Mark Helprin Is the Embodiment of MMT, Foreign Policy Edition

“I’ve been reading these cover to cover since the 1960s.” So said foreign policy eminence and novelist Mark Helprin in his interview with the great Barton Swaim in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. What’s Helprin been reading? Magazines like the U.S. Naval Institute’s ProceedingsJanes Fighting Ships, Strategic Survey, and, in the words of Swaim, “other technical journals one seldom encounters outside university libraries.” Helprin plainly is proud of what he devours, but then that’s seemingly the problem. Simple economics doesn’t seem to intrude on his learning.

The lack imbues his analysis of the world with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) qualities, the latter the theory that government can finance its activities through money creation. Except that governments can do no such thing. MMT theorists miss this, so do neo-Austrian School types who’ve long claimed that central banks enable unlimited government, and so it seems does Helprin imagine something similar as he so confidently asserts that Russia, China and Iran not only have expansionary military designs on the whole world, but seemingly also the means to act on their designs. More on MMT later.

For now, Swaim writes that “I came to Earlysville” to ask Helprin “Are we ready to fight?” Except that Helprin’s answer to Swaim’s question was about as suspenseful as the outcome of an election involving Vladimir Putin. No, apparently we’re not ready to fight.

Unknown is if Swaim asked Helprin or if Helprin gave him a chance to ask a more useful question: are there ways to avoid a fight with Russia, China and Iran? One possibility is that Swaim never got the chance to ask simply because by the interviewer’s own recollection about the interview, Helprin didn’t initially “wait for me to ask a question.” Apparently Helprin believes he sees around geopolitical corners (if only Tolstoy were alive to address such conceit!), and among others, cited to Swaim a 1995 opinion piece penned for the Wall Street Journal in which he warned the Clinton administration that “terrorism has always come mainly from abroad,” and that “a cataclysm brought about by ‘a few former Soviet tactical warheads in a business jet piloted by a young mullah with a grudge against Sears Roebuck” could await. Swaim describes the latter as “slightly off,” it struck me as more than that, but readers can draw their own conclusions about its similarity to 9/11.  

The main thing is that Helprin is the expert. But that’s also not the point. If we forget how rare it’s been for self-proclaimed seers to see “clearly” into the future twice, if we forget how often what they allege to have predicted wasn’t nearly as precise as they or their partisans thought, the more useful question to ask is how once again to avoid a fight. That Helprin is a hawk is established. What about ideas for not acting on his hawkishness?

It’s something neo-Cobdenites like yours truly ask all the time. Getting into specifics, or into economics, are the odds of fighting greatly reduced if fighting means killing one’s best customers? It’s how former President BillClinton approached the China/Taiwan situation in the early part of the 21st century. Clinton wisely brought up the happy, peaceful truth that there’s quite a lot of investment, and quite a lot of goods and services crossing from the mainland into Taiwan, and from Taiwan into the mainland. Clinton saw this as a bullish reality that foreign policy types were perhaps ignoring in their talk of inevitable conflict between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.

Considering Clinton’s Cobdenite analysis in the present, I found myself wishing Swaim would ask Helprin if, as a way to reduce the odds of war by making it much more expensive, the U.S. political class should call off its threatened ban and expropriation of TikTok. As in, is it beyond the pale to say that TikTok’s 170 million American users exist as a peaceful shield for the U.S. from Chinese invasion, and if the thousands of China-based McDonald’s and Starbucks stores exist as a peaceful shield for the Chinese people? And if so, how about much more exchange?

Applied to Iran and Russia, rather than pursue the economically bankrupt notion of “energy independence,” why doesn’t the U.S. open itself up completely to the commodity wealth of Russia and Iran? Basic economics like this doesn’t seem to intrude on Helprin’s thinking.

Those thinking for him might say that the U.S. shouldn’t do that which would improve the economic outlook for Russia, China and Iran, the countries that Helprin and other hawks believe mean us harm. Ok, but such a view implies correctly that by unilaterally opening the U.S. up to Russian, Chinese and Iranian exports, the U.S. would sizably raise the cost for all three when it comes to pursuing war with the U.S. So let’s do it.

