No Empire?
July 28, 2003 8:32 AM   Subscribe

From the guy that predicted back in 1976 the demise of the Soviet Union: “There will be no an American Empire”. Emmanuel Todd (scroll down for another Todd interview) is the author of “After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American System". His arguments? economic weakness (debt, massive trade imbalance, internal deficit), and emphasis on military power are signs that US power is in decline.
posted by samelborp (47 comments total)
“There will be no an American Empire”.

What an odd thing to say.
posted by soyjoy at 8:40 AM on July 28, 2003

oops!, indeed, that should read, "There will be no American Empire"
posted by samelborp at 8:51 AM on July 28, 2003

see too: The Twilight of Amrican Culture for more on the same subject.
posted by tellmenow at 9:06 AM on July 28, 2003

So: Which set of foreign languages should I learn and any recommendations for expatriation?
posted by namespan at 9:11 AM on July 28, 2003

FWIW: I doubt the US will collapse all of a sudden like those buildings they blow-in.

I picture more of a slow decay, together with a desperate grasping at past glory.

Kind of like France.
posted by signal at 9:20 AM on July 28, 2003

The U.S. is getting too flabby. It cant control its appetite nevermind the rest of the world. People were so busy searching for the remote amongst the folds of fat that they elected a President of sub-Regan intelligence. it's goose is cooked.............

"Hmmmmmmmmmm goose." would be a fairly typical U.S. reaction to the previous sentenceand it is totally simpsonmatic of the country's problems.
posted by kenaman at 9:27 AM on July 28, 2003

Kind of like France.

Or, for that matter, Great Britain.
posted by SealWyf at 9:28 AM on July 28, 2003

I see this being a frightening possibility. But my personal prediction is that our decline will be brought on by a loss of technological leadership. As the US bunkers down and concentrates it's resources on combating terrorists (who would ever effect 99.9% of Americans even if we ignored them), the tech sectors in Europe and Asia are rocketing into the 21st century.

The US is stuck in the Cold War. We never got past it.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:38 AM on July 28, 2003

Being like France and Great Britain wouldn't be a terrible thing. They're moderate sized social/industrial democracies that can generally feed and take care of their populations and generally don't try to establish some sort of pre-emminence over other countries...

Or does life suck there and I don't know what I'm talking about?
posted by weston at 9:42 AM on July 28, 2003

That interview was ludicrous. That he could even posit that Europe's economy is more dynamic than the US's, with Europes insanely low growth rates, massive unemployment, demographic collapse, etc.

Plus, his statements that "The US can barely afford its oil" and "The US can no longer afford its military" are just absurd.
posted by pjgulliver at 9:43 AM on July 28, 2003

I would posit that a reliance on 'growth' is what has been getting the US in so much trouble recently.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:46 AM on July 28, 2003

Plus, his statements that "The US can barely afford its oil" and "The US can no longer afford its military" are just absurd.

Have you seen the latest deficit numbers? Also, I recently heard that we're in some sort of battle overseas, with no end in sight, which is costing a billion dollars a week. That can't be good.
posted by jpoulos at 9:52 AM on July 28, 2003

is this book really such a surprise? american industrial sectors were gutted in the 70s and 80s while our politicians watched by, the same happening with the vaunted "service economy" right now. it's a race to the bottom, folks -- we're looking more and more like Brazil everyday.

it's not like you have to be an economist to realize that being the world's greatest debtor nation isn't going to lead to prosperity.

it's kind of funny that Todd mentions that the US produced half the world's industrial output directly after WWII. The British were in a similar situation around the time of the American civil war -- and look how that one turned out.
posted by badzen at 9:59 AM on July 28, 2003

But my personal prediction is that our decline will be brought on by a loss of technological leadership

Within 20 years according to Andy Grove.
posted by larry_darrell at 9:59 AM on July 28, 2003

The way I read the interview, Todd is not saying that "the US will collapse" but rather "the US is no longer going to be the most powerful country in the world". And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
posted by orange swan at 10:03 AM on July 28, 2003

when you grow like a cancer, you die like one. there's still time to turn to sustainable development, but that would mean doing away with most of the practices that make the top 5% so obscenely wealthy. so, yeah, that's not gonna happen.
posted by badstone at 10:09 AM on July 28, 2003

"Plus, his statements that [...] are just absurd."

