The Long View 2007-09-21: The Fall of Empire; Board of Estimate; Future Follies



John J. Reilly makes an aside here, borrowing from Mark Steyn, that a large part of the world currently enjoys a perfectly reasonable standard of living, approximately equivalent to Portugal, which is likely no American’s idea of a hellhole.

The numbers tend to be a little hard to wrap your mind around, at first glance the average net salary listed for Portugal on Wikipedia of about $11,000 USD would seem ruinous to most Americans, but that doesn’t take into account price differences. Portugal is by world standards, solidly middle of the pack. I suspect it would probably seem rather nice to an American tourist, although I haven’t been there myself.

The Fall of Empire; Board of Estimate; Future Follies

Fans of comparative history may find several things to say about Gerard Baker's critique in the Times Online of a typical failure of the historical imagination:

A quick history lesson: America is no Rome
The tired analogy of imperial decline and fall

The US is indeed in the middle of another gloomy ride around the “America as Rome” theme park of half-understood history lessons. The pessimists, equipped with their Fodor’s guidebooks, their summer school diplomas, and their DVD collection of Cecil B. DeMille movies, are convinced it’s all up for the people who march today under the standard of the eagle, just as it was for their predecessors. ...It’s a familiar and very tired analogy, of course. From the moment that America became top nation in the middle of the last century, people have been racing to be contemporary Gibbons, chronicling the decline and fall even as it was supposedly happening....Every lost battle or turbulent day on the foreign exchanges and the obituary writers are sharpening their pencils....That’s the only really workable analogy between the US and Rome. When Rome fell, the world went dark for the best part of a millennium. America may not be an empire. But whatever it is, for the sake of humanity, pray it lasts at least as long as Rome.

If you are going make an analogy between American and Rome, it would be the Late Republic, compared with which the history of America in the past few decades has been relatively serene. Still, the "decline and fall" analogy cannot be attributed simply to modern unfamiliarity with Classical history. At the Constitutional Convention, the Founding father chattered about Gibbon and routinely compared the British Empire to the Roman Empire in its last days. The Fall of the Empire is like a musical hook: it's an idea with an appeal beyond its merits.

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Now you tell us? So says Peggy Noonan about the disclosures in Alan Greenspan's new memoirs:

He disdains the Great Pork Spree of the '00s. The unifying idea that governed Bush White House economic thinking--"deficits don't matter"--was, simply, wrong. Mr. Greenspan found it a "struggle" to accept that this is what the Republican Party had come to. Scrambling for political dominance became the party's great goal. "The reality was even uglier": They would spend and spend "to add a few more seats to the Republican majority."

This is all strongly, and clearly, stated.

But when the tax cuts, and the impact of spending, were being debated, Mr. Greenspan allowed his congressional testimony to be interpreted as supportive of the Bush plan.

One of the things that made me frantic about the Republican Congress was its belief that fiscal policy was not a tool of macro-economic management. Greenspan could have informed them otherwise while speaking at a level of abstraction high enough that his remarks would not have been considered partisan.

On the other hand, I don't think that it would have been practical or even proper for the head of the Federal Reserve to tell Congress what it can or can't do. He's just a banker, after all. Such people can be allowed to be omnipotent only on the condition that they do nothing. Like the Supreme Court, the Fed's area of real expertise is really quite limited. It is a distraction from their proper functions to ask bodies like these to make legislative decisions of general application.

The more I think about it, the more I like Fareed Zakaria's suggestion that some independent body should prepare the federal budget and then Congress can vote it up or down. As I have mentioned before, the Board of Estimate in New York City performed that function, with the city council having final approval but not budget-writing authority. The abolition of the board, because the way its members were selected violated the one-man/one-vote principle, broke the city's budget process for years

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Finally, Mark Steyn has some ideas of his own for structural changes to government:

I’m not unsympathetic to those who favor a constitutional amendment prohibiting all baby boomers from public office. It’s amazing to me how many institutions remain entirely in thrall to the received wisdom of 40 years ago – scarcity of “resources”, world “overpopulation”, the growing “inequality” between the rich countries and the “Third World”.

None of these things exist. The UN now says the planet’s population will peak in mid-century, and in many parts of the developed world it’s already in decline: the problem Germany faces, for example, is not “sustainable growth” but sustainable lack of growth. Meanwhile, the last three decades have seen the emergence of what Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin calls “a new world middle class” made up of over 2.5 billion people in developing lands who now have a standard of living near enough that of the west. So about half the folks in the so-called “poor countries” are, in fact, doing pretty nicely. As Virginia Postrel put it, if you take the planet as a whole, in 1998 “the largest number of people earned about $8,000 - a standard of living equivalent to Portugal’s.” ...The obsolescent boomer pieties that are now the core curriculum of our grade schools will be a laughingstock by the time those children graduate high school.

That sounds about right. Certainly it has precedent, though I suspect that the disconnect between, say, 1960 and 1972 was unusually sharp. As for trying to predict the obsolescent pieties of 20 years from now, most people would find the correct predictions not so much incredible as uninteresting.

Spelling reform? Come on.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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