Recently, I had an experience that could only happen in 2019. While walking to Target to restock toilet paper in my dorm, listening to Green Day (because it was an angsty kind of day), someone on a Lime scooter hit me from behind and knocked me over. The Chicago in me came out a little bit and I may or may not have said a few words to him, but then this man, who had been knocked over as well, got up. Wearing his Rasta beanie, creepy smile showing several gold teeth in his mouth, he let out a laugh eerily reminiscent of Disney’s Goofy. Then he just left. After that, I needed a drink. But, as the drinking age is 21, I had to settle for a Powerade in the Union. I treated myself to the luxurious Panda Express and, of course, ordered too much food and felt gross after eating it. I went out to the Drag to give the rest of my food to a homeless man wearing a Vietnam veteran’s hat, who then told me that he was a vegan. I asked if it was for religious purposes, but he answered, “Uhhh… no.” This was also the evening that an oddly well-dressed man robbed the Target that I had been planning to go into. Walking fairly close to there, I asked a SWAT officer if it was safe for me to walk around. “Yeah, I think,” he said.
Why do we live in a world where this happens? Why was I not phased by coming across someone probably on drugs on a lime scooter, a homeless vegan, and an incompetent law enforcement officer? Because that’s what 2019 looks like. These problems are just microcosms of our world, which seems to be on fire. I mean, we just can’t have anything nice. Even when a cool picture of a black hole gets taken, a stupid article complains that it’s not high-quality enough for them. All the explosive news reporting, the pettiness and fear that defines our national discourse frankly makes me glad that Austin is a first strike location in the event of nuclear war. And if that doesn’t happen, global warming, the Yellowstone Caldera, or something like the movie Armageddon could also finish the job. We’ve had a good run.
But what led us to this point? Most people blame those in charge for the current state of the world. Some blame Trump, others blame Democrats, but I take the Billy Joel approach in saying that “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A terrible Swiss economist, the 1912 delegates at the Republican National Convention, and sand did. In this article, I aim to prove that if it weren’t for these people or sand getting in the way at certain key moments of history, the modern world would not exist in its current, contorted form.
Let’s start our trip through time at the big one. Jacques Necker, a slippery Genevan-born French economist, served as the Director General of Finances and de facto Prime Minister under King Louis XVI. As the French became embroiled in the American Revolution to spite the British, Necker was responsible for funding the French effort. And at the time, his methods to do so were seen as genius, but in retrospect were more Simple Jack than A Beautiful Mind. Instead of raising taxes on the lavish French aristocracy and clergy who paid virtually no taxes (as opposed to the incredibly poor people still living under feudalism, who paid the most), Necker decided to take out a multitude of loans, causing the public debt to greatly increase. This inevitably led to a great financial crisis.
Necker could not accept his fault in the economic wreckage of France and instead covered everything up with his Compte rendu au roi, a report on the French financial situation which hid the true situation from public view. In this landmark work of con-artistry, Necker cooked the books by vastly underestimating the costs of the war and hiding many ridiculous Royal expenditures. The best part about it was Necker’s forecast of a 12 million livres surplus, when in reality there was a 70 million livre deficit. Getting cocky in the face of his critics, Necker decided to publish it. Unfortunately, Necker was blessed with writing talent and it became widely popular among the common people, who, for the first time, became aware of the financial system of the country. As far as I believe, this is the first time public opinion mattered in France and the snowball to violent revolution began rolling. For this, angry aristocrats outmaneuvered him and Necker was soon removed from power.
By the time the monarchy was bankrupted due to the situation Necker caused (and the nobles not willing to pay taxes, because why would they want to if they haven’t really ever?), the people looked back on Necker’s report and were not exactly pleased. Facing bread riots from hungry peasants, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, the Royal Legislative Assembly, in 1789 for the first time since 1614 to resolve the financial crisis. The First and Second Estates, which represented the clergy and aristocrats respectively (less than 2.5 percent of the population) and the Third Estate, representing the people (more than 97.5 percent of the population). After the Third Estate took over, Necker was removed due to his extremely low popularity despite having returned to power.