You might want to rethink that. We have (not might have) a record federal budget deficit. At the same time we have very high (highest in 9 years) unemployment, state bond ratings lowered to junk status, and a stock market which refuses to rebound. The federal response to this is to lower taxes and increase spending.

It is a very short step from California being unable to borrow money and the federal government sliding into a similar situation.

Putting your head in the sand won't make dealing with it any easier. Clearly we can't afford to keep spending this much on the military. It's simple math.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:18 AM on July 28, 2003

Look, I'm by no means saying everything is perfect right now.

But unemployement is FAR below the main economies of Europe, where it is no 6.4% but closer to 10-15%.

There is no chance of the federal government being unable to borrow money.

We spend less on the military now, as a percentage of GDP, than we averaged from 1945 to 1991.

Our total national debt is lower, as a percentage of GDP, than places like France or Germany.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:31 AM on July 28, 2003

pjgulliver: All of your points may or may not be true. However, don't you think that Todd might just haver looked at all these statistics before writing his book and giving that interview? What are your credentials in challenging his view?

For what it's worth, I don't know enough about global economics to know whether America will be challenged for global supremecy in my lifetime. I do know, however, that the finances of a nation are much like the finances of a household. You can paper over the cracks for a long time, so that the true extent of your troubles may not be apparent to others. But when the first cracks appear, things can happen very quickly indeed.

If the power of America were to decline, there are two ways it can go: either it's power can gradually wane, as what happened in France and the United Kingdom, or it can spectacularly crash, as Argentina and the Soviet Union discovered. Pray that you don't suffer that fate.
posted by salmacis at 10:46 AM on July 28, 2003


France's unemployment rate has fluctuated between 9 and 13 percent since 1991. It is currently at 9%. The German unemployment rate is simlar. The current US unemployment rate is 6.4% a ten year high. So at our highest, unemployment in this country is lower than in EU.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2003

Here is a good page from the Economist which compares various economies growth, employment, etc.

However, you can't get a good measure of an economy merely from reading these most basic statistics. There are so many ways to do it, and none of them are proven. Todd may be right, he may not be right. It is impossible to say.

A favorite economist of mine is Roger Cass, who uses the frame of world history to inform his economic predictions. The liberals among you may find his conclusions "pure evil" as one friend of mine put it, but in reality he is just going over the facts, and millions of statistics now and throughout history, and creating models based on that and nothing else. His only concern is economics, which is why some conclusions, such as his assertion that the invasion of Iraq was an economic necessity, may seem inhumane. But worth a look if you want a different perspective.
posted by cell divide at 11:12 AM on July 28, 2003

Are the unemployment figures between countries compiled the same way? Do unemployment benefits in France or Germany last longer than in the US? Do more Americans simply drop out of the job market? There are too many questions to rely on that one figure against overwhelming indicators that the US could be in real trouble.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:12 AM on July 28, 2003

cell divide, that economist page is "premium content", and won't let us in....
posted by Espoo2 at 11:16 AM on July 28, 2003

I bought this book soon after it was published in Portugal in September 2002. I started reading it when I went to bed that same day, expecting to read a few pages. Several hours later, red-eyed and sleepless, I finished reading the last page and lay in my bed thinking furiously for quite some time before falling asleep. I have since then purchased several copies for friends and family, and have reread it and discussed it with several people. It is an amazing book.

It certainly has its flaws: it is overly optimistic regarding the ability of Europe to remain politically united and aligned; the discussion of the differing anthropological backgrounds of various nations is fascinating but not entirely convincing; the idea that Europe and Russia will make ideal bedfellows is not without its problems; the author may also be neglecting the possibility that large scale corruption, Enron-style, may also be found to be widespread in Europe.

