Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Rise and Fall of American Democracy

Alexander Tytler (1747-1813) was a Scottish-born English lawyer and historian. Reportedly, Tytler was critical of democracies, pointing to the history of democracies such as Athens and its flaws, cycles, and ultimate failures. Although the authenticity of his following quote is often disputed, the words have eerie relevance today:A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.A democracy will continue to exist up until the time voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by dictatorship.The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:• From bondage to spiritual faith;• From spiritual faith to great courage;• From courage to liberty;• From liberty to abundance;• From abundance to complacency;• From complacency to apathy;• From apathy to dependence;• From dependence back to bondage.Tytler's Cycle and the U.S.In looking at American history, we can see Tytler's sequence in action. In 1620, the Pilgrims sailed to America to escape the religious bondage imposed by the Church of England. Their spiritual faith carried them to the new world.Because of their deep faith, the Pilgrims left England in spite of the high percentage of deaths incurred by earlier American settlements. For example, when Jamestown, Virginia, was founded in 1607, 70 of the 108 settlers died in the first year. The following winter only 60 of 500 new settlers lived. Between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Company sent 3,600 more settlers to the colony, and over those three years 3,000 would die.In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed. From spiritual faith the new Americans were garnering great courage. By crafting the Declaration of Independence, the colonists knew they were essentially declaring war on the most powerful country in the world -- England.With the onset of the Revolutionary War, the colonists were moving from courage to liberty, following Tytler's sequence. By demanding their independence and being willing to fight for it, a new democracy was born. This new democracy grew rapidly for nearly 200 years.Then, in 1933, the U.S. was thrown into the Great Depression and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president. Facing total economic collapse, Roosevelt took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard. At the same time, Germany, also in financial crisis, elected Adolf Hitler as its leader. World War II soon followed.In 1944, with WWII coming to an end, the Bretton Woods Agreement was signed by the world powers and the U.S. dollar, once again backed by gold, became the reserve currency of the world.After the war, America passed England, France, and Germany to become the new world power. Having entered the war late, the U.S. emerged as the creditor nation to the world. Our factories weren't bombed and the world owed us money. The U.S. grew rich financing the rebuilding of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The American democracy was transitioning from liberty to abundance -- maybe too much abundance.In 1971 President Nixon violated the Bretton Woods Agreement by taking the U.S. dollar off the gold standard because America was spending more than it was producing and the U.S. gold reserves were being depleted.In 1972 Nixon visited China to open the door for trade. What followed was the biggest economic boom in history -- a boom fueled by the U.S. borrowing money through the sale of bonds to China, one of the world's poorest countries at that time. The sale of these bonds financed a growing U.S. trade deficit. China produced low-cost goods, and we paid for them with money borrowed from the Chinese workers.American factory production, which had fueled the American boom after WWII, was "shipped" overseas along with high-paying American jobs. America was shifting from abundance to complacency. Rather than produce, we borrowed and printed money to maintain our standard of living.In 1976 America celebrated its 200th anniversary as a democracy. Rather than produce, we kept borrowing to finance social-welfare programs. Over the next three decades or so, America slid from complacency to apathy.In 2007 the subprime crisis reared its ugly head. And by 2010, unemployment increased to double-digits, even as the rich got richer. Once-affluent people walked away from homes they could no longer afford. The U.S. moved from apathy to dependence.Today we're dependent upon China to finance our debt as well as fill our stores with cheap products. At the same time, millions of Americans are becoming dependent upon the government to take care of them. If Tytler is correct, the American democracy is presently moving from dependence back to bondage.Filling the VoidHistory reminds us that dictators and despots arise during times of severe economic crisis. Some of the more infamous despots are Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Napoleon. I find it interesting that the U.S. is now dependent upon Chairman Mao's creation, the People's Republic of China, for the things that we buy and the money that we borrow.To me, this is spooky, foreboding, and ominous. While the Chinese people, as a rule, are good people, my business dealings with Communist Chinese officials have left me disturbed and concerned about the rise of the Chinese Empire. As you know, China doesn't plan on becoming a democracy. With money, factories, a billion people to feed, and a massive military, could they put the free world into bondage?Although I don't like the way the Chinese do business, I continue to do business in China. I have to. They're the next world power. I cautiously believe that trade, business, and understanding offer better options for world peace and prosperity than isolationism. Now the Western world must seek to grow stronger financially as China continues to gain power. To do this, our schools need to offer more sophisticated financial education to children of all ages.This is not the time to be complacent or apathetic. This is the time to think globally. Putting up trade barriers would be disastrous. Instead, it's time our schools train students to be entrepreneurs who export to the world rather than employees looking for jobs that are being exported to low-wage countries.Please be clear. I don't fear the Chinese. I fear our own growing weakness. Only a weak people can be oppressed. Today, America has too many people looking to the government for financial salvation.In 1620 the Pilgrims fled the spiritual oppression of the Church of England. Today Americans may need to flee the financial oppression of our own government as our democracy dies. If we follow Tytler's cycle for democracy, our financial dependence will lead us to financial bondage.

What’s Worse Than a Depression?

"Is the crisis over?"
"Is the economy recovering?"
These are questions I'm often asked. People who ask such questions are praying for a "V-shaped" recovery, hoping that the worst is over and that we're on our way to economic recovery.
Some experts say that we're in a "U-shaped" recovery, meaning the recovery will take longer, maybe another two to three years. Others fear a "W-shaped recovery," a double dip, which could result in another crash before full recovery. Some experts are calling for a zombie recovery similar to the Japanese economy's 20-year stagnation.
There's also a growing chorus of experts who are warning of our greatest fear, a depression either in the form of hyperinflation like the German Weimar Republic experienced in the 1920s, or a deflationary depression like the Great Depression.
A depression would be devastating, but could there be something worse than a depression?
The answer is, "Yes." There could be an economic collapse.
Near Miss
In 2008 my friend and author of The Dollar Crisis and The Corruption of Capitalism, Richard Duncan, called me and said, "The global credit card system almost shut down. Can you imagine what would've happened to the world economy if the credit card system failed? We came very close."
Richard is not an alarmist. He's a classically trained economist, a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Babson College, and a former advisor to both the IMF and the World Bank. He has access to information most of us don't. He's a reserved, clear-thinking, soft-spoken person. For over a year now, Richard's words have been ringing in my ears.
For me, the key word is system. For something to collapse, not all systems have to shut down. In most cases, just one system is enough. For example, the human body is a system of systems. If just one system, such as the cardiovascular system, shuts down, death follows. The same is true for an automobile. If the fuel system shuts down, the car is inoperable even though the other systems may all be in good order.
Many of us go about our days in blissful ignorance that an economic collapse could happen at any moment should one of our financial systems -- like the credit card system -- collapse. Our global economy is much more fragile than many of us realize.
The world is made up of systems, systems often competing against one another. For instance, BP's latest gusher in the Gulf brought home the fragile relationship between the world's eco and economic systems. The environmentalists say capitalism is killing our oceans, air, land, and forests. Capitalists argue that they provide food, fuel, and building materials for a growing world.
Because the world is made up of systems in conflict, it's not only uncommon (but, rather, normal) to see systems collapse.
History is full of economic collapses from the Roman Empire to Weimar Germany to, most recently, Iceland. Economic collapses most often precede the collapse of empires.
In families, if the breadwinners lose their jobs, the family economy often collapses.
We should not be surprised when collapses happen. Rather, we should be surprised they don't happen more often.
As you may have already guessed, a minor collapse can create a ripple effect that may cause a domino effect of bigger crashes. This is why Greece was such a hot issue. If Greece failed, it might have taken the mighty German and French economies down. This would have caused an economic tsunami and collapsed the world economy.
Jared Diamond's Collapse is a great book for history buffs of collapses. Diamond traces the causes that led to the fall of civilizations such as the Maya, Easter Island, the Anasazi Indian tribe of Arizona and Utah, the environmental and economic collapse going on in Montana today, and more. The book reads like a murder mystery. It's easy to read, disturbing, frightening -- and hard to put down. Looking into the history of collapses, we see many parallels to today.
And, it seems to me, we know this intuitively. Our pop culture is becoming obsessed with apocalyptic stories. There are more and more movies about what would happen to our world after a collapse. The latest are 2012, The Road, and The Book of Eli. There is a new TV series titled The Colony that is created on the same theme. Even TV commercials are picking up on the post-apocalyptic world. Bridgestone tires runs a commercial about a rogue gang of dark and dangerous looking thugs stopping a car on a steep mountain road demanding, "Your Bridgestones or your life." The driver throws out a gorgeous, sexy, long-legged young woman, turns around and drives off with the thugs screaming, "Your life, not your wife!"
Judging History
So the question becomes, if the world's economic systems are so fragile, and if collapses are common in a world of competing systems, why are we not talking more about the possibility of collapse? Obviously our leaders don't want us talking or thinking about that. And they try hard to frame the discussion so we don't.
Most people would agree (including many historians) that the best way to anticipate the future is to study the past. But what if our version of history is wrong? What if our history is distorted to sell an agenda? After all, the word "history" is made up of two words: his and story.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Princeton University scholar of the Great Depression, often says that the depression could have been averted if only the government had printed more money. That's his story, but that's not what history says.
After the crash of 1929, FDR was elected in 1933. He immediately took the U.S. off the gold standard through the Emergency Banking Act and introduced his New Deal. This allowed him to print more money and rack up huge amounts of national debt. At first it seemed that FDR's plan was working.
Yet in 1938 there was a "depression within the depression." Economic output collapsed and the unemployment rate rose from 14.3% to 19%, in the face of a year-over-year decline from the peak of 24.9% in 1933.
History proves Bernanke's claim (that FDR didn't print enough money) to be wrong. This is what Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, wrote in his diary in May 1939: "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and now if I am wrong, somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosper. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started. And enormous debt to boot."
World War II broke out in 1939 and many people credit that war with saving the economy. While the war did boost the recovery, it was the Bretton Woods Agreement, signed in 1944, that put the world back on the gold standard, which stabilized the global economy.
Back to the Future
In 1971 President Richard Nixon took the world off the gold standard. Here we are again on the edge of a new depression. After the last depression, America emerged as the richest creditor nation in the world. Because our homeland wasn't bombed like the European countries, we had factories exporting products to a world rebuilding from the war.
Today leaders like Ben Bernanke want to rewrite history. They want us to believe that spending and debt are the solution. They want us to buy their version of history and continue to get deeper and deeper into debt. They want us to trust that printing more money will pull us out of our great recession.
True history speaks a different story. It speaks of collapse when a nation or empire overextends itself. The true fear should not be a depression or a double-dip recession. It should be an economic collapse. You can only tip the system so many times before it falls completely apart.
Today America is the biggest debtor nation in the world. Our factories have moved overseas. Now we're net importers paying our bills and fighting two wars with counterfeit money as our leaders use the same accounting rules WorldCom and Enron used -- and as you know, those companies no longer exist.