Learning From the Past by CamCon
Whenever I tell people that I’m a history major, the reaction is usually the same; they scoff, laugh, and then ask “Well what are you gonna do with that? Become a teacher?” To be quite frank, I’m not totally sure what I’m going to do with a history degree, but what people fail to realize is the value that a deep, penetrating knowledge of the past can have. What fascinates me about history is that historians truly can predict the future. Niall Ferguson (http://bigthink.com/niallferguson#!video_idea_id=20068) is a history professor at Harvard University who was listed as one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time Magazine because of his ability to use history and economics to make accurate predictions about plausible futures. Historians like Ferguson are able to assemble details and events from the past and apply them to modern issues to figure out what will happen next. The problem with history is that it is rarely taught in a way that elementary, middle school, or high school students can appreciate it. Most students see it as a random assortment of useless facts that must be committed to memory for a class and then never remembered or used again. This semester I’m enrolled in a class on Islam, Politics, and Society, and for much of this class, that was exactly how I felt about it until I came across a few pages about the failure of the Ottoman Empire that I found to be strikingly applicable to present day issues in the United States. History reveals that every empire in the entire history of the world has failed. The United States is a powerful modern-day empire in its own right, which brings us to a major question: is the United States’ empire failing? Are we declining, and if we are, what are the signs of it? It’s necessary to take a look at history and how past empires have failed in order to determine the answer to this question. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Let’s go back for a lesson in history and learn about what caused the Ottoman Empire to fail and see if any similarities can be drawn to decisions being made in the United States today.
- Military Expansion and Defense Spending: The Ottoman Empire was built on the premise of expansion. It needed constant war for its internal economy to work. Expansion served as a source of revenue, and constant war provided jobs with a salary to unskilled peasants. Even though the Ottoman military became less effective, the government assumed that the success of the empire depended upon troops and weapons. As the empire put more of its resources into the military, the already overburdened government was strained by all of the money put into defense spending.
The U.S. always seems to be involved in wars and the politics of other countries, and the constant need for war provides thousands of jobs for soldiers and people producing and designing innovative weapons, bullets, and the like. Also, the United States government spends more on defense than next 19 biggest spending nations COMBINED (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/8002911/Defence-spending-the-worlds-biggest-armies-in-stats.html). Mitt Romney has stated in multiple debates that he refuses to make any cuts to the defense spending that is racking up the U.S. debt. He claims that the biggest threat to United States’ security is a nuclear Iran, and it’s clear that he intends to continue the constant wars of the past.
- The Presence of a Black Market Economy: In the Ottoman Empire, Europeans started to come to the Middle East to trade with the Ottomans. The Europeans traded gold from the Americas to the Ottomans in exchange for raw materials. However, the raw materials that were traded were needed by Ottoman guilds (basically workers unions) to produce finished products, and production fell because of a lack of raw materials. Ottoman officials countered the problem by banning the export of raw materials, which created a black market economy. A class of black market entrepreneurs/criminals emerged, the illicit job of exporting raw materials became extremely lucrative since so few people would do it, officials were bribed to look the other way from the illicit activity, and the government became more corrupt because of the bribed officials.
The United States also has a black market economy when it comes to the selling of illegal drugs. The U.S. government spends billions on the War on Drugs and completely wastes the money. People have already discovered the drugs, people will continue to produce them, and preventing their use can only come by curtailing citizens’ liberties and taking away privacy. When it comes down to it, you can’t uninvent the wheel. The U.S. government isn’t doing anything significant to stop people from using or selling these drugs, so it might as well stop wasting money and legalize and tax the sale of most drugs (I won’t get into specifics on this one). You think politicians would’ve learned the lesson the first time around with prohibition. It only created a black market economy, encouraged violence, and heightened the economic rewards for those who would continue to sell alcohol. What we learned from those mistakes needs to be applied to the War on Drugs.
- Inflation with Production Falling: The outside cash coming into the Ottoman Empire from the black market entrepreneurs while production began to fall generated inflation. Also, to discourage Ottoman officials and bureaucrats from taking bribes, the state decided to raise salaries. The problem is that the state didn’t have any extra funds based in productivity. In order to raise salaries, the government simply printed more money, which resulted in even more inflation. Just about everything the Ottoman officials did to attempt to end corruption and increase production reinforced all of the major problems I have discussed. Inflation was hurting those people on fixed incomes, anyone with a set salary who’s current savings were devalued by the money printed.
The problem of inflation is probably most applicable to the United States of the three major issues I’ve discussed. The United States has an independent central bank called the Federal Reserve, which has the power to control the money supply and interest rates in the U.S. The U.S. government can simply ask the Federal Reserve to print money, which the government then borrows, spends, and adds to the debt. The Federal Reserve has the power to literally print money out of thin air. This increases the money supply which devalues what American citizens have sitting in their back accounts. As more money chases fewer goods, the price of commodities rises, which puts a strain on lower and middle class families. As the prices of commodities rise, Americans are more hesitant to spend money on goods, which slows the economy and production, and the problems begin to reinforce each other.
To address counterarguments to some of the points that I’m presenting: you may say that I’m carefully hand-selecting what history I’m using and just applying it how I want to the modern day issues. Maybe I am trying to read between the lines too much, but I think if you consider how other empires have failed (such as the Soviet Union) you’ll find similar patterns with war/defense, the economy, and inflation that can result in failure. I didn’t go searching for this passage just to prove my points. I came across it as part of an assigned reading and immediately began to see what I believe are well-founded similarities to decisions being made in the United States. The fact that all three categories are interconnected and all applicable to the United States further proves the legitimacy of the argument.
Some of you may also question how I can possibly say the U.S. is in decline when the country has one of the highest standards of living in the world. There are not that many direct signs of decline, particularly because the U.S. government spends money it doesn’t have on welfare programs that can pacify the situation and make it look better than it actually is. However, there are subtle signs of it, and just because there is a high standard of living now doesn’t mean the U.S. isn’t on a track for downfall. The Ottoman Empire was one of the wealthiest empires in the world during its time, but the decisions made when the empire reached its peak caused it to fail even though the decline may not have been directly perceivable. The fact that the U.S. appears to be “the best in the world” draws another comparison to the Ottoman Empire, which was thriving before it began to fail.
In my opinion, only one U.S. political party has learned from the past and understands how empires have failed (hint hint: it’s not the Democrats or the Republicans). You don’t have to agree with all of this 3rd party’s policies, but you can see the members of this party are sincere, consistent politicians who understand how to put the U.S. on a track to avoid failure. Watch this video of Ron Paul, a Congressional Representative with a thorough understanding of history, economics, and medicine, as he makes predictions for the future in 2002: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGDisyWkIBM. I would be willing to bet that if you asked Dr. Paul for his predictions today, he would tell you that we’re not as far away from a financial crisis like the one experienced in Greece as many people would like to believe (this is a future that Ferguson says is plausible if the U.S. doesn’t make changes soon).
If you compare how other empires have failed with some of the decisions being made in the U.S. right now, and don’t see the similarities, then I’ll be damned. The Democrats and Republicans are so focused on winning re-election and gaining power that they refuse to recognize that they are making the same fiscal mistakes that leaders of past empires have made. Until American citizens and politicians turn their attention to cutting entitlements and defense spending that are bankrupting the country, change will not happen. Party realignments have happened in American history, and though it won’t happen for the 2012 Election, I pray that one is coming soon because the two major parties currently in power have not learned from the past and those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
-The information about the Ottoman Empire was drawn from Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted