Monday, August 25, 2008

This Week's Theme: The Next Revolution

The First American Revolution, and the Later Ones, Too

New must-read Readers Journal essay by Chris Sullins: Dust and Shadow (part 1 of his tour of duty in Iraq)

My theory as to why many of you visit OTM is that this site (and its contributors) focus on long-term cycles and forces years before they appear in the mainstream media or blogosphere. For instance:
What This Country Needs Is A . . . Good Recession (January 10, 2005)
Are We Poised on the Precipice of Another Age of Turmoil? (June 2005)
Boomers, Prepare to Fall on Your Swords (June 2005)
The Real Federal Deficit: $2.3 trillion a Year (June 2005)
"Retirement": The New American Elite? (June 2005)
Exporting the Real Estate Bubble to China (November 14, 2005)
Housing Bubble? What Bubble? Just Look (June 2005)
How Many Foreclosures Will Hit the Market? (May 1, 2006)
'OK people, stay sharp. We're going to thread our way through a lot of housing statistics and reach a mind-boggling conclusion: 5 million foreclosures, 5 million investment/2nd homes dumped on the market and bank/thrift losses of $500 billion. Farfetched? Read on."

Housing Bubble Bust Will Take Down the Global Economy (May 8, 2006)
And what's happening now? The U.S. housing market is taking down the global economy. You read it here first. (Or perhaps second.) All of the trends analyzed above three years ago are still unfolding, and some are still "stealth" issues largely ignored by the MSM: for instance, the coming implosion of the Chinese real estate market, which is still in its very preliminary stages.

Which brings us to revolution. Do a search for "the next American Revolution" and you find thousands of entries on everything from the Minuteman Project to nanotechnology. In other words, in the usual erosion of powerful words to insipid pap, "revolution" now refers to anything and everything: nanotechnology, border security, the same old Chevy trucks "branded" by a "new" slogan, and so on.

As I have noted here before, there is startling evidence in the book The Fourth Turning ( recommended by astute reader Matt S.) that U.S. history follows a 4-generation/80-year cycle.

(This is one of the four long cycles which drives my analysis in Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis )

Consider this: 1781 (American Revolution) + 80 years = 1861 (U.S. Civil War) + 80 years = 1941 (World War II) + 80 years = 2021.

This is remarkably in line with the long cycles described in Terence Parker's prescient and concise work, The Rhythm of War.

The convulsive changes coming due around 2021 will not be centered around Chevy trucks, border patrols or nanotechnology. Before we get to what will be playing out in 2021, let's take a gimlet-eyed look at the First American Revolution.

Scrape all the patriotic gloss away and five key facts dominate the American Revolution:

1. Less than half the population of the American colonies supported the Revolution, and a large percentage actively supported the Royalist cause.

2. The American south was controlled by British forces until a small-scale brilliant military campaign led by Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan turned the tide at The Battle of Cowpens (The National Park Service).

The Southern Campaign, especially in the backcountry, was essentially a civil war as the colonial population split between Patriot and Loyalist. Conflict came, often pitting neighbor against neighbor and re-igniting old feuds and animosities. Those of both sides organized militia, often engaging each other. The countryside was devastated, and raids and reprisals were the order of the day.

The battle was over in an hour. It was a complete victory for the Patriot force. British losses were staggering: 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded, a count he received from those reporting directly to him.

At Cowpens, Daniel Morgan worried about obtaining food for his men - the area around the Pacolet River had been plundered and fought over so much, there was little to requisition. In addition, he had horses to feed. Each militiaman had brought a horse, in addition to those of the cavalry, making the total over 450. Perhaps that was part of Morgan's plan to stop at Cowpens - there should be some grass for the horses, even in winter, and, possibly free-ranging calves could be found and killed for beef. Beef was indeed available: James Turner, a Spartanburg District resident and participant in the battle, butchered beef to feed Morgan's army before and after the battle. It was reported that militia groups constantly left camp to hunt for forage. Such were the realities of feeding the armies.

3. The revolution was essentially bankrupt from the start, printing worthless money and struggling to feed its ragtag army.

4. Superior leadership at key points enabled a few thousand insurrectionists/ rebels /"patriots" to cling on against the superior forces of a rising Empire.

5. Victory was entirely dependent on the military power projection of a Great Power: France.

Those of you not terribly interested in the fleets of the 18th century may well be at a loss to understand just how stupendous a commitment it was for France to send a main battle fleet to cut off and starve into surrender the British Army at Yorktown.

