The Imperial Bell Curve

• “How was it?” Maria wanted to know.

Your editor had attended a luncheon in the English countryside last week with a delightful assortment of genial half-wits…marginalized malcontents…and underclass dropouts. He felt right at home.

“Are you married?” asked a woman with a curious bell-like shape. It wasn’t that she was terribly fat; but the weight she had had settled on her in way that would only be pleasing to a statistician. Missing were the usual swells and undulation. In their place was a nearly perfect outline of consumer sentiment…or stock market prices…or a real estate bubble…or a great empire. At the beginning…down where things began, at ground level, were a pair of nearly normal feet. Then, gradually, things bulged out until they became, where a waist should have been, grotesque and unnatural.

From there, still moving up, the meat that might have been on the shoulders and chest slumped down towards the center of gravity…narrowing the upper body all the way to the neck, which was topped by a normal-looking head, which in turn was topped by ordinary hair of a yellow and gray mixture.

“The party was fun,” we replied.

The fun came from the curious collection of homo sapiens that made up the group — farmers, truck drivers, ditch diggers, floozies and schoolteachers… people suffering from senile dementia…people suffering from delusions of normalcy — people suffering from the prodigious quantities of alcohol we were meant to drink. No people on earth drink as heartily as the English, unless it is the English in Australia. We did our best to keep up with them.

The English, of course, once had a great empire. We looked around at our companions and wondered. That the empire fell apart, we did not doubt; how they got it together in the first place was the mystery.

We have been thinking about empires. Like the English, we Americans never really set out to have an empire; we only recently realized that we have one. How we got it is as much a mystery to us as how the English got theirs.

But an empire is a living thing…like a bubble in the stock market…or a bubble in champagne. It won’t last forever…but it can be fun for a while when it goes to your head. Looking over a list of all the dozens of empires the world has seen is like taking a stroll through a graveyard. Each one was born; each one died. Only one — the American Empire — has a blank spot for the date of death. Born April 2, 1917…says the marker. Died…. Well, not yet, anyway. But there is the grave waiting for us.

By the end of our dinner, it was still daylight, but we could hardly walk. Fortunately, we had brought a car. Fortunately, too, we had only to drive a slow, short way down a country lane with neither lives nor property put in danger.

• A reader writes:

“You make reference to a reader’s comment about the Bush-led War in Iraq. I think Bush really has misled the world on the reason for our pre-emptive attack, but the reader’s assessment is puzzling. He said, ‘And all it would take to end that war is to bomb a few palaces in Iran and Syria — in other words, hit them at the top level where the big guys are. But for some stupid reason, Bush and his cohorts are playing some sort of political One World Game at the expense of our young men.’

“I don’t think there is enough appreciation for the complexity of finding the ‘big guys.’ We have been seeking the leaders in two countries without any success. If all it took was to ‘bomb the big guys’ even Bush would be able to do this. But the painful mess we have been led into is now much out of our control. The bed he has made for us is one of nails.”

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.