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American declinism
January 31, 2010 12:34 PM   Subscribe

The End of Influence - the latest in a long series documenting the US' relative decline (esp wrt China 1 2 3 4 5) Brad DeLong and Stephen Cohen reflect on what has brought us to our past, but now fast-fading glory: "Roosevelt's strategy [entering WW2] was to make Britain broke before American taxpayers' money was committed in any way to the fight against Hitler." Before delving into our present predicament, however, it might also be useful to briefly consider some of the lessons from Bretton Woods and what the wealth of nations is really built upon.
posted by kliuless (39 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Someone at Berkley really needs to update the Common Look & Feel guidelines for intro audio.
posted by Decimask at 12:51 PM on January 31, 2010


[this is interesting, thanks]
posted by Decimask at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2010


The competitive drive for "influence" is what sent us into our forty-year tailspin. We had to be the ones burning holes in South Asia. We had to be the ones with the biggest nuclear dicks at the UN. We had to have the most consumer goods, no matter the debt. We had to have the most bases in the most countries.

Has any sane person ever given a rat's ass about being "the most powerful nation in the world". Ever?

Protip: the question is rhetorical. The correct answer is 'no'.
posted by clarknova at 1:00 PM on January 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


We're hairy and horny and ready to shack
We don't care if you're yellow or black
Just take off your clothes and lie down on your back
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World
posted by orthogonality at 1:08 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Needs more Stephen Colbert
posted by KokuRyu at 1:41 PM on January 31, 2010


Dosn't anyone realize that it would actually be impossible for the U.S. to "Stay on Top" and have a higher economic output then a country with almost three times the population?

Matt Yglesias is fond of making this point: After WWII Europe was in tatters, demolished, and the rest of the world was just on the cusp of the industrial revolution. We were the only industrial country in the world that hadn't been destroyed or damaged and we were still the third largest country in the world. The largest industrialized country in the world!

Of course we were on top at the time! And, btw, the European Union has a larger economy and is probably about as economically integrated as the U.S. So why is it always a comparison with China and not the EU? Historical reasons, I guess.

But the other thing to consider is, that it's not so much a decline but rather China's improvement? How could we possibly grow more quickly then them given that all they had to do was copy what we'd done in the past. But there are no blueprints for the future in America, only ideas. We are the pioneers -- for now anyway. We have to make choices and things sometimes don't work out.

(And we also seem to have a paralyzed government as well, which is obviously hampering our ability to deal with current problems.)

Here's the thing. The idea that the U.S has 'declined' compared to china is based on the absurd belief that Americans have to be three times as productive as anyone in China. That's ridiculous. Might be possible with a pre-industrial society but there is no way that that can be sustainable forever.

But most economists believe that even with China's growth rate, it's unlikely that they'll eclipse us in per capita GDP even in the next century.
posted by delmoi at 2:08 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


After WWII Europe was in tatters, demolished, and the rest of the world was just on the cusp of the industrial revolution. We were the only industrial country in the world that hadn't been destroyed or damaged and we were still the third largest country in the world. The largest industrialized country in the world!

We call this "The American Century" because of bad perspective. WWII created a blip in European history. Studying history and philosophy in Europe is fascinating because America is just a shoulder shrug there. Once the EU crests and China wakes fully, peace will come to the Middle East because of the prosperity of trade between the eastern and western extremes of Eurasia.

The present state of the Middle East is the ripple of a power vacuum arising from the fall of the Ottoman Empire. A significant factor for this was the strategy by European powers to circumvent the Middle East and turn their attention to the New World. Just as maps with the Americas in the center show, this emphasis on the New World turned Europe and Asia into coasts on the edge of the American world. WWII wrought sufficient devastation in those regions for the US to temporarily take control of the world. The Middle East fell into ruin because the prosperity of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries was a direct result of a conscientious plan to circumvent the Middle East's iron grip on global commerce.

New strategies will attempt to circumvent the US in the same way. The logical corridors for development are southern Russia and the Middle East--all primarily Islamic regions. The coming centuries will see a new flowering of Islamic thought.

The US will hang on to power for a long time because it has (1) the inertia of power, (2) military stockpiles, (3) control of two oceans, (4) the largest population of literate, healthy workers on earth, (5) the best university system in the world, (6) lingering brain drain from less developed nations.
posted by jefficator at 2:20 PM on January 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


darn kliuless what a spoiler, I was just about to order the book
posted by infini at 2:20 PM on January 31, 2010


Of course we were on top at the time! And, btw, the European Union has a larger economy and is probably about as economically integrated as the U.S. So why is it always a comparison with China and not the EU? Historical reasons, I guess.

