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Jewish World Review
June 23, 2008
/ 20 Sivan 5768
Americans should count their blessings
One of history's great lessons that everyone in business ought to learn is that nothing is permanent. The world and its component parts are changing all the time, and this year's league tables are outdated by the time they're compiled and published.
The U.S.' long period of expansion has ended, and a time of turbulence and recession has begun. How long will this last? My view is that within a year the worst will be over unless the country indulges in a spasm of "reforms" that impose restrictive controls on the banking industry and businesses. Overreaction to downturns and adversity is always damaging. The Enron scandal, for example, encouraged an antibusiness and antiwealth culture in the Department of Justice that has done nothing but harm. We must guard against allowing the recent mistakes of bankers to generate an antibanking climate or the excesses of the real estate market to persuade the public that investing in property is foolish. As long as the U.S. maintains its creative traditions of freedom, especially in the conduct of business, it has nothing to fear in the medium or long term. It will still insofar as such distant projections can be made be the world's strongest and richest society by midcentury and, indeed, by century's end. The U.S. works so let's not try to fix it!
A decade ago Russia looked to be almost down and out. Now it's riding the crest of the oil boom with arrogance and a disposition toward reviving its imperialist ambitions in the Caucasus and central Asia. However, I am reminded of that famous mid-19th-century saying, often attributed to Austrian statesman Metternich: "Russia is never as strong as it looks; Russia is never as weak as it looks." Oil prices go up and up, but when they come down they often do so surprisingly fast and without much warning. A country that pins its strength on the current value of one important but volatile commodity is not wisely led.
Of more serious long-term import is the quantitative and qualitative deterioration of Russia's population: its very low birth rates; some of the world's highest abortion figures; and worrying indicators in many areas of health and the tendency of Russians, especially males, to die in late middle age from alcohol-related problems suggest a society that is collectively sick in ways that could become catastrophic if not attended to. What will Russia look like by midcentury? It's frightening to contemplate.
China looms large on the eastern horizon, flooding the world with its cheap exports; producing impressive figures in production, investment and modernization; and striding confidently about the world stage. It's planning a tremendous show at this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, which will in all probability create an impression of strength and efficiency.
But Mother Nature has reminded us that China remains vulnerable. The recent earthquake drew attention to much that is gimcrack about modern China from the quality of the concrete used in buildings, especially in the housing and schools of the poor, to the organization of its emergency services, which are better at posing in smart uniforms for propaganda shots than at getting aid to where it's needed.
The earthquake also brought into question the wisdom of constructing huge dams to provide electricity and water for rapid industrialization in a country where such powerful earthquakes are common. Building impressive dams, regardless of consequences, is a characteristic of Communist societies. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the outside world became aware of how ecologically destructive and economically inefficient the Soviets' Big Dam policy in central Asia was. China seems determined to make similar mistakes.
For these reasons I am skeptical of Russia's current strength and China's relentless expansion.
What of Europe? Traveling Americans are wont to compare the strength of the euro with the weakness of the dollar, drawing critical conclusions about the way Washington runs things. But Europe isn't exactly a group of healthy societies.
Britain is undergoing turbulence similar to that in the U.S. but will likely take much longer to emerge from it. Its political parties are in complete disarray.
France is beset by strikes, high unemployment and bitter public feeling over rising prices and the lack of opportunities for the young. The vast number of 18-to-25-year-olds migrating to the London area tells its own tale of disillusionment and despair.
Italy seems even more desperate in its search for honest and effective government.
Spain, having enjoyed a decade of rapid expansion, is sliding backwards again under its weak Socialist regime.
Germany is in better economic shape, which is the principal reason that the euro has maintained its strength. But Germany also struggles with high unemployment, much bitterness and low public morale.
There are no political leaders of greatness on the horizon. Angela Merkel has proved a grievous disappointment. Gordon Brown has been branded a total failure after a year in office. Nicolas Sar-kozy is emerging as a lightweight. The fact that in April Italy again elected Silvio Berlusconi premier reminds me of what Dr. Johnson said of second marriages: "the triumph of hope over experience."
But the world continues to change. Some countries rise, others fall, and nothing is static. Americans have no good reason to doubt their future and should count their blessings.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson