Mark Steyn’s new book is called After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years, I’d highly recommend it, and I was absolutely thrilled to get an opportunity to interview Mark Steyn about his book. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of my conversation with Mark Steyn. Enjoy!
First of all one thing I’ve found interesting is that we’re getting some very loud, real world warning signals about the danger of the path we’re on. By that, I mean we’re using the same basic system of government that Greece is and the only reason they haven’t gone belly up is because they’re being propped up by bigger countries. We just lost our AAA rating and that doesn’t seem to be phasing people the way I thought it would. It’s just being handily blamed on the Tea Party and S&P — which makes no sense. So what do you think it’s going to actually take to wake people up and make them realize, hey, we’ve got to do something — or are we just going to cruise all the way into bankruptcy no matter how loud the warning signals get?
The shock for me about the downgrade was not how the Left reacted to it. I think they look pathetic when they tell the planet that it’s all the fault of some guy in the Tea Party who goes along to a protest. I think the government of the United States looks like a bunch of idiots when they’re trying to advance that as their excuse before the whole world.
But I found the reaction on the Right rather more interesting. I was at Fox News when the whole downgrade thing happened and I didn’t think it was the least bit controversial when I said, “Oh, I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that we deserve a AAA rating. Obviously we’re not a AAA nation when you look at the indicators.” And my friends on the Right kind of reeled back in horror and said, “Oh good gosh, we’re still AAA. …We should have a quadruple A rating, just for us, with no one else in the club. It should be like the World Series where we just play ourselves.” I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. You mentioned Greece — Greece doesn’t have the luxury of being able to print its own currency. So in a sense, Greece can’t do quantitative easing. Greece is a basket case, but it can’t be a quantitative easing basket case. It doesn’t have the freedom to do that.
That’s what’s propping up America at the moment, the fact that it’s the global reserve currency. But if you were to stop that system today — in other words if you were to have the world’s finance ministers sitting around the table deciding what was going to be the global reserve currency, you would never give the global currency to a nation with $15 trillion of debt and whose national government model is to spend $4 trillion every year and only take in $2. You wouldn’t do it. You’d come up with something else. So if we all agree that the global reserve currency is what’s preventing us from being Greece or Portugal or Iceland or you know way down to the bottom of Zimbabwe — that represents the kind of an inheritance of the past. It’s not a status we’ve earned right now.
The other thing I found frightening, really from my friends on the Right because I don’t expect them to be as flippant as the guys on the left, is when one very imminent Fox News contributor just said to me, “Oh, of course we deserve our AAA status. We can still afford the interest on our debt. There is no question of that.” That’s interesting to me because that’s like you getting your MasterCard statement at the end of the month, and you can’t afford to pay off any of the money you’ve spent that the bank lent you, but you can afford to stay current on the monthly interest. Now you wouldn’t think that was a healthy situation if you were just piling up more and more debt each month on your MasterCard. But it doesn’t matter because you can stay current on the monthly interest charge? When this particular gentleman looked me in the eyes and said that, I realized nobody, nobody seriously thinks that anyone is going to be paying back this $15 trillion in debt. In other words, the idea of paying down the debt so that one day it’s $9 trillion, and one day it’s $3 trillion, and one day it’s $47 billion, and one day it’s $19.87 — nobody is seriously thinking of that. When he said to me we can still afford to stay current on the monthly MasterCard interest charge, he really gave the game away on this racket.
I agree with you 100 percent. I don’t know anybody who thinks we’re going to actually pay off the debt.
No, and I think this is the difference between us and Portugal or Greece. It’s not a matter of debt-to-GDP ratios because the minute you’re talking about trillions of dollars, it’s the hard dollar sum that counts because you’re actually stretching the bounds of the planet. You’re requiring the planet to sink an enormous amount of real hard money into U.S. treasury debt to finance essentially worthless activities. I’m astonished at the things the federal government wastes money on. I mean you imagine what the global economy would be like if that money was out there in the real world doing real good.
