Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Asia owns America and outworks America. India outsmarts America. The future is being assembled in Chinese factories. Barring a miracle, the American Age cannot be resuscitated or resurrected. This is conventional wisdom.

Yet none of this wisdom is true today, and quite possibly none of this will ever be true.

China is indeed a major creditor nation to overspending Westerners, and it will be home to the world's largest economy by the end of this decade. And rising giant India has urban technology centers that any nation could envy. But the recent growth of these nations and other Asian tigers does not mean that the United States is falling behind.

Per capita, China's gross domestic product ranks 94th globally, according to the International Monetary Fund. Botswana and Bosnia rank higher.

India has been growing even more rapidly than China in some recent years. But it ranks no higher than 120th in most rankings of GDP per capita, placing it below Honduras.

Large numbers do not tell whole stories. For instance, China and India have more paved roads than any other nation except the U.S.; but when ranked for the percentage of roads they have paved, they both sit around the 80th spot, in the company of Malawi and Djibouti. That puts them in a poor position to address the difficult lives of many hundreds of millions of their citizens. India may have the technological miracle of some 600 million cell phones, but most of its 1.2 billion population lacks access to flushing toilets.

The healthcare system for China's aging population is a catastrophe, and its college graduates find more opportunities in manual labor than in white-collar work. India's infrastructure is a nightmare, with most citizens soldiering on without paved roads or sanitary conditions. Both nations face massive environmental and political challenges within the next decade, in addition to corruption that chokes their ability to address such challenges.

Meanwhile, America is the best at being America, because America is the closest thing to a society that fully relishes Americanness.

The United States has unique cultural and demographic traits -- for better and for worse: American culture is tilted toward valuing disruptive new ideas and welcoming the immigrant who brings such ideas into its society.

For today's emerging economies to become long-term giants, rather than variations of pre-revolution Iran and the Soviet Union, they must become more economically and socially integrated. To become economically integrated, they must become culturally integrated, which means a host of conflicts are on the horizon regarding varying societal views on change, tradition, materialism, social mobility, openness, patronage and so on.

But there is a pernicious aspect to the contrived panic about America's supposed relative decline. Democrats and Republicans theatrically blame the other for wrecking the American experiment. Rather than coolly adjusting course, they unleash factions who decry compromise. And they release themselves from any short-term incentive to improve the common lot.

Americans may slow their own path if political dysfunction continues. But with even a little adjustment, a resilient, forward-thinking and forward-moving economy will result.

Is America "over" on the world stage? Hardly. The reality is that America might not be able to lose the mantle and burden of global primacy even if it wanted to.

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