On the whole, however, this is certainly the most fascinating and stimulating book I have read in recent times. Even if the book's main thesis eventually proves to be wrong, it is absolutely filled to the brim with fascinating facts, numbers and ideas. This is a book that will give you a new perspective on the current balance of power, even you disagree with its conclusions.
posted by gambuzino at 11:17 AM on July 28, 2003

Of course, from a purely economic perspective, slavery is fucking brilliant :)
posted by Space Coyote at 11:19 AM on July 28, 2003

No suprises in that article, but some good summaries of some of my biggest concerns:

"...It would be better for it to strive for industrial reconstruction, to become productive again. ...In fact, [The U.S.] used military means in response to a non-military problem."

this guy is a historian, not a weatherman, because while europe has the higher unemployment right now, as a whole: their population is growing significantly smaller, their income gap isnt widing like ours, they are better at controlling immigration, and they are focusing more on economic developement that military developement.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:26 AM on July 28, 2003

Re: unemployment. (Space Coyote got here first, but...) How much of our still comparitively low unemployment rate is due to the way the US computes the rate? A link: The real unemployment picture

Excerpts from the article:

the unemployment rate.. may actually understate the labor market's woes.

many unemployed people have simply quit looking for work, meaning they are not counted as part of the "labor force"

Furthermore, many of the people who do have jobs are working only part-time.

According to the Labor Department, if you add all the workers "marginally attached" to the labor force -- out of work and not looking for work -- to all those working part-time and those unemployed and looking for work, the unemployment rate rises to 9.7 percent.

Not included in this group are the untold number of people who have had to take lower-paying jobs because they can't find work in their chosen profession.
posted by the big lizard at 11:40 AM on July 28, 2003

It has been over 100 years since the US expanded its territorial concerns in the Spanish American War and the expansions we made then have now mostly (with the exception of Guam and Puerto Rico) been given independence. It was another 50 years before that, that we fought to expand our land, that time against the Mexicans. Since that time we've fought and died to ensure the boundaries of other nations not our own. Colin Powell summed it up when he told the Archbishop of Canterbury "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return." If there is any more American Empire yet to be more than there already is between our vast 150 year old boundaries then it won't come through bullets, it will come through cokes and movies and TV's and computers and flip-flops and we're already far out in front in that war!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:56 AM on July 28, 2003

Thanks, big lizard. I wasn't certain if there was anything to my thoughts or not, but it looks like there's real weight behind your links.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2003


their population is growing significantly smaller,

This is bad.

their income gap isnt widing like ours,

Income mobility is still quite striking!

they are better at controlling immigration,

You mean limiting immigration? Immigrants are wonderful for the economy.

and they are focusing more on economic developement that military developement.

Europe is freeloading off US military might. Maybe it will haunt them someday.
posted by trharlan at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2003

According to this, US unemployment is lower than either France or Germany (and only .4% higher than Japan). These are 'standardized' rates (i.e. OECD came up with them themselves, without relying on nationally generated numbers).

In worker productivity, the OECD here, says that productivity growth in the US is rising faster than either France or Germany (fig V.8 on p 20).

The world economy, though, isn't static...if a nation (any nation) increases its GDP, lowers unemployment, and raises worker productivity, it doesn't HURT the US, any more than you winning the lottery makes me poorer. Over time, many nations (esp places like Russia and China), will greatly increase their relative economic position in the world, but it wont be at the expense of the US.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 12:22 PM on July 28, 2003

Maybe it will haunt them someday.

Like the next time Iraq tries to invade a european country...

WRM, the UK is still part of Europe.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2003

Thanks for the heads-up Espoo2. Looks like the Economist saves their charts as images, so perhaps you can view the chart I was references via this URL ?
posted by cell divide at 12:44 PM on July 28, 2003

I don't know much about empires, but remember about 10 years ago during the 'Rising Sun' era? You know, when Japan was gonna take over the USA, buy it all up, because it was becomming an economically marginalized backwater plantation?