So, I think the debt-to-GDP ratios and the budget deficit as a proportion to GDP – all these things may be interesting to economists. But the fact that no one is using the “T” word in Lisbon, no one is using the “T” word in Athens, no one is using the “T” word in Portugal — it’s the actual hard dollar sums that makes our crisis much greater than theirs.
Now you have a lot of extraordinary statistics in the book. Give me just one in particular that really sticks with you, that really makes your eyes bug out.
Well, I think the one that brings it all into focus for me is, I think, quoted on page two or three of the book, which is that by mid-decade, in four or five years time, the U.S. taxpayer will be funding the entire cost, just in the interest payment on the debt, of the People’s Liberation Army of China. There is no real precedent in history for this. You can look at examples where Rome was besieged by the barbarians and attempted to bribe various barbarian kings to go away with sacks of gold and silver. But they didn’t as a matter of policy, require Roman taxpayers to pick up the tab for the entire Visigoth military. I mean this is unique. This is unique to us.
When you put that statistic next to the IMF’s calculation that China will be the dominant economic power by 2016…the IMF is wrong about many things and maybe they’re wrong about this, but they’re not wrong about the basic direction we’re moving in. And if China is the dominant economic power by 2016 and if we are picking up the tab for their entire military budget, that entails certain consequences. When money drains, power drains. That is a basic rule of life. Again, on page one or two of the book I quote Jonathan Swift, “They have our soul who have our bonds.” I believe that’s true. I don’t believe you can simply be indebted to generally unsavory persons on the other side of the planet without it having profound geopolitical consequences.
Now I am not a big fan of stock questions suggested by publicists but I do really like this, “What should our top priority be to stop the demise of America?”
Did that come from the publisher?
Yes, indeed. She’s earning her pay for you, Mark.
That’s good, good for Kathleen. I didn’t know that. I’ll tell you what I think the top priority should be and that is an engaged citizenry. We’re in a presidential season right now and I love seeing these guys. I live in New Hampshire so I get to know these guys. You run into them all the time and God bless them, because it’s tough work running around from Elks Lodge to the Masonic Hall, to all the rest of it, trying to get enough people to like you at chicken dinners to propel you on the path to the President of the United States.
But I’m not in the Messiah business. We did that in 2008 and it didn’t work out too well — as it generally doesn’t. I would love it if Calvin Coolidge were on the ballot in November. But in the absence of that, I like the Coolidge idea of a republic of limited government and self-reliant citizens and the best thing that citizens can do for that is understand the lessons of what’s happened since January 2009. The Republican Party was leaderless, and largely useless in Washington and all the Tea Party people moved the meter of public discourse. It’s still the case right now that in fact these people are – some more rooted in sanity than either political party in Washington is. The most important thing we can do is learn that lesson. It’s the Milton Friedman lesson I quote right at the end of the book, “Rather than elect the right people to do the right things create the broader political conditions whereby the wrong people are forced to do the right things.”
Every time some half-wit 12-year old speechwriter for Barack Obama is obliged to load into the teleprompter a bit of boiler plate about how we need to learn to live within our means and control our deficit, we are in effect creating the conditions whereby the wrong person is at least forced to pretend that he wants to do the right thing. Let’s take it to the next stage and make sure the squishiest finger in the wind, poll tested, jelly spined politician is forced to do the right thing not because he wants to, but just because that’s the reality. You think of the two lady senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snow — in January 2009 they had the worst case of reach across the aisle-itis. In the Obamacare thing, if anyone was going to break and join with Obama to provide some bipartisan cover on healthcare, you would have bet on those two ladies in Maine. Instead what happened, because ordinary citizens across the country including in the state of Maine changed the terms of the debate, those two ladies stayed on the reservation. The wrong people were forced to do the right thing. I think we should learn the lesson. If you can force Susan Collins and Olympia Snow to do the right thing, we should try and do that more often. That’s the most important lesson citizens can learn from the last two years.
