I do not believe that civilizations have to die because civilization is not an organism. It is a product of wills. Arnold J Toynbee
Yesterday, I explored a number of ideas around the proposition that the USA is in decline. The case is by no means clear but there does seem to be a preponderance of support for the notion that, as with all great empires, this could be an ‘end time’ for the USA.
One needs to go no further than A. J. Toynbee himself to reflect on that idea. Who was Arnold J Toynbee? Here’s his biography as presented on the Gifford Lectures website, ( Note: A fabulous series of lectures available on YouTube!)
The British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee was born in London on 14 April 1889 and died on 22 October 1975 in York, North Yorkshire, England. He was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford. He was the nephew of economic historian Arnold Toynbee, with whom he is sometimes confused. His first marriage to Rosalind Murray, with whom he had three sons, ended in divorce in 1946. Professor Toynbee then married Veronica M. Boulter, his research assistant.
From 1919 to 1924 Arnold J. Toynbee was professor of modern Greek and Byzantine history at King’s College, London. From 1925 until 1955 Professor Toynbee served as research professor and Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. During both world wars he worked for the British Foreign Office. He was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
While Professor Toynbee’s Gifford Lectures were published as An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956) he is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History (1934-1961). This massive work examined the growth, development and decay of civilizations. He presented history as the rise and fall of civilizations rather than nation-states or ethnic groups. According to his analysis of civilizations the well-being of a civilization depends on its ability to deal successfully with challenges.
Professor Toynbee oversaw the publication of The Survey of International Affairs published by Oxford University Press under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs from 1925 to 1977.
A Study of History is the longest book in the English language, described in Wikipedia as, “the 12-volume magnum opus of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, finished in 1961, in which the author traces the development and decay of all of the major world civilizations in the historical record. Toynbee applies his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.”
Back to the theme of the essay. One might propose, therefore, that a decline in the USA could be the ‘leading edge’ of a decline not only of the empire of the USA but of the whole of our present civilisation; the ‘universal rhythm of rise, flowering and decline‘.
Back on the 3rd October, Simon Johnson, one half of the famous duo with James Kwak, over on Baseline Scenario published an essay under the title of Fiscal Confrontation And The Declining Influence Of The United States. Let me dip into that. Simon starts off by saying,
It is axiomatic among most of our Washington elite that the United States cannot lose its preeminent global role, at least not in the foreseeable future. This assumption is implicit in all our economic policy discussions, including how politicians on both sides regard the leading international role of the United States dollar. In this view, the United States is likely to remain the world’s financial safe haven for international investors, irrespective of what we say and do.
Expressing concerns about the trajectory of our federal government debt has of course become fashionable during this election cycle; this is a signature item for both the Tea Party movement in general and vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan in particular.
Then later, in a reference to my own British history, writes,
Threatening to shut down the government or refusing to budge on taxes is seen by many Republicans as a legitimate maneuver in their campaign to shrink the state, rather than as something that could undermine the United States’ economic recovery and destabilize the world. This approach is more than unfortunate, because the perception of our indefinite preeminence – irrespective of how we act – is completely at odds with the historical record. In his widely acclaimed book, “Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance,” Arvind Subramanian places the rise of the dollar in its historical context and documents how economic policy mistakes, World War II and the collapse of empire undermined the British pound and created space for the United States dollar to take over as the world’s leading currency.
Then Simon endorses the key point made by Arvind Subramanian, namely,
But Dr. Subramanian also asserts that two other factors were important: the sheer size of the American economy, which overtook Britain’s, probably at some point in the late 19th century, and the United States current account surplus. In particular, American exports were far larger than imports during World War I and by the end of World War II the United States had amassed almost half the gold in the world (gold at that time was used to settle payments between countries.)
In effect, the United States dollar pushed aside the British pound in part because the United States became the world’s largest creditor.
Simon’s essay closes thus, (and you do need to read the full essay, by the way, many important ideas are expressed)
The dollar became strong because American politicians were responsible, careful and willing to compromise. Fiscal extremism, confrontation and a refusal to consider tax increases over any time horizon will undermine the international role of the dollar, destabilize the world and make it much harder for all of us to achieve any kind of widely shared prosperity.
Finally, in a call with my son, Alex, just 30 minutes ago (I’m writing this on the morning of the 4th October), he mentioned an item he had read in today’s Guardian newspaper No recovery until 2018, IMF warns.
The International Monetary Fund’s chief economist has warned that the global economy will take a decade to recover from the financial crisis as the latest snapshot of the UK economy suggested that growth in the third quarter will be at best anaemic.
Olivier Blanchard said he feared the eurozone crisis, debt problems in Japan and the US, and a slowdown in China meant that the world economy would not be in good shape until at least 2018. “It’s not yet a lost decade,” he said. “But it will surely take at least a decade from the beginning of the crisis for the world economy to get back to decent shape.
2018! That leaves plenty of time for any number of global ‘surprises’ geopolitical and environmental alike! But my final message is one of caution. I am as vulnerable as the next person in seeing ‘doom and gloom’ ahead. However, drop in to Learning from Dogs next Tuesday and watch something that may surprise you.
So on that note, the closing quote is going be one that I have loved for a long time:
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. “ Niels Bohr