... why they had a real empire and we didn't.
It is a truism among world historians that the two longest-running crimes in modern world history were the Atlantic Slave Trade (c. 1550-1850) and the British Opium Trade (c. 1798-1905).
The British people had an addiction to tea that, in many ways, mirrors the American addiction to foreign oil [but the tea tasted better].
The problem: tea grew only in China, which was not only halfway around the world, but the Emperor controlled the trade and demanded payment for tea in gold bullion.
This created an enormous economic threat to the British, as exchanging a durable form of wealth [gold] for a consumable [tea] on a long-term basis is not really a transaction, but an ongoing transfer of wealth.
Eventually, all the gold ends up in China and the tea stays there as well. So what to do?
The British had also acquired India during the late 18th Century [in our history books Lord Cornwallis is the man who lost at Yorktown, guaranteeing our independence; in Indian history books he's the bastard whose conquests finally turned India into a colony], and some merchants hoped they could grow tea there. No such luck.
But what they could grow was opium poppies. So the British had this magnificent idea.
They'd grow the poppies and produce opium. British smuggling vessels would then slip into the wide, navigable rivers of China, head upstream and sell [quite illegally under Chinese law] opium to the millions of people in the Chinese interior.
But they'd only sell it for gold. Then they'd use the gold they received from selling the opium to purchase tea.
Now the Chinese are effectively selling their tea for gold that was already in the country, which allows the British to exchange one consumable [opium] for another [tea].
This simple mechanism lay at the basis of complex colonial economics around the world.
Now how could America have applied this principle to stay out of our current mess?
First, realize that we are sending dollars overseas primarily to China (hello, Wal-Mart); India (hello, outsourcing); the Middle East (hello, oil); and even Mexico (outsourcing plus money sent home by undocumented workers). These dollars got parked with their new owners who were looking for ways to make them pay off in investments. The greatest growth appearing to take place was in, you guessed it, the US.
So with the insight of the British opium traders, brokers in India, China, the Middle East, and even Mexico have used the dollars we sent them to purchase more American properties, loans, derivatives, etc.
We would have appeared to have become the Chinese opium-smoking peasants in the equation, as our own durables [real estate] and investment instruments have been purchased with the money we are still bleeding.
Options? Well, we could have supported American tobacco companies as they attempted to penetrate the Chinese and Indian markets, encouraging those folks to trade dollars back to us for a consumable, but that would have been ... unethical!?
We could have actually encouraged American automobile makers to try to penetrate the Asian and African markets with a vehicle like the new Tata Nano that is starting to sweep across Asia. But that would have made ... too much sense.
No, we're apparently not bright enough to fund our imperial growth with OPM [Other People's Money], and we're damn sure not bright enough to realize that you can't keep exporting your currency forever and thing nothing bad will come of it.
Interesting point, by the way: when the opium trade tailed off, the British Empire fell into decline.
Funny how that happens.