage to moneyed financers, an undemocratic Senate and a schizophrenic mass culture (anti-State, anti-tax rugged individualists, de facto pro-welfare)), and a MIC that buys them eternal war abroad (first the Cold War, now the GWOT).

So I would say that America’s material and demographic base points towards anything but decline. On the other hand, the way that power is used is so misapplied, the tendencies within the society and polity so self-destructive, that I often wonder if the thing is sustainable at all. Historically, the U.S. political system has been *structurally incapable of reform without the imminent threat of collapse*. I think of the end of slavery, the New Deal and the end of isolationism, each of which required effectively “the end of the world as we knew it” for the reactionary reflexes and vested interests to be overcome.

Given the continued wars abroad, the hostility to tax-raising and welfare-cutting, the growing and “hysterical” inefficiency of the medical system, who is to say that can go on forever? Who is to say that an episode of hyperinflation or in the event of a crippling terrorist attack (say 30,000-100,000 dead) that the Republic could be held together?

9

Jacob Hartog 01.30.11 at 11:56 am

I would agree in spirit. Certainly, I’ve often thought that the ideal outcome for the United States a few decades from now would be to be something like Denmark: pleasant, low-carbon, and unimportant.

I do wonder if the United States plays a role in stabilizing world affairs, in spite of its limited power. The failure of human beings to end civilization through nuclear weapons seems to me a more surprising thing than it is generally thought, and our current moment is certainly one of rare global peace in historical terms; would a world without the United States’ elephantine military be quite so quiescent? Hard to know.

10

sg 01.30.11 at 12:18 pm

Jacob, no country with beer as delicious as Denmark (or salmon as delicious, for that matter) will ever be unimportant.

11

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 12:58 pm

Sorry, but the US is still very much a superpower.

12

keyser söze 01.30.11 at 1:02 pm

“The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero – nothing like what might be associated with an old style Great Power, let alone a superpower or “hyperpower”.”

I have a hard time thinking of a less plausible statement than that. The US military power and political power causes a stranglehold on countless domestic powerbalances in countless countries and regions. It is not so much that the US dictates policy (it does that too, sometimes) but that it blocks real initiatives for real change in power and towards equality.

Have you even heard of latin america? Africa? The middle east? The US has military presence all over the world. The US has large military and economic ties to key power clusters in all the major regions.

Millions of relatives to people drone bombed to death, tortured at “rendition sites” or just stripped of their right as small pawns in some grand US chess move would strongly disagree with you. Billions likely have their privacy rights online systematically violated directly or indirectly by by the US surveillance state.

As the saying goes, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, the world including even commentators on progressively leaning blogs.

13

Chris E 01.30.11 at 1:23 pm

” Sorry, but the US is still very much a superpower.”

The question is, what can it actually do with that power – fight two medium power nations somewhere in the world?

ISTM that the US has the potential to make many situations around the world a lot worse – by pumping in arms, money etc. But very little power to significantly improve things

14

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 1:53 pm

What you do with the power you have is always the same: trying to hold on to it, and gain more.

When it feels like it’s going to be lost anyway, someone gets a chance to become Great Man of History, like Gorby or de Klerk, but I don’t think the US is anywhere near that point.

15

Brett Bellmore 01.30.11 at 1:59 pm

“In geopolitical terms, the US spends a lot more on its military than anyone else (in fact, more than everyone else put together) and (contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) hardly anything on development aid or other efforts at promoting global public goods.”

Might agree with that, if you qualified that as “the US government“; “The US” must certainly include private citizens, we shouldn’t be denied credit for our international philanthropy just because we thing charity is something which should be done in the private sector. I’ve contributed thousands of dollars to overseas charity over the last few years, does it not count just because it wasn’t routed through the government?

As for the rest of it, you’ve established that the US doesn’t necessarily have to continue declining, we’ve mostly accomplished our reversion towards the mean. That, regrettably, doesn’t mean we won’t continue declining, and I rather think we will if we don’t reduce that military spending rather drastically, reduce our reliance on borrowing, and stop thinking a top dog position is something we’re somehow guaranteed, rather than having to work for.

16

jazzbumpa 01.30.11 at 2:11 pm

John Q. -

Starting with “Features on which the US is an outlier . . .” and continuing though that and the two following paragraphs, you give an extensive sorry litany of reasons why the U.S. can and should expect a great deal of further decline. The economic considerations are especially ominous and onerous.

Why do you discount this information?

JzB

17

dan 01.30.11 at 2:53 pm

There will be no more bailouts when the next crisis hits.

Of course there will.

18

Grizzled 01.30.11 at 3:07 pm

“and stop thinking a top dog position is something we’re somehow guaranteed, rather than having to work for.”

And which we need like we need a hole in the head (which I sometimes think we have).

We’d do better overall if we could break the power of the financial industry and stop paying a trillion dollars a year in rent to the medical sector. Cutting the MIC would also be good. I’m not holding my breath.

19

rosmar 01.30.11 at 3:10 pm

U.S. private giving is indeed higher than government-based foreign aid, but once you take into account GDP, it really isn’t that impressive, comparatively.

20

Chris Bertram 01.30.11 at 3:50 pm

If the decline has already happened and we’re on some new plateau, then we wouldn’t expect any big shifts in the future. But I’m not sure about that. What about in the ME where the US basically insulates Israel from the need to reach a reasonable compromise? Can that be maintained? In 1956, the US pulled the plug on the continued attempt by Britain (and France) to act as great powers, but threatening to pull the financial rug from under their feet. Isn’t the moment coming when China could credibly threaten to do the same?

21

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 3:57 pm

@8 IR types have spent some time trying to figure this out. Estimates range from 1-2% less of GDP for each standard deviation toward the core of the US security umbrella. In other words, we would see much higher military spending in Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia without US provision of military security. This is a bad deal for the US, but it makes it a bit annoying to listen to lectures from Europeans who are free-riding on our large military budget.

Otherwise, I think John’s about half right here. He’s right on a lot, but significantly underestimates US influence and power. The US is often very much constrained by its many commitments and the spiderweb of its relationships, and it has done some spectacularly stupid and destructive things in the last few decades, but it really is the 800 lb gorilla in many, many diplomatic settings. If it’s general willingess to play empire is a bit less than the 19th century great powers (including the US at that time), and that means less “influence,” I hardly think anyone should hold it against it.

22

Barry 01.30.11 at 4:16 pm

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 3:57 pm

“…but it makes it a bit annoying to listen to lectures from Europeans who are free-riding on our large military budget.”

If the elites in the USA actually thought that somebody else was free-loading, they’d do things differently.

23

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 4:38 pm

What is the danger that “the US security umbrella” guards against, danger to the Europeans or anybody else?

24

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 5:16 pm

@19: sadly, no, they wouldn’t and don’t. See “industrial complex, military”; “electoral politics”; and “electoral engineering, weapons systems.”

25

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 5:22 pm

@20. Part of the pattern involves depressing security dilemmas that could make latent and slow-burning rivalries worse. There’s a lot more of this in Latin America than people sometimes realize. In northeast and southeast Asia this should be obvious. It should also be pretty obvious in Europe-Eurasia, but everyone kind of pretends the dynamics are otherwise.