Now your book is absolutely outstanding. I’m reading it now. I haven’t finished, but I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read. But it’s also extremely grim and by that, I mean it’s almost at a “You have two weeks to live, go home and try to get comfortable” grim. So be brutally honest here, Mark. Is America savable? I mean not just theoretically, but in the real world — or are we headed towards bankruptcy, dissolution and horror?
No, there is a question mark over America. There is a question mark. That’s the good news, because in the end there really isn’t a question mark over Greece. If you’re a Greek guy and you’ve got a great business idea and you want to work hard, the best thing you can do is go to the travel agent and get a one-way ticket out of there on the first plane going. You’d be better off doing it almost anywhere on the planet than doing it in Greece. So, I think that is the thing we have going that a lot of other parts of the western world do not have going for them. Yes, this is a 50/50 nation. This is a House divided and as I said in the book, it’s a House divided in really the most fundamental way of all because it’s not about rich versus poor, it’s not about black versus white, it’s not about any of that. It’s about the division about the nature of the state itself which is, I think, the most irreconcilable in a way. One side has to win and one side has to lose. We can’t compromise on this. They are two incompatible visions. One vision is broadly consonant with the American idea as it has existed since its founding. The other, which is that we can live as a large Sweden is an utter delusion. So one of these sides has to win and one has to lose. It’s not clear which is going to come out on top in that 51/49 battle.
But that’s the good news, that there is still something to play for. That puts us ahead of Portugal and Greece and a lot of these other places. The bad news is that if the wrong side wins, it will be a totally different scale of disaster from anything that’s likely to happen to Portugal or Iceland. So in other words, if we win, we win big, but if we lose, we lose big. That’s why the stakes are so much greater here than there. I love Iceland. I’ve got friends in Iceland. I actually like the place and I look forward to many happy visits to Iceland in the years ahead. But ultimately, it’s a peripheral nation whose fate will not be too bad or too good, however things shake out. In America it’s much more extreme. We have the possibility of a great future, but if we don’t correct course in the next half decade or so, it will be a catastrophe on a totally different scale from Iceland or Portugal.
Last question, Mark. I’ve had multiple people in just the last few days mention that they’re considering what other countries they might move to. This isn’t an “Obama won, I want to leave thing.” It’s people who think America is headed towards bankruptcy in the next couple of decades and they’re afraid to get stuck here after the country completely falls apart. What do you think about that?
I think, for example, if you look at what we were saying earlier about America being the reserve currency, at some point you have to figure that a combination of circumstances would result in the rug being pulled out from under the U.S. dollar. At that point, there is nothing holding us up and we could be dropping way down to, you know, Zimbabwe type levels. If you happen to be sitting on a savings account, if you happen to have a modest house on a small lot and you think your modest house and your savings account are enough to see you through to the end of your days, you’re in for a huge shock because you’ll find your house is worthless and your savings account is worthless. You’re going to have to load up the wheelbarrow to buy the quart of milk. I understand people are thinking like that because I get a lot of mail like that saying, “Where can I flee to?” Do you recommend New Zealand or this kind of thing? I spend a lot of time in Bermuda because I happen to like it and if you had to pick somewhere to hole up, a small civilized British colony with a temperate climate, 1,000 miles from anything bad is a great place to go. I noticed Bermuda already has had a lot of wealthy Americans coming in and buying up old estates and things. But, there is not going to be any place to flee. In the end, they’ll come for Bermuda, in the end they’ll come for Monte Carlo, and in the end you’ll be in Switzerland and they’ll come for you there because America is the order maker on the planet and when America goes, eventually as agreeable as Bermuda is, it slides in, and it takes Bermuda down in its wake. So this is the hill to die on.
One of the greatest lines I get told by so-called moderate Republicans about almost anything you talk about is always, “This isn’t the hill to die on. This isn’t the hill to die on, this isn’t the hill to die on.” You have this conversation with them for two hours and you realize you’re already 15 hills back from where you were. This, America, is the hill to die on. If you cannot defend and save a half millennium of western liberty and progress and prosperity on this hill, there is no other hill to die on anywhere on the planet.
Mark, outstanding. I really appreciate your time.
Thanks a lot, John.