I feel like markets and economics have been an underpinning of what I’ve been talking about for quite some time now. It’s been a troubling thing for me. There’s always a lot of certainty when these issues come up in political discussions, but usually almost nothing backing up that certainty. The conditions we’re looking at are always changing, and the theories that people gravitate to are some of the least proven imaginable. Economics has pretensions to being a science. But the variables are immense, and there’s really only one result.
We have one world economy, and its performance at any given time is the only thing that we have to point to, to see whether our theories are working. There is no control group. Most of the figures we rely on to measure what’s going on are little better than rough estimates, and the political consensus rarely lasts a decade. I have high hopes for the profession of economics. People are doing amazing work in the field, and the move onto the internet that our species is currently undergoing provides the possibility of real measurement (and Orwellian nightmares). I’m confident that the future is bright, but I think we all need a lot more humility in talking about the economy. Which is why I made today’s video, and why I’ll be adding to the series in the coming weeks…
Occasionally I’ll embark on the 15-20 hour process of making a video, and then something happens that throws things in a new light. I still stand 100% behind today’s video, but if I’d known that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was going to weigh in, I probably would have incorporated a response. He’s a serious guy. I’ll have to respond here.
It’s easy for me to dismiss a lot of Mattis’s letter due to some pretty fundamental strategic and philosophical differences I have with him that regular viewers of this channel will be familiar with. Mattis believes that Saudi Arabia is a worthwhile partner in counter-terrorism. I do not believe that. Mattis believes that Iran is more of a threat to the US and the world than Saudi Arabia is. I do not believe that. Because Mattis believes these things I do not believe, he presents a narrative for the Yemeni war that strikes me as deeply flawed. If you’ve got a half hour or so, I set out a counter-narrative, that actually reckons with Yemeni history, unlike the standard Iran-Saudi proxy war fairy tale we’re told.
But there’s one concern that Mattis brings up that I can’t dismiss. He claims that ending US cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen will make the humanitarian situation worse. I’m worried about this as well. Taking the US out of the equation is likely to degrade Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue the war long term, but I suspect it is also likely to make the Saudis more brutal. The 5,295 civilians that have been killed so far (Human Rights Watch), are probably the result of fairly targeted bombing. Saudi bombing is likely to have killed most of these civilians, but US expertise has probably put a bit of a cap on the body count. I’m no expert on warfare, but I was already worried about this. Having Mattis, one of the world’s greatest experts on warfare, express this opinion makes me more worried. But it does not give me pause.
More people may die by bombing, but Saudi Arabia’s ability to besiege the country will be seriously degraded. Millions are less likely to be at risk of starvation or cholera. And if Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen becomes more brutal it will also become less sustainable. A key point that I neglected to include in this video, and rarely gets included in the standard litany (“refueling, targeting, intelligence”) of goods the US provides to Saudi Arabia is diplomatic cover. It is a profoundly weird thing that Saudi Arabia is doing. Saudi Arabia is invading and destroying its neighbor. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in the 21st century, or even in the second half of the 20th century. Most wars are civil. The few examples of cross-border invasion I can think of post Cold War are only possible because of US support. If the resolution passes in the Senate next week, and gets through the House, Saudi Arabia won’t just lose technical support, it will lose that diplomatic cover.
Without US support the war in Yemen will instantly become exponentially more cancerous for the Saudi re-branding effort than it already is. MBS and the Saudi government desperately need investors for their oil company’s years-delayed IPO, and that new tech city they announced last fall. Try doing that when US media and government are no longer covering up the war in Yemen.
I’m afraid that Mattis may be right about the immediate humanitarian costs of cutting off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. But continuing on the way we have for another two years would be much, much worse.
Budgets are boring right? Not really. They are certainly complex, and passing them is complicated, as Washington, DC’s seemingly perpetual shut-down dance shows. But the question of paying for government is the most important one imaginable. Time and again in history we see great empires brought down by the simple question of “How do we pay for this?”
In the 1500s the Spanish Empire encircled the world, and controlled something like half of Europe, if not more. Their American territories brought a constant stream of precious metals. They were brought down mostly by the fact that they didn’t understand inflation, and defaulted on their debt repeatedly. In the 1920s the British Empire reached it’s largest extent. The “Sun Never Set” on the British Empire. 40 years later it was gone. Because they couldn’t pay for it. The holders of British debt in the United States got to dictate British foreign policy in a few crucial instances.
What few people recognize is how far the US Congress has fallen, and how quickly. US pop culture, almost from the beginning, has featured a high degree of skepticism about Congress. They’ve always been known as a bunch of corrupt, pompous windbags. That’s a healthy attitude to take towards one’s government. But I think this constant attitude of contempt has served to hide Congress’s fall.
With the one two punch of Newt Gingrich’s “reforms” in the 1990’s (discussed here) and the expansion of the government after 9/11, Congress has lost the plot almost entirely. It’s only by looking at the power and principle that Congress could stand on just a few short decades ago, that we can get the full picture. That’s what this week’s video comparing Congress’s abdication of responsibility for Yemen to their treatment of Nicaragua in the 1980’s is intended to do.