26

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 5:32 pm

I hate to keep on sending quick comments, but two things: I want to be clear that (1) I don’t think the US should be spending what it does on its military, (2) it is really easy to underestimate the degree to which US defense policy–through alliances, bases, partnerships, expenditures, presence, stab ops, nuclear umbrellas, LIC, etc.–structures the current international system. Whethe that impact is “good, “bad”, or more complicated is certainly up for debate. That it depresses many other states military expenditures is, I think, pretty clear.

27

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 5:43 pm

Just to take Europe-Eurasia (but also probably every other region), where you see the US providing “security umbrella”, to many others, I imagine, it looks like American expansionism (and just as obvious), pushing US military power to Russian borders, starting another round of the arms race, etc.

I’m sure you understand this. How do you know your perception is unbiased?

28

JRoth 01.30.11 at 6:06 pm

as well as areas of relative weakness (consumer goods, fashion and so on)

Fashion, sure, but what’s weak about American consumer goods? I can imagine some senses in which this is accurate, but also many in which it’s not, so I’m curious what you were trying to get at.

29

stostosto 01.30.11 at 6:38 pm

@8: ” something like Denmark: pleasant, low-carbon, and unimportant.”

Hey! We may be pleasant, but low-carbon we’re not.

30

Dan Nexon 01.30.11 at 7:09 pm

@27: I don’t claim to be unbiased. But “security umbrella” is an analytic concept, not a normative one. Whether or not accepting the Baltic States into NATO was “benign” or “expansionist” is certainly an interesting question. It left them feeling more secure, Russia less. I expect that it had no impact at all on Russian military expenditures, nor that it has led to significant changes in Russian policy elsewhere. There’s a tendency in these discussions to ignore the savviness of Russian policymakers, who actually mean what they say when they describe NATO as a danger rather than a threat.

31

John Quiggin 01.30.11 at 7:48 pm

“The US …. really is the 800 lb gorilla in many, many diplomatic settings.”

Taking this as an allusion to the riddle “Where does an 800 lb gorilla sit in the cinema? Wherever it wants”, I’d suggest the meaning that the US can get its way in such settings even if most or all of the other players are opposed.

I don’t see this at all. As far as I can see, the US and EU negotiate on roughly equal terms across a broad range of economic and social issues – the US has some strengths as a unitary state, but that’s offset much of the time by the inability of the executive to control Congress. Certainly, I can’t think of many examples where the US has been able to prevail on a diplomatic issue where the EU, Japan etc disagreed. (I’ll come back to the Middle East later, but that is sui generis.

Of course, there are lots of issues where the US is big enough to exercise a veto, but that is, as I said in the post, essentially a function of population size, combined with the existence of a lot of veto points in international affairs.

32

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 7:57 pm

Thanks Dan, I understand. Still, your assertion that with US military spending scaled back we would see much higher military spending in Europe, and other places – it doesn’t seem unreasonable, but it doesn’t seem that obvious either. Would China be building an aircraft carrier? Iran continue its nuclear program (assuming it has a military component)? Who knows. It just seems, intuitively, that things could settle to an equilibrium with a much lower level of armaments.

33

novakant 01.30.11 at 8:02 pm

Certainly, I can’t think of many examples where the US has been able to prevail on a diplomatic issue where the EU, Japan etc disagreed.

Iraq

34

bianca steele 01.30.11 at 9:13 pm

US dominance during the Cold War had a lot to do with its willingness to take the lead against Communism, not only militarily, when Western European governments couldn’t be seen to suppress all pro-left feeling. Obviously, there were intellectuals who thought the traditional European concern with the balance of power or the idea of the decline of the West were more important. Now that the Cold War is over, it’s difficult to say what will happen. Oil doesn’t seem to work as a replacement, and neither (unfortunately for Putin) does the threat of Islam.

35

Ken Lovell 01.30.11 at 10:40 pm

It’s clearly wrong to propose that ‘The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero’. However it would be pretty accurate to say that ‘The number of places in the world where the US can CONTROL political outcomes is approximately zero’. This is most dramatically evident in Iraq and Afghanistan where local governments often thumb their noses at the US despite the presence in the country of large American military forces.

US power has a direct impact on events in many nations but the consequences are frequently unanticipated and contrary to the intentions of the initiators – see Iran since the overthrow of the Shah, the Philippines after the US induced Marcos to go into exile, or North Korea since 1953.

36

rhino 01.30.11 at 11:05 pm

If we are going to refer to the US as a diplomatic 800lb gorilla, perhaps we should reflect on how seldom gorillas are viewed as masters of diplomacy.

37

stostosto 01.31.11 at 12:02 am

If we are going to refer to the US as a diplomatic 800lb gorilla, perhaps we should reflect on how seldom gorillas are viewed as masters of diplomacy.

Plus, there is this: “[A]n adult gorilla’s erect penis is about 4 cm (1.5 in) in length”

38

thor 01.31.11 at 12:08 am

Quiggin

I couldn´t disagree more. I think you view on geopolitical capital is to narrow: weaponry, nuclear weaponry, money and economy. Although the americans have been declining for a long time, they have accumulated a huge geostrategical capital, in the for of client states, militarely dependent states (Japan).

They´ve done something no other country could do alone (maybe Israel): invade Iraq a big, well armed country which today it can barely handle alone. This shows how they are still unmatched, even if wasting their capabilities. The reach of american tentacles is beyond the possibilities of any other country, and as the leaks show us, they are everywhere: collecting Paraguai´s president DNA, handling others nuclear develpments, influencing Venezuelas politics with money for the oposition, handling two wars, trying to solve the Palestine issue (ok, maybe not)

It´s unthinkable that economic superpowers Germany and Japan had a similar agenda. Also Russia knows it can´t go very far. China has a similar behaviour, but is still far from, say, meddling in the Americas (though I´m sure it´s meddling in Africa)

Last, I´d say your conclusion is also quite wrong. Americans will face the shock of having to say “we´re number two” in aproximately a decade, when China´s GDP surpasses them (The Economist estimate). We know how the average american will react to this (the South Park Beijing Olympics episode is quite ilustrative)What the world has to ask itself is what consequences this resentment brings to an already unstable world.

39

Chris E 01.31.11 at 12:33 am

“What is the danger that “the US security umbrella” guards against, danger to the Europeans or anybody else?”

Which is sort of my point. Beyond being an attribute that helps you preserve that same attribute, ‘power’ is only useful as a concrete thing insofar as it helps you to achieve your aims.

40

piglet 01.31.11 at 12:34 am

While the precise pattern may change, I don’t see any reason to suppose that the US will either decline or advance dramatically in comparison to other developed countries.

Is there even agreement on what might constitute decline or advance?

The main implication of all this, for me, is that Americans should stop worrying about relative “decline”, “competitiveness” and so on, and start focusing on making the US a better place to live.

Again trying to battle nationalism with the voice of reason? Fat chance.

fn2. As other countries catch up to the advanced group that includes the US, those in that group might be said to have declined in relative terms. But this doesn’t seem to me to constitute “decline” in any important sense.

That’s not how nationalists see it.

