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.
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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.