America in Transition



           “…(the) ‘McDonald’s theory’ of international order and conflict is a little thin; economic interdependence only gets so far, as the world is beginning to observe.”

                                                                             US Army publication Parameters: Winter 2014


           “Ultimately, the Berlin Wall came down not because of chess moves made on the board of a great game but because people in the East wanted to live like the people in the West. Economics, popular culture and social movements mattered. Despite all our flaws, we had a better system and story.”

                                                                             Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser



The currency of international relations is power, which has a major military aspect. A 9/29/23 article in Foreign Affairs by Robert M. Gates, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, notes that both of America’s major authoritarian adversaries tend to miscalculate, both domestically and internationally, and their further miscalculations in the face of “political dysfunction” in United States could be catastrophic for all concerned – beginning with Ukraine. The U.S. must get its domestic politics in order to act appropriately abroad - surely given the Israeli/(9/11) Hamas conflict.


Most Americans do not concern themselves with foreign policy. Yet domestic security, the cost of energy and the supply of other goods depends upon the country’s relations with other states. At the end of W.W. II, the U.S. as victor, had the opportunity to define the international system as a rule-based order that sought peace through the equality of nations (with significant exceptions) in a stable international system. Complex systems, whether financial or political, require stabilizers.


But in 1960, the U.S. accounted for 39.2% of the world’s nominal GDP. In 2022, that figure had decreased to 25.2%.1 The U.S. must redefine its relations with other states as the rest of the world becomes more prosperous. In that context, the MAGA people wish for a past that no longer exists. More about this later.


How to act, in an age of transition? If you are an extreme revolutionary, you would, in name of the future or an imagined past; tear up your real past and start all over again – unanchored. If you are not, and most people are not, you would start with your relevant past and then seek to adapt that to the future. It is our practical observation that the first is not the way to go, either for persons or for a society. We ask, given its past, in what direction the U.S. (and by extension its capital markets) might go. The following starts with a discussion of political economics.


Political Economics


Roman society influences everything from the United States’ form of government (based upon popular consent and upon the idea of minority ‘rights’ enshrined in law), to its language (most English words more than five letters long), to its architecture (notably neoclassical in official Washington, D. C.). Finally, also like the United States, Rome was a very large-scale empire, ranging from the granaries of Aegyptus to the green swards of Britannia. However, modern scholarship shows the Roman empire was a lot more than legions and roads. The manner of the Empire’s decline after around 500 years has a lesson for the United States in 2023, and also illustrates where the social sciences are valuable.


Why did the Western Roman empire decline? There are a number of explanations:


·      The sack of the city of Rome by the barbarian Alaric, the Visigoth, in 410 B.C.

·      A loss of morale and internal erosion once it stopped resisting outsiders. (Gibbon, 1776)

·      Elite infighting. (Goldsworthy, 2009)

·      Climate Change and Plague. (Smithsonian Magazine, 12/2017)       


The reasons why social systems change are manifold and complex. Relevant are probably all of the above. 1a But is there a very significant idea that explains the Empire’s decline? (It had better work.) That idea is from the social sciences, from economics in this case. What is important here, and then in a separate discussion of the contemporary United States politics, is a constructive idea that is held in common – that creates a ground for common discourse and social trust.


In 31 B.C., Caesar Augustus (Octavian) defeated Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium, (If you are interested in history or Hollywood) and became the founder of the Roman empire which subsequently expanded around the Mediterranean to the limits of the agriculture land, arable land being almost the sole basis of wealth in the ancient world.


