I understand that the world economy is still mighty shaky, and a lot of folks are nervous, but the negativism is really starting to bum me out. The United States is in decline, China is struggling to get to the “next level,” and Europe is crashing and burning.
As a longtime cynic and pessimist, I am outraged. “Excuse me! I was working this side of the street!”
As usual, China news is mixed. While the growth situation over here continues to be better than in the rest of the world, you can’t always tell that by reading the news. On any given day, you can find this sort of thing:
4. Local governments are pretty f&@$(# at the moment, particularly when it comes to land issues and budgets.
7. Gun ownership and violence, although illegal, is on the rise in some circles.
8. Land disputes continue, with some folks going so far as to construct homemade artillery to forestall eviction.
9. International disputes over trade and the value of the RMB proceed apace. Beijing has made some cosmetic/structural changes to its currency policy in lieu of substantive change, hoping no one notices the difference.
10. Chinese airlines are looking to install new tech that would allow in-flight use of mobile phones. I predict a run on “noise canceling” headphones.
Rather a grim state of affairs, at least according to the media over here. The American press is not any better, of course. Instead of my compiling another depressing list of U.S. problems, however, all we need to do (for efficiency’s sake) is take a look at a recent article by the New York Times Bob Herbert, which gave me a feeling similar to what I felt after watching the film Revolutionary Road (i.e., I wanted to poke myself repeatedly, and not gently, with a sharp stick).
Herbert’s thesis: the U.S. is going to hell. He cites the following lost opportunities as evidence:
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when most of the world had lined up in support of the United States, President George W. Bush had the chance to lead a vast cooperative, international effort to combat terrorism and lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, more secure world.
Result: the Iraq War. Oops.
In the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we had not just the chance but an obligation to call on our best talent to creatively rebuild the historic city of New Orleans. That could have kick-started a major renovation of the nation’s infrastructure and served as the incubator for a new and desperately needed urban policy.
Result: Not a hell of a lot. Yikes.
The collapse of the economy in the Great Recession gave us the starkest, most painful evidence imaginable of the failure of laissez-faire economics and the destructive force of the alliance of big business and government against the interests of ordinary Americans. Radical change was called for.
Result: Weak health care bill, inadequate financial reform laws, and corporations can now spend as much money as they want on political campaigns. Maybe next time.
The oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, as horrible as it has been, was yet another opportunity.
Probable result: Hello, we’re dealing with the oil industry?
Herbert sums up the malaise with this thoroughly depressing sentence, which reminds me of the late 70s:
As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.
Ouch. Prepare the razor blades and turn on the hot water in the bathtub.
Interesting that Herbert points to a feeling of helplessness. In his article, he is of course talking about the lack of innovation by the government, which seems incapable these days of solving any significant national problems.
That feeling of helplessness is often front and center with a lot of the China issues I listed above. Forcible evictions, shady land deals, cops beating/killing people in custody, bad food/water/air, labor complaints — a lot of complaining, but it’s difficult to find adequate solutions.
On the other hand, I do think the Chinese government is at least trying to find solutions, or at least they are talking about policy fixes. The news is chock full of stories about: tax reform, health care, rebooting social insurance, education, subsidies for cars and appliances, environmental policy, anti-corruption campaigns.
Talk is cheap, though, and despite all the happy talk from both Obama and Hu about new legislation, the income gap in both countries has gotten worse, both nations have huge environmental problems, and the financial sector in both places remains a big question mark (for different reasons).
Conventional international thinking is that China is on the rise and is experiencing growing pains, while the U.S. is on a slow and inexorable decline. That’s an easy, black and white, distinction to make, but everyone really knows that a general sense of FUBARishness has pervaded the psyche of just about everyone.
In a response to Herbert’s column, Arianna Huffington, channeling business school blather and a bit of Tom Friedman, says that innovation will save the day:
[W]e have to embrace the sense that great things are still possible and that our best days still lie ahead. That mindset is a prerequisite for innovation and getting things done. Without it, the seeds of innovation wither in a soil that is an arid mix of negativism and defeatism. With it, America can put a commitment to innovation front and center, the way countries as diverse as China, Australia, Finland, Singapore, Canada and India are doing.
Ah, positivism! Imagine success, and it shall come to you. Norman Vincent Huffington tells us that a bit of solid American gumption, and some math and science education, will propel the nation back to greatness.
Strangely enough, Beijing is hoping for the same thing to push the Middle Kingdom to the next level. Just read any speech given by Tian Lipu (head of the SIPO, China’s patent office) in the past few years, and you’ll get plenty of propaganda about innovation and the knowledge society, replete with lots of statistics about patent filings by Chinese companies.
As I’ve said before, no country really knows how to push innovation, at least not quickly. And yet innovation is seen as the great hope of the future to ailing nations like the U.S. and China.
Innovation and growth will save our sorry asses, don’t you worry. In the U.S., innovation will turn into new technology that will employ folks, provide new infrastructure, and solve energy problems. In China, innovation and growth will raise wages, somehow reduce the income gap, and provide sufficient funds for health care, education, pensions, and environmental cleanups.
This is all bullshit of course. The U.S. will eventually have to face the music for years of infrastructure neglect and a crappy energy policy. China will continue to grow, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to channel that growth into the most productive measures (and out of the pockets of all the new millionaires and billionaires); it also still needs to pay for some of the inconvenient side effects of breakneck growth, like environmental damage and non-performing loans.
If the negativity is accurate, and both the U.S. and China have such formidable challenges ahead with little besides vague notions of “innovation” to keep policy makers warm at night, I for one may need to start writing positive, apologist tracts on a regular basis, if nothing else but to keep up the spirits of the china/divide staff. I don’t want anyone to have a moment of clarity and, faced with irreconcilable moral editorial imperatives, take a Javertish header into the Seine, or the nearest appropriate polluted body of water.
Chin up, lads. Let’s move forward. Ours is not to make reply, and all that sort of thing. I’m not referring to you readers out there, of course. You may comment to your heart’s content.
As long as it’s positive.