No matter the regime, let alone the space between regimes (one wishes…) the question most often asked these days is “Can [leader of choice] make [favourite country] great again?”
The answer is, emphatically and without exception, no.
To understand why this is the obvious answer, we need to define great.
Great as in Empire great? You know, when [favourite country] ruled the world, or the waves, or the sun never set on it, or all of the above. Think about all the effort and expense that went into that; consider that it did not happen as the consequence of a master plan, as the empire was the gradual and cumulative result of a series of incidents, accidents, blunders, remedial action after said blunders, takeovers, piecemeal conquests, inheritances of someone else’s problems, rescues of failed companies.
Remember that there were objections, either overturned, overruled, or suppressed — always at a cost.
Then the resulting tabula rasa had to be run, administratively and fiscally, even if the former objectors now had to accept whatever passed for [favourite country]’s monetary policy.
Then look up why the empire is no more. Whatever spelled the demise of [favourite country]’s empire is very likely still out there. Add the cost of neutralising those factors to the already impossible cost of building it anew, within an acceptable time frame, i.e. in time for [leader of choice]’s reelection. Crucially, those objections will not have gone away, and the objectors will be much stronger and savvier than when they welcomed your ships as canoes of the gods.
So, empire great, no can do, Massa! Worse, there is nothing more ridiculously dangerous than a reasonably strong country harbouring serious dreams of rebuilding its former empire. When the neighbours stop laughing at [favourite country], they start shooting at it. Can’t blame them.
Then, great as in Great Power great? The time when [favourite country] was the only bulwark of freedom against those empire builders nibbling at the edges of civilisation. Huge armed forces, well equipped and supplied, ready to project lethal force around the globe, unopposed. All very nice and potentially heroic but, again, at a cost. In this case, a huge cost.
Being a Great Power is so often attached to being an Empire, and so often conflated with it, that Great Powers are accused of imperialism, however much they label themselves democratic.
Then look up why [favourite country] is no longer a Great Power. Could it be because there is no need? Let’s face it, if [favourite country] has not been conquered nor overrun, and the other guys, those dreaming of empire old or new, have beaten their swords into plowshares, or sold them to scrap, or can’t make or wield them anymore, why spend all that money being a Great Power?
So, great power great is nothing more than a silly oxymoron. Unsustainable vanity requiring everybody else to play the game. The best thing [favourite country] can expect in this case is to be ignored. Should [favourite country] not accept being ignored and insist on being a nuisance, even a subversive nuisance by trying to interfere with the political process of the ignoring countries, its neighbours may eventually gang up on it and be a right nuisance in retribution. Can’t blame them.
Or great as in Economic Powerhouse? That is when [favourite country] has everybody else as a customer for its top quality goods and services. Not because of its status as empire or as great power allowing it to form monopolies, but because it offers what other people need at a price they can afford, and does it consistently. Better, it is in turn everybody else’s favourite customer — it pays, it honours contracts and treaties, and it is continuously refining its demands and improving its offerings. Other powerhouses do their best, but [favourite country] keeps one step ahead.
Then consider that fair competition, open and honest trade, wealth created with satisfied demand — that is the default state of human relations. Were it not so, we would not have laws against swindles and fakes, scams and… well, defaults.
All else being equal, we have no reason to practice the zero-sum games of robbery and exploitation. Dishonesty carries serious risks and is not sustainable — thieves either run out of victims, or victims run out of what the thieves want.
So, an economic powerhouse cannot help being great. A prosperous country can only stop being prosperous with great effort, as applied by thieves (kleptocrats) who trick or force its people into adopting unfair and dishonest practices. If an economic powerhouse is forced into monopolies, low quality goods, trashy services, bad contracts, protectionist, isolationism, it will fall into the trap of enriching its rulers, while reserves last.
Some will say that there are other ways of being Great. Culture, natural resources, landscape, climate…
But Great Culture will not happen outside of Economic Powerhouses. Hungry people do not great art make, can’t pay for tickets to the opera, folk festivals are few and far between, despotic kleptocrats sort of frown on good literature, and oppressed people tend to be made less literate, anyway. As for Great Geography, it is the first to go in a post-Economic Powerhouse state, where natural resources are being exploited in favour of some clique’s offshore accounts.
