Friday, January 17, 2020

Richard Lachmann's "First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship"

Richard Lachmann is a Professor at the University of Albany-SUNY and the author of Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe, States and Power and What Is Historical Sociology?

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book is the first page of Chapter 3. On that page I present a historical problem: Why were Habsburg Spain and France under both Louis XIV and Napoleon unable to parlay their military domination within Europe, and in the case of Spain the largest global empire of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, into economic domination. Those failures demonstrate the limits of empires and of geopolitical power.

Chapter 3 goes on to explain why Spain and France never achieved hegemony. In brief, my answer is that elites at home and in the colonies manage to appropriate most colonial and state revenues for themselves, starving their countries’ domestic economies of investment and the governments of resources needed to fend off the rising power of the Netherlands and Britain. In the following chapters I trace how the Dutch and British achieved global economic hegemony and how, quickly in the Netherlands and much more slowly in Britain, elites appropriate state powers and resources and placed those countries on the path to decline.

The Page 99 Test works fairly well for my book: that page does present a central problem that my book tries to solve. However, readers who turn to that page wouldn’t know that most of the book is concerned with the contemporary United States. I wrote the book to explain how the US is losing its decades long advantage as the most educated, militarily successfully, and economically vibrant country.

I show how American elites, like their European predecessors, consolidated control over governmental offices and powers and extracted revenues both from government and from the businesses they controlled rather than investing in innovation and the infrastructure that could maintain US supremacy. In the US, as in Britain and the Netherlands as they began their declines, finance became the leading sector, resulting in speculative booms and busts. Today American dominance is largely in finance. The dollar remains the world currency and the Fed the global regulator, which enriches bankers and speculators but harms the real economy. I explain why the US military, despite enjoying a technological edge and ability to project force around the globe unprecedented in world history, has been unable for the last half century to achieve its objectives in wars.

My analysis is not a happy one, and I avoid the temptation to conclude with empty hopes that America can renew it self if only we turn off our screens or become public minded. Elites will not give up their power voluntarily, and this country’s future can best be predicted by looking at what happened in Britain and the Netherlands after their declines.
Learn more about First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue