The Decline of Everything, and Why Innovation Won’t Save Us

I Wish To Register A Complaint!

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:

1. Someone somewhere died, and/or is complaining about, tainted food or unsafe products.

2. The environment is plotting against us, conveniently in places where we have dumped a lot of crap into the air/soil/water. People are getting sick, blah, blah, blah.

3. Workers are unhappy and are striking/killing themselves. Wages are going up, but mostly at factories owned by foreigners.

4. Local governments are pretty f&@$(# at the moment, particularly when it comes to land issues and budgets.

5. (Related to #4) The corruption cases keep coming, making it seem like everyone is “on the take.” Investigations start, officials get nervous and jump out of windows, in front of trains, and so on.

6. Violence, sometimes horrific in nature, is on the rise along with property and drug-related crimes. Apparently hordes of purse snatchers own the streets of Shenzhen, along with the hookers.

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).

Romantic Painting of the Ruins of Detroit (circa 2150)

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.

I Can Haz Innovation?

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.


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  1. Daniel

    Stan, what is your point?

    • This post was more observational than argumentative. However, these observations included:

      1. Both China and the U.S. are going to hell, despite the “China on the rise” and “U.S. is on the wane” narratives.

      2. Innovation policy is not a panacea.

  2. King Tubby

    I ‘fess up. Im a baby boomer brough up on late 60’s optimism. Stan, after reading the above, I’m going to off myself, and you will bear the responsibility and have to explain things to my mum.

    An op piece which deserves serious philosophical cogitation.

    Nah, this is a good one. Beyond the usual East/West divide also.

  3. whichone

    In your summary of Herbert’s article, you said one of the points he lamented was the lack of innovation from the government at fixing social ills, and then go on to talk about another form of innovation – of the private industries, which impacts future job markets and work forces. It’s important to make the distinction.

    Moreover, I think “believing in the future” is not blind trust that pies will drop from the sky tomorrow, but actions such as setting aside more resources for education and research that generates new job. Innovations are vague at the policy level, because they are undirected research – who would have thought that Einstein’s theoretical papers on relativistic effects of light speed travel would have critical importance to GPS systems decades later, the effects of which would ripple across dozens of industries.

    All this negativity of yours is unnecessarily depressing.

    • Mission accomplished. I was rather depressed when I wrote it, and misery loves company.

      On the distinction between private and public innovation, you’re right. Regardless, however, I find Herbert’s use of “innovation” as some sort of government deus ex machina to be just as laughable as spending money on math education and thinking the patented tech will automatically follow. Creation and commercialization of new tech is a very complicated process that we really don’t understand all that well – otherwise everyone would be doing it.

      In the U.S., government does not require innovation. It needs to somehow get rid of money politics. Good policy ideas are already out there. Herbert is unnecessarily complicating things.

      • Jones

        “Chin up, lads. Let’s move forward.”
        That sounds awfully optimistic. A real pessimist would have just sat there and shrugged his shoulders, sighing between drinks from the cheapest gin available.

    • King Tubby

      You are a true child of the Enlightenment. You may not have noticed, but the Europeon Enlightenment project is all but dead and buried this century. Turning out better educated citizens and job creating innovations thru ****socially desirable forms of resource allocation.

      Give me a break.

      This is the mandatory drivel spouted by most politicians of whatever stripe in western democracies today. IT, bio-sciences and nano technology.

      Rhetoric and spin carted out before every election.

      You have been taking too much notice of that sex crazed poodle Al Gore having problems with his second shakra.

  4. Jones

    About the gun crimes:
    In Jiaxing, back in 2006 or 2007, there was a shooting incident in a bar right in the middle of town a couple of blocks from my apartment. There had been a few stabbings (each resulting in at least one death) at local clubs that year, but this blew my mind. Apparently two gangsters got into it over something, and got into a scuffle. Some unlucky guy tried to break it up and mediate, but was shot by one of the thugs. Then one of the thugs was shot (I heard they both had weapons) and the police came in and shot and killed the surviving gangster. I had never in my life seen so many cops in one place at one time.

    As far as import and export, I read in the link you provided to the Shanghaiist article that China’s law forbids import and export of firearms. My question is: if it’s illegal to export weapons, how does Norinco get away with it?

  5. Goodness

    Workers are unhappy and are striking/killing themselves. Wages are going up, but mostly at factories owned by foreigners.

    What’s wrong with striking workers? It’s a sign that some Chinese laborers realize that the giant shaft emanating from their rectums are not supposed to be there.

    What’s going to be really fun is watching China turn into high consumption society. How to keep buying all of those nasty foreign goodies if more and more foreign companies leave her for greener pastures.

    China wants to become a modern first world power. Well it seems to be showing some of the problems associated with first world countries.

