Friday, February 27, 2009

The Future of American Pre-eminence?

When I was a reporter and we wanted to write a clever, engaging headline - or at least one that appeared clever and engaging - we always wrote it as a question. "SAT shows show Summit County on the decline?", "Gender inequities show women dominate higher education?", and so forth. Sometimes the question headline was posing a legitimate question, such as "Was man shot near Kamas?" about a guy who may or may not have been shot. We kind of stole it from the Deseret News, which wrote so many question headlines as to completely depreciate whatever value a question mark may have had.

And so we come to it: The Future of American Pre-eminence? Is there such an thing?

I am inspired to ask this following two key, formative moments in the last week. One was catching up with an expat friend of mine from China whom I am visiting here in the Aloha State.

Jared examines a pineapple at the Dole Plantation. Sadly, Bob Dole was not there for a visit. :(

As a DC-based former Bush Administration appointee (known colloquially to some as a "Bushie"), I am currently on the job market -- not a particularly great time to be doing so as 1) the town is now run by Democrats, and 2) the economy is otherwise in a less than ideal place. There are critics of President Bush who would say this might be just reward for helping him. (I am not one of such critics, obviously.)

In dicussing this, my Chinese friend had a very simple answer, he said, "Jared, when you are looking for a job, don't pull out a map of DC: pull out a map of the world." Essentially, he was suggesting that I cut and run on the good ol' USA and find employ for my post-White House media skills in a booming market such as Shanghai where the cost of living is (relatively) low, the salaries are high, and small-nosed Asian women are plentiful.

Shanghai, Pearl of the Orient

He continued that through time, different nations had had "their turn" - the Romans, the Spanish, the French, the English have all been top dog. The Americans have had their turn, he said, but now things are winding down for us.

The economic downturn threatens to be more than just temporary, we discussed. The Great Depression was staggering, but never really destroyed America's economic bedrock: its manufacturing base. In essence, the fundamentals of our economy were still strong back then, regardless of the profundity of the slowdown.

However, even though this economic situation is comparatively much, much smaller (7 percent unemployment vs. 20 percent in the Great Depression), there is much about our fundamentals to indicate that pulling ourselves out of this slump might not be possible, such as inexorable problems with our:
  • Education. China and India produce millions more scientists and engineers every year than we possibly can.
  • Health care. We spent $2.4 trillion on health care last year, far more than we can possibly afford, and our nation is wracked with an epidemic of obesity, perhaps the single largest (pun intended) indicator of a person's poor health.
  • Investor confidence. New York is losing its cachet as the world's premiere financial market. We can deride investment bankers for exorbitant salaries, but when they EARN those salaries and bring billions of dollars fround around the world into our economy, frankly we all benefit. But with the loss of confidence in those IB jag-offs, international investors are increasingly looking to places like London or Hong Kong or Dubai or Shanghai to send their money.
  • Public commitments. The nation is now in $10 TRILLION in debt, with record-shattering, back-to-back deficits from both Republican and Democrat Administrations. Not only that put our commitments to Medicare and Social Security will be ruthlessly unaffordable once the Baby Boomers retire (and not only start drawing from the public treasury but stop contributing to it).
  • Collapse of the newspaper industry. There is no reason to believe that government and corporate leaders will start behaving more responsibly in the absence of the intelligent, persistent watch-dogging of a robust fourth estate.
It was a reasonably depressing conversation. One doesn't want to be all doom and gloom, but one also wants to have a realistic plan for the rest of one's life.

But then the second, key formative moment this week was reading this Friedman article in today's NYT. A friend of mine in my ward put it up as her G-chat sig and I give full props to her. My favorite line was:

“No other country can substitute for the U.S.,” a senior Korean official remarked to me. “The U.S. is still No. 1 in military, No. 1 in economy, No. 1 in promoting human rights and No. 1 in idealism. Only the U.S. can lead the world. No other country can. China can’t. The E.U. is too divided, and Europe is militarily far behind the U.S. So it is only the United States ... We have never had a more unipolar world than we have today.”

The rest of the article is great too. Essentially the message is no other nation is as qualified to lead the world as the United States, and coming from an America-hating organization like the NYT, that's a pretty good endorsement indeed.

So I guess I'll stay in America ... unless some media mogul in Shanghai sees this and wants to give me a job......

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