41

Omega Centauri 01.31.11 at 12:43 am

I see serious weaknesses arising from our culural DNA. We really think we are better than everyone else, and that means when we don’t get our way we instinctively think the foreigners are out to get us. So our vast military empire (corporate as well as international) is pretty unassailable politically. Gotta protect ourselves from the perfidious foreigners. Also mentioned above is our bloated and exponentially expanding medical industrial complex. Then we have a huge dose of free market ideology, making the use of government to solve any problem (other than military) increasingly problematic. If we weren’t so instictively anti-intellectual I’d think we could think our way out of these weaknesses, but anyone trying to do that can is easily marginalized.

And yes, I think resource scarcity issues are going to become important in the near future. But despite having a excellent set of resources, our inability to even admit that this problem exists precludes making even halfhearted attempts to mitigate the consequences. And that denial of reality seems to be rooted in our cultural DNA.

42

wilful 01.31.11 at 12:44 am

Iraq

Actually I think that this ten year old example could be better trotted out as a cause of the US’ decline. Blew a whole lotta international political capital (as well as a lot of real capital) on that one.

And for the one word example, I give you the one word counter-example:

Afghanistan

43

shah8 01.31.11 at 12:52 am

I read “cultural DNA”, and then start thinking about what that could possibly mean, and started to spaz out. I mean, that’s not even evo psych, is it?

Then I started to think about what piglet would say, and started laughing… ?:~)

Heil to our AngloDuAfroEireSinHiLebaJapadoodle-dandies! Not Native American, I swear!

44

Omega Centauri 01.31.11 at 2:05 am

Maybe the term “cultural DNA” hasn’t crossed the pond yet. In any case from
Cultural DNA

What is “Cultural DNA,” when should you change it, and how do you change it? Print Email

* Cultural DNA is the accreted structure of a successful culture that recreates internal and incoming leaders and employees in its own image. This means that they tend to take on the values and beliefs, interests, and mental models and information of the organization or community over time.

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shah8 01.31.11 at 3:19 am

Oh yes, I found that when I googled the term.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not really trying to mock you. I’ve said stupider things.

In any event, that’s a marketroid concept a couple of rungs above Joel Osteen.

If you’re interested in that sort of thing, for real, read Lamb and Jablonsky’s “Evolution In Four Dimensions”. A stricter game theory approach can be found with articles by Robert Boyd and Peter J Richardson.

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hartal 01.31.11 at 3:26 am

It may be true that the American appears in $PPP to live like a third world king, but under the pressures of globalization first world working conditions in terms of wages and hours may worsen to the point the the first world working class can’t reproduce itself, that is, to show up fit to work, to save for a basic retirement and to raise the next generation of workers who can operate in a modern workplace. Wages fall below–Marx alert!– the value of labor power, especially for younger workers having to subsidize social security. Birthrates fall. Some combination of demographic crisis and structural unemployment makes the first world unstable to the point of political chaos. Think Children of Men.

47

Map Maker 01.31.11 at 3:42 am

“Americans will face the shock of having to say “we´re number two” in aproximately a decade, when China´s GDP surpasses them ” …

Americans will face that shock when there is another country that they’d rather live in. For all the wishful thinking in Ithaca and Berkeley, there has never been a line of americans saying they’d rather be Danish or Dutch. In the peak of the first oil crisis, when per capita GDP of a number of middle east countries began to exceed the US, you saw some surprise, some resentment, but hardly a thought that after the UAE, comes the USA in any measure except oil and $$.

In any event, american exceptionalism is still alive and well – billions of people in other countries can dream that their children can get educated in the US, get a career, and one day have their grandchildren become President of the US. That can’t happen in China or Germany, regardless of their GDP or healthcare system …

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Substance McGravitas 01.31.11 at 4:24 am

For all the wishful thinking in Ithaca and Berkeley, there has never been a line of americans saying they’d rather be Danish or Dutch.

It’s pretty fortunate for the service industry that Americans don’t seem to understand there are better places to live.

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Poerba 01.31.11 at 7:20 am

“We know how the average american will react to this (the South Park Beijing Olympics episode is quite ilustrative)”

South Park is an even less reliable a source than the Simpsons for Europeans to derive their notions of a collective American id.

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Chris Bertram 01.31.11 at 8:16 am

_billions of people in other countries can dream that their children can get educated in the US, get a career, and one day have their grandchildren become President of the US. That can’t happen in China or Germany, regardless of their GDP or healthcare system …_

What’s the claim here, that in other countries the people with foreign grandparents can’t be head of state or something? That’s rather obviously false. France, for example. And in the UK there are several prominent politicians with foreign parents or grandparents who attained senior positions: Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, to name but two. (All this off the top of my head, I guess that if we sat down with a list of countries and prominent politicians in them, this particular claim to US exceptionalism would be even more clearly demonstrated as the bullshit that it is.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.31.11 at 8:26 am

Alberto Fujimori. If you want your children to become presidents, move to Peru.

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Walt 01.31.11 at 8:38 am

But that still leaves China and Germany, right?

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chris y 01.31.11 at 8:40 am

Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, to name but two.

…and more recently, Ed Miliband.

Possibly China and Germany were carefully chosen examples, as they’re (I believe) among the minority of countries where naturalisation is a hassle. It’s true that there isn’t a queue of Americans trying to get into the Netherlands or Denmark, but these days there’s not a huge queue of Dutch or Danish people trying to get into the United States. There’s a small exchange in both directions of business people and academics, and there will always be more immigrants into the US as an absolute number because it’s qualitatively bigger. So what?

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otto 01.31.11 at 9:22 am

I don’t see this at all. As far as I can see, the US and EU negotiate on roughly equal terms across a broad range of economic and social issues – the US has some strengths as a unitary state, but that’s offset much of the time by the inability of the executive to control Congress. Certainly, I can’t think of many examples where the US has been able to prevail on a diplomatic issue where the EU, Japan etc disagreed

This is all so intangible – “broad range of issues”, “I can’t think of many examples”… – that it is hard to get a grip on. Let’s have a list of concrete, named, examples.

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John Quiggin 01.31.11 at 9:57 am

@otto Examples: WTO disputes, data protection, open skies, Boeing-Airbus, TRIPS

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Emma in Sydney 01.31.11 at 10:11 am

What’s the claim here, that in other countries the people with foreign grandparents can’t be head of state or something?

Hey, in JQ’s and my country you have to have foreign grandparents to be head of state. Sure they have to be from one particular family (The Saxe-Coburg -Gothas, aka Mountbatten-Windsors), but they’re all foreigners to us.

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Emma in Sydney 01.31.11 at 10:12 am

Multiple hyphens, who knew?

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ajay 01.31.11 at 11:07 am

… a bit annoying to listen to lectures from Europeans who are free-riding on our large military budget.

I think someone has forgotten whose troops are helping out whose misbegotten wars in the Middle East. The Warsaw Pact’s long gone. European (and for that matter Australian and various other allied) troops are, at this very moment, fighting under US command in wars that were begun and are directed entirely by the US. They’re doing jobs that would otherwise have to be done by American soldiers. The free-riding is now going in the other direction.

