Consumerism is as American as cherry pie. Plasma TVs, iPods, granite countertops: you name it, we'll buy it. To finance the national pastime, Americans have been borrowing from abroad on an increasingly stunning scale. In 2006, the infusion of foreign cash required to close the gap between American incomes and consumption reached nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), leaving the United States with a deficit in its current account (an annual measure of capital flows to and from the rest of the world) of more than $850 billion. In other words, the quantity of goods and services that Americans consumed last year in excess of what we produced was close to the entire annual output of Brazil.
Should we be worried? Some say yes, there's a "possibility that political considerations could trump shared economic interests, causing nations to use their international financial positions as weapons." A cautionary tale and interesting potential American "empire" as British Empire parallel:
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower learned in 1956 that Britain, in collusion with France and Israel, had invaded Egypt without U.S. knowledge, he was infuriated. "Many people remember Suez," notes Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel professor of capital formation and growth at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), but few recall "the specific way that Eisenhower forced the British to back down." At the time, there was a run on the pound sterling and he blocked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from stabilizing the currency. With sterling on the verge of collapse, says Frankel, "Eisenhower told them, 'We are not going to bail out the pound unless you pull out of Suez.'" Facing bankruptcy, the British withdrew. This incident, notes Frankel, "marked the end of Great Britain's ability to conduct an independent foreign policy."
Via A&L Daily, one of the many oddly excellent articles in the Harvard alumni magazine.