What started as a good attempt into crafting a fair and equal democracy spiraled out of control into a bloody “reign of terror” in which an estimated 17,000 were officially executed between September 5, 1793 and July 27, 1794. More consequential, however, was everything that came out of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was potentially the most important event in the past thousand years and outside of the invention of agriculture maybe the most important in human history. The French Revolution changed everything, The metric system, the first system of weights and measures, was introduced and is still used by most of the world (but not us because we do our own thing). The left-right political classification spectrum was invented because “liberal” Jacobins sat on the left side of the Legislative Assembly and “conservative” Girondins sat on the right side. Many consider post-Revolutionary France to be the “nation-state,” where people of a common boundary uniting under a single, national identity despite regional, cultural, or language differences.
It is also responsible for most subsequent historical events, as it gave rise to Napoleon, the single most influential figure in the last 1200 years of human history. He transformed a murderous, anarchical France into the most powerful nation in Europe in a matter of a few years. Despite his dictatorial tendencies, Napoleon instituted a controversial, but stable and influential legal code, emphasized secular policy in line with Enlightenment philosophy, and made a poor nation bloom in economic prosperity under his administration. More importantly, his wars led to the rise of nationalism across Europe, specifically in Italy and Germany.
While Italy’s unification is certainly important, we should really focus on the legacy of Napoleon in Germany. At the time Napoleon butchered the Holy Roman Empire, Germany was made up of way too many states. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the second most influential leader in modern history behind Napoleon and certainly the most pragmatic and crafty came in the next generation of European leadership after Napoleon’s era. He recognized the existential threat unified nations posed to German states. Thus, he unified Germany under the Prussian monarchy and through his aggressive diplomatic actions, the Franco-Prussian War, and stabilization of the government (for example, by creating the first systems of Universal Healthcare and Social Security, not to be humanitarian but to please the people and keep them from allying with socialists). Bismarck’s unification allowed for the creation of the Germany that would be heavily involved in World War I, then perpetrate World War II, and basically setting off modern history. So, via the transitive property, Jacques Necker’s sheer stupidity and lies that drove France down and overconfidence that led to French class consciousness caused the French Revolution and all subsequent misery that is in the world today. Thanks, Jacques.
More recently, however, we can look to the Election of 1912, the most consequential election in American history. The weak Republican incumbent Taft faced off against Democratic history professor turned two-year New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson and a third party challenge from former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson won in a landslide due to the split in the Republican Party and his actions would shape the entire 20th century to follow. When World War I broke out in August 1914, President Wilson attempted to remain neutral for as long as possible, campaigning in 1916 that he had “kept us out of war.” America entered the war in April 1917 anyway in response to German transgressions and a pro-war shift in public opinion. By November 1918, the American military presence broke the German defense on the Western Front, ending the war.
President Wilson, a believer in liberal internationalism, attempted to shape the end of the conflict by creating the UN precursor that was the League of Nations, which failed in large part due to America’s lack of participation in it (the more isolationist, Republican Senate failed the measure to join). Wilson’s idealism which centered around promoting democracy would become the model for contemporary American foreign policy. Domestically, President Wilson continued the progressive measures of his predecessors, Taft and Roosevelt, but with a worldview also sympathetic to the South, (due to having grown up in Georgia during the Civil War) also resegregated the Federal government and allowed expansions of Jim Crow. But what if Wilson was removed from the picture?
The only person who could have defeated Wilson was Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was wildly popular and charismatic. Had he gotten the Republican nomination, he would have likely defeated Wilson handily. But, despite winning every primary but Massachusetts, Roosevelt was beaten out by Taft-controlled delegates at the 1912 Republican National Convention in Chicago and lost the nomination. Roosevelt then ran with the “Bull Moose Party” instead, all but guaranteeing a Wilson victory. Had Roosevelt pulled off the feat of gaining the nomination at the convention and were re-elected President many things would have changed.
Roosevelt, the biggest warhawk in the history of the American presidency, would have entered World War I at least two years faster than Wilson did. Say the United States entered in 1915, when the Germans were fighting a two-front war against Britain and France in the West and Russia in the East. They could not have handled another powerful nation on the Western Front and the war would have ended much earlier. A swifter outcome of the war would have had massive global ramifications.
