The Wealth of One Nation: On the Economy of the United States

09/02/2023

The Wealth of One Nation: On the Economy of the United States

For 11th grade US history class, I independently researched and analyzed the relationship between GDP and foreign conflict in the United States. I firmly believe this project was a catalyst to my interest in economics. The essay is below, and the corresponding graph is above. It depicts the GDP, rate of inflation, years of conflict, and years of depression over the past 100 years. Major historical events are highlighted. 

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The Wealth of One Nation

     The United States has an extensive history of foreign entanglement. Its very existence is the product of British colonies, and its growth is a result of similar imperialism. As countries expand economically, they need to maintain a consistent stream of resources to promote growth. Most nations exercise whichever method is most effective in economic gain, whether that be invading and stealing, lending and leasing, or trading and loaning. Generally speaking, how countries acquire those resources have changed over time. 

     To begin with, it may be worth outlining the characteristics of a good economy. Economists and politicians alike have always argued over how to define a good economy. It ranges so greatly between countries, as a result of policy, geographical, cultural, and population differences, but it is also difficult to pin down in any one setting. The United States is considered a mature economy. Yet, it doesn’t have a set idealized economy. This is likely as a result of political bias, but a good economy typically involves a few key concepts. 

     The generally accepted primary indicator of a strong economy is growth–how much growth, however, depends on the year and the area. There are a few concepts directly relating to consistent economic growth. The first is inflation. While this may not be an issue in and of itself, much of the population is against inflation as it harms purchasing power in the long term. However, economic growth frequently allows for a larger population to have a higher quality of life–also known as the middle class–which could be another indicator of a strong economy.

     The next example is diversity. Many economies that rely solely on a few sectors often have greater potential for failure. As seen in the Great Depression of the early 20th century, where the economy had relied very heavily on a few industries, with the banks capturing a great majority, a few failures resulted in one of the worst recessions of our time. While this was not the only cause, it did not help.

     Industrialization has, more recently, become a better indicator of a good economy. In the past, the richest merchant may be the one who could make the best chair. But now, the richest merchant is the one who can make and distribute the most chairs the fastest, or who can make the chair with the newest and most innovative features. In manufacturing economies, the ability to produce is essential.

     Furthermore, much of the economy is based on public opinion. If a large quantity of the population is displeased with the current economic state–whether that be as a result of overarching policy, or personal experience, it does not reflect well on the government. Thus, a large percentage of the domestic product could be held by a small population–leaving a large population with less, often below the poverty line. While this relates to equality, equity, and wealth distribution, it also relates to the emergence of a strong middle class. Stability is not characterized as a necessary factor in a strong economy. While it may be good, especially for developing countries, to maintain stability while building capital, some political groups prefer volatile circumstances, in a high-risk, high-reward scenario.

     Following the period of isolationism that spanned between the formation of the country and the War of 1812, the United States fervently focused itself on national development. Over the 1800s, the US expanded in nearly every aspect. The first, perhaps the most evident area of growth, was physical size, as over half of the current US states were ratified during this time. Beginning with Ohio in 1803, and ending with Utah in 1896, the United States ratified 26 states and gained more than 2.5 million square miles. Much of this land was rich in natural resources or capable of agriculture. This does not include any occupied territories.

     The second area of growth, which is likely a direct result of the first, is population growth. The United States–especially throughout the 1800s as a result of political turmoil in Europe–has been a destination for immigration. The sheer quantity of failed European governmental revolutions in 1848, also known as the Spring of Nations, led to a disproportionate increase in immigration. Physical growth leads to population growth, and population growth leads to increased productivity. 

     The third expansion was the industrialization of much of production, following the example of the United Kingdom, the process of mechanization began to pick up in the late 19th century, and brought the US into the second industrial revolution of the early 20th century. The increased efficiency in manufacturing allowed for an increased quantity of produced goods–this led to the irreversible shift in market structure that is still evident today. While the 19th century was an era of great expansion and conflict for the United States, it was not considered an economic superpower until 1898. This was almost entirely due to one event: the Spanish-American war.

     The Spanish-American war occurred from April to December of 1898. Considered the shortest war in American history, it had an unprecedented impact on the US economy we know today. It all began with a boat, as many things do. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was docked in Havana harbor. Regrettably, it exploded.

     Before this event, it must be understood that Spain and the United States had had rising tensions for some time. Mainly as a result of Cuba. Located almost entirely in the Western hemisphere, Cuba had been occupied by Spain since the early 16th century. The US, who had had long withstanding economic relations with the island, wanted to protect those interests by rallying for Cuban independence. So long as Cuba was not under the protection, or control of a foreign power, the US determined, they would be able to maintain business. This would mean getting rid of Spain’s presence.

     When the USS Maine sank, it was not–contrary to popular belief–an act of war by Spain. Instead, it was an internal issue, the forward gunpowder magazine exploded. A flurry of fake news resulted in false blame, and within months, the US was at war. It was not the war itself that was a display of economic power, as the event itself went quite poorly. Many US soldiers were untrained and unequipped. Over six months, about 3,000 American soldiers died.

     The end of the war was marked with the Treaty of Paris. Signed on October 1st, the treaty determined that the U.S. would gain possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, an independent Cuba, and for $20 million, the Philippines. This was the United States’ first acquisition of foreign colonies, and its first major step towards becoming a superpower.

     Historically speaking, when a country seeks out colonies, it is primarily for economic gain. The First British Empire, for example, is one of the more prominent examples of colonial history. British colonies date back to the early 17th century. While all the colonies were in different locations, and lasted for varying durations of time, they all had the same end goal–British gain. There are, generally speaking, three types of gain through colonization; natural resources, connecting transport methods, and more usable land. 

     Perhaps the most obvious, the search for natural resources has been a long-withstanding struggle among large communities. Natural resources are generally essential for a thriving economy. At a time before the expansion of globalization, or the innovation of industrialization, nations were disproportionately reliant on themselves–especially their colonies. The use of colonies was meant to be a way to gather more natural resources for industries in the mother country to expand. Most manufacturing sectors require a consistent stream of resources, and once that resource is depleted in the initial country, the government often feels the need to expand.

     At a time when functional planes were an unfathomable concept, and one had to travel long distances by horse, boat, or foot, it would be reasonable to want to create a path of shorter distance. It was not uncommon for countries to obtain colonies, or “occupied territories” directly adjacent to the initial country, mostly as thinly veiled attempts to expand territory. When the United States, throughout the 19th century, was gaining the land that it currently possesses today, it was acquired through means of war, purchase, annexation, or conquering. Many settlers traveled west before the United States officially acquired the territory. One of the primary reasons for the US annexation of Texas was that some people from the United States were living in Mexico-owned Texas. As a result of growing tensions, the American nationals decided to declare independence from the country that they were living in–they wanted to promote slavery. The Texas uprising was thought to have been started by the US to annex Texas, according to the Mexican government. This was not disproven by the fact that about 10 years later, under James Polk, the United States did annex Texas, and it is still a part of the United States today.

     Another use for colonies was to take advantage of new environments. The shifts in climate, topography, and environmental conditions made it appealing for countries to seek out more tropical commodities, and means of production. One of the most notable is sugar cane. Sugar cane is fast-growing, useful, and profitable. Known as one of the most prevalent cash crops, it requires a tropical climate for optimal cultivation–something Europe lacks. As a result, the superpowers of the time sought to obtain colonies in the Caribbean. Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, and many other island territories became optimal targets for European colonization.

     As a superpower, the United States is able to consistently involve itself in foreign affairs. The word “involve”, especially about geopolitics, is incredibly vague. The goals of these interventions have centered on: the economy, the control of territory, social protection, regime change, safeguarding US nationals and diplomats, changing policies, expanding the empire, and establishing new regimes. While involvements themselves range from sending supplies or troops, to supporting coups, to complete occupation, the United States has fully shifted from its isolationist policies to interventionist ones.

     There are three types of imperialist intervention, each with different quantities of immediate action. These include colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence–the United States has all of them. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 dictated that European powers could not influence anything in the Western hemisphere, effectively mitigating any competition, and thus rendering a sphere of influence. The United States currently has 5 colonies, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Throughout its existence, the United States has had many protectorates, in which the US offered consistent protection from other foreign influences in exchange for continued business; Cuba is the most notable. When the capitalists of a specific nation are pressured to expand their economies beyond their own, imperialism develops as the final stage of capitalism.

