I have been rereading the updated 1972 edition of Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which originally appeared in 1949. Some of Braudel’s conclusions about economic and political trends of the 16th century resonate today.
I’m just at page 470 (of about 1,200 pages!) and here’s what I’ve already learned about the 1500s in the Mediterranean region and the wider world:
- The last countries entering any industry tended to quickly dominate older players.
- When regional or national economies started to get strong banking industries, it tended to weaken and eventually drive out other industries and commerce.
- In the trade between the west (Europe) and the east (Asia), hard currency, which in those days comprised gold and silver, tended always to flow to the east.
- Worldwide weather changes (the beginning of “The Little Ice Age”) had profound effects on local and international economies and on the way people lived.
All four of these observations apply to the current situation. Strange as it may seem, the U.S. is repeating many of the mistakes of 16th century Spain.
I have never thought to compare the current age to the 16th century. Nor do I believe that these four observations on the 16th century demonstrate that we are living through its rerun.
What I do think is that Braudel’s observations are truisms of economics and politics that transcend centuries and levels of economic development. It’s a shame that we never seem to learn the lessons of history.
And here’s another truism that I know will dominate much of the rest of the book (as I remember from my reading of Braudel some 25 years ago): a sure way to deplete your nation’s treasury and destroy your economy is to fight a distant war against a smaller but highly motivated foe on that foe’s land.
I’m referring to the 80-year war between Spain and its unhappy possession, the Netherlands, which started in 1568. The similarities to Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan are compelling and disheartening.