Saturday, June 23, 2012

My 62.5 Cents' Worth from the Atlantic (Part 1)

The Atlantic, for decades the Atlantic Monthly, has emerged for me as the best (non-daily) periodical of general interest in the country. Time and The Daily Beast Called Newsweek have sunk beyond consideration, Vanity Fair retains its 10-months-of-gossipy-drivel, two-good-issues format, and the New Yorker is too much the New Yorker for someone who doesn't live there. The Nation is worthy of mention, but calling it general interest is unfair to those who don't share its views--which sometimes (see Alexander Cockburn most of the time, and frequently Katha Pollitt) even I have trouble swallowing: it's basically preaching to its choir.

The Atlantic has a good mix of some short pieces, both random items and recurring features (my favorite is the hilarious advice column spoof, "What's Your Problem?" by Jeffrey Goldberg), as well as a few quite lengthy, well-researched and provocative articles going into selective topics in more depth. They might have a slightly left-of-center tendency, but that is not universally true.

A good example of that variety was a piece in the June issue on modern-day Vietnam by Robert D. Kaplan. Kaplan is listed as a Senior National Correspondent, but he is actually an International Correspondent, a person who goes to "the ends of the earth" (the title of a book from 1997 by him; I highly recommend it) and tries to both understand what is going on in these forsaken places and what does it mean for the rest of the world. Though he goes to these places to observe and report, he is, frankly, a neoliberal: a hawk who is primarily concerned about the US' geopolitical strategy and how these little players may be played to our advantage. If he's not on the CIA's payroll, he should be.

Anyway, the piece on Vietnam: Kaplan provides a lot of useful information about Vietnam's path since the days when we were actually paying attention to what went on there (they ended about 1975, when we completed the pullout of our last advisers as the Communists completed its conquest of the South). After some hairy days which included invasion from China and invading--and getting stuck in--Cambodia, Vietnam has been walking the Chinese road for 25 years or so, combining Communist political dominance with capitalist economics. The Vietnamese attitude toward the US is a curious mix of love and hate: one could say they really hate and resent us, but they wouldn't say it, because they need and want us. We rate somewhere in the middle of their many historical bugaboos and oppressors.

Here's the thing: in the latter part of the article, Kaplan throws in this sentence, stated as a fact: "The United States sees the world as Vietnam does: threatened by growing Chinese power." Whoa. To be fair, he spends a lot of the article going into the more nuanced view the Vietnamese actually have toward the Chinese, who are their largest trading partner, a major military threat (in the past, and potentially in the future), rival for offshore resources, and role model in some ways.

I object instead to the blanket statement that the Chinese are a threat to us. He's been talking to too many paranoid global strategists. The Chinese may threaten our sense of unique, ubiquitous global hegemony, if we have one, as they are a major regional power. They may threaten our manufacturing in many areas; as our creditor, they could threaten economic blackmail, though they've never done anything of the sort. They are no kind of threat to our national security, our way of life, or to global harmony and peaceful development. With regard to the latter, their economic and political emergence, along with India's, is something we should welcome, one of the best developments of the last 25 years.

Second Bit
The second item, also in that issue, is a letter from an ecologist named Andrew L. Mack to Megan McArdle, a Senior Editor who reports on Business, who had written an article on the European economic crisis and the underlying problems of demographics there (low birthrate, aging population). Mack undercuts McArdle's belief in a return to "strong growth" for the region, once the demographic issue is overcome:

Perpetual “strong” economic growth is not possible, not even in theory, unless you perform the contortionist groupthink of the policy makers who have brought us the current mess. Continual growth relies on a growing population, as Ms. McArdle adroitly explains. But it also depends on unlimited and cheap resources, free waste disposal into our air and water, relentlessly longer hours at work (paid or unpaid) at the expense of leisure time, and ever greater waste. Inefficient and obsolescent products drive growth, as do canny marketers who persuade people to borrow money to buy ever more unnecessary crap. Continued growth depends on borrowing, both as formal loans, and through a plethora of investment and bond mechanisms. Most individuals, businesses, and governments within mature economies are now growing only thanks to borrowed money.
Here is the first portion of McArdle's rebuttal to Mack's letter:

Whether or not continuous economic growth is possible, or desirable, the fact remains that modern economies are predicated on the assumption that it will happen. Both individuals and governments have planned for a future in which incomes steadily rise, allowing people to enjoy lengthy retirements, advanced health care, independent living, and of course, repayment of the massive debts that almost everyone has accumulated over the past few decades. If that growth doesn’t materialize, the shock will be enormous.
In a few sentences, the dialogue between the two has captured the dilemma of our age. Continuing the compounded economic growth rates of recent decades is believed a necessary condition for social harmony, and pretty much defines what we mean when we think of progress. A very high rate of growth is needed for the impoverished nations of the Fourth World (just to keep up with populaton growth), as well as for nations like China--which has built its legitimacy on delivering it--Turkey, Brazil , Indonesia, etc. The developed countries require lesser, but still positive, rates. We are seeing now just how little tolerance there is in the US for growth rates that don't expand employment or float all the boats sufficiently. The externalities of such growth might be reduced through a clever focus on reducing waste and creating value from efficient use of resources, at least for a while.

Note the lack of confidence McArdle shows toward the idea that continued growth is possible, just an insistence that we must grow. That kind of heedless forward flight presages a cliff of unimaginable depth. With clearer understanding than most, she can see the wall of woe coming toward us. She blinks, and offers the counsel that we continue going ahead.

Three more bits from the Atlantic in Part 2.

No comments: