Sunday, December 1, 2013

Two Small Gems from the Economist

The Economist has created something like an advent calendar for infographics. Today's first entry makes me think I need to visit this site daily between now and Christmas.

Last week's issue featured some interesting essays on American power, painting a picture that's more optimistic about the nation's place in the world than our mood usually permits. I invite you to read it here. The topic of China's economic rise often comes up in my class, and one perspective I offer students is that China was artificially suppressed and America artificially elevated (in an economic sense) by World War II, and that today we're seeing something of a historical correction. I'm so used to thinking economically I forget about how this pertains to projecting national power and influence.

The essay makes a few good points that help me keep our political stagnation in perspective. After the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the nation had an unprecedented opportunity to influence the world, and we (on the balance) used that influence prudently. After the Wall fell in 1989, we largely exaggerated the promise of the new post-Cold War era and overlooked some grittier realities. We took as unquestioned western mental models about liberty and democratic rule. As the essay points out, in the West such ideas have the power of Gospel. It's easy for us to forget that in other areas of the world, trust in political officials and trust in the people's decisions (exercised through fair elections) is anything but taken for granted.

I'm optimistic that we're nearing the end of a period of political stalemate in our nation. We've been highly dysfunctional for the better part of a decade. The problematic roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, the persistent deficit, the inability to compromise on immigration reform are all symptoms of that dysfunction. Our friends in Europe are, in similar ways, fighting dysfunction. In Japan we're seeing signs that they're fighting through the political stalemate of their own lost decade. In our democracies we've gotten caught up in some ugly ideological warfare. By engaging that warfare, we have stalled our nation's trajectories, in much the same way that sectarian violence stalls the trajectories of nations we read about in the Middle East (thankfully without the violence we see in those nations). I began this paragraph by claiming optimism because I think the dust is beginning to clear from our ugly battling. National leaders on both sides have been humbled by setbacks and policy failures. The nation and the economy are showing signs that they have tired of these leaders' charades. We're seeing a new corps of potential leaders emerging from outside the normal roster of national leaders.

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