America's sad decline -- they've noticed in Europe (and now China)

Recently there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces in European newspapers and magazines lamenting the political and economic chaos in the U.S.  Perhaps those in the White House, Congress, the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Sunday talk shows think that no one across the Atlantic would notice how deranged and dangerous our country now seems.   But people abroad have begun to notice and are shaking their heads in dismay. 

Jacob Augstein's commentary in Spiegel Online, "Once Upon a Time in the West," is typical of a strand of opinion heard in Germany and elsewhere.

"The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically -- in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise" ....

"The country's social disintegration is breathtaking.....The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country's total income for themselves -- 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. [Joseph] Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown."  ....

"The name "United States" seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and '70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country's highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country's first African-American president may have played a role there, too" ....

Augstein concludes that the U.S.A. no longer upholds the commitment to reason, equality and democracy that has long defined "the West."  "The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That's us."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *
Update:  During my recent travels in China, a similar question came up in conversation.  "Is America really in as much trouble as it seems to be?" Hence, it's no surprise to read the Chinese government's response to Standard & Poors downgrading America's credit rating (story from Reuters with quotes from the official Xinhua news agency):

China tells U.S. "good old days" of borrowing are over

In the Xinhua commentary, China scorned the United States for its "debt addiction" and "short sighted" political wrangling."

China, the largest creditor of the world's sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China's dollar assets," it said.

It urged the United States to cut military and social welfare expenditure. Further credit downgrades would very likely undermine the world economic recovery and trigger new rounds of financial turmoil, it said.

"International supervision over the issue of U.S. dollars should be introduced and a new, stable and secured global reserve currency may also be an option to avert a catastrophe caused by any single country," Xinhua said.


Unlike US leaders, China sees future for clean tech

The useful web site, One Block Off the Grid, has an interesting article in graphic form: "Why China is Kicking Our Ass in Clean Tech."

The figures on bombs and rocket as compared to renewable energy are especially bleak.  The U.S. spends $41 for "defense" for each $1 spent on renewables.   In contrast, China budgets a mere $3 on "defense" for each dollar on renewables.  [Feeling more secure, folks?]

One category in which the U.S. makes a pretty good showing is in solar capacity.  The nation is up 3,100 megawatts to China's 800 magawatts.  Alas, the evidence shows that the flow of solar jobs is headed east.

[Thanks to sure fire energy analyst Brooks Winner for this link.]

China and the U.S. -- different time horizons

After a brief visit to China last week I’m again struck by the contrasts between that emerging powerhouse and the increasingly beleaguered U.S.A.  The mood in China is that of building – building offices, apartments, roads, high speed trains, tech parks, energy systems, universities, new industries, and a flourishing domestic consumer economy.  About many of these developments, coal fired and nuclear plants and non-stop shopping, for example, I have very grave misgivings.  While “green” technologies are prominently featured in the mix, the overall thrust of the building boom has “unsustainable” written all over it.  In its own terms, however, the project of rebuilding China is certainly impressive, a striking contrast to the economic, social and political torpor that infuses American life at present.
A good part of the difference lies in the time frame in which Chinese political and industrial leaders view their choices.  It is said that Hu Jintao’s focus for the success of policies and projects is a sixty year horizon focused upon the greater national good.  Thus, the energetic flurry of activity assumes the long view and leaves room for a good deal trial and error.   Indeed, the frantic building boom has already brought a number of catastrophic accidents, including last week’s high-speed rail crash on a line south of Shanghai.
Compare that to the horizons of U.S. firms in which the key emphasis rests on quarterly profit statements and how much the C.E.O. takes home in salary and stock options in the short term.  Far from building anything for the decades ahead, “leaders” in Washington and America’s heartland are fully in tear down rather than build-up mode, resembling liquidators at  going-out-of-business sale at an old, hardware store: “Prices slashed!  Everything Must Go!”  This is a remarkable departure from the country of my youth in California where massive building of institutions and infrastructures for the “Golden State” was an object of pride, an atmosphere kicked into an even higher gear by the shock posed by the launch of tiny Sputnik by the USSR.  In contrast, today’s mood echoes one of those old UK comedy routines -- “No Sex, please, we’re British.” – with our punch line, “No bold ambition please, we’re Americans!”  
In a visit to China in May 2009, I gave a lecture at the University of the National Academy of Sciences, commenting upon Barack Obama’s science and technology policy, noting its emphasis upon new initiatives and the need to revitalize the nation’s efforts in education, research, development, and “innovation.”  Recently re-branded as WTF—Win the Future -- what a risible fantasy all that seems now, a short two years later,  as far right republicans have seized the steering wheel and Obama has retreated into mumbling and stumbling on the nation’s newly discovered, most urgent challenges – debt, deficits, spending cuts, and the great new era -- Austerity.  So the road forward evidently involves slashing forward-looking programs, shredding the social safety net, dismantling public education, removing subsidies for renewable energy and conservation, de-funding research, continuing failed military adventures, maintaining Bush’s futile war on terror (under new rubrics), and, in general, moving rapidly away from any public projects that seek to realize a better future.  WTF appears to mean: What The F*@#!
The organization Van Jones established recently certainly has an appropriate name:  Rebuilding the America Dream.  So far it’s attracted a lot of spirited interest.  But one has to wonder from abundant evidence on all sides, whether the idea matches our historical moment. 
 * * * * * * * * * 

Update:  The possibility that China is headed for a real estate crash bears watching.  Mike Davis' essay, "Crash Club: What Happens When Three Sputtering Economies Collide?", surveys the clouds on the horizon.  Actually, the skyline of enormous cranes busily at work in Shenyang at present, transforming an old industrial city into a modern technopolis, reminds  me of Madrid six or seven years ago, a real estate market that has now collapsed.