54: it’s perfectly possible for someone anywhere in the world to dream that their grandchildren could be Kings of Britain. You just have to dream that your child marries an heir to the throne. There’s no barrier at all to a foreign Queen, or indeed a foreign Prince Consort.

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Zamfir 01.31.11 at 11:12 am

The German constitutional requirements for president are German citizenship, voting rights for the parliament, and being at least 40. No mention of foreign grandparents. I can’t find such requirements for the government (including the chancellor), as far as I can tell this is left to the parliament to decide.

Time is probably more important here: the first wave of Turkish representatives appeared in the German parliaments and state governments in the late 1990s. By now they are reaching the age where you would expect them in the national government, but they are currently more often aligned with the SPD than the CDU or FDP.

The entrance of immigrants and their children in German politics isn’t lightning-fast, but it is happening at a steady pace anyway. If you move to Germany now, it seems quite possible that your children (let alone grand children) will have a similar shot at being chancellor or president as many native German kids.

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Zamfir 01.31.11 at 11:25 am

There’s no barrier at all to a foreign Queen, or indeed a foreign Prince Consort.
Actually, I think the current British policy is that women will be princess consort, not queen. That’s good for equal rights, and it makes sure Camilla won’t be queen.

So no foreign kings or queens anymore in Britain. The Netherlands on the other hand will almost certainly have an Argentinian queen in the near future, and Denmark an Australian. Commoners too.

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Emma in Sydney 01.31.11 at 11:31 am

it’s perfectly possible for someone anywhere in the world to dream that their grandchildren could be Kings of Britain. You just have to dream that your child marries an heir to the throne. There’s no barrier at all to a foreign Queen, or indeed a foreign Prince Consort.

Yebbut I was talking about being head of state of Australia. Which a queen consort or prince consort isn’t. Only Windsors need apply. And none of them are Australian.

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Neil 01.31.11 at 11:44 am

People are being unfair to Map Maker. He clearly claimed that you can’t move to China or Germany in the expectation that your grandchild might become President of the US.

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ajay 01.31.11 at 12:02 pm

59: it’s still perfectly possible for someone to dream that their grandchildren might be head of state of Australia, because if their child marries a Windsor, then their grandchildren would be Windsors – and thus, potentially, head of state of Australia.

Actually, I think the current British policy is that women will be princess consort, not queen. That’s good for equal rights, and it makes sure Camilla won’t be queen.

I have heard nothing about this as a general policy shift. Link? Even if it were true, it still wouldn’t bar the son of a Windsor heir and a foreign consort from becoming king himself.

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a.y.mous 01.31.11 at 12:19 pm

Don’t be too harsh on Camilla. It is bad enough to have a mother-in-law who thinks she is the Queen of England. Hers actually is.

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Zamfir 01.31.11 at 12:25 pm

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chris y 01.31.11 at 12:35 pm

zamfir, that was presented as a one off in the case of Mrs Parker Bowles, who is not currently Princess of Wales either. It was a deal struck to get the Church of England to sign up for Charles (divorced, but fortuitously relieved of the embarrasment of his ex-wife by a drunken driver) marrying a divorced woman without renouncing the succession. There’s no suggestion that F/Lt Wales and Ms Middleton won’t be King and Queen eventually.

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Zamfir 01.31.11 at 12:48 pm

Yeah, policy is too great a word.

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Jacob H. 01.31.11 at 1:05 pm

I think the analogy of dominance hierarchies in other species of mammals is useful here. The alpha can’t actually beat every other animal at will in a fair fight, certainly not without getting hurt itself. But the fact that the other animals believe it to be the most dangerous establishes patterns of behavior that moderate conflict within the group. (Most of the time, intraspecies conflict is conducted without significant injury.) Now, if the alpha goes around picking fights, as some might argue the US has done in recent years, it is likely to endanger its position in the hierarchy– and makes real violence much more likely.

This reminds me to watch Episode 9 of Trials of Life again sometime, apparently available for free on the internets: http://www.veoh.com/collection/trialsoflife/watch/v323603ACq9qMp3

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Zamfir 01.31.11 at 1:20 pm

If the US is the alpha male, and the other countries are the other males, then who are the females? And if you want to compare international relations to animal social systems, why not wonder whether the US is the hive queen of the world? Or the senior cow?

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 2:04 pm

Has anyone done empirical work on the cost of labor reproduction? It doesn’t seem there’s any reason people who really wanted to couldn’t keep working past the point where it seemed they didn’t really have enough coming in from outside to maintain themselves, and couldn’t provide lots and lots of labor even when the price of each unit of labor had dropped below a fair value. (That’s what entrepreneurs do, after all.)

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Jonathan 01.31.11 at 2:22 pm

I disagree with the post. What people are worried about is decline in living standards. Jobs and income generate consumption and the US is the great consumer society. The US has lost much of its economic clout versus the world, unless one counts consuming as power, and that is putting great pressure on American incomes, at least those below the top 1%. If the post is meant to say, “get used to declining living standards because you’ve already lost the game,” then it is perhaps more accurate.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.31.11 at 2:39 pm

But the fact that the other animals believe it to be the most dangerous establishes patterns of behavior that moderate conflict within the group.

Humans are different, and perhaps it’s more like Mafia, as seen in movies/TV shows. To maintain the prestige, the boss needs to kick someone’s teeth in, every so often. See Tom Friedman’s “Well, Suck. On. This.” speech.

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Matt McIrvin 01.31.11 at 2:40 pm

It’s pretty fortunate for the service industry that Americans don’t seem to understand there are better places to live.

The people who know this also know that it’s hard to get out just because you want to get out. You need the job offer first. And, as I’ve said before, it’s difficult to move anywhere if you own a house you can’t sell, though this is not a restriction for everyone.

Anyway, I think it’s become a commonplace observation among coastal US liberals that Canada’s better in a lot of ways. They may not really want to move, because moving is hard, but there are the usual flee-to-Canada fantasies, jokes like the Jesusland Map and so on. These aren’t lefties, they’re just Democrats. Beneath the surface they’re saying there are things about other countries they want to emulate, and things about their own that embarrass them. The fantasies may be annoying and unserious, but to say that this isn’t a strain in American culture is to just go along with the far right’s identification of liberals as alien.

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Matt McIrvin 01.31.11 at 2:43 pm

…And of course it’s risky to say this, because it all plays into the paranoid identification of liberals as some kind of traitorous fifth column, rather than people who would like the country to be better and are expressing frustration at the difficulty of changing things.

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Barry 01.31.11 at 2:51 pm

hartal 01.31.11 at 3:26 am

“It may be true that the American appears in $PPP to live like a third world king, but under the pressures of globalization first world working conditions in terms of wages and hours may worsen to the point the the first world working class can’t reproduce itself, that is, to show up fit to work, to save for a basic retirement and to raise the next generation of workers who can operate in a modern workplace.”

I’d say that we’re already there for the working class, and part of the middle class as well.

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 3:09 pm

I think it’s become a commonplace observation among coastal US liberals that Canada’s better in a lot of ways

Looking out my window at piles of snow as high as my head . . . yeah, I want to move 5 or 6 hours farther north. My muscles just aren’t sore enough yet.