In Russia, the people are fed up with the Tsar and he is deposed. There really would have been no way to save him; he was pretty much screwed from the get go. But the provisional government, a democratic-socialist system under Alexander Kerensky would have been put in place, as it was in our timeline. However, it would never fall to Lenin and Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks, the radical communists who seized power from the provisional government in October 1917, came into prominence as a result of their opposition to Russia’s continued participation in World War I. Kerensky’s government failed to withdraw from the war, and the fed up people sided with Lenin and his Bolsheviks, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union and an interesting 20th century. But had the war ended early enough due to American intervention, Kerensky’s government wouldn’t have dealt with the people’s war outrage. No Soviet Union exists because the Bolsheviks would have nothing to garner support with.
This may be a little more of a stretch, but without a Soviet Union, Nazism may not have rose to prominence in Germany. While extreme nationalism likely would have still arisen in Germany post-World War I, I doubt Nazism would take the hold that it did. Much of Hitler’s rise can be attributed to the economic situation resulting from harsh penalties imposed on Germany after World War I as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, however key to the rise of Nazi ideology was Bolshevism. While Jews were the principal targets of Nazi blame for problems, Judaism was not presented as an ideology. Hitler and early Nazi leaders made it clear that their world order is the opposite of Bolshevism, an idea that had appeal in 1920s Germany and scared most German people. In effect, Bolshevism became the antithesis that Nazism needed to survive. In the absence of German Bolshevism, no viable Nazi movement could have ever taken hold. This isn’t to say that another nationalist movement would have taken hold of the Weimar Government. Hitler could have very well found another ideology to strawman, but at least Nazism as we know it would not have existed.
Notwithstanding the massive geopolitical effects of World War II and the Soviet Union, American leaders would have remained less involved in the affairs of other countries. Wilson’s idealism of America’s role being the world preserver of democracy established a tradition of intervention that set the stage for conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And this is not to say that I think intervention is always terrible. We are still the world’s most powerful nation and should promote democracy to fill power-vacuums that would otherwise be inevitably filled by despotic enemies like Russia and China that threaten the safety of the world. But because of President Wilson, we are the world’s cop and have to remain invested in smaller conflicts. It must have been nice to not have to be at war constantly. We also must think about the many civil rights setbacks President Wilson implemented and we might have seen a smoother and quicker Civil Rights movement without him. We can thank President Wilson for getting us our current jam, but our anger should actually be focused more specifically on the 561 Republican delegates who voted for Taft and not Roosevelt at the 1912 Convention.
Finally, there is just, simply put, sand, to thank for our most recent political and socioeconomic problems.
It’s 1979, during the middle of the Iran Hostage Crisis, a defining point in the modern history of the United States. Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, a brutal dictator but US ally, had been deposed in place of a dictatorship ruling with a hardline interpretation of Sharia law as the basis of its legal system. Sharia is a traditional set of Islamic rules. It should be noted that despite the sadly common misconception, Sharia is not a penal code, is interpreted differently by Muslims across the world, and is no harsher than the Book of Leviticus which does the exact same thing. But regardless, the new Iran was terrible and hostile to the United States, with statements like “Death to America” becoming commonplace especially after President Carter allowed the Shah to seek refuge and treatment for his terminal cancer in the United States.
Because the Carter Administration took this action, Iranian students supporting the Revolution seized the US Embassy and took 52 staff members hostage. This gripped national attention and led to heightened fears among most Americans, with months of news stories headlined by the crisis and many Americans tying yellow ribbons around their trees to show support for the hostages. With so many Americans invested in this crisis and a tough reelection bid mounting, naturally it became politically necessary for Carter to rescue the hostages. Thus, President Carter planned the ambitious Operation Eagle Claw. It was to involve all four military branches and be carried out over a period of two days. Naval helicopters and C-130 aircraft were to rendezvous in the desert 200 miles southeast of Tehran, refuel, pick up combat troops from the Army’s Delta Force, then transport them to the mountains to carry out the mission.
While Operation Eagle Claw was well-planned and seemed sound, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. Upon the first landing in the desert, an Iranian bus happened to pass by and complicate everything, leading the ground forces to detain the 40 Iranian passengers aboard to maintain the operation. Due to mechanical failure, two of the original eight navy helicopters could not continue the mission and the rest suffered reduced visibility from a sandstorm and caused them to land at the site where the troops and bus were 90 minutes late. One of the helicopters then suffered another mechanical problem and could not continue, then as they left two C-130s collided because of the low visibility from sand, killing eight servicemen and forcing an end to the mission. The dead, maps, weapons, several helicopters, and much equipment were left behind.
This national embarrassment was also the nail in the coffin for the political career of Jimmy Carter, who would lose to Ronald Reagan in a landslide largely due to this debacle. Had that sand not gotten in the way of the rescue, Operation Eagle Claw likely would have worked, leading to a probable reelection of Carter due to a surge in popularity. But, because of this sand, Reagan was elected. While we all have many opinions about the Reagan Administration, there is no doubt that his presidency fundamentally shaped American politics and the modern world.
Contrary to popular belief, President Reagan did not reduce the size of the federal government (and actually increased the national debt). However, he ended the tradition of cooperative federalism, where the federal government takes a more active role in affairs but works alongside state and local governments, employed since FDR. It was replaced with new federalism, a system with the devolution of more powers to the states that persists today.
Economically, President Reagan implemented tax cuts and deregulation that set a precedent that still shape the modern economy. Many businesses and individuals benefited from “Reaganomics,” a supply-side economic policy involving tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, guided by the theory that more revenue for business owners would allow for higher salaries and more jobs for everyone. It was successful in adding 40 million jobs to the economy and establishing a period of high economic growth.
However, there were many drawbacks. A massive widening of the wage gap between executives and workers ensued. A large spike in homelessness can be attributed to cuts President Reagan made to welfare and housing. Furthermore, an eventual recession in the early 1990s occured, in part due to lack of investment in the economy from those benefiting from President Reagan’s tax cuts. If I were wealthy, I would likely save my money rather than spend it, despite how much I would stimulate the economy. The real spenders and investors in the economy are the middle class, who have less money to save. Regardless, the legacy of Reaganomics has shaped the modern American economy. We now have a tradition of CEOs making significantly more than the average worker (361 times as much as of 2018), a dying middle class (less than 50 percent of the population as of 2015), and rollbacks in regulation. Without Reagan, many of our socioeconomic problems today would not have been as pronounced.
President Reagan’s foreign policy is even more influential. President Reagan increased military spending occured, a trend still ongoing. In relations with the Soviets, President Reagan spoke more aggressively than President Carter but still ended up utilizing multilateral talks and negotiations to deal with the Soviets as President Carter did. Though Reagan certainly helped speed up the fall of the Soviet Union, without him, it still would have fallen but maybe a few more years into the 1990s, something those who replaced a two-term Carter would have to deal with.
In the Middle East, the United States likely would not have armed the Mujahideen to fight communism in Afghanistan as Reagan did, nor other anti-Soviet leaders like Osama bin Laden, and his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, which were empowered by our help. The Persian Gulf War would have probably still occurred. Key to the end of the Gulf War in our timeline was President Bush’s decision not to topple Saddam, as his son would do in 2003, leading to decades of instability in Iraq. But without Reagan, there is no President Bush in 1991 to make this decision and the President of that time may make the blunder of removing Saddam and his Ba’ath Party, essentially pushing up the terrorism problems of the 2000s into the 1990s. Either way, 9/11 never occurs because there would be no al-Qaeda to pull it off and/or terrorism would have already been an issue in the American mindset that was being suppressed globally. This would have altered today’s American politics in an unrecognizable way. All of Reagan’s policies helped lead to our current, miserable state in 2019, and for that we can thank the Iranian sand that brought him.
We must remember in these trying times that none of this is really our fault. Even in my microscale example from the beginning. I was only hit by a crackhead on a device that could not have been made without the first establishment of the metric system as a result of the French Revolution and Jacques Necker’s schemes. I met a homeless vet who’s life was probably ruined as a result of the Vietnam War which only happened because of seeds Woodrow Wilson planted because Republican delegates chose Taft over Teddy. I almost went into a Target that was robbed by a desperate person who is only desperate probably in part due to policies that only occured, because of, well, sand. The butterfly effect is real. People can make management mistakes like Necker, or seemingly innocent and short sighted but deadly decisions like at the 1912 Convention or sometimes, Mother Nature gets in the way like it did in Iran. While obviously history shapes the present by definition, it is important to know that these few annoying people or natural phenomena led to the awfulness of the world today. But I don’t think we’re screwed necessarily. It’s my hope that my generation won’t make the same mistakes, be mindless in our decision making, or have nature foil our plans that keeps me going, as fragile to the whims of history we may be.