Paying the Bills. Review: The Frugal Superpower

Injured Piggy Bank

Is the US too broke to continue its global empire? Photo: Kenteegardin via Flickr.

For some, the distinction between coolly rational foreign policy theorists and messianic interventionists out to remake the world in America’s image is enticing. Lively, endless debate ensues.

Did our not-fully engaged engagement in Egypt and Libya get it right, or did we allow radical elements in Islam an opening? Did we fail in Vietnam because we didn’t allow ourselves to win, or…? Is red wine better than white?

Too broke

The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership In a Cash-Streapped Era primarily concerns global politics from the perspective of political science professor Michael Mandelbaum, who hails from the liberal interventionist mainstream.

Mandelbaum’s thesis is that for economic reasons the US can’t continue the foreign interventions it’s long made.

To him such a forced return to minding only our own interests is not in the world’s or our own best interest.

The Frugal Superpower

The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era by Michael Mandelbaum. Public Affairs, 224pp., 15.99..Readers enjoying geopolitics (who when they hear words like liberal interventionist hear cellos) will like this book.

Readers mainly concerned with the over use and politics of fossil fuels will find his primary response to the problem––reducing the use of petroleum––a good talking point on how and how soon the US might be able to wean itself from carbon-intensive fuel sources.

How did we get here?

Mandelbaum is alarmed that because of current US demographics and generous past policies, we face a fiscal emergency.

He cites declining domestic birthrates that result in an older population with fewer workers contributing to retirement programs, arguing that they will resist reductions in promised benefits. Casey Jones runs into the other train.

Blind spots

But Mandlebaum exhibits some blind spots, as in suggesting possible amelioration of the funding problems by

…raising the retirement age, changing the formula for cost-of living increases…and perhaps taxing the benefits provided to [wealthy] recipients.

Why should inhumanely raising the age be a first suggestion, while taxing rich beneficiaries merits only a “perhaps?”

Inevitably the US can’t continue its role as guarantor of peace, open trade, and humane policies (or, if we interpret history differently, unable to continue its arrogant, shortsighted interference) around the world. It’s true that infant democracies, free trade, and rising prosperity would suffer in some ways from that withdrawl. But the point is that we can’t be all things to all people.

Another blind spot appears in his interpretation of the US’s role as superpower during the past century. While he rightly condemns the misadventure into Iraq as a blunder, he doesn’t acknowledge the same of Vietnam. In both, the stated cause was a fight for humanity (truth, justice, and the American way), as in WWII. However, unlike WWII, whatever the US believed at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin, or concerning Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, was mistaken, leading to interventionist disaster.

The role of oil

Of most interest to those concerned with energy policy is Mandelbaum’s conclusion that the best thing the US can do for everyone is limit its (ab)use of petroleum. Being proudly, coolly realistic, he spends little time on alternative fuels, conservation, or climate change, instead arguing that the US needs a high tax on oil to encourage conservation and innovation and to put the money that would have gone to tyrannical regimes into the domestic treasury to support the benefits promised to older citizens.

Yes, he says,

“Reducing [Iran’s] income would give its leaders less money to spend on the policies that threaten the rest of the region and the world,” and “…Some of the money that flows from gasoline-buying Americans to the Saudi treasury finds its way,” to radical madrassas and Al-Qaeda.

Stopping that is very rational, but is it another blind spot? During the Carter administration a rival candidate proposed the same idea. He diverted enough votes to assure Carter’s loss to the aggressive anti-conservationist Reagan, among whose first acts was ostentatiously removing solar panels from the White House roof.

–Jim Calhoun, Transition Voice

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  1. José A. de Souza Jr. says

    Not yet. But eventually the USA can mess up so much with the world oil market so as to make the US dollar lose its primacy as the world currency of choice. Then Miss America will suddenly find out that to purchase stuff worldwide she’ll have to export and not just IOUs. As a result the dollar is going to fall sharply in value, which, incidentally, seems to be the only foreseeable way to get rid of horrendously unpayable debt. Prepare to pay higher prices in a time of low jobs. See for instance, among others:

    • Jim Calhoun says

      Maybe you could clarify what is “not yet.” Meanwhile, I do think it will be hard to deal with the effects of higher prices, although I’m sure they’re inevitable. I have sympathy for those who have just bought another fuel- inefficient vehicle, although I have been aware of that problem since before the first shock of oil price hikes in 1973, so I wonder what they’ve been thinking. When prices stay high, which they will, people’s behavior will change. I also agree that it is a problem for us not to be exporting in favorable proportion to our imports. The causes are multiple, so the solution is complicated. The right wing would have us believe that the problem is as simple as adjusting costs (theirs), which is to say, making American workers accept third-world wages to keep manufacturers here. Besides the inhumanity of that, the problem is not so simple. We buy Japanese cars because they make better cars than we do. Maybe we’ve started to reverse that trend, but we won’t keep it up if we believe that backing up our automakers in exchange for requiring them to make better cars is “socialism.” The tax code and the impersonal nature of corporations also discourage companies from remaining here as manufacturers instead of exporting jobs to cheaper places for production. No, it isn’t a rosy scenario. However, no, there isn’t a simple way out.

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