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 3:24 pm

Also, I don’t know anyone who moved from here to Canada who wasn’t born in Canada in the first place, and the coasts (southern Pacific, northern Atlantic) are not dominated by the “Jesusland” people. What you hear people saying is that they are tired of having the White House and the Capitol dominated by the Deep South.

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Matt McIrvin 01.31.11 at 3:34 pm

Also, of course, the picture of Canadian politics associated with these fantasies is highly idealized.

At least this snow is getting me some exercise that I probably need.

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chris 01.31.11 at 3:42 pm

We really think we are better than everyone else, and that means when we don’t get our way we instinctively think the foreigners are out to get us. So our vast military empire (corporate as well as international) is pretty unassailable politically. Gotta protect ourselves from the perfidious foreigners.

Didn’t the British have this exact mindset in their day as imperialists? And before them, the Romans? And for quite some time, the Chinese? That seems to me to belie the notion of “cultural DNA” (whatever that is supposed to mean) and point instead to that mindset being a disease of empire. The British seem to have gotten over it; I wonder if we could learn from them how, or if there is no way to avoid falling hard enough for reality to penetrate the armor of self-satisfied conceit.

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MPAVictoria 01.31.11 at 4:17 pm

Bianca Steele:
“I don’t know anyone who moved from here to Canada who wasn’t born in Canada in the first place”
Then you don’t know very many people. I myself know several.

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piglet 01.31.11 at 4:46 pm

I should perhaps point out that Angela Merkel is the head of government of a country that she only became a citizen of 20 years ago.

More seriously, while people may have all kinds of fantasies about what immigrants to the US can achieve, and while those fantasies may even come true in very rare cases, minorities (and women) are still extremely underrepresented in US politics. Currently 0% of senators are African Americans, 2% Hispanics and 17% women. There seem to be no statistics about immigrants in the Senate but my guess is there aren’t many.

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hartal 01.31.11 at 5:01 pm

This book is justly getting a lot of attention in IPE circles

America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation [Paperback]
Carla Norrlof

It was just published by Cambridge, and I read the three middle chapters which are excellent. The regime theory chapter made me yawn.

I am trying to read Eichengreen’s America’s Exorbitant Privilege on my kindle, but that is providing impossible. Will have to buy a hard copy.

But those are the two most recent topics that I would read on American hegemony. There is also DeLong’s End of Influence from a year ago.

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ajay 01.31.11 at 5:35 pm

There seem to be no statistics about immigrants in the Senate but my guess is there aren’t many.

Wikipedia says that only two senators were born outside the country – John McCain, whose parents were stationed in Panama, and Michael Bennet, whose father was a US diplomat in India. Eight members of the House were born non-US citizens. (Mostly Cubans.)

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 5:49 pm

Let’s see. Matt McIrvin asks us to take his word for it that everyone knows that Democrats in the most liberal part of the country can’t stand how right-wing things are where they live and want to move someplace where they don’t know anyone and won’t be allowed to work, because everyone knows Canada meets every American liberal’s ideal. “MPAVictoria” asks us to take his/her word for it that knowing “many” people makes it certain one would know a good number of people who have moved from my area to Canada, apparently in support of Matt McIrvin’s point. At least I know where one of them actually lives.

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MPAVictoria 01.31.11 at 6:23 pm

bianca steele:
bianca steele asks us to accept her anecdotes while refusing to consider those of others. As I stated, I know a number of people who were born in the United States and now live in Canada. I find it surprising that you do not know a single American living in Canada. In fact there is a great deal of immigration back and forth across the 49th parallel. This should not surprise you.

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 6:29 pm

MPAVictoria: bianca steele asks us to accept her anecdotes while refusing to consider those of others

“Then you don’t know very many people.” Which one of us said that?

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roac 01.31.11 at 6:44 pm

And in the UK there are several prominent politicians with foreign parents or grandparents who attained senior positions: Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, to name but two.

To name a third: Winston S. Churchill.

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Uncle Kvetch 01.31.11 at 6:50 pm

because everyone knows Canada meets every American liberal’s ideal

Um, actually, Matt didn’t say anything resembling that, but whatever…

bianca, it’s unclear what it is you’re quibbling with (or why), but I didn’t find Matt McIrvin’s comment the least bit surprising. “Moving to Canada” — with varying degrees of seriousness — is indeed a recurring topic of conversation among lots of my fellow left-leaning (and/or LGBT) USians whenever national politics comes up. There sure as hell was an uptick in it during the GWB years.

My partner and I have discussed it at length and are in agreement that in the event of a Palin or Huckabee presidency, it will be time to stop talking and start doing.

Yes, purely anecdotal. If you have evidence to the contrary that’s more empirically grounded, I’m all ears.

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y81 01.31.11 at 6:51 pm

What if this “democracy” thing spreads to China? Won’t the resulting unrest derail the “make America number two” project? Or is the desire to see the U.S. humiliated going to cause the left to persist in its enchantment with the “Chinese exception”?

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 7:07 pm

Uncle Kvetch:

my quibble is with generalizations like it’s become a commonplace observation among coastal US liberals and to say that this isn’t a strain in American culture is to just go along with the far right, and secondarily with the condescension of They may not really want to move, because moving is hard, but there are the usual flee-to-Canada fantasies.

Maybe this is the case in Somerville, Mass., the second- or third-most bohemian part of metropolitan Boston, or where you live. Maybe people in Somerville (in fact, at the center of a big sea of blue) think people like them are typical of “coastal US liberals,” and they’re entitled to their opinion. They’re even entitled to say they think I’m really a right-winger, if that’s how they feel. And in Matt McIrvin’s case, he’s put up his bio, and I know exactly where he’s coming from and exactly what he means. But it isn’t at all common to make generalizations and call them anecdotes (much more common to make generalizations and pretend you have a source somewhere), and I’m not sure why my comments have gotten so much hostility from you or from anyone else.

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Uncle Kvetch 01.31.11 at 7:13 pm

I wasn’t the least bit hostile, bianca. This is clearly a subject of the most extreme touchiness for you, for reasons that I find baffling.

They’re even entitled to say they think I’m really a right-winger, if that’s how they feel.

Ah, now I get it. I didn’t realize that the conversation here was actually all about you. My mistake.

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 7:31 pm

UK@90: No, the conversation wasn’t about me. It was about what “American liberals and leftists” think. Clearly that means “male Boomers who probably live for who-knows-what reason in someplace like Houston” and nobody else. Or we could both shut up and leave the topic to sociologists in Manchester who have real data, which is what I’m going to do now.

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MPAVictoria 01.31.11 at 7:38 pm

bianca steele:
No offense intended bianca. I should have chosen my words more carefully. I just wanted to convey my surprise that you do not know a single American who has moved to Canada. And a simple web search will reveal that a few years ago American liberals talking about moving to Canada was all the rage.

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Matt McIrvin 01.31.11 at 7:57 pm

I don’t live in Somerville.

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Substance McGravitas 01.31.11 at 7:58 pm

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F. Blair 01.31.11 at 8:16 pm

I’ve lived in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in New York for fifteen years, work in an industry dominated by liberals, have friends who are, almost without exception, liberal, and the only person I know who has ever even talked about moving to Canada was someone who had a chance of working for EA Sports in Vancouver. I’m sure among an incredibly thin slice of crunchy American bohos, you could find a few people who had contemplated fleeing the country. But it’s a vanishingly small percentage, and not one that tells you anything interesting about liberals or the supposed problems with the U.S.

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bianca steele 01.31.11 at 8:46 pm

Matt:
Oops, I read your bio too quickly. Sorry. I also exaggerated a little when I said I knew exactly where you’re coming from.

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Marc 01.31.11 at 11:06 pm

I know quite a few Americans who’ve lived in Canada, as well as Canadians who’ve lived in the US. Academics in the sciences are a cosmopolitan lot. Stepping aside from the touchy thing with bianca, how common is living outside ones native country in general? Language and cultural roots are pretty deep, and I’d be surprised if it was common at all even in Europe except in cases of severe domestic deprivation (e.g. Mexico vs. the USA, and even there only a minority of Mexicans have ever been in the USA; I got 9.8 million in the US compared with 110 million in Mexico , or about 1/12.)

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Emma_in_Sydney 01.31.11 at 11:18 pm

Statistics Canada says that in 2006 there were 250,535 immigrants from the United States, out of a total immigrant population of 6,186,950. It’s one of the lower numbers, but it’s not nothing. Relevant chapter of the Canada Year Book here.

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Substance McGravitas 01.31.11 at 11:44 pm

I am pretty surprised that the percentage of Canadians in the US isn’t higher than the percentage of Americans in Canada. I mean, there are warm places there.

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Gene O'Grady 01.31.11 at 11:51 pm

I’ve always figured that my great-grandfather made a big mistake in moving from Canada to the US. Recent renewed contact with the Canadian O’Gradies and overall knowledge of family history reinforces the sense that I was right.

My late father, a pretty American guy, always spoke of Canada as if it was a lost paradise. Same way my wife’s maternal grandmother (born 1870) spoke of Sweden.

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PHB 02.01.11 at 12:22 am

The (non) problem with US power is that it is finite use. Contrary to the neo-con ideology, it is diminished rather than strengthened each time it is used.

Ten years ago the US was an unquestioned super-power. Now thanks to the unforced blunder of Iraq, the US has proved itself incapable of occupying one of the smaller medium sized countries.

Obama could probably force Mubarak out, but doing so would make it harder to play the same role in future. If dictators get the idea that the US is going to oust them, they are going to go looking towards Russia or China in future. At the moment the US position seems to be that it is willing to smooth the transition but is not going to force Mubarak out.

The realists like to pretend that military power is somehow necessary to ensure access to various raw materials. I find that analysis to be rather ridiculous. The bloated US military is by far the largest consumer of the exotic raw materials that they are putatively guaranteeing access to. Downsize the military to a rational size and the budget is back in balance (a rational size being about 10% of the current one).

But the problem with militarism is not just the fact that military power has little utility, the military has in recent years made the US less safe and more likely to end up in unnecessary war. When the US has appeared weaker than possible enemies, a militarist has appeared insisting that the US must go into debt to build up the military. When the US has appeared to be stronger, an idiot has appeared to start an unnecessary war.

If the US military had been half the size that it was when Bush II took over, the Iraq war would not have looked like ‘a cakewalk’ and would have been much harder to sell to the US people. As a result the invasion of Iraq would not have occurred and the US military would be considerably stronger. It is quite likely that without the blunder of Iraq, that the business in Afghanistan would have been completed long ago. There would certainly be more international support.

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y81 02.01.11 at 1:47 am

Am I misunderstanding the statistics? There are 920,000 Canadian-born people in the U.S., and 250,000 U.S.-born in Canada? If that’s true, there are a lot more Canadians coming here than Americans going there, for whatever reason.

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mclaren 02.01.11 at 1:48 am

The claim that “The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population” is simply bizarre.

America remains wildly atypical other advanced/developed countries. Let’s a take a look at the evidence:

[1] America spends 1.45 trillion dollars per year on its military, yet the American military can’t even win a war against barefoot 15-year-old boys who are armed with bolt action rifles.

[2] America spends absurdly more than any other developed country for health care, yet America is one of the worst developed countries in the world on health metrics like infant mortality, child malnutrition, etc.

[3] America has the largest per capita prison population by far…yet we persist in expanding our insanely counterproductive war on drugs to include new penalties, more ferocious assaults on medical marijuana dispensaries, and so on.

[4] Tuition for American colleges is climbing at such a rapid rate that it is radically unsustainable — and the 1998 bankruptcy “reform” act that prevents students from ever discharging their debt condemns American college students to a lifetimeof indentured servitude, unlike any other developed nation in the world.

[5] One entire American political party is committed to total global warming denial — bizarre outlier found nowhere else in the developed world.

[6] 60% of the American population rejects evolution as a valid explanation for the origin of species, another bizarre outlier trend found in no other developed country in the world.

As for America’s decline being complete, it’s scarcely begun. America has embarked on an unsustainability marathon in a wide variety of areas, from our collapsing military to our broken health care system to our disintegrating criminal “justice” system. When the crashes come, they’ll arise from multiple sources of unsustainable U.S. policies on a wide variety of fronts.

Just take a look at these 6 graphs and tell me that any one of them is sustainable. Tell me that every single one of these trends won’t crash and burn, and very soon:

AMERICA IN 6 GRAPHS:

Median weeks U.S. workers remain unemployed — a post WW II high

U.S. manufacturing trends in weapons vs consumer durable goods over the last 10 years

Tuition for American colleges from 1978 to 2010 compared to the consumer price index and home prices

U.S. national health spending as a percentage of GDP from 1970-2010

U.S. job creation from 1945 to 2000

American manufacturing capacity from 1945 to 2010.

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Substance McGravitas 02.01.11 at 1:57 am

Am I misunderstanding the statistics?

No, I am. “Percentage of the immigrant population that are C or A in both C and A” is probably a dumb way to look at it.

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novakant 02.01.11 at 3:41 am

I’d be surprised if it was common at all even in Europe except in cases of severe domestic deprivation

FWIW somewhere around a third of the population of London was born abroad.

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Emma_in_Sydney 02.01.11 at 5:29 am

Some 600,000 New Zealanders live outside New Zealand. The current population of New Zealand is about 4,398,514. That’s a fair sort of a proportion. Something over 600,000 current New Zealand residents were not born there. (this figure seems to be unusually hard to find).

So it’s reasonably common for Kiwis to live overseas. Usually in Australia.

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Chris Bertram 02.01.11 at 10:13 am

This weird conversation about Americans not living elsewhere just recurs every so often here on CT, complete with lots of anecdotes from Americans living in the US who don’t know any of their compatriots who want to live abroad. But go to any medium-sized western European city and you’ll find a bunch of Americans living there either because of their job or because of their European spouse.

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Emma in Sydney 02.01.11 at 11:19 am

Or any other city. I’ve just received an essay (for editing in my day job) on the history of Americans in Sydney — needless to say they have been here since the First Fleet.

