[I’m reading and doing some metacommentary on Mitt Romney’s book. Enjoy, or skip over it: it’s a free country.]
I don’t know if Mitt Romney still thinks global warming is a thing. But whenever his ghost writer ghost wrote this chapter, they acknowledged at least that public opinion moved in that direction. This is good, and hopefully he still believes it. But since half of my notes in the margins in these sections are about how maybe he could look into global warming, I wish he’d have stated it earlier instead of almost at the end. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now we’re at the section “Common Causes?” and the question mark is because even Romney isn’t sure he can get anything useful out of the bare sketches he wrote about nations and empires collapsing. He starts off saying that both cultural and economic isolation lead to the collapse of empires. “China, Spain, Britain, and the Ottomans expressly or effectively retreated behind barriers to foreign trade, each convinced that competition had made them weaker. Their retreat from the marketplace of ideas and their retreat from the marketplace of goods inevitably led to their retreat from the pinnacle of leadership.”
(a) I think we can all agree that Britain was best known for its economic isolation. Who doesn’t remember that stirring line, “Rule Britannia, Britannia, stay home because the waves might be choppy”? (b) There’s no evidence in this book to suggest that empires that isolated themselves did it because they were losing ground or if they had already lost ground and their isolationism was a way to stave off/slow down the process.
“This is a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on us. When we face challenge, there will always be cries for protection”. I know: those cries of we shouldn’t have to compete with prepubescent girls paid almost nothing for factory work. Don’t they know that they’re the ones destroying the country?
“They will be heartfelt and not entirely illogical. Foreign competition will seem unfair — after all, if foreign products and services are more desirable to consumers, it must be due to some form of advantage. And if one’s competitor has an advantage, that doesn’t feel fair.” So what if it actually isn’t fair? It’s tough to quantify how much of China’s advantage is due to unfair things like child labor, shit environmental laws, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, and trade barriers, and how much is due to fair competition. But calls to not have to compete with those unfair things aren’t in and of themselves shutting down legit trade or calls to close off all ties.
“The only successful way to overcome foreign advantage, however, is to create an advantage of one’s own — to innovate.” There’s no evidence that you can’t innovate and have certain trade restrictions. The US had plenty of trade barriers for most of our history, and we did a fine job innovating. In large measure it helped build our manufacturing base. China is doing the same thing now and out competing us at the moment.
It goes on like this, but you get the point. Moving on to the next reason for failure:
Some of these failed powers were weakened as well by wealth and spending that exceeded their own production–in other words, by easy money. The spoils of Ottoman pillage, the gold the Spanish stole from the Americas, the tribute the Portuguese exacted from trade–all allowed each of those nations to live well in excess of their productivity. In the same way that inherited wealth can lead descendents to profligate spending and economic ruin, easy money weakened these nations’ willingness to work and invest.
Totally. People who inherited their wealth don’t know what hard work is. Excellent point, Mitt Romney. Then I’m not sure if it’s the same point or bad transitions, but culture in general makes a difference in collapse of empires. Finally we can learn from this outline of failure to avoid “the same path that has led to the great decline in the past.” His prescription is don’t save industries that were once successful and avoid protectionism.
And we’re on to “Why Nations Fiddle as they Burn” the story of
Nero Mitt Romney explaining with hindsight how he would have saved various places. He has a paragraph about Spain that doesn’t really say anything new. Then because he hadn’t mentioned the Dutch up to this point, he talks about them. “The Dutch also suffered from unearned wealth. Their trade monopolies, underinvestment in productive industry, and cultural decay led this condition to be called ‘Dutch disease.’ Lack of vision, lack of awareness, is an integral part of the malady.” I think Dutch disease is generally shifting from industrialization to a resource based economy. The parts about culture and trade monopoly seem out of place to me.
