What the Past Tells Us

Perhaps because we are a young country, Americans tend not to pay much attention to the lessons of history. Well, we should start, because those lessons are brutal. Power, even great power, if not well tended, erodes over time. Nations, like corporations and people, can lose discipline and morale. Economic and political vulnerability go hand in hand. Remember, without a strong economy, a nation’s international standing, standard of living, national security, and even its domestic tranquility will suffer over time.

Many of us think that a superpowerful, prosperous nation like America will be a permanent fixture dominating the world scene. We are too big to fail. But you don’t have to delve far into the history books to see what has happened to other once-dominant powers. Most of us have witnessed seismic political shifts in our lifetime. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev settled into his job as the Soviet Union’s young and charismatic new leader and began acting on his mandate to reenergize the socialist empire. Seven years later that empire collapsed and disappeared from the face of the Earth. Gorbachev runs a think tank in Moscow now.

In a sense, the larger world is starting to resemble the nasty and brutish life that long has characterized the corporate world. Just ask Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric. Of the twelve giants that made up the first Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896 – all of them once considered too big to fail – only GE remains. The other towering names of the era – the American Cotton Oil Company, the US Leather Company, the Chicago Gas Company, and the like – all have faded away. And as GE stands against the winds of today’s financial challenges, ask Immelt whether there is such thing as a company that is too big to fail.

I love to read history books for the lessons they offer. After all, as the homily goes, if you don’t learn from history, you may be doomed to repeat it. Great powers rise and fall. None has a covenant to perpetuate itself without cost. The millennium of the Roman Empire – which included five hundred years as a republic – came to an end in the fifth century after scores of years of gradual decay. We Americans often study that Roman endgame with trepidation. We ask, as Cullen Murphy put it in the title of his provocative 2007 book, are we Rome?

The trouble is not that we see ourselves as an empire with global swagger. But we do see ourselves as a superpower with global responsibilities – guardians if not enforcers of a Pax Americana. And as a global power, America presents unsettling parallels with the disintegration of Rome – a decline of moral values, a loss of political civility, an overextended military, an inability to control national borders, and a growth of fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Do these sound familiar?

Finally, there is what Murphy calls the “complexity parallel”: Mighty powers like America and Rome grow so big and sprawling that they become impossible to manage. In comparing the two, he writes, one should “think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower.”

A superpower that is financially reliant on others can be vulnerable to foreign influence. The British Empire learned this in 1956, when Britain and France were contesting control of the Suez Canal with Egypt. The Soviet Union was threatening to intervene on Egypt’s side, turning the regional dispute into a global showdown between Moscow and Washington. The Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid that, and the United States also happened to control the bulk of Britain’s foreign debt. President Eisenhower demanded that the British and French withdraw. When they refused, the United States quietly threatened to sell off a significant amount of its holdings in the British pound, which would have effectively destroyed Britain’s currency. The British and French backed down and withdrew from Suez within weeks.

The US dollar has never come under a direct foreign attack (though its vulnerability is growing). A direct foreign attack would result in a dramatic move away from the dollar. That would lead to a significant decline in its value, as well as higher interest rates. This is often referred to by economists as a “hard landing.” In lay terms, it’s more like a crash landing. Still, Americans have become intimately acquainted with the shocks of financial instability. Americans of a certain age still vividly recall the depths of the Depression in the 1930s and the chaos of inflation and long gasoline lines during the oil shock of the 1970s. We will also remember the financial collapse that began in 2008, and we pray for nothing worse. Some of our smartest financial thinkers are praying right along with us. “I do think that piling up more and more and more external debt and having the rest of the world own more and more of the United States may create real political instability down the line,” investor Warren Buffett has said, “and increases the possibility that demagogues [will] come along and do some very foolish things.”


David Walker
for The Daily Reckoning