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Major Alfonso 02.01.11 at 11:43 am

Yes, reading your post, the argument appears to be pretty strong in. So my gut response to the US would be “s&*t, or get off the pot.” In a few of key areas of discord in international relations the US has managed to maintain a role incomensurate with its weight, which you’ve outlined above. This is because rather than generating its own political influence, the US enjoys political influence that is affordedto it. I think you need to address the engine of influence that generates an identification with/accomodation of US interests. Is it merely residual? Is it the lack of paths of influence amongst countries and countries of similar weight to the US? Is the talk of US decline really a category error, and should we be speaking of the growth of linkage, (economic, cultural, military etc.) to countries like the BRIC countries?
In the case of the Middle East peace process the US has dominated mediation for years and from what can be ascertained in the Palestine papers leaked recently, has been acquiescing in the Israeli’s intransigence on their minimum position while the Palestinian maximum has extended and extended beyond what will break the Palestinians themselves. If the US influence doesn’t warrant its position their why has it been allowed to continue to oversee the slow death of the peace process?
I find it odd that you use the Middle East as the launch pad for revisiting the issue, saying you anticipate a further airing of the claims, and then claim you’ll “come back to the Middle East later, but that is sui generis.” Get to it! Inquiring minds want to know. I find coffee and revolutionary protests in a Middle Eastern capital make me impatient, if not rude, my apologies! Nontheless, is it sui generis because of an abiding interest in the world’s prime commodity being produced there? If so why not believe that some commodity may become as worthy of similar US interest and action. Or is it that the character of the Middle East, its regimes is distinct? That’s being disproved hour by hour. What I do know is that the current anti-regime protestors are not counting on US involvement or muscle, nor do actors in the current Lebanon crisis, nor even in the negotiations for government formation in Iraq where American disengagement was assumed in the parties negotiations and “Lebanonisation” anticipated.

to Otto @5, US Presidents have been on telly for decades bemoaning the rule of the Assads in Syria and Hussein in Iraq, so if you think Obama, appearing messiah like on telly would make Mubarak step down in a week under normal circumstances, think again. It’s the people on the street and beating down the gate of the Presidential palace who can get a president out in a week. Nobody believes the US will engage in Iraq II for a while to come.

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Major Alfonso 02.01.11 at 11:44 am

Whoops, broke that italic tag, was only intending to emphasise the “to”.

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Matt McIrvin 02.01.11 at 1:53 pm

But go to any medium-sized western European city and you’ll find a bunch of Americans living there either because of their job or because of their European spouse.

There’s perhaps a tendency to dismiss those cases because that person had some reason for leaving other than “I don’t like US politics/social institutions”.

But that’s almost always the case, regardless of the country. It takes a really extreme situation, egregious social breakdown or oppression, to turn large numbers of people into refugees; especially the middle- or upper-class people who have the easiest time getting out.

bianca steele is right about that (and I was trying to agree): hardly anyone really wants to go to the trouble of moving to another country unless they’ve already got a good situation set up at the other end. But if they’re feeling frustrated, they might think about it in somewhat abstract terms, which is an impulse that could be channeled toward changing things at home if the people who have it have enough power.

(I was trying to respond to the people who argue that Americans never even have idle thoughts about the superior features of other countries, outside of a few deep-blue, college-town enclaves. I don’t think that it’s quite that concentrated, partly because people do move around. Take me, again, as an example: though I have friends in Somerville and I’ve lived in Cambridge and Arlington, right now I actually live out near the New Hampshire border in an area that is full of Scott Brown voters. And I started being a crazy liberal at the west end of Fairfax County, Virginia, back in the Eighties when that neighborhood was much more white suburban Republican than it is now. This is all coastal but it’s not all Berkeley.)

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ajay 02.01.11 at 4:34 pm

There’s perhaps a tendency to dismiss those cases because that person had some reason for leaving other than “I don’t like US politics/social institutions”.
But that’s almost always the case, regardless of the country. It takes a really extreme situation, egregious social breakdown or oppression, to turn large numbers of people into refugees; especially the middle- or upper-class people who have the easiest time getting out.

Marginal effects, though, Matt. You may not uproot yourself and move to London solely because of your disgust with Berlusconi, but it’s got to be a factor. Something you put into the balance along with cost of living, cost of moving, friends, family, weather etc.
(I pick Italy because, pretty much uniquely among western European countries, it’s got a net brain drain going on – net emigration of graduates. )

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piglet 02.01.11 at 4:52 pm

Excellent post, McLaren.

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chris 02.01.11 at 5:14 pm

@113: Is it Berlusconi people dislike, or the conditions created by Berlusconi, or the conditions that allowed Berlusconi to gain and retain power in the first place? He may be as much a symptom as a cause.

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agm 02.02.11 at 7:05 am

Six millions immigrants in Canada? As in, the equivalent of Houston is in Canada. That means there are less than 30 million Canadians? The order of magnitude difference in population is staggering to me. Just the increase in complexity for the logistics of farming and transport south of the 49th parallel…

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Martin James 02.02.11 at 5:40 pm

Quiggin’s argument seems to be that given economic convergence of the standard of living of developed countries that a worldview based on relative wealth and power is not a preferred worldview.

Oddly, one could interpret his point as arguing for individualism in external country relations. In other words, one’s happiness should not be tied to the perceived status of the power of one’s country.

This seems to go against some of the recent happiness literature which shows that relative wealth is often more important to happiness than absolute wealth.

There are several other interesting parts of his commentary. One is that he minimizes the influence of the size of countries population on its relative power. I may be reading too much into things but he seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter that much if one lives in a small rich country or a large one. I tend to agree in terms of personal happiness and development but it does seem to be the case that the size of one’s country does matter substantially in terms of power and in terms of economic opportunity.

Let’s take power first. Let’s address those interested in power only here. In other words, I’ll assume that most reasonable people agree with John that power is a sucker’s game. But there’s a sucker born every minute so at least some will be interested in power.

The question I would put is “Over the range of the types of power one can pursue, how important is it that one is born in a powerful country and how likely is it that the USA is that powerful country?”

For example, if one wishes to be a football star and captain the world cup, then being born in the USA is of little importance. Likewise, if one desires to be a renowned philosopher, being born in the USA is of slight importance.

However, if one wishes to depose, incarcerate and execute the leader of a foreign country, being born in the USA seemingly contributes to one’s life chances. (Admittedly, absent the “execute” international law devotees could argue the a European country of choice would be preferred.)

Again, paradoxically, one reason that the USA is not more of an empire is that Americans don’t have a larger desire to live in other countries. There are not Americans lining up to emigrate to Iraq and Afghanistan and Panama and Grenada and Cuba and Vietnam and Korea or any of the other places where the US Military has engaged in combat.

However, the USA is inherently internally colonial. It is populated by people who voted with their feet and invaded the geography of other people. It is contradictory to the political soul of the USA to not believe that the future belongs to the ambitious – to the powerful. I believe the reason Quiggin has a tough sell to the American people, is that he is basically asking them to cease being colonials and begin being pensioners on the colonialism if their ancestors. We’re too young a country for that. We’re not ready to admit that we’re not unusually relevant to the destiny of the universe.

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Norwegian Guy 02.02.11 at 7:41 pm

“We’re too young a country for that.”

Isn’t Quiggin’s Australia an even younger country?

