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You Should Be A Geo-Strategic Stoic
Considering Zeihan & China's Immanent Failure
I just recently finished Peter Zeihan’s latest book which could be thought of as a 512 page eulogy to the Bretton-Woods world. This is the world we are living in now and it’s just about to come apart in ways that most people consider unimaginable.
Let me talk about the book for a moment in the context that’s appropriate. Most of us listen to and read knowledge mcnuggets on a fairly regular basis. On the whole, whenever our bourgeois standards are threatened, we see the threats as political, social and/or economic. What we don’t often do is a geographical, demographical, chemical and logistical analysis. Once in a while an actual hard scientist will poke his work through the NYT’s curated list of technical popularizations and you’ll get someone like Jared Diamond into the mix. More often it’s the fiction of Michael Crichton or yet another Paul Krugman deepity that gets our attention. (Warning: Krugman has more awards than he has academic publications.) Most of the time these books dish out a well-prepared mental meal with ingredients whose flavors we already know. Rarely does a book get into our bourgie bubbles and force us to taste something we know exists but never actually chew on. Things like where does cobalt actually come from and which country controls it and thereby influence how many actual Tesla cars can be built. Instead we get reasons to believe Elon Musk is invincible and therefore somebody in our government should take him back a peg. In other words we think about what we American peasants can do to our geniuses and rulers to make the world safe for our rear ends. We do so without regard to which actual economic arrangements, geographic strengths and weaknesses and demographic trends actually matter. I’m calling this geo-strategic.
Jawboning the future is an unsatisfactory substitute for understanding the actual limits of of the laws of physics. Even if they are only Newtonian physics, that’s good enough. Global logistics is all about moving X tons of Y from point A to B. It ain’t magic, but we’ve been thinking about American exceptionalism as if it were.
Some of you may remember when I started going all Karl Popper in here. I also doffed my hat to Michael Shellenberger and still maintain that as bright as he is Steven Pinker’s better angels are bound to be on holiday when people begin to starve. If you gaze over the horizon, you know that Sri Lanka’s government recently turned over. Connecting the dots between Ukraine’s inability to export wheat and Sri Lanka’s inability to grow enough of its own wheat are the meat of Zeihan’s book. He does it for everything from potash to potatoes from Mexico to Poland and everywhere in between. You and I know that ‘trust the science’, the political mantra of the Warmists, is yet another ideological talking point, that still only wants wind and solar to power the globe. They haven’t done the math on coal, oil and natural gas. Or it’s fairer to say they’ve only considered what fossil fuels have done to pollute and warm ‘the planet’. What they have not evaluated is what it costs to roll back those primary pillars of the industrial world. In other words, the conventional green wisdom wants to sacrifice human progress to Gaia.
I have no real tactical data to show whether or not globalization is decaying as Zeihan’s frameworks suggest. But I do have a very strong sense that he’s not full of himself despite all of the dudespeak in his text. He’s trying very hard to get the consequences of the mechanics of the globalization into the heads of people who would not generally know better. In other words, he’s the anti-Pinker and he has the advantage of generally being one who talks to industrialists with a real world appreciation of the rules and directions of international trade. My lack of data comes not from a lack of concern, but a lack of disposable income for the sort for newsletter subscriptions at Zeihan level think tankery costs. Yet as a data engineer, I’ve gotten to see the P&Ls of some substantial multinationals. For example I’ve seen the multiyear oil contract prices for baseload & peaker power generators for New England. I spent an interesting few weeks out in Berlin, CT back when I could only afford Fossil watches from Service Merchandise. So I know there is a class of geniuses out there who also look beyond the horizon. Perhaps you can remember the time when some of us rational people were urging the next president to read the work of Richard A. Muller.
Yeah well that didn’t work out because the first thing Obama said was he was going to put all of the coal miners out of business. I called him an idiot before, I’m not going to do it again. He’s a nice guy with a beautiful family and he was very chill with Jerry Seinfeld on that show. Obama was never a Genius and he is no longer a Ruler. He’s a rich peasant with a boatload of good friends from around the world. Neither his nor my scotch collection, fancy friends and fine leather furniture are going to help us get through what’s next up to bat.
So you should be a geo-strategic Stoic for several additional reasons having to do with the possibility that the well-oiled global machine that brings you orange juice 24/7/365 is getting rusty. A recession is just the best of it. I don’t want to be alarmist, but we Americans have already decided how few ships will be built in our navy. We have already decided what kind of Congressional reps we choose to elect. We have already decided how many or few children to bear. Those changes within our capacity to decide are already made and there aren’t many more we can make in our lifetimes. In ways as significant as the effect of our conspiracy theories on COVID, the microbes are indifferent to our wishful thinking. Water does not pump itself uphill. Retired old people don’t move economies forward.
America is likely to survive through Zeihan’s scenarios of deglobalization. It has much to do with the geography, climate and built infrastructure we have, much of which has long made America great, no thanks to the voodoo of red ball caps. There is some ironic truth to the lyric that “we did it before and we can do it again”. How many of us are prepared to live as the Greatest Generation did? Can we bear children at home? Can we live without dishwashers made in Korea? Can we handle the human detritus of a failing global order and give new life to the poetry of Emma Lazarus? These are critical questions not for us, but for the children of today’s Millennials.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Over the next three decades the global middle class may disappear, not because of the hatred of neo-Malthusians, but because of our lack of faith in industrial modernism. If we fail to attend to the Jenga of international affairs, we may bear witness to the failure of agreements and arrangements more subtle than the politicized rhetoric of the UN Assembly. How many of us know the nexus between petrochemicals, energy and agriculture? Now consider the global supply chain for that can be rotting away.
To be a geo-strategic Stoic is to accept the consequences of the decentralization of the global order. It can happen. So what if it does? Where are we next? What is the barbell strategy? How can we profit from the downside and the upside? I’m not sure. My desire is to be Zen about it, to find the spot in the middle of the Texas Triangle perhaps. To live near an army base and recon the logistics of the very last thing America will defund, the Pentagon. I have time. My grandchildren do not.