How'd that work out?
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:20 PM on July 28, 2003

Well, I was living under the impression that the American Empire not only already existed but actually was about 100 years old. Please check out Todd's loony family matrices to see how deserving of your time his theories are.
posted by 111 at 1:27 PM on July 28, 2003

Please check out Todd's loony family matrices to see how deserving of your time his theories are.

.. and as usual those who might actually learn something will attack and dismiss it out of hand because it doesn't fit with their world view. So it goes.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:50 PM on July 28, 2003

.. and as usual those who might actually learn something will attack and dismiss it out of hand because it doesn't fit with their world view. So it goes.

I'm not dismissing. I've attended lectures about Todd's crackpot ideas and I learned this: he is an anti-american weirdo whose hodgepodge mixture of statistics, sociology, semiliterate economics and futurology should appeal only to those who condone a priori conclusions and a highly biased choice of data. But hey, don't take my word; what I'm saying, and I'll repeat it slowly so that Space Coyote might understand it, is this:

- get some information about Emanuel Todd's ideas of family units and their influence on a country's economy and general ethos and draw your own conclusions ! ! !

Understand now, SP?
posted by 111 at 2:18 PM on July 28, 2003

But hey, don't take my word; what I'm saying, and I'll repeat it slowly so that Space Coyote might understand it,

Listen, 111, I know this has been tried before, and it's off-topic, but you're going to have a lot more success swinging the big brain around if you quit being such a dick about it.
posted by COBRA! at 2:22 PM on July 28, 2003

posted by signal at 2:22 PM on July 28, 2003

Actually, I kind of like how 111 spells it out...leaves out the ambiguity :)
posted by jmd82 at 2:43 PM on July 28, 2003

111 I am interested in the family matrices, but can't find anything on google. Can you point to a page that explains what you are talking about?
posted by cell divide at 3:09 PM on July 28, 2003

I'm reading something very different into his comments, and I think he's being coy. Things like the US can't "control the world". What if the US already knows this and, for that matter, doesn't *want* to control the world in some kind of weird throwback to colonialism?

So, let us transcend nationalism for a while. There used to be "spheres of influence"--a political/military term; and now there are trading blocs--political/economic clusters.

(There is also "cultural hegemony", doing things "our way" being good enough. But that's neither here nor there.)

The US doesn't even try to "control" or "dominate" NAFTA (and the emergent CAFTA) (and eventually the entire hemisphere in a giant free trade zone), at least any more then the usual give and take and what they can convince its partners to give way on. It's more of a binding arbitration thing, like the WTO.

If not to exploit Mexico, does it intend to bring Mexican economic and social standards on a par with the US and Canada? Isn't that more profitable in the long run?

But I don't think this means the US is weak. And there's the problem: just because the US isn't acting like a historical empire doesn't mean it is an "empire in decline."
It means that there is a new model in effect.
posted by kablam at 3:43 PM on July 28, 2003

cell, here's a broad overview just to give you an idea. Todd, it must be mentioned, takes this family units/heritage laws for a scientific fact, applicable down to the prediction of migratory trends, development curves, ideological frameworks and electoral results. He has whole books (La Diversite du Monde, L'Enfance du Monde etc) on the subject. Right now, Todd is apparently working on a book that'll take into account no less than 600 family structures and their impact throughout history.

Here's some quotes from Todd himself en francais.
posted by 111 at 3:53 PM on July 28, 2003

Monograph on Family Structures (Author Unknown :) or not... i remember seeing that somewhere before!
posted by kliuless at 10:51 PM on July 28, 2003

The analysis of family structures as economic influence is interesting, unusual, possibly useful as a societal predictor. I fail to see anything 'loony' about it. Could you please explain where Todd's errors are, 111?

Anyway, as an armchair economist myself, I don't think the unemployment rate as such is anywhere near as important as social distribution over 'enough time' and 'enough money' axes.

OK. Consider a person's total financial income from all sources, cash, goods or services, legal or illegal, earned or unearned. This includes welfare allowances, the effect of an outright-owned house, money from family, etc etc. This is feasibly calculable for an individual, but it's not important to do so. It is much easier to estimate averages and distributions.

