Friday, December 31, 2010

The American (Banana?) Republic versus the Rising Chinese empire

Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times today [12/31/10] refers to the United States as a Banana Republic. I have been wondering about how long this country can continue living as it does without there being a reckoning, a rude, even shattering, confrontation with reality. It would be easy to elaborate on the dangerous trajectory of affairs, something many have enumerated. In today’s rant Krugman specifically points to the “spectacular hypocrisy” of the Republican Party. But what strikes me is how unaware -- unconcerned? -- the American public seems to be. The leadership of this country, Democratic and Republican, seems unable to confront the great challenges of the times: the deficit, for instance: The Republicans trumpeted the necessity to resolve the deficit crisis before the election and then, once elected, immediately began to claim they would reduce taxes, a strategy well known to increase the deficit. Experts on virtually all sides claim that unless serious steps are taken the future for the United States is uncertain – a growing number say it could be catastrophic. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse provides plenty of examples of societies, even great empires, that simply ran themselves into oblivion: Witness the great statues of Easter Island, lifeless images of now-forgotten leaders who through these statues paraded their eminence as they competitively consumed the resources on which their societies survived.

In the mean time, as the United States eschews all measures necessary to ensuring its solvency, a new empire is rising in the east, China, which has an abundance of cash and no such deficit. The Chinese are reaching out to Africa and South America as well as the neighboring lands of Asia with an eye to their interests over the long term – and as we understand well, the “long term” for the Chinese can be centuries. They are granting loans for the reconstruction and development in such African countries as Angola, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Zambia; and they are investing in such South American countries as Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba (see Foreign Affairs, Jan 5, 2010, Debora Braudigam; Timeline, March 15, 2010, Reuters). They are buying up rights to develop minerals in Afghanistan and other countries of Central Asia, they are building pipelines to ship gas as well as oil directly to industrial centers, and most interestingly, they are building up a navy and constructing ports (Gwadar, Pakistan) that will be supply stations for their navy -- and Gwadar in particular will be the terminus oil and gas pipelines that will bring energy to an ocean going port.

All this is taking place as many Americans seem fixed on a past that cannot return. The heroic legends of World War II still entrance; narratives of a great power that saved the world persist. Narratives of great generosity are taken at face value [the reality is that the US gives much less per capita than most industrial nations.]

The presumption is that American ingenuity will rise to the challenges of the future. No matter how bleak the prospects, how hopeless the outlook, the Americans will again come through; they will find a way, to the point of planting new colonies on the moon or Mars. This is the mind-set of the graduates of my high sckool -- as least as can be determined from the occasional newsletter they put out. Their comments about our times reveals how little they have internalized of the changes that have taken place in our world since our graduation day umpteen years ago. The world they live in and the world I seek to understand bear no resemblance to each other.

The problem for all of us is identifying the world as it is. There is a “reality” we all presume, but actually discovering it as it is turns out to be an interpretive exercise. We only see the world from perspectives that are familiar to us. So we tend to face the future with eyes informed by a past that is more real in our minds than actually exists. For me, it takes time and reflection to figure out what I think about what is going on in the world, but by the time I have figured out what I think about it I'm out of date.

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