What are the options then, for a politician or would-be ruler, to deliver on a promise to make [favourite country] great again?
The ways of Empire and Great Power are no longer feasible. The world has moved on, the age of pristine innocence of gullible natives is past, objectors are wiser, tolerance of bullies at its lowest ever. There remains only the Economic Powerhouse option.
In which paradoxical case, we should be asking “Why did the Economic Powerhouse cease being Great, so much so that there needs someone to come along and make it Great again?” Well, it almost certainly was because someone did just that.
Some demagogue tried to make it Great Again, when such effort was not needed, nor wanted.
Which begs the question: Does [favourite country] need to be made Great Again? Has it ever ceased being great?
Or less flatteringly, has [favourite country] ever been Great? At all?
As with most things in the Social Sciences, the answer is to be found in numbers. First, most countries have never sought, nor believe they have attained Greatness. Most societies are perfectly happy being left in peace to do their thing, and to grow into a more or less pleasant place to live, according to the morals and skills of its people. Because people always seek to better themselves and to improve their lives, there is an almost unavoidable tendency for all societies, left in peace, to become Economic Powerhouses and to attain a modicum of greatness. Paraphrasing a (former) American politician, all countries should have an above average income.
And that is the key, silly as it may sound: everybody strives to be above average, one way or another. Not as cogs in a societal machine, but as individuals. Some succeed, some don’t, most keep on trucking. And that is why there are averages. But the curve travels on. The hump in the middle, the give-or-take average, moves ahead and drags both extremes along with it. There will still be a few super-rich on one side of the chart, there will still be a few desperately poor folks at the other end. Most people will be in the middle. This has been the greatest sign of progress after WW2, real progress, with the bulk of humanity having more wealth than required for the bare necessities of life.
What has all this progress to do with no demagogue being able to deliver on “making the country great again”? The bigger the hump, the more people there are in the zone of increasing prosperity, the harder it is to flatten or even to delay the march of progress. Prosperity, would you believe it, also has inertia.
Any country ever being considered “great” is an illusion. Countries have great moments, when they drive away the enemy at the gates, when they overcome catastrophes and tyrannies, when they implement courageous innovation, when they convert to humanism and start caring more for their people than for their flags. More often than not, such great moments take decades and are barely even noticed by the people living them; we are very quick to take progress for granted.
How come we then notice that [favourite country] is no longer great and needs inflating to its former glory? When someone wants to take it over or control it, or sabotage it, or simply to discombobulate it for long enough for [grudging rival] to get ahead, or so they think. We don’t actually notice it, for it is not at all evident. It is [grudging rival]’s minions who convince us that it is so, that we have lost the plot, been contaminated, let too many of those scroungers in and thereby have been made weaker.
Before I accuse anyone — not that I am going to — let’s look at the numbers.
This shows the USA GDP per capita since the end of WW2, in chained 2012 dollars. Two glaring facts stand out:
- Even with the recessions, it is one hell of a trend, carrying a lot of inertia. That is what allows the US economy to rebound so easily from downturns. Please notice that it is per capita income, meaning that average wealth is growing much faster than the population. Inequality, you say? Please, mind the hump.
- Without looking at the dates, can you tell who was POTUS, of which party, or which party had the majority in Congress? Even with the grey shaded areas to identify the recessions, it takes a bit of effort to remember any correlation between partisan politics, or even executive policy, at any point along the line.
Now consider this:
Pretty much the same trend, only after government takes its share in taxes and other such stuff. This one is more subtle. Look at the attenuated and delayed dings at recessions. Remember that the US government has dealt with almost all recessions via monetary policy, fiddling with the money supply through quantitative easing and other classic tools, to relieve credit crunches and to keep inflation in check. It is mostly when some governments succumb to temptation and muck about with fiscal policy that we see delayed, and usually noxious, effects of recessions.
But here is the crunch: different governments have dealt with successive recessions in different ways. Some have eased credit, attempting to jump-start what they saw as a stalled economy. Some have tightened it, dreading inflation; others have sat on their hands. Some blamed it on their foreign partners and messed with trade and tariffs, others opened up a bit more to outside investment. All of them borrowed all they could, despite frantic promises not to. I could maybe bother, one day, indicating on these charts the increasing frequency of budget overruns and threatened shutdowns, but I’ll rest my case.
Which is: it is completely irrelevant who is POTUS, to which party they belong, which party has the majority in Congress, or whoever heads the Fed. And their policies, or whatever they think they do to avert or correct recessions. I wouldn’t say this had they all used consistent remedies, perfectly tailored to each malady; but they didn’t.
Have they conducted industrial policies, foreign trade policies, subsidy packages, social welfare packages, incentives, drives? Shedloads of them, all sorts. Most of them contradictory or self-defeating, even within the same Administration, or promptly negated by the following chair warmer at the Oval Office. All their rain dances have been totally irrelevant.
None of them has made America stop being great, none of them — former and future irrelevant people — could possibly make it great again. This example of [favourite country] has more inertia than the politicos and freelance meddlers can handle. It would take a really bloody great catastrophe to make it wobble from its continuous path of progress.
The same picture comes out of most countries. Some wretches have allowed their governments to be really good at flying them into the ground; I wouldn’t be so crass as to cite Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and Russia as examples, but there you go. But most have been able to keep their rulers irrelevant, and that is a good thing.
But there are countries, even heads of former empires like the UK, that have different dynamics.
Whereas the trend of prosperity was already quite steep for the USA during the 50s, the UK did not fare so well. The catastrophic loss of the empire, on top of the hard drubbing during the war (which the UK would have lost without American help) and the continuing expense of managing a more or less orderly process of independence for its former colonies, made Britain quite sluggish until the mid 70s.
People in the UK did not dwell on former glories, nor did they fold before inevitable decline. Hard work and innovation went on as before; the industriousness of its people was in no way diminished by the ideological see-saw that took over its political scenario. Folks tried to get on with their lives and to prosper, but every single issue, however minor, was politicised to death. With the nationalisation of most infrastructure, and the subsequent interference in every detail according to the political flavour of the day, came paralysis and inflation. Inflation brought in labour unrest, and lent even more political power to the trade unions. It got to the point where the unions were battling their own appointed Labour government.
You can see that in the chart: the country treading water and being the “sick man of Europe” until around 1975. Then the UK joined a trading block with enough inertia to dampen its own mismanagement. That in turn allowed the government to try and make itself irrelevant, too.
That is, after all, the intended product of privatisation, the removal of vital infrastructure from the influence of political patronage.
But old habits die hard, and the EU does not have the same Juggernaut’s inertia as the US. Most politicos in the UK cannot just go along with the game and pretend to matter, while drawing their salaries and perks. No, they have to do something. Fortunately, until recently, they failed at that too.
Then came the anti-gold opportunity, a real Sadim touch. Let’s get rid of that inertia, they said, and again brave the unruly seas as we did when we ruled the waves. Whatever.
The exit has not happened yet, but this is the result so far on the native currency:
This has only one meaning: foreign capital is leaving the UK, in droves. Can’t blame it.
Leaving the EU has only one meaning: the UK’s political class, of whatever colour, have been convinced to — or goaded into, or bribed or blackmailed and ordered to — take the country back into their meddlesome, incompetent hands, without the dampening effect of the EU. This would play nicely into the hand of a [grudging rival] who could not budge the inertia of the bigger prize.
Where the US goes into electoral campaign mode every two years, keeping its politicians busy and less able to try and be relevant, the UK now has fixed five year terms for Parliament, on top of its voting system traditionally skewed in favour of incumbents.
It is not that the UK’s political class will suddenly acquire relevance in the day to day running of the country. They won’t, as they haven’t for the past 45 years. Without an obese state to play with, their whims and blunders won’t matter. The problem is that it is a much smaller and less diverse economy than that of the US, and bound to become even smaller and less diverse. The UK does not have the same dampening inertia on its own.
With less productive foreign investment, financial wobbles — unavoidable in the speculative economy the country is fated to have — will be felt with disproportionate effect. Purely financial interventions have close to no inertia, without the stabilising support of predictable foreign trade and a strong internal market.
So the UK will become a much less relevant country, with an irrelevant economy. Expect the charts of its GDP per capita to take a bit of a nose dive. But it will be guided by such relevant politicians…