The four horsemen of the apocalypse

Written By: - Date published: 8:03 am, June 4th, 2020 - 16 comments
Categories: China, democracy under attack, Donald Trump, International, uncategorized, United Nations, war - Tags:

When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”

–      Book of Revelation, Ch. 6 v. 8

Ok so this is the worst year I can think of in my lifetime. But apocalyptopia it ain’t.

There are four horses in the longer passage that herald the apocalypse. You’ll just have to imagine Johnny Cash reading the whole thing. This is the year where a plague, a crisis as big as the Great Depression, a huge global retreat in democracy, and mass riots in the United States all happen simultaneously. Sometimes I’ve wondered what a combination of 1918, 1929, and 1968 would feel like. And it feels like this.

New Zealand stands as ever in its tiny naïve bubble of purposive purity, while most developed countries are in economic freefall and the pandemic is headed for 400,000 dead and 7 million infected. There is no single force trying to organize anything across the world with much effect. A few regional groupings like the WHO supporters continue. There’s not really a functioning WTO, or UN. We are deep into a cold war with China that’s grinding closer to hot.

So what could possibly make things worse than all riders of the apocalypse appearing at once?

Answer: war.

As Japan did with Manchuria in 1931, or the Russo-Polish war, or the Russian Civil War, or the Turkish War of Independence, the Great Depression didn’t slow them down. The Depression probably made World War Two more likely. So Covid-19 doesn’t mean people join hands across the world and do happy things. Pandemics won’t slow war down.

This set of multiple overlapping crises makes states really insecure and insular. Usually they need a steamhead of righteous belligerence and overconfidence to really have a crack at the neighbours. We are in pandemic pessimism not cocky cock-fighting.

For the moment at least, even a torturing war-mutt like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman in trying to wind down the pointless and cruel war in Yemen.

And if insularity and internal repair is the order of the day, perhaps there’s a pandemic peace payoff. Trade interdependence between China and the United States has gone further and deeper than the United States can handle, so international trade hasn’t decreased tensions there. Clearly they both want a cooling off period, something like a restraining order after shouting  “Leave Hong Kong democracy alone!” and the other retorts with “I can’t breathe!”.

But wars break out in smaller forms when societies start to break down. And breakdown in society is what we are starting to see in a few places. A little winnable U.S. smash-and-grab into Venezuela might be just the electoral Wag The Dog tonic for an ailing President, especially when he’s looking like he’ll lose. And yet there’s no point securing oil when there’s a long term oil glut and your own Bakken shale producers can be rebooted at will.

IMHO that kind of excursion is too big a risk. Stuff goes sideways, and then you’re done. Venezuela isn’t Grenada.

Hell the U.S. even struggled in El Salvador, with a land area smaller then Southland. A nice all-in overpowering smash …  but then the bodies mount up and you have to start saluting coffins at the airport, and of course even a sweet successful war won’t put your unemployed back to work or form a vaccine to empty your hospitals and they can’t even stop complaining about how you hold a Bible.

China would not be immune to that logic either.

Another familiar folk theory is “military Keynesianism.” War generates a lot of economic demand, and it can sometimes lift depressed economies out of the doldrums and back toward prosperity and full employment. The obvious case in point here is World War II, which did help many economies escape the quicksand of the Great Depression. Those who are convinced that great powers go to war primarily to keep Big Business (or the arms industry) happy are naturally drawn to this sort of argument, and they might worry that governments looking at bleak economic forecasts will try to restart their economies through some sort of military adventure.

I doubt it.

It takes a really big war to generate a significant stimulus, and it is hard to imagine any country launching a large-scale war—with all its attendant risks—at a moment when debt levels are already soaring. More importantly, there are lots of easier and more direct ways to stimulate the economy—infrastructure spending, unemployment insurance, even “helicopter payments”. Launching a war has to be one of the least efficient methods available. Those who do well are arms manufacturers and the black market. Let slip the dogs of war and all you want to make is dog food.