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piglet 02.02.11 at 7:47 pm

“Again, paradoxically, one reason that the USA is not more of an empire is that Americans don’t have a larger desire to live in other countries.”

That has never been a precondition of empire.

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samosamo 02.02.11 at 7:54 pm

“In geopolitical terms, the US spends a lot more on its military than anyone else (in fact, more than everyone else put together) and (contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) hardly anything on development aid or other efforts at promoting global public goods. ” The first is only true if you use absolute figures, the second only if you use relative (% of GDP). Neither is true if you use the other metric, respectively.

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Emma in Sydney 02.02.11 at 7:56 pm

Also, Martin James, hundreds of thousands of Americans have lived in other countries for limited periods ever since World War II. They have lived in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, Guam, the UK and many other countries, many of which were not at war at the time. They are called ‘soldiers’ and they live in and around ‘US bases’. Smells pretty empire-ish to me.

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Martin James 02.02.11 at 7:57 pm

NW guy and Piglet,

Agreed, Australia is too newly revolted from the British Empire to even be a “real” country let alone give up on the destiny of that country.

Ah, but Piglet, it is a requirement of a democratic empire which is the only empire the USA can aspire to without contradiction. For democracies, demography is destiny.

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Martin James 02.02.11 at 8:21 pm

So, Emma, why is the relationship between Hawaii and the USA different from that between Australia and the UK.

Why didn’t the UK stay as “U” as it might have?

One could say that the USA could only happen because North America was relatively devoid of states and the world is no longer devoid of states. Alternatively, one could say the USA has expanded to include all the territory where a significant number of people wanted to be called Americans.

What would happen if the USA ever decided to go into corporate merger and acquisition mode and take on new territories and peoples?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 02.02.11 at 8:38 pm

For democracies, demography is destiny.

It just doesn’t seem that the word “democracy” is meaningful enough to generalize.

China has one party, espousing economic nationalism, with its leaders rising from the bottom up for decades and via dozens of elected offices.

The US has two parties, both espousing economic liberalism, the winner takes all system, and its leaders often jump from corporate boardrooms directly into the senate.

France has a whole bunch of parties, various ideologies, from fascism to trotskyism, mostly career politicians, and the system of proportional representation.

These are three different models; it seems arbitrary to pick the US and France, call them both ‘democracies’ and start generalizing.

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chris 02.02.11 at 9:06 pm

[The US] is populated by people who voted with their feet and invaded the geography of other people.

No, it isn’t. It’s populated by the descendants of those people, and the people they imported as slaves, and the natives, and other people who later immigrated to the US from a wide variety of sources after it was already a going concern, all mixed together in varying proportions.

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Martin James 02.02.11 at 10:00 pm

Chris,

Good point. I am giving to much weight to the historical in terms of the national character in order to highlight a contrast to other developed countries.

Although, I would claim that from a “nation is a people with a place” point of view, the new immigrants (and the slaves that stayed) have legitimated by their remaining in the USA the idea that there is no inherent connection of nation, people and geography. The former slaves that moved to Texas and California legitimated the claim of the USA to that territory by their emigration and their adopting and retaining US citizenship.

The point I’m trying to make is that it is very difficult to get one’s head around what it means for a US citizen to consistently adopt a “colonialism and imperialism were a mistake” ideology when it seems inherent to what the USA is, in a way that its not as inherent to what it means to be Swiss or German or Russian or even English. Yes, one could try to reconstruct the USA as a “return to nativity, kinder and gentler country” but its just not clear to me how one makes any sense of the identity of the USA in that case.

I guess that is why some people view parts of the US citizenship as knuckle-draggers and those people often return the favor by calling the others freeloading hypocrites.

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chris 02.02.11 at 10:19 pm

The point I’m trying to make is that it is very difficult to get one’s head around what it means for a US citizen to consistently adopt a “colonialism and imperialism were a mistake” ideology when it seems inherent to what the USA is, in a way that its not as inherent to what it means to be Swiss or German or Russian or even English.

I think you’re putting too much emphasis on origin. The present-day inhabitants of the USA didn’t ask for their country to be founded on colonialism and slavery — they were, for the most part, born into a country that already had that history. It’s no more inconsistent for a *modern* American to disapprove of colonialism than for someone conceived by rape to disapprove of rape. (It’s of course quite different for someone who voluntarily immigrated during the period when the USA was still actively practicing colonialism, especially if they knew about it.) There’s a minimum level of voluntariness required for an act to have moral significance (or even sensibly be denoted an “act” at all) and birth into a particular set of circumstances or history doesn’t qualify.

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Martin James 02.02.11 at 10:45 pm

Chris,

Thanks, got it.

However, if I was conceived by a rape I would not know how to think about my relationship to my father. To me, the question of “what does it mean to be conceived by a criminal performing a criminal act?”, is a real and tough question. I couldn’t really regret my creation (or my father) even though the act was otherwise odious.

I guess I have an overly historical (and patriarchal) (im)/morality.

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agm 02.03.11 at 10:24 am

I’m trying to keep with this in installments as work and ice storm allow, so please forgive me for asking this, but Martin, I can’t quite suss the point of this question: “So, Emma, why is the relationship between Hawaii and the USA different from that between Australia and the UK.”

Hawaii is the USA. Australia is not the UK. What was this a response to? Did you mean her Guam reference?

chris, your point seems to underestimate the millions of people immigrating north often repeatedly when caught and deported. This is a continual voting with one’s feet by many, many people, throughout the US.

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chris 02.03.11 at 8:08 pm

chris, your point seems to underestimate the millions of people immigrating north often repeatedly when caught and deported. This is a continual voting with one’s feet by many, many people, throughout the US.

OK, but people who are immigrating now are endorsing (in that sense) the nation as it exists now, not all past versions of it. The US isn’t still committing acts of conquest and/or genocide against its native population (at least, not so far as I know, and it would clearly be illegal to do so).

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Michael Turton 02.03.11 at 10:58 pm

It’s fun to read stuff like this while living outside the US and watching the very obvious decline in US wealth, power and influence.

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Martin James 02.04.11 at 1:32 am

Michael,

So are you watching the decline in US Wealth, power and influence as they show up in other countries or as they show up in the USA on television?

Who are you seeing growing in wealth, power and influence?

The Finns, Brazilians, South Africans, Somalis, Russians, Kurds, Basques, Lapps, Navajo, greens, teenagers, Google owners, warlords, Mexican drug dealers, Cubans, Turks, reunited Germans, Brahmins, Gypsies, I-phone users, Esperanto speakers, dolphins, whales, honey bees, neutrinos, I mean the imagination does run wild…

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Martin James 02.04.11 at 1:38 am

agm,

My response to Emma wasn’t very direct. I tool Emma to be saying that the USA was an empire because it had soldiers in many countries. I was trying to point out that the USA is not like the countries of Europe in its approach to the world. The UK had an empire that fell apart and part of the reason was that the people in the empire of the UK did not identify strongly with the home country.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was assimilated.

Chris correctly states that the USA is not currently doing conquest and genocide. The question is why the change and is it permanent? I believe that part of the reason Americans support a large military budget is that they believe war – total war including genocide – remains a possibility and want it to start as far away from North America as possible.

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