“I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
Thus speaks menacing mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) in the recent hit film “Looper” to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an assassin sent to kill his older self (Bruce Willis) by the black-coated, time-traveling mob. As the America of 2042 crumbles into a dystopian wreck populated solely by the homeless and trigger-happy, Young Joe cheerfully kills himself and then merrily sets off to Shanghai for a future he knows will end in death at his own hand.
Few things capture the spirit of a nation more keenly than the future it sees itself living. Apparently we don’t think much of ours.
Empty political rhetoric about American exceptionalism aside, public discourse in this country has become increasingly populated by a vision of the future in which a decadent and weak-willed America falls under the economic dominance of a rising China.
In June of this year, China surpassed the United States for the first time in the eyes of the global public as the world’s number one economic power. Gallup found that Americans share that opinion, with 53 percent of Americans viewing China as the country most likely to dominate the future world economy (up from just 16 percent in 2000).
Writing in The New York Times, venture capitalist Eric X. Li seized on these widespread fears of inevitable decline, declaring bluntly that “China’s political model is superior.” America’s future, Li wrote, will be marked by “endless referendums, paralysis and insolvency.” The only way to fend off disaster, he concluded, is to become more like China – an unlikely possibility, since America “seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift.”
The creeping pessimism has even snuck its way into that most quintessentially American of institutions: professional football. Two years ago, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell went off on a memorable radio rant when the NFL postponed a Sunday night game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles due to blizzard forecasts.
“We’ve become a nation of wusses!” yelled an infuriated Rendell. “The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”
That pretty much sums it up: The country is about to be overrun, à la the upcoming Chris Hemsworth blockbuster “Red Dawn,” by untold legions of goose-stepping China-bots.
There’s only one problem: We’ve heard this all before.
First it was Nazi Germany, 1936, destined to rule the world as America fell to pieces. Writing in June 1941, essayist E.B. White spoke discouragingly of the everyday New Yorkers he interviewed who had lost faith in the fundamental precepts of American democracy. One man, fascinated by the clean young faces of the German soldiers in the newsreels, told him calmly that fascism was the future. “Another man,” wrote White, “informed me that our democratic form of government was decadent and not worth bothering about.” Not a single man maintained faith in the American way. Instead, wrote White, “I found paralysis, or a sort of dim acquiescence, as in a child who is duly swallowing a distasteful pill.”
Then it was the Soviets whose model was inherently superior, at least until 1989; and then Japan, with its brilliant industrial policy, at least until its lost decade; and now it is China.
The fact is, we do need reform, and fast. As Thomas Friedman and many others have written, we are spending, among other things, too much on consumption (or, in one critic’s terms, “warfare and welfare”) and not enough on research and investment. We are failing to negotiate the clean energy challenge. And structural deficiencies plague our public commitments to the poor and weak (Medicare and Social Security foremost among them).
In 1967, French intellectual Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber penned The American Challenge, a critique of European economic attitudes and policies in the face of a seemingly indomitable American industrial juggernaut. Unless Europe reformed and reformed quickly, Servan-Schreiber urged, the Continent would fall irretrievably behind in the race for economic and political prominence.
We need another statement like Servan-Schreiber’s: one that recognizes the problems America faces and the advantages China and other rising economies have acquired, but nonetheless maintains that reform and progress are possible within the framework of our nation’s political and economic traditions. Empty complaints and defeatism have never gotten us anywhere, and they won’t do much good now.
Write Miles anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.