Now is hardly the time for Russia to try to grab more of Ukraine—if it even wanted to—or for China to make a play for Taiwan, because the costs of doing so would clearly outweigh the economic benefits. Especially when Taiwan is the best U.S. comprador China can ever buy.

But xenophobia is on the rise with rapid declines in globalization – that comes with isolationism. From that usually grows protectionism and hyper-nationalism. That makes it harder to drive common-ground bargains with errant states you want to stand up to. Democratically elected tyrants are on the rise and leave us in a more aggressive and war-prone posture than before the virus struck. The virus has just made all those trends worse.

So depressions  aren’t enough themselves to cause war. To paraphrase the economist Paul Samuelson’s famous quip about the stock market, if recessions were a powerful cause of war, they would have predicted “nine out of the last five (or fewer).”

In the last 30 years there have been few wars that were fast, cheap, and certain. National leaders usually need to be convinced that war is worth it when they can get results like that – unless you’re as dumb as George W. Bush .

The fact that leaders miscalculate badly does not alter the main point: No matter what a country’s economic condition might be, its leaders will not go to war unless they think they can do so quickly, cheaply, and with a reasonable probability of success.

Economic depression, plague, authoritarianism, breakdown in global institutions, and societal breakdown all occurring at once are a combination that make at least civil wars more likely. Leaders have been toppled over less. And nor should we wish for civil war to re-start things. All kinds of leftie righteousness were thrown at the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and they got pantsed.

Instead of worrying about war, what states should be spending more time on is how Covid-19 ought to redefine the essence of national security itself. A nation-shaking threat is what defence forces should defend us from, but our little NZDF along with everyone else were just scrambling. A nation-shaking threat we weren’t defended from should alter our concept of defence. Time for a post-Covid Defence White Paper please.

It’s time to re-tool the entire NZDF and MoH together to prepare for more of these kinds of nation-shaking threats. Which are going to happen.

War is only one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse to contend with.

16 comments on “The four horsemen of the apocalypse ”

  1. TJ 1

    For a moment there I had to check this was The Standard. The way you misrepresent the motions and players of the Spanish Civil War as a gross failure of Lefty-ism does at least support your overall point.

    I think it unlikely that the looting will start soon, or racial unrest if the recent solidarity demonstration is proof. Also unlikely that there will be a further outbreak of covid19 in NZ.

    We could build some sort of counter conspiratorial paramilitary Doc Squad. It might invent some new jobs – and that's the first bit of innovation I've heard from anyone anywhere, so good for you on that. Why not, we're spending money we don't have on all sorts of things. Armed Riot Medics. Let's call them, The Black Cross. There is of course the unintended consequences of the initiative, but hell this is NZ. Let's apply some purposive naivety!

  2. RedLogix 2

    Thanks Ad for yet another well written and thoughtful post; in turbulent times it's easy to become lost in the welter of events. When lost the advice is STAR, stop, think, assess and react. Slowly and carefully.

    The post-WW2 US led order, that ensured freedom of the seas, global trade and the dramatic reduction of poverty in most places has come to an end. We have grown up in a short magical, unique period of history when the sheer power of this order meant that geography didn't matter so much; well now we are about to become brutally re-acquainted with it.

    Humans demographics always meant that there were more young people than old, and we could always rely on the needs of young people forming families to ensure there was sufficient demand to grow. That era has come to an end, most developed nations now have an inverted demographic that means consumption led growth is impossible for at least two generations.

    Safe shipping for global oil meant every nation could access at least to some extent the energy required to build and run developed economies. The same applies to the crucial inputs necessary to feed 7.5b people. Without safe shipping economies will collapse, famine will stalk the continents once again.

    And in 2022 something extraordinary happens; the baby boomers are more than two thirds retired, their massive savings and investments will stop, their taxes will stop, their highly skilled productivity stops. All of these things that post-WW2 govts have so depended on for stability fall off a cliff.

    Our entire evolutionary history is predicated on the notion of more was always equal to better, and for the most part it delivered. And while some regions of the world, notably Africa are lagging on the curves, the rest of the world is now into negative human population growth. We have never been here before, we have no road map.

