Day By Day

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Responding to the Prophets of Doom

For as long as I can remember commentators on America's future have been spewing an endless stream of doom and gloom. We were always on the verge of being buried by the Soviet Union, or a resurgent Europe, or Japan, or somebody. Today the somebodies are China and India and, in the midst of the current economic crisis, the doom mongers are out in full force.

So far the doomsters have been wrong every time, and there is good reason to expect that they will be wrong again. Shika Dalmia, writing in Reason, explains why. She argues that, although China, and to a lesser extent India, have made extraordinary strides, the benefits of economic growth are largely concentrated within a relatively small stratum of their societies. In both countries hundreds of millions of people still live in abject poverty and the great mass of the population is afforded few of the opportunities produced by economic growth. Because of the narrow and shallow nature of Asian economic growth America is still far and away the land of opportunity.

America maximizes the talents of its population to a much greater extent than does either India or China.

Americans of all classes also have access to vast amounts of "intangible wealth" in the form of good roads, clean water, efficient sewage removal and a variety of social services that are not available to most of the population in Asian countries.

The American education system, if considered in toto, is superior to those of Asian countries. It seeks to serve the entire population whereas in Asian countries good education is available only to the elites.

Because of the depth and breadth of its prosperity America still offers immigrants from Asia far better opportunities than they could find in their home countries.

Americans, unlike Asians, have a profoundly critical perspective on their own country, a point of view that is reflected in the constant, but never realized, assertions of imminent collapse. This pessimism means that in America social and economic problems are more quickly identified, recognized and addressed than in China and India. Moreover, and this is important, when faced with problems Americans still tend to look for solutions outside the government rather than waiting for authorities to address them.

It's an interesting argument and it does contain certain truths. Studies of American and Asian economies we are often comparing apples and oranges in ways that mask the deep strengths of the American society and economy. Still, there is no reason to indulge in complacency. As Asian economies mature the benefits they generate will begin to reach more of their populations, creating opportunities comparable to those Americans have long enjoyed. And, in America, there has been in recent decades a very disturbing development -- the emergence of a relatively closed pseudo-meritocratic credentialized elite that perpetuates itself from generation to generation. In the future disparities between American and Asian societies may diminish, but for now Shika Dalmia is right -- the American advantage is not likely to disappear for a long time.

Read the article here.

No comments: