|Number 578||June 19, 2015|
There's a new feature in this issue of the Notes, which will appear I-don't-know-how-often. I'm calling it "Sunset of the Empire." Let me know what you think.
That's all for now. See ya next time,
"Social Security overpaid disability beneficiaries by nearly $17 billion over the past decade, a government watchdog said Friday, raising alarms about the massive program just as it approaches the brink of insolvency."
That's the first paragraph from a June 6th report from the Associated Press. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? Well, it is, but we don't know how big it really is unless we know how much Social Security is paying out in total. The program is huge—Social Security Disability payouts totaled $11.2 billion in December alone! So the key point here, which is actually reported by the AP, deep in the article, is that "approximately 99.8 percent of all Social Security payments were free of overpayment." That's a remarkable rate of accuracy, and the AP should be called to task for its misleading and alarmist reporting.
And that part about "insolvency"? Well, here's "Quote" of the Week #2, this one from the National Women's Law Center:
"The DI [Disability Insurance] program, part of Social Security's integrated family insurance plan, is financed by a portion of Social Security payroll taxes that go into the DI Trust Fund. In 2016, the DI Trust Fund will be exhausted and revenues coming into the DI program will only cover 80 percent of benefits after that. If Congress allowed that to happen, that would be a disaster for people with disabilities. But the exhaustion of the DI Trust Fund is a manufactured crisis because there's an easy solution: Congress can rebalance Social Security's two Trust Funds, as it has done 11 times before—and in both directions. The combined Trust Funds hold $2.8 trillion in assets: enough to pay 100 percent of all promised benefits until 2033—and over 75 percent of benefits after that, even if Congress did nothing else."
I've been talking lately about what I call the decline of the U.S. Empire. It's proceeding rapidly, and it's in the news constantly. But it's rarely identified as news of the decline of the U.S. Empire. Instead, what we see is a collection of decontextualized reports of small countries behaving in ways that displease U.S. planners, or reports of new regional institutions supplanting U.S.-dominated ones, or "market forces" driving former allies into the arms of current rivals. As is typically the case with the daily news flow, it's very difficult to separate oneself from the specifics of each report, to back up and see the patterns of change in all of this. It takes a lot of work to connect the varied reports into any sort of coherent whole.
That's why I've been saying that our news institutions need what could be called an "Empire beat." When we hear a news report being reported by a "national security correspondent," or an "economics reporter," it communicates that "national security" and "economics" are important things, things we had better keep our eyes on. If those same institutions had reports by an "empire correspondent," it would encourage people to (first of all) consider the idea that there is such a thing as an "empire." Secondly, reporting on the state of the Empire would get people thinking about the nature of an Empire, and how our lives are different depending on where in the imperial order we reside. Many people think about this all the time, especially those on the lower rungs of the imperial ladder. Those on the top, not so much.
That's how a system of domination—which is a big part of the definition of empire—is allowed to go about its business, after all. Systems arise for the purpose of benefitting some at the expense of others, and powerful subsystems are employed to enforce the rules. Those being dominated are often highly aware (but not always) of the workings of the system that subordinates them. Those reaping the benefits are often (but not always) ignorant of those workings. (I'll be writing soon on an academic/philosophical field known as "white ignorance," or "racial ignorance," which illuminates the idea of systemic "not-knowing" and how and why it serves the needs of those at the top.)
Don't misunderstand what I mean when I speak of a decline of "the Empire." There is still an Empire, and the world order continues to be an imperial world order. But the nature of Empire is changing. (See NN #444, "What is an Empire? Not What it Used to Be.")
Before World War II we used to have direct colonial rule, like the British in India for example. That was supplanted post-War with a global order that was characterized by "established global trade and financial patterns that work to direct wealth and resources in certain directions, serving the interests of certain people at the expense of others." For many decades, the U.S. gave the orders and other countries were more or less forced to go along (with important exceptions, like the Soviet Union).
There's always been a fight about who gets to make the rules, but as the power of the U.S. recedes, the scramble for control in the "New World Order" is increasing. Much of the news that I will be highlighting in this occasional series will focus on news reports of what I expect will be increasingly-heated conflicts about who gets to be King of the Hill. Then as population grows, climate changes, and resources diminish, we'll be seeing stories about the nature of "the Hill" itself, and not just who gets to be King of it.
Some of the new rules will be formalized—as with global treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (if it ever happens). But many of the new rules and structures will happen in the course of things, as countries and corporations jockey for power. The news of this informal jockeying is of great interest to me, as it will have a lot to do with how we all are going to live in the future. That's why I'm initiating this semi-regular feature, which I'll call "Sunset of the Empire" until I think of something better. In this edition of the Notes we'll hear about China.