It required staggering amounts of money to build and equip ships-of-the-line, and the French main battle fleet which assembled off Chesapeake Bay numbered 30 ships, overwhelming the smaller British fleets of 14 ships. Yorktown and the Battle of the Capes.

These huge ships were constructed entirely by hand of wood, and carried immense firepower--74+ cannon. They required crews of hundreds of men, and were able to ferry entire armies across vast distances. They were the 17th century's super-weapons of "power projection," and they required not just stupendous national treasure but institutional and logistical skills far beyond the reach of all but a few Great Powers (English, French, Dutch, Spanish).

I have posted links to the great Chinese fleets led by Admiral Zheng He circa 1405-1419. He's fleet was basically a diplomatic/trade/influence mission, not a war fleet, and it was much larger than the European war fleets: an estimated 300 vessels, with some treasure ships of immense size. But these fleets did not have even a fraction of the firepower of the 16th-18th century European fleets, in which each ship's broadside unleashed up to 50 cannons of concentrated fire. A single broadside if properly aimed could devastate even the largest wooden-hulled vessels.

Being built of wood, rope and cloth sails, the ships were in constant need of maintenance and repair, and the struggle to provision the crew was never-ending. An excellent description of this struggle to maintain and provision a fleet--and keep morale up--can be found in this engaging biography of Admiral Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.

The U.S. Continental Navy consisted of a few small ships. The French fleet at Yorktown was the equivalent of 6 modern U.S. Navy carrier groups--overwhelming naval superiority which even the British could not match in that circumstance.

The wily Ben Franklin's wining and dining and cajoling of the French leadership--and their own self-interest in nipping the British Lion's tail, of course--led to France's immense commitment of its treasure and super-weapon--the main battle fleet-- which provided the decisive victory which the rebels could never have won on their own.

I mention all this to show the American Revolution was a catch-as-can affair, a shoestring operation of survival against a far superior colonial power until a rival Great Power committed its immense military might to the rebel cause.

Was the revolution's success Destiny or just plain luck? For most of the long war (1776-1781), the rebellion clung on very precariously: bankrupt, riven by bitter disagreements, etc.
It's important to recall that history only seems to have a clear narrative after the fact. In the moment, confusion, bitter conflict and contingency reign supreme. We should expect no less in the coming era of turmoil, dissolution and crisis, 2008-2021.

The next U.S. revolution was the Civil War, a complex playing out of conflicts and internal contradictions left unresolved in the compromises of the Continental Congress.

As the writing of history proceeds, various aspects of the Civil War gain or lose visibility. It was fashionable for a time to underplay slavery as a driving issue, and to focus on states-rights versus Federalism as the main point of contention. Focusing on Lincoln's political use of slavery lends creedence to this point of view, but it ignores the far more powerful forces at work in the minds of those actually fighting in the Union Army: the moral sin of slavery in terms of Christianity.

To underestimate the religious motivations of the war is to miss the single key driver in the minds of Union Army volunteers. You can bet the soldiers of the 20th Maine did not join to fight for Federalism or some other vague concept; they joined to "save the Union" and eliminate the key moral contradiction left over from the Revolution: slavery. Protestant Christianity essentially demanded the end of slavery, and all the arguments of southern theologians were contradictory and narrow, based heavily on Old Testament references to slavery rather than the New Testament of Jesus' teachings.

Undoubtedly slavery would have ended eventually, but the economy of the South was so inextricably dependent on slavery that its demise would have been wrenching regardless of the timing.

The other key driver of the Civil War which is largely ignored is immigration. If you study the financial records of slavery, you discover that slaves were not cheap: they cost a small fortune. The average soldier in the Confederate Army had as many slaves as he had mansions: none. They were too costly. The entire edifice of slavery was a high-cost system.

So why did the South cling so desperately to such a high-cost, morally pernicious and cruel system of forced labor?

The answer lies in the town squares of innumerable small town in the north, from Iowa to Pennsylvania: the statues and plaques honoring the Union volunteers, so very often drawn from recent immigrant stock. Immigrants were not drawn to labor on plantations of poor soil owned by a tiny elite; they were drawn to the promise of their own farms in rich valleys, and the promise of making a living by trade and manufacture.

