It’s been a long time since I last interviewed Dan Carlin, host of the Hardcore History and Common Sense podcasts. That doesn’t mean that he’s stopped being interesting, however. In this installment, I asked his unique, historically based perspective on China, Iraq, the United States military and marijuana.
In your Hardcore History podcast Death Throes of the Republic, you say that there were “perverse incentives” in place that kept Rome in a state of warfare. Having worked in Washington D.C., I have to wonder if the same is true of here. What do you say?
I think that’s going to be a pretty accurate statement in any society where warmaking becomes a regular feature of the system. Once you develop a major societal infrastructure to support such a military establishment, you begin to build up a vast array of interests (both in supplying and providing for such an entity, but also for ways to employ it that would benefit someone). These interests have a way of bending and warping the nation-state’s priorities and interests. I think that is something that is one of the lessons the writers of Classical Antiquity try to pass on to us. The people who founded the United States read those authors and understood those lessons, and tried to heed the warnings of the Greek and Roman writers and keep those “perverse incentives” under control by limiting the growth of a large standing army and by counseling an avoidance of things like “ entangling alliances” that could drag you into someone else’s wars.
Obama pulled the last combat troops out of Iraq. Does this seem significant to you?
It’s a game. It is significant only in that the openness of the sham makes a mockery of the intelligence of the electorate. “ Combat” troops is the key distinction. If you call the troops left in Iraq something else (besides “ combat” ) , you can say we have pulled out all our fighting forces, and you can run on this achievement in the upcoming November elections. Never mind the 50,000 troops who are staying, or all the military contractors that we are unconstitutionally employing to pick up the slack. To me, it is just par for the course. Health care reform wasn’t real, Banking reform was a joke, and removing all combat troops from Iraq is a fallacy. But that won’t keep Democrats from running on all these ” achievements” in November. That’s why it was so important for these proposals to get passed, in ANY form, by the elections. These will all be spun as major victories in policy reform, when everyone paying attention knows that all of them are deeply flawed and cynically gamed. Obama’s progressive base is mad about all of these much-touted “ achievements” because they know the truth.
China has reached the Number 2 spot in the global economy. The American economy doesn’t seem to be hitting recovery any time soon. How would you compare this with other power declines in history?
Well, I think there are two separate things going on here. One is China, the other is the U.S., and I don’t think their fates are as connected as is sometimes assumed. China, to me, is just in the process of retaking their rightful place in the world. Look at history. The China of the 19th and 20th Century is a very weak version of that nation-state. Historically, a nation with a people that numerous, on a huge piece of real estate and with a culture that old and established should be one of the most formidable powers in the world (and throughout most of history they were. They go through temporary declines periodically, which I think the last two centuries represent, and then they re-emerge on the world stage). If you take the long view of history, the status quo that existed before the great era of Western exploration (Columbus, Magellan, etc….the fumes of which we in the West are finally perhaps exhausting just now) China is simply reclaiming her place as one of the top world powers.
The U.S. decline would take a whole book to try to dissect. The short answer that explains it though, I think, is poor leadership (which in a system based on the voting public may mean poor voting decisions) has made poor decisions over decades and this is what you get from that. Systems tend to break down over time and ours is no different. When I look at what the Roman Republic went through as it was declining, it is stunning to see the similarities. The corruption in government, the decline in the civic nature of its leadership, the preference among their governing elite for short term pain avoidance in its policies rather than trying to tackle the tough, systemic issues. Often it looks just like us. But, I would stress that I don’t think it is because the U.S. is particularly like Rome, but that perhaps this is the standard form that “ decline “ takes in republican forms of government. We may look like Rome now because what we see going on in our country is what it looks like when republics start the process of deterioration.
If California legalizes marijuana in November, what changes (nationally or locally) do you expect to see?
Well, I don’t think they will. I think the opponents are probably doing enough to raise red flags in the minds of the general public to make them wary (a recent question raised was how employers will deal with not being able to comply with the federal contract rules of a drug-free workplace if they can’t tell if their workers are impaired or not on the job. That’s an example of the doubts opponents are throwing out there to create red flags in the minds of the electorate). In addition, the speed at which the last big ruling opened things up caught a lot of people off guard. What the pro-legalization advocates see as an unstoppable wave of momentum for legalization can also be something that unnerves the rest of the public who didn’t expect that their “ medical marijuana” vote meant that hundreds of pot dispensaries would spring up in their cities overnight. But that’s what happened in places like Los Angeles. We will see…but I get the feeling it won’t pass.
That having been said, I don’t think the Feds change a thing. Federal marijuana policy hasn’t changed much even with all the activity going on at the state level in multiple states. I get the feeling that eventually the Feds will reach a “” Berlin Wall” type moment where they have to either impose a crackdown to roll back marijuana’s legal gains or throw up their hands, give up and resign themselves to the way the trend is playing out. I am a pessimist, so I think the former is more likely. The latter would be a better thing long term for the country I think.