If by "Historical reasons" you mean "yellow-peril racism", you win a prize!
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:25 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before delving into our present predicament

*tweet* Assuming the conclusion, two minutes in the box.

There is no reason on earth to think that declining relative influence is in any way, shape, or form a predicament. Sweden and New Zealand have no meaningful influence on the international climate. Both are doing, at minimum, doing just fine, and in most respects do better for their citizens than the US.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:30 PM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's the thing about "China, Country of the Future" arguments. First, we've never been very good at predicting the "Country of the Future." For a while it was the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then, of course...Brazil! Second, China isn't really one country--like the old Soviet Union, it's several. Nationalism will out, and the "Chinese" will have to come to terms with it. That's usually very "expensive," as an economist might say. Third, China is ruled by a single party. That's gotta change, and it will. That transition is also going to be quite "expensive." Since the US is really one country (outside Vermont) and we've already got multi-party democracy, it remains, historically speaking, miles ahead of "China."

And then there is the fact that we have their money, not the other way around...
posted by MarshallPoe at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


This pessimistic analysis ignores the emerging Obama boom.
posted by humanfont at 2:57 PM on January 31, 2010


And then there is the fact that we have their money, not the other way around...

** Technician doing routine maintenance on the NY debt clock display notices a bit of duct tape near the top right and pulls it off. Sign now reads: **

OUR NATIONAL DEBT-1


OH SNAP!
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 3:04 PM on January 31, 2010


The US will hang on to power for a long time because it has (1) the inertia of power, (2) military stockpiles, (3) control of two oceans, (4) the largest population of literate, healthy workers on earth, (5) the best university system in the world, (6) lingering brain drain from less developed nations.

4-6 are approaching falsehood at this point, if they aren't already. Education in both China and India is excellent, and only improving. NA immigration policies (and economies) discourage non-wealthy educated individuals from coming here, as there are basically no opportunities and their degrees are not recognized by trade organizations. People move here to retire and raise children, not to work.

I'll add that the USA has been persistent in maintaining the Middle East power vacuum - their foreign policy for the last 50 years (and the next 50) is best understood as long-term energy policy. By maintaining a conflict they have the ability to act without resistance. They're not really interested in the oil as much as the natural gas, and associated pipelines, for which they are in direct competition with Russia & China. Meanwhile, in their backyard, China has successfully negotiated for Canadian assets. The USA has apparently decided to become a dedicated military state to attempt to maintain their influence at the cost of all else, but that is a pretty damn short-sighted play. They are betting the farm on energy security, if you'll excuse the literal metaphor.
posted by mek at 3:50 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jefficator: Favorites++ on that... A beautiful summary.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 4:37 PM on January 31, 2010


We call this "The American Century" because of bad perspective. WWII created a blip in European history. Studying history and philosophy in Europe is fascinating because America is just a shoulder shrug there. Once the EU crests and China wakes fully, peace will come to the Middle East because of the prosperity of trade between the eastern and western extremes of Eurasia.
That's kind of ridiculous. These days stuff just gets dumped on a container ship (or 747) and sent along. There's no reason for being on a trade rout to have much of an impact. I mean look how many ships go through the Suez canal, but Egypt certainly isn't more prosperous then it's oil-bearing neighbors. Really, how exactly is "trade" between Asia and Europe supposed to create "wealth" for the Middle East?

Certainly it will create less prosperity then oil. And by the way, Oil has created a huge amount of prosperity, and no peace.

And furthermore, look at a map. Draw a line between Beijing and Paris. It doesn't go through the middle east at all.
Third, China is ruled by a single party. That's gotta change, and it will.
The vast majority of people (population adjusted) for the vast majority of time have been ruled by "one party", normally by a king or empire. It's American style democracy that's new and, in historical terms, somewhat untested.
posted by delmoi at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


it doesn't really matter what is said in words
posted by infini at 4:58 PM on January 31, 2010


We call this "The American Century" because of bad perspective. WWII created a blip in European history. Studying history and philosophy in Europe is fascinating because America is just a shoulder shrug there. Once the EU crests and China wakes fully, peace will come to the Middle East because of the prosperity of trade between the eastern and western extremes of Eurasia.

I was struck by this too, I have no idea how anyone can look at a globe and draw the conclusion that
a. Overland shipping is going to completely supersede waterborn freight
b. Strong overland freight traffic will be established south of the Caspian and Black Seas, running through many countries of varying political stability
c. This will somehow cause peace to break out in the Middle East
posted by uri at 5:08 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


People who fear China are silly. People who ignore China are harmless (stupid, yes, but harmless).

The real threat is people who pay attention to China but draw the wrong conclusions.

People see that the Chinese are earning an ever-increasing share of the world's STEM advanced degrees (from US universities as well as their own) and derive from that the belief that America needs to get millions more mediocre teenagers aspiring to spend six prime working years, and $100k or more of taxpayer dollars, to maybe eek out a BA in marketing or social work.

People see that China has devoted some low-single-digit percentage of its industrial policy budget to developing sustainable-energy manufacturing -- and take from that the conclusion that we ought to strangle American industry with carbon taxes or refuse utilities the right to modernize their coal plants or build LNG terminals.

People see that the Chinese are making deals for natural resources all over Asia and Africa and somehow fail to conclude that we ought to make the same kind of deals ourselves.

People see that China has become the world's champion in growing consumer-goods manufacturing by relentlessly and (relatively) unsentimentally optimizing physical and labor capital -- and decide that what America needs is to make sure that factories pay marked-up costs for energy (see above), have workforces which can be unionized by way of a card-check and then entitled to arbitration imposing the highest-possible wage and benefit packages and all possible forms of workplace policy and practice litigation, and tackling whatever profits might be left to those who invest in factories with higher income taxes and capital gains taxes.
posted by MattD at 5:46 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was struck by this too, I have no idea how anyone can look at a globe and draw the conclusion that
a. Overland shipping is going to completely supersede waterborn freight
b. Strong overland freight traffic will be established south of the Caspian and Black Seas, running through many countries of varying political stability
c. This will somehow cause peace to break out in the Middle East


The simple answer is this: there is no legitimate reason for the Middle East to be a political wasteland. It has always been a hotbed of empire, but it has never been the rubbish heap it has been for two hundred years. For most of human history, trade between Europe and Asia was overland through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and China. Tariffs and taxes allowed these areas to prosper. Further, the money spent along the route by merchants was "free" wealth pouring into the coffers of the kingdoms or empires along the route. (There was a FPP maybe three weeks ago about the splendid trading posts along this route).

Demonstrably, the discovery of the Americas by Europeans was an effort to circumvent the stranglehold that Islamic kingdoms held on this trade route. There was no military potential to challenge those powers for control. Europe did not want to pay to go through, so it was motivated to find a way to go around. It did so. From the particular vantage point of the United States, this has been a remarkably good move: the world has literally reoriented.

The US and Western Europe benefit from a weak Middle East. Oil is cheap and trade follows routes that profit established interests. As wealth in China and India grow, capital will amass that seeks an investment. Intelligent, patriotic, but relatively powerless individuals will attempt to acquire that capital to construct profitable infrastructure through presently undeveloped regions of the Middle East. Already happening now: Turkey wants to join the EU. Dissidents are protesting in Iran and seeking to make the government more responsive and open. Georgia and "Kurdistan" are struggling for relevance. China is asserting control in Western provinces and populating them with ethnic Han. The US is attempting to impose order in Afghanistan.

The West is increasingly displeased with dependence on the Middle East for oil. The Middle East is increasingly displeased with its own geo-political irrelevancy. Terrorism is the more visible effect of this because it disrupts our way of life. A more salient effect that we won't notice for a few decades is the burgeoning interested in infrastructure. Sheiks can only own so many solid gold Cadillacs. The money has to go somewhere, and it is going to go into development, because development is an investment. The development will be accompanied by imposed stability because stabilized development is more lucrative than chaos. The Middle Eastern parties will have an interest in stability. It is no accident that "Kurdistant" is the most stable part of Iraq today.

Overland trade routes between Europe and China will be cheaper for Europe and for China. The routes will be profitable for Europe, China, and the Middle East. Wealth will bring stability because the wealth is not concentrated in the hands of a few like with natural resources, but open to entrepreneurial interest.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Chaos in Europe and the Middle East has for three hundred years made a crooked line straighter. Wealth is a powerful motivator. In our lifetime, the route from Europe to Asia will contract considerably. Culture and politics will fall into place to make this happen.