  6. King Tubby

    Crikey, Im all linked out and speaking of links.

    Purse snatchers in Shenzhen….Fivefinger Womens Sprint on the snatch. A totally undecipherable piece by someone who should have given ESL a very big miss. It’s a bloody hoot:

    villagers courageous hero root lee
    …the rental management included in the rule of law, scientific, systematic, standardised, long-term track.
    But two prime egs

    (Almost as good as extruded my night soil.)

    Local/provincial budgets. A lot of people are copping from Victor Shih’s

    A pity he does not post more often.

    As for The Charge of the Light Brigade orderd by Lord Cardigan. At least he got one thing right.

    “One argues with a gentleman but horse whips a scurrilous scribbler”.

    Stan, I think I can explain your state of mind.

    The nattering nabobs of negativism. You have been reading the Readers Digest edition of really uplifting speeches by Spiro Agnew before you count sheep.

    I have banned all Muslims, Catholics and negative thinking in tubbyland, and ordered all citizens to turn every meal into a feast, have lots of (protected) sex and sleep in late. My new strike hard at utopian innovation campaign and I am not accepting any visa applications, okay.

  7. Hm… nice article – looking for someone to cry in your beer, or to give you a Cher slap and tell you to “Snap Out of It”? As for the Detroit jibe… as being one that was born, raised, and worked there, I can only say this – some French guy already did a “poof piece”:

    As for life in general – either you can sit like a bump on the side of the road, or you can grab it by the balls and white knuckle squeeze until it screams soparno.

  8. King Tubby

    Lets add to the China on a hand cart to hell theme and begin at the top.,10

    Scroll thru the list and tick off any of the other 24 strong arm merchants who have inked trade deals with Hu and his cohorts.

    And how does this pan out internally?

    Stability is also costing the country a small fortune. The report says public security cost 514 billion yuan ($90bn) in 2009, an 8.9 per cent increase over 2008.

    The increased spending rate is higher that that of the military budget, and comes as China stalls investment in health and education. It spent less than 1 per cent of GDP on health from 1995 to 2008. In February Xinhua noted that, in 1993, China planned to increase its investment on education up to 4 per cent of GDP but that this had been postponed to 2012.

    (And now members of the PLA are banned from keeping blogs and online diaries.)

    China, the hegenon of the 21st century a la Jacques Martin and all those other western fly-ins who write this triumphalist drivel for airport bookshops.

    A super large Romania in the making.

    This economic miracle. Built on sand, and not to forget the serious environmental blowback already in evidence.

  9. You’d better hurry and read Matt Ridley’s new book Rational Optimist, before you get too depressed. Would love to hear your counter-arguments to his statistics about the steady improvement in humanity’s plight. Energy, pollution, standards of living, etc. etc. — everything’s improving.

    Warning: in spite of all the evidence of improvement, people always think pessimists are wiser and more sagely, so you won’t have as much respect if you predict a better world tomorrow.

  10. friendo

    1-10 represents standard paparazzi fare in all countries- save those like the US where such incisive reporting on social ills is either squelched, censored by the CIA/military apparatchiks, or dismissed as it’s essentially legalized corruption

    • Uh… your having a 50cp knee jerk reaction to which comment again?

    • Jones

      I think you need a bigger tinfoil hat.

      • friendo

        Interesting shill-esque comment, especially since the guy who leaked the “collateral murder” video is being prosecuted right at this moment.

        I guess special special America just deserves to hide videos of their grotesque mass murders of civilians from people?

        • Jones

          In the sense that he leaked something deemed “classified”, yes. Not that I agree with it being classified. However, do you have more than just this example? I’m going to need more information and proof of it being the big, bad CIA.

          In the mean-time, make a tinfoil bodysuit and don’t talk on the pay phone for more than thirty seconds lest they track your position.

          • pug_ster

            That’s a good one. When information is “classified” in the US, it is ‘censored’ in China.

          • Jones

            No, China has classified information too. The difference is that, had I myself witnessed that incident and filmed it, and they banned news organizations from showing it, then that would be “censorship”.

            An example would be all the rumors that are very openly spread about the classified goings-on at the “Area 51″ base. No one is being jailed over talking about a classified subject, but if you steal that classified information, then you’re in trouble.
            Do you understand now?

          • pug_ster

            Yes I do understand, that what you said is pure rhetoric. In the US, there are instances where where Reporters got arrested for crossing the police line when they are trying to report the story. I know that in the Chinese community where I live, there are numerous instances where racist crimes that we beg the local media to get involved. Well, you know what happened.

            No one ever got jailed for talking about a classified subject? Isn’t the whole idea of a ‘classified’ subject is that you can’t talk about it? Especially to the media?

          • Jones

            “No one ever got jailed for talk ing about a clas si fied sub ject? Isn’t the whole idea of a ‘clas si fied’ sub­ject is that you can’t talk about it? Espe cially to the media?”

            If you are in a position of authority, no you can not divulge information in it. Let’s say you’re an officer at Area 51 and you decide you’re going to speak to the media and provide proof that the US is, I don’t know, experimenting with aliens out there. See, you signed a confidentiality agreement, most likely, which is legally binding. Also, you’re giving official information.

            If you’re some nobody that gets on TV and says that you are most certainly sure that they are harvesting alien babies to power super experimental weapons, or whatever it is you want to say they’re doing, then nothing is going to happen to you. People do that all the time. They’re shown on TV, even. They are not arrested.

            Alternatively, talking shit about the government is CENSORED in your country, and a nobody gets on TV and starts railing off about how the government is bad, etc etc, then you can expect trouble. Now do you understand? No it is not rhetoric. There is an actual difference in the law. At least here, there is. In fact, that’s the entire reason the Wikileaks is not being blocked and I and everyone else who made the effort to watch that confidential recording of the incident are not being arrested, but the military officer who took the confidential video and leaked it IS being arrested. Again, another big difference.

            Also, need I remind you that information on this confidential video was all over the news. Wasn’t censored or covered up. Sooooo…

          • friendo

            Clearly the CCP’s strategy then should be to call the Tiananmen Square riots “classified”, and rename Tibet Area 56

          • Jones

            “Clearly the CCP’s strat egy then should be to call the Tianan men Square riots “classified”, and rename Tibet Area 56″

            That would be better than just being censored. Then any information on it, personally witnessed by non-government people, not forced to sign confidentiality agreements, would be available without threat of punishment. As in it would be open for discussion in public. After all, any official documents on it are kept secret as it is anyway.

          • friendo

            It wouldn’t be better, because no one would be getting into Tibet- no one would know what’s happening at all.

          • Jones

            Is travel to Tibet banned? I’m not sure why you put it into your analogy unless it’s banned like public discussion of Tienanmen Square.

          • friendo

            It’s what China would do if they were more American. Shut off entire regions to public access because it’s a threat to interests.

  11. doon

    How can the US have innovation when popular culture despises and taunts the scientists and their science? Ask a hundred US students what they want to be when they grow up, and see how many say scientist? Innovation is just going to come out of dumb twits’ asses I guess.

    • Jones

      Are you being serious? The biggest schools in universities here are the Arts and Sciences schools. You realize that “being a scientist” isn’t like on TV where you stand around in a white coat and protective goggles with wild hair, pouring brightly-colored chemicals from one beaker to another while the rest boil in some graduated cylinder set-up, right? No one despises or taunts scientists. Research is carried out in individual fields by researchers. There is no job called “scientist”.

      • doon

        Are YOU serious? The fact that creationism is even a topic of debate in school districts speaks plenty.

        “There is no job called “scientist””

        Dude, you’re smoking some really good stuff. Didn’t realize it was legal in china.

        • Jones

          My entire “student career” no one ever mentioned Creationism. Hell, I didn’t even hear the word “Creationism” until I was out of high school. No, seriously.

          No, there really isn’t. “Scientist” is a very, very broad term. It gets broken down into smaller titles based on what they research. You can’t expect a “scientist” to be able to cover every single aspect of science. Do you even know anything about the science field at all? Seriously, dude.

          There’s a list of the fields of Science. Now if you can find one person…just ONE person…who’s job it is to research and study every single one of those fields, then I will surrender to the idea that there’s a man out there who’s job title says only “scientist”.

          For example, a good friend of mine is near graduation from medical school. His focus is biomedical and disease research. That’s a science, yet if he gets a job in biomedical research, I seriously doubt his business card would say “scientist” on it. Do you understand now?

    • {smile} Have to love it when folks just watch a few programs on television, and think they have the “whole picture” of a country or a people. All I can say to this post is…

      • doon

        Yeah, I guess you’re a properly experienced scientist to be able to make condescending judgements on what others think about the state of science in america.

        JFK paid more than lip service to science when he inspired a nation to reach for the moon. That hasn’t happened since, meanwhile, popular culture would rather feed American Idol to young minds.

        What do young people in american want to grow up to be? Singing stars, nba stars, politicians, bankers. Heck, I know more than a few JPL scientists that were hired away by Goldman Sachs.

        Not saying there isn’t good stuff, like PBS and Discover y channel, but on the whole – and outside of the scientific community, Americans hate science.

        • Jones

          “Yeah, I guess you’re a prop erly expe ri enced sci­en tist to be able to make con de scend ing judge ments on what oth ers think about the state of sci ence in america.”
          Erm…you do realize that that very same thing can be turned around and said to you, right? I demand to see your credentials and research, pronto.

          One important part of scientific research is to actually do research. Here’s research done on the subject. Research done by Americans.

          • You honestly think this heckler is going to play nice? If so, I have some great Mackinaw Bridge Property to sell you.

          • doon

            See, I made a statement about american culture and science, not about you or matt’s personal views it. Then you two come in and attack my view on the topic because it does not fit into your world view -and in a very condescending way I might add, as if you are so much more knowledgeable on the subject. Heckler? You guys sound like the trolls here.

            What are you, the 50c strain bred by the CIA or NSA?

          • doon

            BTW, I never said I was a scientist. I can only say I appreciate what they do. But you guys aren’t scientists either, so what gives you the ca hones to say my views are more valid? I can go dig up links to prove anything too, but what’s the point?

            You guys love throwing out straw man arguments.

          • doon

            I meant “less valid” in the last reply…

          • Jones

            You’re so sensitive, doon. We didn’t attack you. You made a broad, general, and uneducated comment about the US. We provided evidence that what you said is the opposite of true.

            And don’t get me started on “condescending” haha. Wow…

            See, the thing is, you can’t rightly expect to get on this site and spout out some ignorant crap like that without someone rebutting you. Usually with actual evidence, too. It wasn’t our personal views, but actual SCIENTIFIC research. Genius.

          • doon

            I wasn’t even looking for an example, but here it is. American culture hates intellectuals and science. This is a generalization, but it’s mostly true.


            “Do you think American society secretly dislikes intelligent people? (self.AskReddit)”

          • Jones

            Doon, commentary from people spewing generalized opinions without providing any evidence for it. That’s exactly what you did. See, what we want is evidence. Actual research done on it. Hell, even a bullshit Gallup Poll would be something. Not a message board without links to research.

            I think you’re bullshitting us. It’s too hilariously ignorant for someone to get on, say Americans despise and taunt science and scientists…then refuse actual scientific research done on the matter and, at the same time, provide a link that is nothing but opinion with no basis in science, research, or anything else that actually backs up that incredibly misguided claim you made. Seriously, dude.

        • {smile} Have to love it when someone assumes that a few loudmouths speak for a whole group. Sorry doon, but your agruement does not hold water:

  12. song of the article to “cheer up the dividers”
    while reading this,

    Cicadas by the Cowboy Junkies,

    downloaded it on to my QQ music player,

    the album is called Renmin Park
    it cheer’s me up!
    I hope it will for you!

    • King Tubby

      Ah Kedafu. Listening to the Cowboy Junkies is a bit like being dumped in cement while on valium. Get serious, go for Gram Parsons or old school Hank Willams….Travelling Man… there was a guy who really understood despair and serious depression.

      • Jones

        Let’s go more old school. “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” either the Bing Crosby or Rudy Vallee version will suffice.

  13. doon

    Stan, you’re not alone. We all need some anti-depressants.

    From nakedcapitalism:

    Dear readers, your blogger feels like death warmed over. Please bear with me if posts are light the next few days.

    Dolphins prefer high-energy fish BBC

    Neutrino experiments sow seeds of possible revolution Science News

    Heedlessly Hijacking Content David Carr, New York Times

    California welfare recipients withdrew $1.8 million at casino ATMs over eight months Los Angeles Times (hat tip reader John D)

    U.S. officials say Karzai aides are derailing corruption cases involving elite Washington Post. Quelle surprise!

    The Market Crash as Double-Entendre Dating Ad Paul Kedrosky

    From CNBC Business Journalist to Critic of Bankers on MSNBC New York Times

    Fresh moves to unlock loan pool Financial Times

    Banks Move Quickly to Blunt U.K. Levy Wall Street Journal

    The €442bn question — a guideline FT Alphaville. Alphaville has been nervous for some time re an upcoming termination of an important ECB liquidity facility.

    Another summit that disappoints Eurointelligence

    Dire warning over impending slide of British manufacturing Independent

    Osborne’s first Budget? It’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Independent (hat tip reader John D)

    Is monetary policy too expansionary or not expansionary enough? Martin Wolf

    The Third Depression Paul Krugman

    Austerity: A Prisoner’s Dilemma? Peter Dorman

    Gag orders in the Gulf continue Lambert Strether

    BP’s Dumb Investors George Monbiot. From last week but still germane.

    States Weigh Big Claims Against BP Wall Street Journal

    BP oil spill: Barack Obama and David Cameron agree BP must not collapse Telegraph This is appalling. So BP is TBTF? If its liabilities are bigger than its assets, it should be restructured, full stop.

    The Mother of All Cross-Border Bankruptcies? Jason Kilborn. Corrects some urban legends on how a BP BK would proceed.

  14. hm

    i can’t access your site in china…without a vpn =(