Greatest Generation

Instead of only focusing on improving one’s own life, people tend to think in the terms of the "greater good." Bill Bonner explains that notions that seem that helpful, like spreading freedom to other nations, is really just an unhealthy obsession with power…

Every generation seems to think that history marches onward – until it reaches them. There, it comes to a full stop. It cannot imagine any further evolution or improvement, except in automobiles which it is sure will take to the air before the next generation passes its driving tests. It makes no allowance for the fits of luck and temper that have put it where it is. Nor does it pause with a moment of thanks for the generations of corpses upon whom it stands. Instead, pushes and shoves its way forward towards the greatness that it believes is its destiny.

Here, of course, we speak of man in his collective capacity – that is to say, we speak of him en masse…that is to say as a herd animal. Individually, a man goes about his business and makes of himself whatever his circumstances and his own pluck allow. Generally, he gets what he has coming. And in cases where he does not – say, when public officials put him in jail for a crime he did not commit – he is still better off believing that he gets what he deserves than that he deserves what he gets.

But the trouble with these individual yearnings is that they leave the man feeling restless, like he is waiting for a drink that never comes. After a while, he figures it is all a waste of time. He is staring into the "abyss," as existential philosophers put it. He is looking for something that can’t be found…at least not in the popular press or on television. He feels weak. He feels hollow. He knows he is just a member of what Sophocles called a ‘deathward-going tribe of men.’ "What do your lives mean except that they go to nothingness?" asked the Greek.

Spreading Freedom: Taking a Big Gulp

So, the man begins to think not only of his own, personal yearnings and strivings, which he knows are petty and unimportant, but of those of his tribe…his nation…and his generation. He itches for something bigger than himself, grander…something so remote and abstract that he really has no idea what it is…but it seems great to him. It seems meaningful. It stinks of purpose. And he believes that if he takes a gulp, as though it were patent medicine, he’ll be cured.

Michael Ignatieff seems to have drunk a lot of the stuff. "Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?" is the title of a recent piece.

"Despite the exceptional character of American liberty, every American president has proclaimed America’s duty to defend it abroad as the universal birthright of mankind," he writes. He does not seem to realize that there were those who meant it and those who found it a convenient thing to say. The liars did the least damage.

"Freedom" seems to be the curse of the current generation – at least, that part of it represented by the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. They have urged "freedom fries" on the nation. There is a "Freedom Tower" rising from the ruins of the World Trade Centers. And they see "spreading freedom" as not only a pastime, but a duty:

"[T]his gambler from Texas has bet his place in history on the proposition, as he stated in a speech in March, that decades of American presidents’ ‘excusing and accommodating tyranny, in the pursuit of stability’ in the Middle East inflamed the hatred of the fanatics who piloted the planes into the twin towers on Sept. 11."

That sentence takes a bit of annotation. The first part is simple enough; it’s the last part that needs deciphering. Let’s see, the United States didn’t take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq years ago, so fanatics crashed planes into Manhattan. Hmmm…we will have to keep going, because we can’t make sense out of it.

Spreading Freedom: The Ash Heap of History

"This president, as his second Inaugural Address made clear," continues Ignatieff, "has soldered stability and liberty together: ‘America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.’ This is a perfect statement, logically. We don’t know what our vital interests are. Nor do we know what our deepest beliefs are. That they are one is as indisputable as it is meaningless.

"What is exceptional about the Jefferson dream [of liberty]," he finally gets down to business, "is that it is the last imperial ideology left standing in the world, the sole survivor of national claims to universal significance. All the others – the Soviet, the French and the British – have been consigned to the ash heap of history."

He did not mention the Roman, the Greek, the Hittite, the Phoenician, the Carthaginian, the Mayan…and so on. All imperial ideologies and all generations eventually end up on the ash heap of history. But Ignatieff cannot imagine that there could be any understudy waiting to take up the lead role when the U.S. imperium finally clutches its heart and falls to the stage floor…nor can he imagine any imperial creed that could ever take the place of the current American chant for "freedom."

Spreading "freedom," in Iraq may be a costly, greasy and murderous project, says Ignatieff, but you gotta believe:

"There is nothing worse than believing your son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother died in vain. Even those who have opposed the Iraq War all along, who believe that the hope of planting democracy has lured America into a criminal folly, do not want to tell those who have died that they have given their lives for nothing. This is where Jefferson’s dream must work. Its ultimate task in American life is to redeem loss, to rescue sacrifice from oblivion and futility and to give it shining purpose." It’s real purpose, in other words, is to gull people into thinking that the Bush team have not gotten their boys killed for nothing.

Spreading Freedom: Glacial Speed

If there is really any progress in the world – outside of technology – it is in the form of a drift towards civilization, at glacial speed. Very gradually, men give up the use of force in favor of persuasion. Still, the old explosive wildness…the lure of empire and the lust for power…is never far away.

The Roman Emperor Caracalla attended a chariot race at which many of the spectators began heckling his favorite charioteer. "Faithful to his reputation for cruelty," writes Ramsay MacMullen, "he ordered his soldiers to seize all those who insulted the driver and kill them."

Sixty generations later, Stalin did much the same thing, we are told. His officers even re-instituted the ancient Roman practice of decimation – killing every 10th man in a military unit that performed badly at Stalingrad.

Stalin, too, believed that history led in his direction. Marx, Engels, Lenin – they all had told him, the "dialectic" came to a halt with the victory of the proletariat. How was he to know his imperial ideology would be as cold and dead as his own corpse, just 47 years later?

But now it is 53 years since the battle for Stalingrad. The America of Jefferson – where men were expected to mind their own business – is as dead as a Bolshevik. And now there is only one dominant imperial ideology left. The latest, greatest generation has taken it up like a truant picks up a hand grenade. It gives him a sense of power – until it blows up on him.

That it hasn’t quite blown up yet is a source of great hope, comfort and delusion for this 4th of July.


Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning

July 01, 2005 — Madrid, Spain

Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of The Wall Street Journal best seller Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century (John Wiley & Sons).

The markets have gone nowhere for a long time.

Stocks stick around 10,500 on the Dow. The dollar is still around $1.21 per euro. Long bonds yield a little over 4%. Gold was at $440 the last time we looked.

With no price action to hold our attention, we’ve let our minds wander over to the issue of outsourcing…globalization…the trade deficit…and America’s race to ruin. We have noticed that there are two main schools of thought on the issue – both of them moronic.

The free traders pretend to support open markets as a matter of principle. They are under the illusion that America’s economy is robust and competitive. They flatter themselves with the slogan "they sweat, we think" and delude themselves that we are such superior thinkers we will never have to sweat again. The foreigners, they say, lend us money because they admire us so much. After all, our economy is "growing faster," than theirs.

It is all rubbish. Free trade benefits everyone, absolutely. But it benefits some more than others; its advantages fall most heavily on those who sweat the most…those who save their money…those who forgo current consumption in order to increase production, so that they will have more wealth in the future. Does that describe Americans? No, it describes their competitors in Asia.

Our prediction: when the free traders wake up to what is actually going on they will drop the "free" and take up "fair" as their motto. Fair trade will be defined as a matter of convenience, not principle; like fair labor rates, in other words, it will be a swindle.

Here at The Daily Reckoning we are not particularly in favor of "free trade." We just don’t like anyone telling us what to do. And on the other side of the debate is a whole gulag of trade wardens such as Patrick Buchanan who want to do just that. Their argument is that what we thought was ours doesn’t really belong to us at all. Our money…our factories…our resources – they are not ours; instead, they belong to the nation. So the nation’s politicians and government hacks have the right to tell us what to do with them. We cannot simply buy the automobile that suits us; we have to buy the one that the trade wardens tell is best for the nation. We cannot simply sell our oil or our factories to whomever offers the most for them; we have to consider the national interest, as the trade wardens define it.

Buchanan points out that there have always been trade wardens among us. He might have reminded us that there have always been lynch mobs and head lice; it hardly makes them respectable.

Another argument he makes is that we are all in this together, and therefore need a common trade policy. In a sense, he is right. The average American is only as rich as he is because he had the luck to be born in America rather than in Bengladesh. But the wealth hardly comes from trade restrictions. It comes from luck and pluck…and hundreds of years of hard work and saving.

But Buchanan is right about one thing. He points out, as we do, that currently Americans are ruining themselves.

"No nation ever consumed its way to greatness or prosperity," he writes.

