The ‘special relationship’ and significance of zero

us flag

A special relationship with the dollar

US President Obama is in London, on only the third state visit to UK by an American president in the past hundred years (the other two were Reagan in 1982 and Bush in 2003). When the media have managed to tear their attention away from Obama’s 8-ton everything-proof car getting stuck on a traffic bump, or what the women were wearing, that phrase ‘special relationship’ seems to pepper their reports.

To be fair, they are only repeating exactly what the politicians have been mouthing on this visit.

The phrase was first used by Churchill, in 1946. Now, 65 years later, it’s still used to describe Anglo-American relations. Remember Reagan and Thatcher, cooing and billing at each other? And ‘America’s poodle’, Blair, fawning over Bush some 10 years ago? A hackneyed phrase beloved of the powerful classes, but not so much by, for example, the citizens of both countries, who have at times been more critical than their elected élite [1].

But, does the phrase really mean anything? Is the relationship at all equal? Or, does it just suit both sides to trot it out as a state occasion platitude? Should it not be re-defined, given that its initial appliction was specific to the immediate post-WWII period?

It seems Obama and his closest entourage in the White House now prefer to use the phrase ‘special partnership’. The same is true of the UK. A parliamentary press release in March 2010 stated: “The UK and US have a close and valuable relationship not only in terms of intelligence and security but also in terms of our profound and historic cultural and trading links and commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. But the use of the phrase ‘the special relationship’ in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided.” The implication here was that the UK should better follow and protect its own interests, a move endorsed a month later by the Church of England.

Some media commentators this week have also queried the phrase; what it actually means nowadays, and whether it is mere empty rhetoric, not backed by appropriate action by either side. The following items are well worth reading, the second for an irreverant look at the start of the visit:

Source: The Daily Telegraph: article by Nile Gardiner

Source: The Guradian: article by Michael White.

All summed up neatly and succinctly by a US State Department official in 2009, following the disastrous visit by Gordon Brown, the previous UK prime minister: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

Special relationship, my a***!

Counting zeros

One thing the US and UK certainly share is a mountain of national debt. In April this year, the UK borrowed £10 B (billion). In the previous financial year, its borrowing totalled £141.1 B (less than expected).

But I was staggered by current US figures, so much so that I had to check up the definition of a billion in currency terms. I confirmed that 1 billion equals 10 to the power of 9 – i.e., 1, followed by 9 zeros. Further, and more significantly, 1 trillion is equal to 10 to the power of 12 – i.e., 1, followed by 12 zeros.

The US reached its public debt ceiling earlier this week – a legal limit of $14.3 trillion (yes, 12 zeros!). Its entire national debt today is $14,395,560,899,254.00, which means $46,225 per US citizen, or $129,183 per US taxpayer. If you doubt my detailed figures, please check online HERE.[2] but be patient while the page loads! I have never been quite so shocked by a single web page; first, because of the sheer amount of real-time information and, secondly, by the massive figures involved.

us national debt real time

A shocking site!

One of the UK tabloids [3] ran an idiot’s guide to visualising these astronomic figures. The US borrows $125 B per month, or $4 B per day, or $40,000 per second. Bill Gates, with his fortune of some $56 B, could pay off 15 days of this deficit before going broke. If one piled up $5 bills, they would reach 180,000 miles / 290,000 kms high, or three-quarters of the way to the moon. Doing the same with $1,000 bills, the tower would be 900 miles / 1,450 kms high.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Dickens, Mr Micawber to David Copperfield.

Back to the fine speeches

On his second day, Obama made a fine speech about both UK-US relationships and finance. He said:

“… one thing I am absolutely clear about. David (Cameron, UK PM) and I want to arrive at the same point – a point at which we are making sure that are governments are doing what they need to do to ensure broad-based prosperity but doing so in a responsible way that does not mortgage our futures and leave a mountain of debt to future generations.

Iain Watson, the BBC political correspondent commented that: “The President hasn’t come to Britain with the aim of being rude to the current government.

“There was plenty of rhetoric which this centre-left president knew would be music to the ears of a centre right prime minister.

“It was important governments “live within their means” and don’t leave a “mountain of debt” in future.

“In essence the President was walking a diplomatic tightrope -aimed at upsetting neither left nor right in Britain and fundamentally speaking to a US domestic audience rather than primarily entering the fray of British politics.[4]

Finally, more from Obama: “… we have to make sure we take a balanced approach that is a mixture of cuts but also thinking how we generate revenues so that there is a match between money coming out and money coming in.”

And we, in the EU, are alarmed by the finances of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland? Who is going to bail out the US – China?

Now, that would give rise to a very ‘special relationship’. And, who would be calling the shots?

Source [1]: Wikipedia/Special Relationship

Source [2]: US National Debt clock

Source [3]: Daily Mail

Source [4]: BBC Online


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