Conversely, it doesn’t seem to have invaded Helprin’s thought processes that if those he deems our enemies go to war with the U.S., that their economies would collapse. Massively. Gone are the days of relative country autarky. Thank goodness for that! Every good and service is a consequence of global cooperation such that the economic cost of war in 2024 is exponentially greater than it was in 1924. Speaking of 1924, it was then that New York City and Los Angeles were ranked #1 and #4 among top U.S. manufacturing cities. Now there’s thankfully none in both. The world is integrated, thus thankfully making war staggeringly expensive, but no mention of this by Helprin.

No mention of the stock market either. This is important because a shooting war between China and Taiwan would result in the mother of all stock market crashes, one that would render 1929, 1987 and 2008 meek by comparison. As for war between the U.S. and China, the subsequent correction surely defies description. Such is the genius of an integrated global economy. Equity markets are much more powerful than foolish leaders, and even nuclear weapons. 

All of this is important simply because Helprin’s focus is on U.S. readiness for war with China, Russia and Iran, but he’s not considered how war with the U.S. would thoroughly devastate the economies of all three. Which highlights the MMT aspect of Helprin’s thinking. Does he naively imagine the printing presses in China, Iran and Russia will finance a war that their economies plainly could not? Is he familiar with the descent of the Iranian rial since 1971? Has he asked why Gosbank (the Soviet central bank) didn’t prop up the former Soviet Union, and why the Central Bank of the Russian Federation isn’t “printing” Putin to victory in Ukraine now?

Considering Russia further, it’s got total debt of $190 billion. Has Helprin considered the latter, or have Ukraine hawks more broadly? Do they seriously think Russia’s total debt (a rounding error for the U.S.) is indicative of Classical economic thinking having populated Putin’s mind such that he keeps government small, or is it a market signal of how little investors respect Russia’s economic future? Hopefully readers know which. If we ignore that Russia is still at war with Ukraine after two years, we can’t ignore that it lacks any sort of economy to have any kind of expansionary plans in Europe, let alone the world. As for Iran, memory says it couldn’t even beat Iraq back in the 20th century.

Despite these foreign policy and economic realities, Helprin tells Swaim that Russia, China and Iran are making enormous strides in South America, “’and we can’t allow them to do that. If South America goes, we’re done.’” Really? How? Forgetting the non sequitur suggestion that as South America goes so goes the world, Helprin seems to imagine that Russia, China and Iran have access to capital idling on another planet, and that they can band together in order to take over the world without the act of doing so wrecking the economies of each country along with each countries’ ability to finance war in the first place. MMT has a powerful pull not just on economic mystics, it seems.

Late in the interview Helprin is asked why “the number of men willing to fight and die for the United States” is on the decline. Somewhat comically Helprin cites “an education system that trains young people to distrust their country and a military bureaucracy enthralled by woke ideology.” Yet again it’s apparent that economics doesn’t intrude on Helprin’s thought processes. If it did, he would have noted that soaring economic opportunity over the decades has rendered the economics of military service less appealing, among other things. To be clear about this, that too is a good thing. The goal should be to raise the cost of war for everyone, including Americans. The more we’re not reliant on a government paycheck, the less willing we will be to enable governmental incompetence that doesn’t stop at our borders.  

In which case of course we’re not ready to fight. We’re trying to avoid it. The more the world is economically integrated, the more yet again that war becomes frightfully costly.

Rather than even entertain economic reasons for avoiding military service or war more broadly, Helprin pulls out the victim card. Yep, teachers have allegedly brainwashed the kids. As has “woke.” I remember when conservatives were more confident about the genius of their stances such that teachers and activists presented no threat to them. Helprin remembers this too, which is why his contradictory combination of armchair hawkishness with a fear of high school teacher rhetoric was so disappointing.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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