Are we headed in the same direction?
These days I spend a fair amount of time in England.
The fate of Britain never ceases to amaze me.
For more than 200 years, this tiny island quite literally ran the world.
It was the capitol of nearly one fourth of the planet’s inhabitants. It was on the cutting edge of technology, literature, business, art. Just about everything. Then, in an instant, really, it all came to an end.
This happened almost overnight. My wife’s father lived most of his life under the banner of a British Empire whose doman stretched from Australia through India across East Africa. Today, Britain is reduced to its tiny island a few remanant pieces of rock around the world.
I recently read The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke. It is an excellent history of the final death throes of what was once the largest empire in the world.
In short, the Empire went broke. They over-extended themselves and when it came time to pay up, they came up short. They had to give up just about everything and in an instant were transformed from the global superpower of more than two centuries to a small but pleasant European state. Astonishing.
Looking at the current global fiscal melt-down, I cannot help but wonder if we are not watching the last thousand days of the American Empire. An Empire built on financial strength as opposed to colonial land mass but an Empire none the less.
Our power was always predicated on our enormous financial engine. But increasingly it seems that that financial engine has been nothing less than a house of cards – a world built on debt. The near bankruptcy (and it’s not over yet) of GM and Ford bear testimony to our having lost the edge in industry. Instead of doing the hard work required to maintain a global position of leadership we have, for the past 30 years, opted for the easier fakers way out – debt and borrowing to maintain a lifestyle that our economic base could not support.
This is not a failure of ‘Wall Street’, as the GOP fearmongers would have you believe, but rather a failure of Main Street. I see it in my own family. People who made milions of dollars a year (literally) went out and spent even more than they made. Instead of saving they went deeper into debt in the sure and steady knowlege that the economy and real estate values would continue to grow. Well they didn’t, and now it is time to pay the piper all across the boards. You can’t keep borrowing forever, and for the past 30 years America has had the lowest savings rate in the Western World – negative numbers.
The demise of Britain came awfully fast. The Empire was in the end, but a house of cards that was unsustainable. The industrial base of the Empire was hollowed out over years of over-extension.
I wonder if we are now about to discover the same truth about ourselves.
Britain accepted the End of Empire with a measure of civility commensurate with their culture. There was no rioting in the streets – no turn to far right wing fanatics; no witch hunt for ‘who lost the Empire’.
I wonder if we will be as civilized when our own end comes.