The headline in the May 18 Wall Street Journal read, "Beijing to Unveil South American Investments." The lead was "Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang is set to bring greater financial support to South America this week, part of Beijing's broader effort to reassure developing countries that have been hit by China's declining demand for raw materials." In fact, we learn that "Mr. Li will visit Colombia, Peru and Chile, seeking to reassure trading partners that China's slowdown won't affect Beijing's engagement in the region." And, notably, Mr. Li will visit Brazil, whose economy makes up more than one-half of the entire gross domestic product of South America.
The story was buried on page 9, but nonetheless contained some revealing reporting. Paragraph 8, for instance, tells us that "In Brazil, where China has replaced the US as top trade partner, Mr Li is expected to sign agreements for joint research into the feasibility of building a cross-Andes rail link across Brazil's agricultural belt to Peru's Pacific coast."
I'm not sure that a $10 billion railway is a good idea, but the point is that China is now the biggest trade partner of the biggest country in what the U.S. used to call its "backyard." Hmm....
Down in paragraph 13 we read that "Last year, Chinese loans to Latin America reached $US22bn, surpassing the combined lending of long-established institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, according to estimates from the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank." Those "long-established institutions" are not only long-established, but also long-dominated by the United States, having been set up after World War II when the U.S. was the undisputed leader of the "Free World."
All of this marks a turning away from the U.S.-led world order. But why is this happening? A hint appears in the following paragraph: "Many of these loans, which lack the fiscal-discipline strings often attached by Western lenders, were announced during President Xi Jinping's trip to Brazil and other Latin American countries in July last year."
This brings to mind something I mentioned in these pages a couple of issues ago ("An Agent of Vast Economic Progress", NN #575). I was talking then of China investing in Pakistan, and you may recall it was the BBC who commented that "China has been a more reliable and less meddlesome supplier of military hardware to Pakistan than the US..." For decades the U.S., due to its overwhelming power, could get away with coercing countries to accept "meddlesome" aid and "strings-attached" loans. Those days are gone, as the Empire continues to weaken.
Several months ago I reported on an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol, which was intended to protect the earth's ozone layer by phasing out the human-made chemicals that harm it. It's the most widely-ratified treaty in United Nations history, and possibly one of the most successful. As I reported last September, the damaged ozone layer "is well on track to recovery in the next few decades."
I quoted the director of the UN Environmental Programme explaining why this was big news: "The Montreal Protocol community, with its tangible achievements, is in a position to provide strong evidence that global cooperation and concerted action are the key ingredients to secure the protection of our global commons."
A couple of weeks ago, on May 29th, another global success story broke, and again it was nearly ignored in the U.S. press. There was a short story (shorter than the one you're reading) buried on the bottom of page 6 of the May 29th New York Times. In my local paper the story was reported in a very brief story (39 words) in the "Nation & World" news-briefs.
What was this success story? It came from the United Nations Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose press release headline tells the story: "Major Milestone Reached as 90% of Global Chemical Weapon Stocks Destroyed." 90 percent! It's the result of an international agreement called the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC.
The story is ongoing, as OPCW stated: "The process to complete the elimination of Cold War-era stockpiles in Russia and the United States is well under way and is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2020 and 2023, respectively."
Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to the issue, as I've been reading about World War I recently, and that was where modern chemical weapons—like chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas—were first used. As OPCW puts it in their brief history of chemical weapons, "The use of several different types of chemical weapons, including mustard gas (yperite), resulted in 90,000 deaths and over one million casualties during the war. Those injured in chemical warfare suffered from the effects for the rest of their lives; thus the events at Ieper [Belgium] during World War I scarred a generation."
The CWC, the success of which we should now be celebrating (if anybody knew about it), went into force in 1997. And it's "the first disarmament agreement negotiated within a multilateral framework that provides for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction under universally applied international control."
The CWC took 12 years to negotiate, and now 189 nations, representing about 98% of the global population, have signed on to this process. And the result, 18 years later, is that global chemical weapons have been largely—not entirely—eliminated from the face of the earth.
So here we have another example of the success of "global cooperation and concerted action" making the world more safe and more sane. And, as with the ozone treaty, this should be widely discussed and recognized, as it serves as a strong refutation of two dangerous ideas that are widely accepted among the general population. One idea is that War is Peace. That is, the idea that it is only when we have armed ourselves to the teeth that we will have peace, presumably because the rest of the world will be scared to mess with us. (Or something like that.) The other, related idea is the cynical one which tells us that it is not possible for people—let alone nations—to ever agree to anything unless someone is holding guns to their heads.
There are other routes to peace and security, and the success of the CWC offers startling evidence to support that idea. Let's celebrate it. And let it inspire us to push even harder for non-military solutions to the many dangers facing the world.
This entire process comes out of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, whose website is very educational indeed.