Limits of Empire

Pre-emptive war, unilateral attacks, arm-twisting of allies, the sweeping aside of international agreements—many see these as evidence of U.S. ambition to build a global empire. Economist James K. Galbraith spoke of the likelihood of empire’s success at the June 2003 Take Back America conference in Washington, DC.

To the men in charge, it appears that the world outside is not really a partner or an ally. It is mainly a supplier of cheap labor and cheap oil. I want to stop short of saying that we went to Iraq for oil. We don't know that. But we do know that when we got there, we found that the oil was there and the weapons of mass destruction were not.

The fact is, we are acquiring an empire. But the men in charge do not want to pay for it. They have no serious interest in providing security, infrastructure, or civil administration to the territories they have conquered. And indeed none of these things is being provided. Yet the burdens of empire can only grow as time passes. Sooner or later, we will have to choose between leaving our conquered territories or putting in the full force required to control them. One way we lose control, while the other can only add to the miseries of our balance of payments.

How can the cost be met, especially if the coin of our realm, the U.S. dollar, is at the same time losing its position? It's won't be easy. The problem of empires, historically, is not military defeat. It is bankruptcy. Empires do not tend to business at home, and they tend to lose out to rivals who do.

Today, almost 9 million people are unemployed in the U.S. Many millions more are underemployed, and, most of all, underpaid. That is our economic problem. Bush and company did not entirely create these conditions, but they have done nothing to make them better and much to make them worse. We have lost well over 2 million jobs since he took office, and almost half a million just since the last election.

Two years ago, estate and income taxes were cut. This year it was capital gains, dividends, and again the top tax rate. Next year the sunset provisions in these measures will be removed. Quite soon, taxes will fall mainly on real estate, payrolls, and current consumption, so taxes will be paid mostly by the middle class, by the working class, and by the poor.

As financial wealth escapes tax, neither states, nor cities, nor the federal government can provide vital services—except by taxing sales and property at rates that will provoke tax rebellions. Every public service will fall between the hammer of tax cuts and the anvil of deficits in state, local, and federal budgets. The streets will be dirtier; so will the air and the water. Emergency rooms will back up even more than they have; more doctors will refuse public patients. More fire houses, swimming pools, and libraries will close. Public universities will cost more; public schools will lose the middle class.

Eventually federal budget deficits will collide with Social Security and Medicare, putting privatization back on the agenda. I am from Texas, where you can see this future happening now.

We need a new vision of who we are in the world. Let it rest on building up our friends and neighbors. Let us again be committed to building the core capacities—in education, public health, housing, and transport—that underpin real development. Let us pay our way in the world as honest countries do with the products of our labor and of our knowledge. This means that we must affirm the priority of national interest over that of the renegade corporation.

Our task is not merely to boost the economy for a year or two. Our task is to prepare for a different and better world. The times call for substantial departures and for a reaffirmation of what our country ought to stand for in the world.

James K. Galbraith is a professor of economics and government at the University of Texas and author of Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay (Free Press: 1998).


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.