A More Enduring Empire?

Bill Bonner’s end-of-empire musings yesterday got me to thinking — what if the American Empire has more staying power than might seem the case right now?

It’s tempting to think that the empire as we know it can’t last beyond another generation or so — that we’re consigned to the same fate as Holland in the early 18th Century or Great Britain in the first half of the 20th, and we’re irretrievably on our way to becoming a third-rate power.

But I wonder.  Folks in first-century Rome probably looked around, saw the sort of leadership they were getting from Caligula and Nero, and figured their empire couldn’t last another generation or so.  In fact, Rome expanded its domain for another half-century, and hung on for another three centuries after that.

America’s days as “sole superpower” are over, to be sure, but I’m not going to plan my future on the inevitability of the United States sliding into third-rate power status in another 20 or 30 years.  And one of the main reasons is the one that caught Bill’s attention — that New York Times headline that read “US Military Will Offer Path to Citizenship.”

“Skilled” immigrants who’ve been here on temporary visas for at least two years can now join up and gain citizenship in as little as six months.  Turns out this was done back in Vietnam days, too.

So by itself, that’s not an especially alarming sign.  But it is the proverbial nose under the tent for more far-reaching proposals to offer citizenship in exchange for military service.  The notion of a “freedom legion” has been a hobby horse of the neoconservative think-tanker Max Boot for years.  Some of his proposals ended up in legislation that made it to the floor of the Senate last year.

The large-scale recruitment of foreigners to fight for the U.S. military would serve two purposes, both extremely useful for the power elite.  It furnishes a steady supply of soldiers for our vast overseas garrisons in the short term without having to resort to a draft.  And in the medium and longer term, it furnishes a steady supply of new people to pay into Social Security and Medicare as the Boomer generation reaches its peak years collecting from those systems.

It would take weeks to run the numbers, but intuition tells me even an empire as deeply indebted as ours could keep on truckin’ quite a while longer under those circumstances.

All of this reminds me of a short essay by the left-leaning scholar Michael Lind last summer.  This was before the fall of Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, et.al.  Still, his description of the U.S. as “radically different place” ten years or more from now rings uncomfortably true.

Government may grow dramatically and permanently as a share of U.S. GDP… [I]n the years ahead, the federal government may bail out not only homeowners, but also many retirees whose private savings have been devastated. And state and local governments may get a federal bail-out as well. In democracies, temporary spending programs tend to become permanent, so the “normal” government share of GDP in the U.S. may rise to 35 or even 40 percent.

Another likely consequence is a shift of welfare benefits onto business. Confronted with a national debt that may exceed GDP, Congress will avoid creating expensive new social programs. Instead, politicians may use unfunded mandates or tax credits to pressure corporations into doing the job of the welfare state. For example, universal health care may come in the worst possible way, by forcing or coaxing employers to provide health care coverage for all workers… The desperate attempt to provide even more benefits through employers will burden small business more than big business.

The U.S. economy a decade from now may be dominated by a few huge universal banks and a small number of gigantic corporations, all of them “too big to fail.” In return for implicit government bail-out guarantees, these swollen private-sector Leviathans will abandon “greed is good” rhetoric for noble sentiments about corporate responsibility. The emerging system might be called “lemon corporatism.” A managerial state dominated by oligopolies and monopolies, where government encourages employer paternalism as an alternative to public welfare spending, would resemble contemporary Japan and the dystopian America of “Rollerball.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a depressingly plausible scenario.  And a huge influx of immigrants could make it all possible.

Not that it’s inevitable.  I suspect one of the major fault lines of American politics during the president’s first term will be over a return to the draft.  The president is on record wanting to grow the military by 92,000 people, and a rotten economy alone probably won’t be enough to generate those kind of numbers.  On one side of this divide will be those who think bribing immigrants will do the trick.

But on the other side I sense that the Clinton-Bush-Cheney draft-dodging ethos is giving way to the Teddy Roosevelt-Joe Kennedy ethos in which it’s noble to send one’s kids off to fight:  Is it mere coincidence that of the four major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates last year, three had children fighting in Iraq?

That’s a pretty sorry debate when you get right down to it.  But just as the banking question of the day is bailout or nationalization, and the notion of letting the banks fail is not something entertained by Serious People, pulling in the horns of Empire is still beyond the realm of “respectable” discussion.  So all we can do is watch, and see how long it takes for the Decline to play out.