Heather and Rapley write, “The Roman Empire started life, as empires do, as a conquest state.…From the second century AD onwards, the Empire remained a nominally united entity run from Rome, but given its vast scale and rudimentary communications, the capital city’s command over outlying regions became increasing limited. By the late imperial period, what held the imperial edifice together was not a domineering centre (in the Persian model), but something much more powerful: common financial and legal structures, sitting on top of deeply held cultural values shared right across a now much more broadly defined ruling Roman class of provincial landowners. By 399, after four hundred years of Empire, Rome’s (increasingly prosperous) former conquered subjects had long since adapted to the brave new world first carved out by the legions….The original conquest state run from Rome had evolved into a vast, western Eurasian commonwealth, with a common taxation structure that was used to maintain the army.”  2


What disturbed this fairly stable state of affairs? It was climate change and subsequent large-scale migrations from the periphery of the Empire. (The preceding paragraph and the following quote British historians, who have an abiding interest in the classical Roman era – probably due the Norman invasions from France during the 11th century A.D.) According to Dan Jones, “What caused the Huns (from the steppes of Asia) to move east west in the fourth century has long perplexed historians….According to tree ring data provided by the Qilian juniper samples …on the Tibetan Plateau, it seems that between A.D. 350 and 370, eastern Asia suffered a ‘megadrought’-which remains the worst drought recorded in the last two thousand years. The skies simply dried up. Northern China endured conditions at least as severe as those of the American dust bowl in the 1930s….For the Huns, who depended on grazing animals for their meat, drink, clothing and transport, this was an existential disaster. And it would have presented a stark choice: move, or die. They chose to move….In A.D. 370 various bands of Huns began to cross the Volga…This in itself was not an immediate threat to Rome….in the 370s it was not the Huns who were the problem. It was the people they displaced….the Huns came into contact with other tribal civilizations: first the Iranian-speaking Alans and then the Germanic tribes known collectively as the Goths.” 3


The Germanic tribes then moved west; but their local interactions with the provincial Roman landowners differed, on the continent or further in Britain. The nature of these interactions can be found, to this day, in the cultural differences between France and Britain.


On the Continent, the Roman landowners, “…managed to retain at least a portion of their wealth, and simultaneously transmitted a significant portion of the existing culture to the incoming barbarian elites, with whom they were now living cheek by jowl. (The Vandal conquerors, on their part, developed a taste for Roman villas and Latin poetry.) The ability of continental Roman landowners to negotiate their own survival (at scale) at least ensured the post-Roman West would be Latin and Christian….(The tribes) also found themselves having to compete with the West Roman state which was still a substantial military power…” 4


In Britain, the Roman landowners, having rebelled from Roman centralized control, were left defenseless. “This generated a rolling process in which the entire Roman landowning class of Britain, together with its cultural values, were swept away, one villa at a time….What actually brought about Britain’s post-Roman civilization collapse into an entirely pagan and Latin-free Dark Ages was not barbarian migration, but its voluntary severance from the Roman world: the original Brexit.” 5 (A previous essay, footnote #10 notes this process as well)


In a zero-sum agricultural economy, migration ultimately entails major losses for some. But, “Modern economies, by contrast, can grow in a way that was impossible in previous eras, so that wealth for new citizens (many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are immigrants) doesn’t have to be at the expense of existing ones.” 6 The motive force behind modern economies is not land, but ideas for new goods and services.


One can observe how many people want to immigrate to the true democratic states, as opposed to the totalitarian ones. The legacy that Rome leaves the West is a state run for the benefit of people, leaving, “…the bedrock institutions of the socially integrated Western nation state – a rule of law that seeks to protect all interests, properly accountable political elites, a free press, and efficient, impartial public institutions – offer a better quality of life to a much wider range of citizens than any competing state form.” 7 At the same time, “The West cannot make itself great again in the old terms. The tectonic plates of economic organization on which these political structures rested have shifted decisively, and nothing (not even MAGA) is going to move them back. Western politicians need to tell their citizens the truth about this, and get on constructing the new, less self-aggrandizing world order which would in fact defend their (and everyone else’s) interests more effectively.” 8


We have discussed economics as a significant idea regarding Rome. What about contemporary societies, both national and international? To make the above paragraph happen is Aristotle’s idea of, “human flourishing.”


Dannielle Allen is a Harvard professor of classics and political theory. She has written “Justice by Means of Democracy (2023)”. Many ancient Greek philosophers thought in terms of universal causes. It is very useful to ask, what are the causes of, “human flourishing.”