It is also possible to calculate the minimum financial income that is required for a 'statistical person' to avoid noticable personal hardship. This will vary from individual to individual, but again it is the aggregate that matters. Call this the 'poverty line'.

Similarly, there is a minimum financial income that will protect a person from any feasible hardship whatsoever, including the oft-overlooked hardship of having to work for a living. Call this the 'independence line'.

On the time axis, the limits are much harder to pin down. Clearly there is a limit to how much 'work' (defining work loosely to include travel, chores, parenting, etc) a person can do in a day, averaged over a year, without suffering health problems; but also, human beings do not cope well with indefinite leisure. Even sleep is fuzzy to define, having aspects of both leisure and a necessity of life. But we can assert that people have a spectrum of free time, of which some people have uncomfortably little (say, less than an hour a day), and some people have more than sufficient to do everything they might want to do (say, more than 6 hours a day).

OK. So we have a grid with nine positions. You have the too-busy and the free on one axis (I choose X), the poor and the rich on the other. These form nine 'social zones'. Any individual might, in the course of his/her life, move through a number of these zones, but at any given time in any given place we can take a 'snapshot' of where individuals stand. The people in approximately five of these zones are the source of social problems, but unemployment data only measures some people in only three of the zones. Thus:

123 ^increasing money
789 >increasing time

These are the problem zones:

1: On the surface, there is no reason for these people to work. They do work that others could be doing. But it is highly likely that the work people in this category do generates additional work for others. As individuals, they are free to mitigate their own suffering. These are the most powerful class of people, economically and politically: the ultra-motivated rich. The good they do is a great social gain. The evil they do is a great social cost. Fortunately, more do good than evil. Otherwise we'd notice. Really.

4: These are the suffering middle class. Despite the fact that they have sufficient money, their lives are unhappy. The problems they suffer and cause are a cost to society, although arguably their contribution outweighs this cost.

7: These are the wage-slaves. Dirt-poor, chained to the wheel, and unable to better themselves because they have no time to improve their circumstances. Their contribution to society, because of their minimal ability to participate in the economy, is arguably outweighed by their costs, which include welfare, medical care, poor parenting, etc etc.

8: These, the not-too-busy poor, include the unemployed, but are not limited to them. They include retirees, part-time workers, etc. Their contribution to the economy is minimal, and their costs to the economy are high.

9: The idle poor are mostly those who are unable to work. The physically and mentally ill, for instance. People in this category hardly participate in the economy at all, except as costs, though many of them (self-sufficient farmers, rubbish-eating homeless people) so minimally consume social resources that they are barely a cost at all.

It is obvious who the people in the other four economic zones are, but what I am saying here in my little screed is that it is the people in these four zones who contribute the most to the economy, if only because they take the least. Consideration of unemployment rate alone is not enough information, because it's only counting some of the people in zone 8, a few of the people in zone 9, and a few of the people in zones 5 and 6. I am saying that, even if they are unemployed, people in zones 5 and 6 are not a social problem, and that even if they are employed, people in other zones are.

Now without looking up any figures, and going purely on anecdotes and hearsay, it seems to me that there are more Americans in zones 1, 4 and 7 of the US socio-economy than there are Europeans in the same zones of the EEC socio-economy. I suspect the greatest difference is in zone 6: people with lots of time, and enough money. It seems to me that American society devalues that zone, and overvalues zone 4.

So I'm inclined to agree with Todd, but am willing to be convinced otherwise.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:41 AM on July 29, 2003

aeschenkarnos: The loony part comes when "useful as a societal predictor" becomes "the only societal predictor" which is what the first linked article (not Todd) suggests. 111 may have a point, some of what the man says I find debatable on a first reading, but until I actually read Todd's book, I'm not in a position to even make a judgment call on this one. Still he seems to be using data and facts to build a case (whether erroneously or not is a different matter) which is refreshing in this day and age.
This is another interview of Todd. He also seems to have changed his mind about the Euro.
posted by talos at 6:15 AM on July 29, 2003

« Older Carrie: The Musical   |   *Boop* *Boop* *Boop*! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments