Monday, March 24, 2014

The Myth of America's Decline by Josef Joffe

 For a while now, whenever I hear someone preaching a doom and gloom scenario, like the collapse of the economy, the total system crash of computers worldwide, or the disaster of global climate change, my first response is to try to figure out what they're selling. Hang on to your pocket books, folks, the hucksters are after your gold once again. If you hike to the headwaters of the source of the rumors of the dollar swirling 'round the drain, you'll usually find a hedge fund manager or a gold brokerage. When Y2K was the scare du jour, I'm pretty certain the generator salesmen were making out like bandits, and when I look at the carbon crazies' agenda, I see the sale of indulgences which rival the excesses of the early Popes, or heavy investments in "green" tech.

Josef Joffe does a great job of cataloging decades of pessimistic prophesies which our aspiring or existing leaders shouted from the rooftops in order to get our attention, our votes, or our cash. I had little yellow stickers all over the place, marking relevant passages, and it's tough to capture more than a taste of it here.

However, most of you can remember some of the scenarios we allegedly faced, even when they have directly contradicted one another from decade to decade.

"in the 1980s...following a nuclear exchange, a smoke- and particle-laden atmosphere would thrust the world into a new ice age. As of the 1990s...having unleashed the fossil-fueled fire of industry, they were now reaping global warming."

I remember, of course, when Russia was getting the lead over us in the Arms Race, and they were going to be able to counter our massive nuclear arsenal at will, and overwhelm Europe with their communist regime. Then, Japan was going gangbusters, and was buying real estate, banks, and other businesses right and left, and we were soon to be overtaken by Empire of the Rising Sun. Then, when Europe finally united and created a new global currency - the Euro - the demise of the almighty dollar was at hand.

"To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan, et al. will overtake us, unless we labor hard to change our self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant; only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer...dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood, are all part and parcel of the prophecy."

It was rather interesting to note this little tidbit about all the Cassandras:

"...psychologist Philip Tetlock, after a an exhaustive review of 82,000 predictions by 284 policy experts over twenty years...performed worse than if they had blindly pulled their forecasts out of a hat...'These experts never lose their reputations, or their jobs, just  because long shots are their business'..."

The reality of the situation is that the United States has gained such a lead on the competition that catching up is a gargantuan task, and not as likely to happen as quickly as our detractors would hope. The data on GDP of the top world's economies shows that the grand total of ALL of  Brazil, Russia, China, India and Japan's combined economies to equal that of the United States.

The United States far outweighs all the rest in its sheer military power and tonnage, especially that which can be projected over global distances. In combat-capable aircraft, we have 3591, with the next closest contender being China, with 2004 (2012 statistics), in naval aviation, we have 1,429 to China's 311, In tankers and transport aircraft, we have 1,318 with the next closest being all of NATO Europe at 411, with china falling to a distant 5th with 77. The only statistic in which the U.S. "loses" is total number of men under military arms, where China has us doubled.

So, if it comes to a land war on the Asian mainland, we may have some issues. (Shades of Princess Bride!)

Joffe coins a phrase (or perhaps files off the serial numbers on it) for the type of economic growth which has been seen in the past in Japan and other Asian nations, which China is now pursuing - "modernitarianism". This is a combination of rapid modernization, industrially and technologically, with the full planning, backing and control of the state government. When combined with a ready supply of cheap labor which can be easily encouraged to move from the countryside to the cities where the industries are located, it can produce amazing double-digit returns for some period of time, but eventually runs afoul of its inherent limitations, compared to free market capitalism.

"The stronger the state's grip, the more vulnerable the economy to political shocks."

"Once the long run irons out the cyclical kinks, it spells out an enduring message: There is no endless double-digit growth in economic history; what goes up, eventually comes down to 'normal.' other country has escaped from this history since the Industrial Revolution..."

"Unconventional ideas and intellectual risk taking grow not out of the Politburo but from below. The government can shower money on the chosen, funding particle accelerators and space exploration (Green Power?). Yet the hardware will grind and grate without the right 'software', call it 'culture of freedom' or 'intellectual anarchy'."

This is not to say that what we've seen in the past in the West is unrestricted free market capitalism (I'm not sure we've really ever had that, despite the anti-monopoly propaganda resulting from the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons).

"Yet Asia by no means has a historical monopoly on this type of Asian values (corruption and cronyism). Indeed, lavish rent seeking, as granted by the state to favored groups, has worked its insidious ways in the West, as well. The two rapid risers of the late nineteenth century - the United States and Imperial Germany - enjoyed myriad kindness as from the cornucopia of the state, be they monopolies, cartels, franchises, subsidies, import barriers, or the suppression of labor unrest...the magnificent success story of the West unfolded behind the high walls of the nation-state, with the quite visible hand of the government bestowing succor and privilege. China didn't invent this model."

One of the most oft-repeated messages of doom is that the United States educational system has fallen far behind that of the rest of the world, and that our children have become woefully underprepared for life in college and beyond.

"A recent classic reads, 'Last year, more than 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher education in China. In India, the figure was 350,000. In America, it was about 70,000'...Unsurprisingly, the alarm went hand in glove with a call for a lot more federal aid to engineering education."

China's "engineers" would be considered technicians in the United States. Our engineering schools are, in all reality, far better than most of their foreign competitors.

Our Federal government gives $36 billion annually to universities just for science and engineering programs. That budget dwarfs those of Europe and Asia.

Joffe pens, "Doom determines the national interest and then opens the national purse."

I'm seeing a version of this in my home state of Idaho right now. There's a constant barrage of commercials and advertisements in the media, telling us what a horrible job we're doing educating our children, and claiming that some unbelievably high percentage of our children cannot perform at grade level in reading, writing and 'rithmetic. I the true purpose of all of this propaganda is to get us all to vote for higher school levies and to lobby our state legislators to pass higher budgets for higher education... and lower education, for that matter.

I have to wonder how our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad school system here managed to send my daughter off to university to graduate in three years with a bachelors degree in mathematics (she wanted to be a math teacher until she sat through her first education class and couldn't stomach the nonsense they were spouting), and equipped one of her classmates with a full ride scholarship to Yale, another a music performance scholarship to USC, just to mention a few.

Listen, I think competent teachers can do a lot of good, but the most reliable predictor I've seen in my admittedly unscientific study of educational outcomes is the extent of parental involvement, encouragement, and support in that endeavor. Over and over again, I used to see the same group of several dozen parents at youth football, city soccer league, orchestra concerts, choir rehearsals, PTA events, school open houses, recitals, and so on ad nauseum. We weren't all rich, and some were definitely barely hanging on to the middle class, but we all cared, we all sacrificed, and we all spent whatever time it took to make sure our kids were getting everything they could out of their education.

Screw the fancy buildings and landscaping. Screw the computer labs. Screw the sports complexes, community centers, free school lunches, and teacher in-service days. None of that crap matters. Get the parents involved, make them responsible, and you'll see more success out of our schools. All the programs and educational theories in the world don't keep kids from failing. Families do.

If you think that  America is losing its edge, its competitive spirit, and its position as a leader in innovation:

"Today, the top three software companies in the world are American, so are eight of the top ten. Of the ten fastest-growing, six are American. There are no Chinese or Indian outfits in this lineup...There is no Chinese company among the top 100."

If you think all the smart folks coming here from overseas are heading back home with their newfound knowledge:

Of foreigners granted Ph.D.'s, 92% of Chinese recipients opted to stay in the U.S. after graduation, and 81% of Indians did the same. We are not suffering a brain drain, actually, we appear to be importing highly skilled, intelligent people.

So listen, folks, next time you hear how bad things are, and there's lots of shrieking how, "somebody's got to fix this"...check your pocketbooks. Someone is probably trying to sell you a bill of goods. America still Rocks!

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