Twentieth century political thought, according to Allen, had a “blind spot.” Due to this blind spot we are, “…vulnerable to being surprised, not only by 2008 but also by Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban…and the aggression of Russia.” 9 This results , “…from a small philosophical mistake made in the early nineteenth century that has characterized most varieties of liberalism ever since. The mistake was to draw a distinction between two halves of the set of basic rights protected by liberalism.” 10


Benjamin Constant was an early nineteenth century French political philosopher. He divided basic liberal rights into two parts: “the rights of the ancients,” in what we would now call political rights, “…the right to be part of a society that was working to steer itself through collective decision-making”  and  “the rights of the moderns,” in what we would now call mainly economic rights, “…about private autonomy – steering your life and being more or less left alone by any collective decision-making.” 11 We note that the Enlightenment of the earlier eighteenth century was a movement that was essentially about the power of an individual’s reason against the European establishment, the nobility and the Church.


What then followed was an emphasis on “the rights of the moderns” by (noting a few political philosophers) Hume, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, the neoclassical economists, Berlin (who emphasized individual negative liberties as opposed to the “totalitarian,” positive ones, related to society), and Rawls (for those into modern political philosophy or law school).


In her book, professor Allen emphasizes, “…the non-sacrificeability of both negative and positive liberties and, deriving from that, a commitment to political equality (also social stability).” 12


Does this political theory make sense in contemporary U.S. society? We think it does. The perception of artists often predict or relate to social changes. An exhibit in the de Young museum of San Francisco was called, “Art in the United States.” This general title reveals a landscape of political action. (No anodyne 1950s, “Let’s get on with our lives” here.)


“The diversity and complexity of American art reveals that Americans have never shared a unique set of values. (Americans had been noted for their abilities in the art of government.) The substantial representation of objects from the Northeast – especially the historical cultural capital of New York City – is counterbalanced by the differing perspectives offered by art made in California. California’s counterculture movements have frequently challenged national calls for conformity and have paved the way for significant societal change….The American art collections are interpreted within historical, cultural, social, political, and economic contexts that often reveal the disparities between the nation’s highest ideals and its most problematic realities.”


The question facing America is how its political system can accommodate increased and diverse demands from now very mobilized groups – we note this is also true in the case of the international system.


To start with the citizen: “The…citizen isn’t first and foremost informed engaged but authentic and equitable (fair). The authentic, equitable citizen forges a civic identity that starts from a clear sense of personal purpose and integrated into that understanding a recognition that the good of the community is also to their own benefit. Herein lies their equitability. The authentic, (reasonable) citizen then makes a personal choice of which among many available civic roles to adopt. That authentic, equitable citizen also needs to become reasonably informed in the subject areas they choose to engage. In addition, in adversarial contexts, the…citizen understands what it means to fight fair.” 13 In other words, democracies train their citizens in fundamental civics values, make possible cooperation with other shared communities, “…whether those are regional, ethnic, religious, professional, cultural…,” 14 and finally make possible collective action.


To proceed to society: Standing against Plato and Benjamin Constant. “Du Bois’s articulation…rests on the recognition that protecting the space to pursue private interests-whether these interests are commercial or take some other form-requires active public engagement. You don’t get the negative liberties, in other words, without positive liberties. Consequently, the full pursuit of sustainable forms of justice does not simply suggest but in fact requires a form of multitasking. This multitasking is at the heart of the practice of democratic citizenship. At its core, this existential challenge of democratic multitasking is fundamentally about how we connect our private and public personal interests.” 15 Among other things, people in a democracy can both lead and follow, and haven’t been reduced to primitive “masses,” to be pushed around like concrete.


“Figures from Pericles to John Stuart Mill and John Dewey have recognized the intellectual labor involved in participating in a democracy and have therefore considered one of the great values of these regimes to be their necessary support for the development of human mental faculties.” 16 Good civics courses and common experiences are the foundation of this.




We have discussed how, in truly democratic societies, the major ideas of economic self-interest and citizenship converge to result in “human flourishing.”


In sum, what this says in both domestic and international politics is, “Deal people in, but make sure they fight fair.” In international politics, if they don’t, “Si vis pacem





A minimum requirement for “human flourishing” is security. Key distinctions in the 10/7/23 Israeli/Hamas (9/11) war are also useful, provided both are very much held in mind.  A newspaper editorial states that in this crisis, it is necessary to distinguish between cause and conduct. The long-term systematic cause of this war is clearly the Palestinian question, the only solution has to be a two-state one. The short-term conduct of the barbaric Hamas can never be justified. As Israel now readies a massive invasion of the Gaza strip in order to secure the safety of its citizens, the U.S. is trying to prevent this conflict from resulting in a general Mideast war. The specifics should not preclude the future.


The political problem in Israel, as well increasingly in the U.S., is the right-wing, who are so concerned with intra-mural aggrandizement, that they entirely missed the larger picture – the real security and stability of the larger society. In Israel, the Netanyahu government was concerned with a judicial revamp, which would have destroyed the check-and-balance system of government, and with an expansion into Palestinian lands of additional settlements. In the U.S, having been granted by voters a majority in the House of Representatives, the infighting Republicans, as of this writing, have paralyzed government in the face of foreign crises in Ukraine and the Mideast, with another budgetary crisis looming. According to a 10/10/23 NYT article, Israel made the mistake of over-automating its border defenses and concentrating its border commanders in one location. It also suffered from a failure of imagination. The U.S. has held up military promotions, additional foreign aid to necessary allies and the discretionary budget of the government.


It is increasingly obvious that the divisive extreme right-wing can’t govern – because that requires, also, reason.




At the end of W.W. I, almost all the dynastic empires were swept away. The Gulf States could contemplate what could happen in the event of a general Mideast conflagration. They obviously should be very helpful.




A conflagration in the Mideast would be a catastrophe for all concerned:


1) A common sense solution to the Palestinian dilemma would involve a two-state solution and a land trade that would preserve the territorial contiguities of both Israel and the Palestinian state.


2) Palestinians would get a separate state, a part of Northern Israel, and access to the Mediterranean via an Athenian “long walls” * corridor that would be either over or under a contiguous Israel. The corridor could start at the Palestinian city of Tulkarm. This corridor would be only 8.9 miles long, or a 14 minute bus ride, to around the resort town of Netanya, Israel. Development capital for the Palestinians could be provided by the Arab Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.


3) In return, Israel would get all the Gaza strip and still maintain contiguity with its north.


4) A political solution regarding Hamas could result from a discussion of all parties, including Hamas add: or any other Palestinian entity capable of governing Gaza.


Of course, we aren’t expert in this. But a Peloponnesian War Athenian “long walls” solution would seem to meet the needs of all parties except Iran.


*We went looking for the “long walls” connecting Athens and its port of Piraeus. As we later found out, in modern Piraeus, the visible portion is now buried in a parking garage and an Athenian fleet boat berth is in the basement of an apartment house.




What are the motivators of Hamas? There are probably many. A fact to note, however. The current overall head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, is a former dean of the Islamic University of Gaza, appointed in 1993, and a graduate of the school. The University has extensive international connections and operates full-fledged professional programs. 


To note a dissenting voice from Israel. “…even Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Israeli security service Shin Bet, has argued for years that Palestinian terror can be defeated only by creating Palestinian hope.”




Democratic societies exist primarily for the welfare of their people, as they so determine and are thus organized. The following article by NY Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, quotes that the autocracies of Russia and Iran can stay in power only, “by keeping their countries either at war or primed for war” - against the democracies, who have a constructive vision. That article is really worth reading because it indicates what is at stake, and suggests that Ukraine and Israel will have to make hard choices.




Before the war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Colin Powell cautioned about the Pottery Barn rule, “You break it; you own it.”






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