Of course, we are unconcerned with greatness. It is goodness that interests us. We doubt that it is a good thing for Americans to spend more than they earn…to flatter themselves with so many idle vanities…to borrow so much money…to put themselves so much at the mercy of foreign lenders…to give up their capacity to make things at a profit…and to fill up their lives with so much junk, material as well as mental. But it is not for us to judge our fellow men. If that is what they want…it must be part of God’s Own Plan. Perhaps it His way of teaching moral lessons. Or maybe this is a matter for the lesser gods, who do it just for entertainment. Whatever the reason for it, it is not for us to interfere. Surely, in that Great Charter of the Rights of Man there must be a clause that gives him the right to ruin himself. And we don’t much appreciate the protectionists’ attempts to take it away from him.

More news, from our team at The Rude Awakening:


Eric Fry, reporting from Manhattan…

"All the classic leading indicators of future U.S. economic activity are heading in the direction that neither Alan Greenspan nor President Bush has authorized: Down."


Bill Bonner, with more views from Madrid:

*** The votes are in…and, not surprisingly, judging from the comments we received yesterday, the majority of our audience feels that Dan should stick true to his word – and don the green sarong at The Agora Wealth Symposium…

"Always thought Dan was smart – now I know he is," starts one comment from a reader. "It’s a can’t-lose bet. Hold him to it and he gets to be the most comfortable one at the conference!"

"I say dress the kid up and push him on stage," writes a reader from Minnesota. "I bought the book, and the customer is always right!"

"Skirt! A promise is a promise is a promise. Don’t get like the U.S. government now, saying something and them conveniently backing out. Green sarong! And your faithful readers would like a picture!"

"Dan is to receive NO reprieves. If he requests another day, he must risk the ignominy of added 9" high heels, and Lee Press-On nails to his attire."

(The mental picture that last comment invited scared us a bit, as with 9" heels, Dan would be over seven feet tall!)

One reader didn’t want to join in the fun…his comment contained only one word:

"Clowns." (Which we took as a compliment, by the way.)

So what does Mr. Denning say to all of this?

"Addison Wiggin has twisted my sarong wager. He claims that because I didn’t pass Tom Friedman’s flat book on the best-seller list within 24 hours of my Wednesday e-mail, I’m obligated to show a little leg in Vancouver. That’s now what I wagered, however. I said if we didn’t pass the pants sisters, I’d take off my pants. However, in the spirit of fairness (and adventure), I’ll amend the terms: If I don’t pass Friedman in the next two weeks, you’ll find me somewhere in Vancouver in a skirt."

*** For the last week, we’ve been examining the reasons a Chinese company is so interested in buying a U.S. oil company. CNOOC – 70% owned by China’s third-largest government oil company – has offered to buy Unocal for $18.5 billion – in cash.

Most newspapers are treating this like any other business deal. But $18.5 billion makes the offer anything but ordinary. The fact that Unocal’s suitor is Chinese is also very significant. And bubbling just beneath the surface is a much bigger story altogether – a story of secret deals, desperate governments, scarce supplies and unending demand.

At The Daily Reckoning, we’ve been covering this growing need for the Chinese to flex its economic muscles. We believe before it’s all said and done, a few big-name companies will be forced to shut their doors forever.

*** Vanity, vanity…when a man offers to help his fellow man he almost always does so for reasons of vanity – at least when he does it on the public stage. He seeks either to boss other people around (as Pat Buchanan or George W. Bush do) or he wants to get his name in the paper.

A case of the latter is the present Live Aid campaign led by Bob Geldof. Everywhere we look we see Geldof’s mug. The man believes he can "Make Poverty History." Or, at least, so he says. If he believes it, he is a fool. If he doesn’t believe it, he is a charlatan.

It is hard to know which. Most likely Geldof and the other performers are a bit of both – hoping to give their careers a boost, while doing some good in the process.

Sayeth Mariah Carey on the subject:

"To create awareness is important to me and I know that Bob Geldof is making such an effort to make this an impactful event to inspire people. It’s going to be a great day."

Yes, it may be an impactful day. But, warns the IMF, don’t expect it to be very impactful for poor people. "Aid will not lift growth in Africa," says a headline in the Financial Times.