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Jewish World Review /Sept. 3, 1998 / 12 Elul, 5758

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Get over it, folks

AUGUST IS SUPPOSED TO BE A DEAD NEWS MONTH, but that's not what happened in the eighth month of 1998.

In rapid succession came: Clinton's confused confession, anti-American terror, cruise missiles flying, Russia's financial collapse and stock markets tumbling around the world. Then, on the very last day of the month, the Dow fell 512 points, a Black 'n' Blue Monday.

No dead news here.

Hey, maybe they should change
the name of our currency
to the 'rubble?'
As usual, however, exaggeration rides the curve of breaking bad news. A man from another planet, following the beating gums of August, might well think that America is in free-fall, on the ropes, in a bursting bubble. By Tuesday morning, Sept. 1, it sounded as if the apocalyptic millenarians of the year 1000 were back, slapping their rusted tambourines.

I'm dubious. What's going on is no day at the beach, but many things are happening at once.

I have just concluded almost a year's work on a one-hour TV special titled "America is Number One --- Now What?" (PBS, September 8, 10:00 PM, consult local listings). It begins with an outline of America's current position. In short: America is the most influential nation -- in the history of the world.

The American economy is four times larger than that of any other country. America is the only nation with the ability to project military power globally, with 12 carrier groups. Russia has one, barely operational. Americans have won 62 percent of the Nobel Prizes in science and medicine since 1950. American-style democracy is the wave of the future, albeit in a most turbulent sea.

Reversing a trend in motion since the Tower of Babel, the world is adopting American ("English") as a near-universal language. American popular culture -- movies, television, music -- is the only player in the global game. And so on. (It's an interesting television program, and an interesting time.)

The currently stormy global environment does not change this situation; in fact in some ways it enhances it. There is a zero-sum aspect to some of what is going on. Other nations are stumbling from -- what? -- political instability, perilous banking policies, opaque security markets, low commodity prices, high unemployment, whatever. Power and influence are relative conditions, not absolute. The American economy is still strong; not as strong as a month ago, but strong. Other nations are much weaker.

Accordingly, in the real world we are relatively stronger than before.

Now, unlike power, economics is not generally a zero-sum game. America is better off economically when other nations also do well. Wealth spreads, and increased global trade has been salutary. But America is the most potentially autarkic (self-sufficient) nation in the world. Our own market comprises nearly 300 million people, with the highest per capita income. We have a full complement of necessary natural resources.

The proportion of the American economy in international trade has grown in recent decades. Imports and exports made up 10 percent of the economy in 1954. By 1994 that proportion had climbed to 28 percent, of which about 12 percent is in exports, the potentially vulnerable area. But the American proportion of all trade in relation to the total economy (28 percent) is still way less than that of most other advanced nations: Germany 47 percent, England 57 percent, France 44 percent. In short, America can move toward a go-it-alone economy, if it comes to that. (And you can shop in Canada for about 60 cents on the dollar, and get bargains all over the world.)

And then there is our President.

He is in a domestic ditch, deservedly. It was said that his meeting with Russia's Boris Yeltsin would only put two tottering leaders in the same room. Two tottering leaders, perhaps, but not two tottering nations. It was also said that Clinton went to Moscow only to divert attention from his domestic problems. But Clinton carried with him the strength of the most powerful nation in the world. He can wield that power as long as he is President, which will likely be until Jan. 20, 2001.

Before we listen to any more talk of impotent Presidents we might well remember that Richard Nixon was wallowing in Watergate in October of 1973, when he to starkly change the situation on the ground during an Arab-Israeli war. Within hours the C5-As were on their way to the Sinai, re-enforcing depleted Israeli military stocks, just as if there were no Watergate.On matters of serious policy concern we should assume that Clinton continues to act in the best interest of the nation. After all, should it come out that he is not, he's toast. (And if Democrats lose seats in Congress because of Clinton's behavior, that's not going to hurt the business climate in America.)

Beyond all this is the really good news: It's September.


8/28/98:McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."