I don’t usually mind Twitter personality and defenestrated Vox Media founder Matt Yglesias that much. But a couple weeks back he engaged in an argument I’ve been dying to make a video about for years. So with this video I took the opportunity to complain about the irritating data point that Defense Spending has fallen as a percent of GDP, and how meaningless it is in the context of the US federal budget. I feel like I got outside my wheel house a bit, maybe diving a little too deeply into accounting I don’t fully understand, but I think it makes for a fun video.
Some paths to success on this platform are depressing. I wanted to entice people into watching a twenty minute meditation on the IRS, so I needed a conservative YouTuber to use as a foil. I’d heard of Steven Crowder for years, but never seen a need to watch one of his videos. It was honestly pretty appalling. A bunch of middle aged men yukking it up while bullying college students, pushing laughably bad propaganda about Israel and guns, and just generally lowering my estimation of politics, the internet, and media in general. Crowder apparently produces two hours of this every couple days, and gets half a million views every time. Grim. So I came up with the deepest insult I could imagine for Mr. Crowder, and built a video around it.
I have been meaning to get this, and its follow on videos, out there since November. It’s pretty clear to me what Biden has to do to ensure that Donald Trump does not find his way back to the white house. I’m sure it’s not surprising that I think foreign policy is key to this. I’m biased for sure. But it really does seem clear to me that ending the forever wars isn’t just the right thing to do, but it’s also the best way for Biden to achieve political success. It’s just such low-hanging fruit politically speaking.
To some extent, today’s video is about what empire means. Is it just about territory? I think not. Later in the week we will show how the British Empire quickly disintegrated after it lost something more intangible: its “informal empire”. This concept is pretty amorphous, and as I think about the way I’m using it this week, I think I may not do a very good job of sticking to just one definition either. Informal Empire includes what is currently known as “soft power”, the financial and cultural weight that a society has, distinct from its military power. But I consider some aspects of military power to be part of “informal empire” as well. If you are undertaking some sort of quick punitive expedition to get people to act more in accordance with your wishes, I think that’s informal empire too. Obviously, when we’re talking about military action, the lines between informal and formal empire become less clear.
I think my definition of informal empire probably includes everything that is not formal empire. If you’re not planting a flag, or a near century-long “temporary presence” like the British had in Egypt, we’re talking informal empire. US military bases abroad are formal empire. Everything else the US does in those countries, from the bankers to the diplomats, to the fact that people in that country love Apple iPhones… is informal empire. I hope this has been clarifying rather than mystifying, and I hope you enjoy today’s video “Is the United States an Empire?”
Today’s video skirts an interesting question. How much do the US people know about the power our government, financial and legal sectors exercise in the world? My sense is not much. I have this, perhaps naive, hope that if they did have a better sense of that power, they would want the US government to use that power more responsibility. Instead, at this point we’ve got a government and media that actively misleads the people on this topic, and often misleads itself.
A key part of Washington DC’s ability to benefit from ever increasing defense budgets is keeping people scared. Emphasizing that US financial and legal power is capable of shutting down almost any real threat would kind of sabotage that effort. So we pretend that places like Russia and China are somehow independent actors that can do us harm, rather than stakeholders than are almost as wrapped up in benefiting from the status quo as the US is. I dunno. It’s something I think about a lot.