The South was once the dominant population and economic force of the new nation, but by 1860 immigration, Yankee clipper ships and trade, and nascent manufacturing had transformed the North into the dominant region.

I should mention that my own family has deep roots in the South: Kentucky, Arkansas, and New Orleans, where the Bassets immigrated from French Canada. My niece's father was African-American, born in Cincinnati but his family reached back to North Carolina.

The Smiths, Maxwells and Wallaces trace back to Scotland, Ireland and England, and all came first to New England before setting off West. My stepmom's family came from Northern Mexico, and my wife's grandmother was a 1920s "picture bride" from Asia.

Thus does immigration grow the American family.

The next revolution was triggered by a gauntlet thrown down: either heel to Fascism or Totalitarianism or rise to global dominance and destroy the twin evils. The short answer is "World War Two" which transformed American life and power on a scale heretofore unseen.

And the next revolution? Many foresee Imperial over-reach; They have a valid point but if you "follow the money" (i.e. glance at the Federal budget) then you have to conclude the global military which enables U.S. power projection and influence costs far, far less than the sum we spend on elderly citizens via Medicare and Social Security. It is not debatable, it is fact: United States federal budget, 2008:
Defense/military: $549 billion
Medicare and Social Security: $1,142 billion

You can argue that we spend too much on our military, but you can't argue that supporting a military which costs 4% of GDP and 19% of Federal expenditures and less than 10% of all government expenditures is bankrupting the Empire.

What will bankrupt the Empire is social welfare entitlement spending which is heavily skewed to the elderly. We as a nation spend a relatively paltry sum on the children of the nation in comparison to what we spend on the elderly.

Before you launch the screeds and defenses of the status quo, please note I am months away from being a "senior citizen" (55) and a few years away from sucking up my share of all those juicy entitlements.

My hope is the nation declares bankruptcy before I draw a dime, in order to save our children and grandchildren from the crushing debt we elders have borrowed to fund our own spending on ourselves.

I know this isn't a popular view, and the reason it isn't popular is that tens of millions of voters draw checks and benefits from the Federal government. The U.S. is now like France: the number of people drawing money from the government exceeds the number who pay taxes but receive no personal benefits (i.e. no disbursement or direct benefit like medical care). With recipients in the voting majority, they will never vote to cut their own entitlements. Thus we are doomed to borrow and spend until bankruptcy forces an end to the Empire of Debt.

Make no mistake: the $9 trillion we've borrowed wasn't devoted to military might except for a brief period during World War Two. It has been spent on social entitlements enjoyed by tens of millions of citizens. We can debate the ethical value of this spending until the day bankruptcy is declared; that the elderly deserve some support in their declining years is beyond question, just as the education and feeding of our children is beyond question, for future generations are the entire future of the nation.

But we can't borrow a trillion dollars a year to fund our own retirement and sick-care spending, and then leave a crushing debt to our children and their children. That is simply wrong. This is not new to OTM readers; please read these three entries again:
Boomers, Prepare to Fall on Your Swords (June 2005)
The Real Federal Deficit: $2.3 trillion a Year (June 2005)
"Retirement": The New American Elite? (June 2005)

The next revolution will most certainly have a financial catastrophe, a demographic train wreck and a deep moral bankruptcy at its core. Profligacy has a price, and we are doomed to cling to generationally selfish spending until our financial house of debt-cards finally collapses, taking all the generational Ponzi schemes and entitlements with it.

New must-read Readers Journal essay by Chris Sullins: Dust and Shadow (part 1 of his tour of duty in Iraq)

I mentally went through all my gear I had just prepared. I was wearing part of it which included body armor with front and back ceramic plates, helmet, ballistic goggles lifted over the front lip of the helmet, a holstered pistol with spare mags, a Mossberg shotgun dangled by its sling from a carabiner clipped on my right shoulder strap, and pouches holding shotgun shells nested firmly to my front.

If we somehow got separated from the convoy or ended up on foot the most important piece of gear, my GPS unit, was also in a pouch. Sergeant H stood nearby checking out the gear of the two young specialists we were rotating in for their first mission outside the wire. It was 0400 and we would be lining up for the convoy at 0500. This moment in my memory was from sometime early in my deployment. It held great anticipation for me at the time. Now when I wake up at the same time I look back at it and wonder to myself “WTF was I thinking.”

New Book Notes: My new "little book of big ideas," Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis is now available on for $10.99.

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