Follow the money.
posted by jefficator at 6:20 PM on January 31, 2010


The Americas need Eurasia. Eurasia does not need the Americas. Guns, Germs, and Steel is prophecy as much as it is explanation.
posted by jefficator at 6:23 PM on January 31, 2010


Has any sane person ever given a rat's ass about being "the most powerful nation in the world". Ever?

Protip: the question is rhetorical. The correct answer is 'no'.


Ah ... but the word "sane" is the giveaway, innit?

Power is pathology, and all governments are "dementocracies:" Rule by the twisted, yeah?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:25 PM on January 31, 2010


The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Chaos in Europe and the Middle East has for three hundred years made a crooked line straighter. Wealth is a powerful motivator. In our lifetime, the route from Europe to Asia will contract considerably. Culture and politics will fall into place to make this happen.

I did what you said, and this is what I came up with.

A straight-ish line

I was lazy and did it with the pencil tool, so I apologize for the wobble. It's a much more direct overland route than anything involving the Middle East. I know freight transport is more complicated than drawing lines on maps and that infrastructure development would play a part, but I still think your conclusions are bit sweeping given the evidence you put forward.
posted by uri at 6:43 PM on January 31, 2010


The Americas need Eurasia. Eurasia does not need the Americas.

I guess that depends on how one defines "need". Fiat currency/international trade/consumer goods need or actual survival need? As far as actual survival need The Americas are quite capable of being self sufficienct it's just cheaper and easier not to be.
posted by MikeMc at 7:12 PM on January 31, 2010


I did what you said, and this is what I came up with.

The earth is a sphere. The shortest distance between two points on a sphere that's then flattened to a 2D map is not a straight line. It's admittedly more straight than the same line drawn at 60°N, but still, not straight.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:43 AM on February 1, 2010


There is no reason on earth to think that declining relative influence is in any way, shape, or form a predicament.

i agree :P the predicament was more referring to high unemployment (in part i think as a result of wage differentials, the US' relative decline in manufacturing and, i would argue, an overbuilt financial sector...)

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 7:28 AM on February 1, 2010


Erg. Here we go again, with the armchair futurists trying to predict the future- undoubtedly with as much success as the futurists in the 1970s who were predicting an inevitable Soviet triumph, or at least a permanent detente. You'd think they would have learned better, but this brand of professional pessimist is immune to experience.

I won't make predictions, but I will say this: assuming that increased prosperity of other nations is a bad thing is incredibly sloppy thinking. Increased prosperity doesn't lead to marginalization, it leads to the potential for increased prosperity all around, and an increase in nations having common interests. I mean honestly, would we really prefer Europe to be separate nations that are poor and at each other's throats?
posted by happyroach at 12:19 PM on February 1, 2010


I just read an interesting article about trying to find the policies that will create economic growth, in an old issue of The New York Review of Books (10/8/09). The author, William Easterly, looks at a couple of books, Leonard Midinow's Drunkard's Walk and Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans: the Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism through the lens of his own work.

He points out that the factors that lead to growth, if they are examined closely, are essentially random. Some nation has a large supply product that they can sell to a large market in another nation, and so they see a huge jump in their economic growth. Sometimes that's harnessed to create even more, because the new product that also has a great market, sometimes it isn't, but every theory about what sort of policy creates growth runs up on the problem of counter-examples, where the policy was followed and failed. The problem is compounded by what he refers to as the Law of Small Numbers, where your data points are so scarce that any new one can throw your old statistics out the window (if you're honest enough with yourself to include it), and choosing one or another as a flier can completely change the results of an analysis.

The US had a great run of luck, for instance the way we came out of WWII with our industrial base not just intact, but freshly rebuilt for the war effort, while the rest of the world was in tatters. That run of luck seems to be coming to its end now...but the thing about luck is that it doesn't run, every throw of the dice is independent of every one before, and some fresh accident could put the US back on the upswing again.

That's not to say that policy doesn't make any difference, since bad policy can squander good luck, just as good policy can make the best of bad luck. It just means that there are forces at play that can barely be harnessed, and confusing turns of luck with good play is extremely easy to do under the best of circumstances, so deciding what is effective or ineffective policy, beyond the broadest strokes, is just another crapshoot.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:00 PM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm just so impressed by Jefficator's comments that I am going wonder out loud whatever happened to Gen Y? Where's their voice? Why are we hearing some of the sharpest insights from the digital babes born after the PC hit our homes? But nothing from their few years seniors?
posted by infini at 1:54 PM on February 1, 2010


assuming that increased prosperity of other nations is a bad thing

they're not...
Sino-American partnership, in managing the complex mess of their imbalanced economic codependency, can constitute a good beginning for managing the utterly unhinged problems of world balance and order. We have no acceptable choice but to get good at it, and that will take some doing on both sides.
cf. Lessons and Impressions from China: "Too many in the West see Chinese economic growth as competitive to Western economic interests. To the contrary, a richer China, with more consumers of expensive products and producers of sophisticated ideas, benefits us."

the factors that lead to growth, if they are examined closely, are essentially random

fwiw, i think to the extent that factor endowments and the 'accident of geography' is random, yea, but back to 'what the wealth of nations is really built upon' -- rules, institutions, culture and ideas also matter, viz. Robert Allen on Why the Industrial Revolution Was in Britain
posted by kliuless at 2:11 PM on February 1, 2010


Related: James Fallow's most recent article for The Atlantic is penned after he and his wife spent the last couple three years living in Beijing. It is entitled "How America Can Rise Again"
posted by bz at 5:57 PM on February 1, 2010


James Fallows is always very informative and persuasive, so long as I know little or nothing about what he writing about.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:30 AM on February 2, 2010


clarknova: Has any sane person ever given a rat's ass about being "the most powerful nation in the world". Ever?

ROU_Xenophobe: Sweden and New Zealand have no meaningful influence on the international climate. Both are doing, at minimum, doing just fine, and in most respects do better for their citizens than the US.

With all due respect, there's a fundamental distinction in international politics that I think you're missing. It's the distinction between the people who are happy with the way things are, and want to keep it that way (the status quo); and the people who aren't, and seek to change it. If the most powerful countries in the world support the status quo, as is the case now, then countries which benefit from the status quo (like Sweden and New Zealand) will do just fine.

If the most powerful countries in the world are opposed to the status quo, on the other hand--as in the 1930s, when Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan were all opposed to the status quo, the United States had demilitarized after the First World War, and Britain and France were reluctant to go to war again--you can expect big trouble.

The question on the table, then, is: as China becomes more powerful relative to the United States, will it seek to maintain the status quo, or to overthrow it? My own guess is that China will certainly seek to reclaim Taiwan, but even there, would prefer to avoid using force; and that China is unlikely to push aggressively beyond its historical boundaries. But I'm no expert on Chinese politics, and I know Chinese nationalism is pretty strong. Ironically, I suspect a more democratic Chinese government would be more aggressive and less restrained than the current dictatorship.

Washington Post: China's strident tone raises concerns among Western governments, analysts

Assuming the United States does become less powerful in relation to the rest of the world, as the rest of the world catches up economically and the US turns to solving long-standing problems at home, US foreign policy will need to set priorities and focus on more limited objectives. Outside the Western Hemisphere, the bare minimum is probably to maintain friendly relations with Western Europe, especially Britain; and with Japan. Trying to go head to head with Russia, China, or Iran in their respective spheres of influence seems like a bad idea.

In Asia, the focus of US foreign policy should be Japan, not China. A recent Economist column on China's diplomacy towards Japan.
posted by russilwvong at 7:48 AM on February 3, 2010


Yeah, I forgot to mention in my link to Fallow's article that you should only read it if you don't fancy yourself a know-it-all.
posted by bz at 12:02 PM on February 3, 2010


I don't know it all. But when I do know about it, Fallows's erudition is much less impressive than when he's telling me about something where I don't have enough knowledge to judge his, and that makes me trust him a lot less than I used to.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:12 PM on February 3, 2010


That makes no sense to me. Your sense of trust in Fallows decreases when you know more about a subject then Fallows or because, when you know more, what you know isn't the same as what Fallows knows?
posted by bz at 3:34 PM on February 4, 2010


When I know little or nothing about the subject, Fallows seems quite informative and persuasive. But when I do know something about it, he is the opposite.

That makes me suspect that I'm simply seduced by his writing when I don't have any reference points to judge it by. It's like when you catch someone in a lie, after that you are suspicious of everything he says. Fallows isn't quite a liar, but his positions are for the most part just prettily written conventional knowledge without significant insight. He's like a smarter version of Thomas Friedman.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:05 AM on February 6, 2010


Fallows isn't quite a liar, but his positions are for the most part just prettily written conventional knowledge without significant insight.

In my world, I call that masterful synthesis.
posted by bz at 2:42 PM on February 9, 2010




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