Singing the American zeitgeist blues

The end of U.S. intellectual hegemony? The downfall of the Western worker? As 2009 closes, everyone has a sob story

Published December 30, 2009 7:31PM (EST)

As the year 2009 finally lumbers to its unlamented end, the zeitgeist smells foul. In the U.S., the right bemoans a socialist takeover while the left decries a corporate sellout. All the rest, clinging to the middle, have a hard time finding anything to cheer for, as they scramble to keep jobs and homes and health. It's been a decade of war and financial disaster, and now, just in time for Christmas, a terrorist attack for the icing on top! If this is a harbinger of what the 21st century has to offer, going forward, we had better stock up on the antidepressants.

Call it the price of success? Ten years ago, American triumphalism was at its peak. We were the lone superpower, dictating the Washington Consensus as the answer to all the world's economic development problems, preening ourselves as we regarded our mighty technological prowess and the downfall of communism. But now comes the midlife crisis, popping up in end-of-the-year think pieces everywhere. What's the theme? It hasn't been just a bad year but also a "big zero" decade, and even worse, the end of optimism.

To wit: In a remarkable piece of handwringing published today in the Financial Times, "Self-Doubt Tarnishes Brand America," Edward Luce observes the decay of "American intellectual hegemony" and declares that "the metallic rust of decline has crept into the American soul."

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal, we are offered a glimpse at the annual Christmas letter sent out by Guy Hands, the founder of private equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners.

We need to question the accepted wisdom that a truly global market benefits all citizens in western developed nations. Indeed, I suspect we will, in time, see globalization as the driver that delivered a massive transfer of economic power from the west to the east.

Over the long term it will result in an ever growing class of permanent poor being created in the west. I also suspect new graduates will find it increasingly difficult to get the jobs for which they are qualified. It is the young and the poor in the west who will pay the cost of global human resources competition.

No doubt: Globalization makes it tougher to compete — though we can argue whether it is ultimately more economically devastating to workers in the formerly flush West than relentless technological innovation. (For example, my own industry, journalism, is being remade by the Internet, not China or India.) But that's quibbling: Globalization plus technological progress together are squeezing Western workers in a giant vice grip.

It didn't use to be that way. Once upon a time, all you had to do was be born in the U.S., or West Germany, or Japan, and, barring certain disadvantages such as race or gender, a headstart on grabbing for the good life was all but assured: widespread levels of affluence and a steadily rising standard of living unmatched throughout all of human history. Now it's not so easy — in part because of this "massive transfer of economic power from the west to the east."

Of course, from the East's perspective, it's maybe not so bad. As FreeExchange notes, "the economies of India and China basically doubled in size over the [last decade], dealing a major blow to poverty in countries that are home to over 2 billion people, one third of earth's population." I'm betting that that there are few citizens in those countries who would be excited about a return to the halcyon days of the 20th century, or who would be so prone to decry the fact that global markets don't benefit all the citizens in Western developed nations.

One person's massive transfer is another's rebalancing. For centuries, Western Europe, the U.S. and a handful of other countries dominated the global economy by force of gunboats and market capitalism. That's over, or at least in serious jeopardy. But should this change of fortune be read as a marker of Western decline or as the natural, inevitable rise of the rest of the world? We've all seen how the West can no longer enforce its will at World Trade Organization or climate change negotiations. Should we lament the loss of hegemony — which makes it easy to get things done — or celebrate the rise of multipolarity — which makes it much, much harder to cut a deal?

There's also, as Andrew Sprung points out at Xpostfactoid, the encouraging news that globally, life expectancy is up, child mortality down, and the poverty rate is shrinking at an accelerating pace.

Maybe, as 2010 approaches, it's time to suck it up a little bit, and instead of bemoaning how screwed up everything is, take some time to think about the vast global trends that may make the 21st century a better time to be born in China or India or Brazil than has been true for centuries — or ever. Or if that kind of one-world thinking is too hard to reach, we can perhaps settle for smaller victories. I, for one, am very glad the Christmas bomber didn't kill anyone, that the prospects for the U.S. economy are nowhere near as frightening today as they were a year ago, and that we at least seem to have our attention focused on the important problems — energy, climate, healthcare, financial regulatory reform — instead of just blithely ignoring them.

Rust in the soul? There's nothing here that a little WD-40 and some elbow grease can't fix. Or at least, that's HTWW's New Year's resolution.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy