An article in the January 7, 2012 issue of The Economist predicts that China will overtake the U.S. in GDP sometime between 2016 and 2020 and that, furthermore, by 2025, the Middle Kingdom will have surpassed the U.S. in almost every category (except GDP per person). Though the author of the article attempts to maintain journalistic objectivity, I think I detect a slight note of Schadenfreude in his tone: he can't quite hide his British satisfaction that American hegemony won't last even half as long as did the Pax Britannica.
Of course, it's human nature to applaud when the Big Boy gets knocked out (especially if the Big Boy has been a bit of a bully). Unsurprisingly, then, several more outspoken foreign journals (Libération, The Guardian) make little attempt to disguise their glee over America's imminent decline--eventually to third place after both China and India. Everyone seems to be rejoicing that, at long last, the villainous Yankees will simply have to go home.
Though, like most Americans, I chafe a bit at yet another outburst of sniggering anti-Americanism, I find that I harbor very few regrets about America's impending downgrade in "power rank."
Because has it been worth it, this half-century of being Number One economically and militarily? What price have we paid for that gloire? In my estimation, our stint as Big Boy on the Playground (however exhilarating and, occasionally, order-restoring it was) has led us, in the long run, to neglect certain ultimately more important elements of our development as a society. Thus, as we've run about bossing the other kids and keeping them "in their place," we've acquired a mean and greedy streak, we've ignored our own education, we've abandoned our aging parents and our sick friends, we've lost our love for beauty and art, we've grown fat, complacent and unhealthy. In short, focusing almost exclusively on economic and military expansion has fostered a corresponding contraction of our spiritual and moral integrity. We've failed to achieve that "exceptionalism" our founders envisioned.
Before you dismiss me as hopelessly naive and idealistic, let me clarify a bit. I am well aware that economic strength is a vital prerequisite for the kind of spiritual and moral self-actualization which western cultures have aspired to since Periclean times. And I further understand that the exercise of military might is sometimes necessary in order to ensure a political climate conducive to such positive economic activity.
And yet--to return to our schoolboy analogy--I'm also persuaded that the most successful young people are usually those who, blessed from the outset with a stable economic foundation, choose to invest their resources wisely in order to build and maintain advantages that transcend mere bigness. They maintain friendly, mutually beneficial relations with other students; they involve themselves in creative and intellectual activities which make life more enjoyable; and--finally, but not primarily or exclusively--they keep themselves sufficiently fit-- physically and emotionally--to counter any potential bullying by hostile students.
Thus, the young person most likely to achieve objective and genuine success is probably NOT the Big Boy on the Playground who pushes others around. And the happiest, best-adjusted kid is almost certainly NOT the self-important braggart who devotes a disproportionate amount of time or resources to controlling the behaviors of other students for the sheer pleasure of being Number One.
Currently, the U.S. is spending about $700 billion per year (about 4.8% of GDP) on defense--almost 7 times as much as China is spending ($120 billion or 2.1% of its GDP). However, as The Economist points out, China's overall defense budget is likely to surpass that of the U.S. by 2025, even if the percentages of GDP remain largely unchanged--since China's GDP is growing at such an astounding rate.
Clearly, then, another Big Boy--growing three or four times faster than the U.S.-- is moving in to claim kingship of the Playground. Is the U.S. going to fight an almost futile battle to preserve a turf that was always of somewhat dubious value? Against such odds, it seems to me that a big slug-fest would be pretty stupid. Therefore, now may be the time for America to look around and observe how the other, less power-driven--but perhaps more objectively successful-- "kids" have been doing. Though everyone has troubles, many of them seem to have plenty of room to play, don't they?-- they are strong enough to escape being harmed and usually savvy enough to avoid unwinnable confrontations. Britain and France and Japan and Germany and Russia each spend between 50-70 billion yearly on defense (usually no more than 2.5% of GDP). That certainly seems reasonable (at least as long as the Big Boy doesn't stupidly try to annihilate all the other players--and thereby put an end to the game itself).
More importantly, though--with the notable exception of Russia--these respected but less aggressive students have been doing better than the U.S. in shaping themselves into well-rounded individuals capable of achieving enduring success and of living healthy, fulfilling lives.
Ultimately, then, there can be little point in denying demographic and economic realities or in struggling childishly to change what cannot be changed. Tantrums will not preserve our Biggest Power status. But a positive reordering of our priorities and a refocusing of our energies might, in fact, allow us to become a leader in an entirely different (and more admirable) category of human endeavor--a category in which distinction is measured in terms of individual self-fulfillment and happiness, not national economic or military might. Let us designate this order by the term our founders used on the Great Seal of the United States: "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (A New Order of the Ages).
In short, I propose that we stop trying to imitate imperial Rome or Britain and strive instead to achieve goals espoused by the Scandinavians, the Swiss, the Dutch--yes, even the French and the Germans: civilized commonwealths in which all (or at least the vast majority) of citizens can live decent, comfortable lives--with guaranteed equality of opportunity, universal health care, accessible and first-rate education, security and compassion for the elderly. Is it too bold to assert that Thomas Jefferson, himself, would have advocated such a course?
Well, that loud shriek you just heard was the reaction of fearful right-wingers, desperately clutching their wallets and screaming that such ideals are unattainable or undesirable (because they are too expensive or too unfair or too socialistic or too atheistic or just too too). Bullpucky! If we choose these ideals, we can achieve them--though yes, of course: there is a cost. First of all, we will have to require the wealthy to pay their fair share. (Screech!) That means increased taxes, particularly on the super-rich. (Yelp!) And second, we will have to stop spending so much money on the military--redirecting those resources to quality-of-life projects: health care, education, transportation infrastructure, social security, environmental protection, scientific research, etc. (Moan!)
It's a sea change, of course--especially since our current economy is so oriented toward "vulture" capitalism (on the one hand) and "pork for profit" subsidies to the military-industrial complex (on the other).
But let's pursue the idea anyway. Probably, the poor little billionaire piggies would survive a tax hike with no difficulty, though their ceaseless squealing might tax the sanity of ordinary citizens. I'm less sure, though, about the consequences of reducing funds to the manufacturers of weapons and military equipment. I don't have any statistics--just a hunch--that such equipment (airplanes, tanks, guns, armored vehicles, warships, ammunition, etc.) may constitute a disproportionate amount of our industrial output. (We don't seem to make much of anything else, except for some automobiles, chemicals, small tools and movies). So I suppose any large-scale attempt to beat our swords into plowshares (i.e., convert tank factories into refrigerator plants) might have a significantly negative impact on the American economy, at least temporarily.
Still, I'm betting that it would be worth it in the long run. How liberating, how humanizing, to become once again what we were before World War II-- an economy primarily geared toward the production of ordinary, domestic goods and services. (Let us keep SOME military production, of course; it would be absolutely foolhardy to abandon a respectable military establishment, capable of defending the country in the case of attack. I'm merely suggesting that it is no longer necessary--or even possible--for America to police the world.)
Essentially, then, we would be relinquishing our current playground dominance to China--but in the hopes of actually improving our lot thereby. The Chinese, with their superior population and GDP--their quantitative preponderance--could take over as the policemen and occasional bullies (unless they, too, wanted to pursue more humane goals). Whereas we, should we so choose, would now be free to concentrate on achieving qualitative supremacy (or at least, excellence), free to focus our energies on building the kind of society that once, long ago, constituted the American Dream--and that the Founders so optimistically labeled "Novus Ordo Seclorum."