     The need for resources ultimately controls the expansion of a given country. The resources gathered, whichever they may be, ultimately contribute to capital gain, often to the manufacturing sector, and export. However, there is no strong data to support the claim that there is a correlation between the number of natural resources acquired, concerning positive economic growth. This is likely a result of the amount of transmutation taking place, not to mention resource dispersion. They could go to the manufacturing sector, but they could also be purchased for consumer use at a preliminary level. 

     However, by utilizing panel vector autoregressive analytic techniques, the International Journal of Minerals Policy and Economics was able to determine that, “In high-income countries, gross capital formation, urbanization, and energy consumption have a positive impact on economic growth whereas the coefficient of natural resources is positive but statistically insignificant. In middle-income countries, an increase in natural resources, energy consumption, and urbanization lead to GDP growth. Natural resources and energy consumption positively affect GDP, while capital formation has a negative impact in low-income countries.” Meaning that, as it has been proven time and time again, the best way to get rich is to be rich. In the way that a generationally wealthy individual may attribute their wealth to good spending, and then encourage others to do the same, every economically developed country has either an abundance of resources, or the drive to steal more. 

     In 1933, Richard Auty published a book entitled, “Sustaining Development in Mineral Economies.” This book is responsible for the concept of the natural resource curse, an idea that aims to explain the phenomenon that countries with high quantities of natural resources seem to be the least developed, and economically unstable. The natural resource curse is not data-backed, because one of the main things stopping less developed countries from becoming more developed is political instability–which is usually a result of prior imperialistic colonization–and the only reason developed countries have fewer resources is because they’ve used them all. If less developed countries had the proper time to develop–politically and economically–before imperialism led to the detriment of the country, they may be more developed. 

     Aside from imperialism, there are other means of acquiring natural resources. One of them is industrialization. There are two main aspects of industrialization. The first deals with an increase in efficiency, one that often comes with the use of machinery or urbanization. The second aspect involves innovation and invention–something deemed essential to societal growth. However, as technology advances, it becomes increasingly less necessary to obtain large amounts of land, to maintain power. Whereas in the past, empires were very heavily reliant on land, advances in technology throughout the last two centuries have enabled economic thriving to be an entirely separate function from land amassed. For example, where it would have been entirely necessary to have colonies to obtain raw materials, that acquisition process has been replaced by similar, synthetic materials, and the globalization of trade.

     The most common instances of industrialization occur during wartime. The need for rapid manufacture and cutting-edge technology leads to more government funding and innovation. During World War Two, many countries were able to substitute natural goods with manufactured ones thanks to plastics and other synthetic materials. This then led to countries being able to more easily transport their commodities, ideas, and populations into other countries without annexing or occupying them thanks to aircraft, broadcasting, and medicine. Whenever a natural resource is found to be in scarcity or a difficult-to-acquire area, the government immediately sets out to find a synthetic version. The shift from primarily involving imperialism to focusing on industrialization is the key difference between the economy today, and the economy 200 years ago. Industry breeds innovation, and innovation is essential for remaining competitive with other industries, when the competition expands across the world, it's known as globalization. 

     It is tempting to want to categorize imperialism as globalization–but they are inherently different concepts. Globalization, commonly defined as the spread of ideas across national borders, is also the process of operating an industry on a global scale. The specification is crucial. While one could argue that while Christopher Columbus’ expedition west in 1492 was the initial example of globalization, it was not. The concept itself did not expand until the Industrial Revolution permitted an era of specialization within countries, and the advancements in technology made rapid transportation easier. Columbus’ goal was never to conduct trade, or establish relations of any kind; his goal was to pillage, plunder and expand on the Spanish Empire. This expansion was not an example of modern globalization, it was imperialism. 

     Today’s economic globalization is characterized by interdependence and a high level of connection. The easiest example of this is trade. Many countries rely on foreign suppliers for both a substantial quantity of necessary consumer goods, as well as materials to manufacture profitable products. While globalization to such an extent allows for national specialization, which over time develops a comparative cost advantage in producing these goods and services, it also leaves room for a higher risk of economic failure. As mentioned, diversity is an indicator of a good economy; however, it is difficult to maintain diversity while implementing specialization. As a result of so many countries being so deeply economically intertwined–whether this is using investing or exports, if one country is suddenly incapable of maintaining relations, it is detrimental to the world economy.

     The United States economy affects the rest of the world’s economy, whether the rest of the world likes it or not. This is likely a result of such expansive trading. As the US economy improves, the middle class strengthens, thus increasing the purchasing power of the consumer. When the consumer has a higher purchasing power, the quantity of imports increases, and thus for other countries, the quantity of exports increases, which leads to more money for the country. Additionally, the US dollar is the currency of a lot of international operations, and when the value fluctuates drastically, it impacts world markets. An example of this is the Nixon Shock of 1971. In order to combat inflation–and in speculation of a “gold run” or mass conversion of US dollars to gold–President of the time–Richard Nixon terminated the capability to convert the US dollar to gold. 

     Throughout the 1960s, Eurasian countries began to rebuild their economies, and eventually rebounded fully after WWII. As a result, there was more competition in the market and thus less reliance on US exports. In turn, the demand for the US dollar substantially decreased, and the gold supply did not increase to match it. Ultimately, there were more dollars kept abroad than there was gold in the United States, which, according to the government, would threaten the US dollar’s place as a reserve fund. Following the gold restriction, there was a 90-day freeze on wages and prices. Nixon’s actions resulted in the termination of the Bretton Woods system. This was a standardized set of rules regarding monetary policy that were meant to be internationally followed, this resulted in the drastic drop in the value of the Japanese Yen–and later known to have contributed to the global recession of 1973-1975.

     Another example of a single country impacting the global economy is Russia. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 has had substantial impacts on the economy across the world. Joseph Glauber, a Senior Research Fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute, has said, "it is important to understand that we are talking about global markets, so even countries that do not import from Ukraine or Russia are experiencing an increase in the price of wheat or sunflower oil…The EU made some changes in the regulations to be able to import grain from Latin America, which could have positive effects in countries like Argentina or Brazil, which are large producers.” Russia is a very large exporter of fertilizer, and many agricultural countries utilize imported fertilizer to maintain production rates. Therefore, even if other countries could pick up wheat production quickly enough, the overall agriculture sector would face challenges. As these challenges are met, food prices go up–the result is a potentially devastating food crisis.

     Food is not the only resource impacted. At the start of the war, Russia was one of the world’s largest oil suppliers. On March 8, 2022, the United States banned all imports of Russian oil and gas in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, the EU stopped all oil imports by sea and plans to take advantage of the fact that diverting resources from the EU to Asia would likely be a costly endeavor for Russia. With Russian oil no longer being an option, the United States has turned to other sources for its sources of oil. Controversially, however, to obtain more oil, President Biden has reopened diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

     The United States and Venezuela have had a frequently oscillating relationship, especially within the last three decades. It shifts between being mutually beneficial–involving billions of dollars worth of trade, to excessively controversial–which leads to sanctions, tariffs, and travel advisories. Oil was discovered in Venezuela in 1878. Seeing as the United States is a large consumer of oil, it sought to take advantage of the untapped source. Within the past two decades, the United States has put increasingly drastic sanctions on Venezuelan trade–likely as an attempt to influence Venezuelan politics, and put pressure on Maduro, the self-appointed dictator. However, these sanctions seem to be easing up, as President Biden, in response to the Russo-Ukrainian war, is considering Venezuela as a source for oil acquisition.  Which, as described by the Economist, “Chevron, an American oil firm which has four dormant joint ventures with Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, a limited license to pump and export oil to the United States again.” It will take Chevron several years to recover its once expansive oil area, and the sanctions are being lifted for only six months–should the Venezuelan President not comply with UN standards, the sanctions will be put back in place, and Chevron removed once more. If successful, the reforms would lead to US oil not being as reliant on Russia. That is not to say, however, that it is entirely likely, as political reforms are extremely difficult, no matter the context. The United States has an extensive history of politically meddling in foreign affairs. Another notable example is the Panama Canal. 

     Built in the Early 20th century, the Panama Canal provided access to rapid trade across hemispheres. It is an artificially developed waterway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its most significant impact is economic geography. For instance, Los Angeles would have to go all the way to Cape Horn, all the way back to the North, and then to the East to sell products to Spain. This is quite pricey and serves as a huge roadblock for both buyers and sellers. In consequence, this lessens market rivalry, which is essential for a thriving capitalist economy. The Panama Canal extended market access and thereby enhanced the economy by decreasing the physical distance between various locations. The Canal reduced costs for intercoastal trade, produced economic benefits many times larger than its cost, and accelerated the expansion of the West Coast at the expense of Venezuela in terms of oil and the South in terms of timber. By 1940, America's national income was around 4 percent higher than it would have been without the canal. 25

     The United States did not annex the entirety of Panama to acquire this land. Instead, it propositioned the Colombian government several times. Upon their decline, the US supported Panama in gaining independence, as they wanted to obtain economic relations. The US-Panamanian ambassador organized a revolt, and it was successful. Upon the independence of Panama, the United States was granted permission to finish the canal–thus granting the US 100 years of economic relations. Furthermore, as planes and railroads became more widely used, it was no longer in the best interest of the US government to spend so many resources on canal operation just to lower consumer prices. After the fact, it was realized that Panamanians operated the canal with great efficiency and minimal additional cost–the US uses the canal to this day, but as a participant in international relations, and not as a landowner–which is an example of switching imperialism out for globalization.

     There was no war to be had over the Panama Canal, though that is not to say that the United States is a benevolent, peaceful nation. As best described by Johan Galtung, “the theory of imperialism was developed to explain how conflicts between imperialist states arose.” War is an inherently imperialistic concept. Throughout the United States 250 years of existence, only 15 of those years had been completely peaceful.42 Meaning, no wars–proxy or otherwise, no upholding democracy, and no partisan electoral interventions. While the US may have sent money or political support to specific governments at this time, no troops were being sent, and therefore no armed conflict. Furthermore, if the goal of the war is to advance imperialistic ideals, then the cause of most wars could be attributed to resources, territory disputes, or money. 

     World War I was fought between empires. While most of the war was fought between European powers and their allies, it was also fought by their colonies. The Berlin Conference occurred in the 19th century and was a convention involving all of the major world powers that sought to divide Africa among them. The result was irreversible colonization and European legal claims to most of Africa. After the war started, the empires were quick to make use of colonial raw materials, production power, and bases of operation–in other words, natural resources, connecting transport methods, and more usable land. World War One was considered the first modern war, because of such extensive industrial advances at the time. It was the first time any war had seen machine guns, radio, and a general increase in innovation, and production ability.

     One of the reasons why World War One is considered a world war is the vast expanse of its influence. Not only were the allied and central powers in conflict, but also all of the associated allies and colonies. In 1915, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations.”  He was correct. World War One is infamous for its trench warfare, which severely hindered the capability to gain territory. While upon the termination of the war, Great Britain ceded large amounts of land to France and some to Belgium. France, in response, relinquished any legal claims on the north of Africa, thus allowing Great Britain to enter. Any European territory changes were small in comparison to those of Africa.26 Though the United States did not participate in the scramble for land, it attended the Berlin Conference to ensure that its economic interests were accounted for.

The United States always has its economic interests in mind. Marking the start of the Second World War, in 1939, and, not coincidentally, the termination of the Great Depression in the US. While Roosevelt’s New Deal was incredibly effective at remedying much of the damage, the war production efforts had a far greater impact. A few circumstances led to the United States’ flourishing during the war—namely, a considerable lack of unemployment, and lending foreign loans. 

     The United States was not extremely involved in the war until 1941, when Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor. Prior to that, the US had been involving itself in the war by means of production or money, while never participating in combat itself. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act of 1941 allowed for the United States to provide aid to European powers while maintaining neutrality. Former President Roosevelt believed that the United States should serve as a "great arsenal of democracy,” just as it had done to Latin America following the Monroe Doctrine. By monetarily and politically expanding its sphere of influence, the United States was able to bolster its economy. 

     As we progress through the 21st century, there is a clear increase in the amount of nations participating in globalization. By promoting free trade, they are able to increase their chances of further development. While imperialism has lessened in the form of direct military conflict for land, it is still a recurring phenomenon. The United States still maintains colonies and protectorates, while simultaneously utilizing its sphere of influence to project its economic interests onto Latin American countries. In 2021, upon the removal of US troops from Afghanistan, President Biden declared to the general UN assembly that the United States was not at war, for the first time in 20 years. This is false. While the US withdrew from Afghanistan, it still occupies numerous countries, and is involved in several foreign civil wars. The United States has hundreds of military bases located all over the world–each allegedly for the sake of peacekeeping–though many of the true motives of the US remain obscured. The US economy has fared well, and the country continues to self-describe as the world’s unofficial peacekeeper—likely to pursue future endeavors. This is not to say, however, that globalization is rendering war obsolete. As long as there is politics, there will be war. After all, war is the most profitable industry of them all. 



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