This leads to a discussion of other countries that have the problems generally actually associated with “Dutch disease.” The countries who have oil wealth in particular. He tries to shoehorn the Ottoman empire into that, but it doesn’t really work. Then to us:
Our own lack of vision led to the collapse of our financial markets and our economy. It precipitated a global recession, triggered the loss of $12 trillion of our citizen’s net worth and dealt a sharp blow to freedom. We simply did not see the so-called subprime home mortgages, liar loans, and nonliquified loans had the potential to cause such destruction. I know some believe that “the powers that be” saw it all along–that the greed of Wall Street tycoons, for example, was the root cause. But I believe a lack of vision played every bit as big a role.
I agree that it wasn’t a conspiracy. Too many people lost too much money. But, we were sold for decades before the crash that these sorts of investments were American innovation. That they were part of a new ownership society. It wasn’t a lack of vision, it was a lack of oversight, and common sense with a too far reaching vision. Also, if you think nobody saw the collapse, I’d recommend The Big Short. There’s no mention of who specifically Romney would blame for lacking vision, maybe because he wants largely to go back to the policies that he says lack vision.
However, lack of vision is the exception when it comes to the decline of great powers. In most cases, there were warnings. Farsighted Ottomans warned that adherence to religious dogma and reliance on oversized bureaucracy would doom the empire.
If only Mitt Romney were in charge of the Ottoman Empire, things would have turned out differently. There are several other examples of empires not having far reaching visions of the future. Here’s where my notes say “global warming” a bunch when he says things like “we seize on the opinion of someone who tells us what we want to hear” rather than face hard truths or look to large scale change.
It goes on for several pages, but I want to mention his calling out the media’s problem reporting on the Iraq war. Now you might think getting into pointless wars would be part of why empires decline. Finding enemies to rally against instead of using that energy to solve our actual problems. Perhaps things like Friedman Units where were promised everything would turn around in 6 months every 6 months? Point is: media criticism leading up to and during the Iraq war is a target rich case study for the decline of nations. Guess what Romney’s example was?
The media elite similarly took the early view that Iraq was a hopeless quagmire. There was often thereafter a perceptible snickering in the coverage, especially when the surge was unveiled. Then, when the surge actually worked, the media coverage of Iraq noticeably fell off.
Yeah, that’s the problem. The media didn’t cheer lead enough. Christ on the Cross. Anyway, now were to an unlabeled section about countries that turn things around. He mentions the emperors after Nero without saying why they were “Five Good Emperors.” The Ottoman apparently staved off their decline for a while. He says “after an eleven-year civil war” but doesn’t put it in the context of his previous Ottoman musings. And Churchill.
Then he talks about the Clinton era as a time of decline for America. Because peace and prosperity: ick. Then 9/11 and “America changed course” without mentioning why a decade stuck in Afghanistan is good for America. He has four reasons some countries can turn things around and why some can’t:
“The first is the occurrence of a catastrophic event that is alarming enough to spur action but not so large that it dooms the nation.” He mentions Sputnik and Pearl Harbor. I guess America was in decline before Sputnik? I don’t know.
“The second catalyst is the presence of a great leader.” He says they should be persuasive and a great statesman. Then without expanding on those qualities, he just lists a bunch of leaders.
“A third condition is national consensus.” He says usually national consensus comes from the top, but sometimes it’s from the bottom. “Lech Walesa galvanized a movement that brought down the Iron Curtain first in Poland and then across Eastern Europe.” Great, but not exactly how nations stay strong. And then he fucks with me: “Scientists, concerned citizens and* the world media succeeded in convincing the public that global warming is a real and present danger.” I haven’t finished the book, or the presidential campaign, but I look forward to his addressing global warming head on.
“The final conducive condition for turnaround is when a nation enjoys deep, broad-based national strength.” This seems like question begging to me. Why are nations able to stay strong? Because of their national strength!
There’s another small section, but it’s just recapping and setting up the next chapter, so we’ll end this here.
* I can’t figure out why there isn’t a serial comma here. It’s been one of the few things in this book I’m glad of.