    Russia for instance is facing an existential threat from sheer population collapse. Situated on the vast open Eurasian steppes the current Russian borders cannot be defended, and their army will not have the numbers of young men needed. Their oil production has been frozen in place by the Saudi price war, HIV, killer drug addictions and alcoholism stalks their younger generations, and now COVID is accelerating an already chronic decline.

    Worse still they have a very thin leadership class, in one analysis I read, the top Russian political and bureaucratic class is mostly drawn from the old KGB intelligence community and numbers less than 200 individuals. Most of whom will retire within this decade. And these are the people who know how to run the country. It is hard to visualise any good outcomes for Russia.

    Although the details differ, similar scenarios play out in most places around the world, China, Europe and the Middle East are all facing down multiple layers of existential threat because the global trade order is crumbling before our eyes. All the Americans had to to do was go home, and all the assumptions we have built our post-WW2 security and prosperity on go with them.

  3. Andre 3

    The war we need, and that happens to be big enough to generate the necessary economic stimulus, is the war to get ourselves off of fossil fuels.

  4. You puzzle me Red, when you say it was the US order which enabled the reduction in global poverty

    China brought 850 million Chinese out of poverty ..according to the World Bank..I think they did this through their own policies, not the beneficence of the US.

    Libya ,from being one of the poorest countries became Africa's richest,..well we all know what happened there

    In Brazil, Lula and Roussef lifted millions out of poverty, as did Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela ,which effectively put targets on their backs

    Honduras anyone?

    Going back aways Guatemala ,Nicaragua,Chile?

    Poverty reduction has not brought favours from the US in Latin America

    Currently the US has sanctions against 30 countries

    While the stated object is to punish supposed human rights breaches , the effect is to punish the poorest citizens of those countries.It's war by economics now that the US hasn't won a military war in decades.

    Think Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela..many others

    • RedLogix 4.1

      Until China was brought into the world trade order in the 70s it was chronically poor and backward. Everything they have achieved since was predicated on the ability to safely and cheaply import raw materials and export finished goods to wealthy markets in the West.

      Theses conditions are now ended. And the CCP know it.

    • Wayne 4.2

      The US was key in helping Asia, including China, make the dramatic burst of growth.
      Basically from the 1960’s the US has been open to free trade in just about everything other than temperate agricultural product. They were the great market for Asia, much more so and much earlier than Europe, which historically has had higher trade barriers.
      Of course the cheaper, and often better goods from Asia has displaced American consumer manufacturing. Hence the rise of Trump.

      • francesca 4.2.1

        By the same token you could say China saved every one's economic butt by buying their primary resources and energy

  5. Adrian Thornton 5

    The worst year in NZ history in my life time was 1985/86, after the election of the '84 Labour govt, when we were starting to understand that we on the Left had been infiltrated by a cancer that was to go on to totally destroy the very heart, soul, credibility and moral compass of The Labour Party of New Zealand right in front of our eyes, and was to transform from a party of the workers and disenfranchised to a party whose ideology was to extract endless growth and productivity out of this land and it's workers on the false promise of more, more and still more of who know what?, a party that bows down to an ideology that is so greedy and and unrelenting in it's lust for endless growth that is would literally commodify the steam of your shit if it could.

  6. Tricledrown 6

    It wasn't till the 1987 crash that the effects of the hard right turn took effect there was no middle ground no plan to reorganize the economy just pull the rug from under New Zealands economy.

    The damage took over 10 years to recover from ,high longterm unemployment massive increase in govt debt low growth in the 36 yrs since.Muldoon built up a $ billion in debt in 9 yrs ,Douglas $16 billion in 6 years claiming the country was bankrupt and couldn't afford to borrow anymore money ironically.

    The NZ experiment ingrained poverty and its consequences poor health funding poor education funding poor housing poor job security.

    If changes were managed and planned we would have far more resilient economy allowing people to transition without the 36 year reverse.Which has us with the highest child poverty rates suicide rates homelessness etc.

  7. AB 7

    Nobody knows where this is going. It'll be "something different, something nobody counted on."

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