Friday, November 14, 2008

Review - The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria's book, The Post-American World (2008), was something I was looking forward to reading. Zakaria has struck me, in his television appearances and Newsweek columns, as a clear-eyed thinker, though I don't always agree with him (I don't put much stock in his idea that the collapse of Wall Street will be a boon to energy industries because of the influx of previously mis-directed talent). But PAW sounded exciting, as it promised to be a guide to America's adaptation to a changing world, something I've written about many times.

And my response is, eh. A book that dealt with the changes that are coming in the world and how Americans might think about them and deal with them would have been interesting; considering Zakaria's reputation, perhaps even important. But this is not that book (I know, it's unfair to review something for what it isn't, but I didn't title the book or sell it as something it turns out not to be).

This is a book very much in the Tom Friedman mode, and it's working. Amazon still lists it as #101 on the selling list more than six months after its release. But it has many of the weaknesses of a Friedman work, foremost among them any discussion of what the great changes in the world will do to "regular" people. So caught up is it in basic geopolitics and macro- (with a capital M) economics, it fails to take its huge list of facts and argue them through to their logical implication. It is not so much a work of profound thinking as it is a long magazine article - taken that way, it's not a bad book, but neither is it significant. Part of it may be me: I'm well aware of the things Zakaria is writing about, so large tracts of the text were unnecessary. Another reader might find them useful background.

I had thought this was going to be a long review of an important book, similar to my review of Reich's Supercapitalism or Friedman's The World Is Flat. But it won't be, as there just isn't that much to say about a book which, at least to me, added very little to my understanding and did nothing to induce me to change my views.

Zakaria foreshadows his main problem with his very first line:
This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.
And he believes this, for the most part, which is charmingly optimistic, but shows little sensitivity to those Americans who are in decline. Later on, he presents statistics demonstrating the amazing growth rates of China and India (his major exhibits in the new powers of the post-American world), and ignores the long-term trends. I believe, as do most people, that things like free trade can be part of a positive-sum game. I just don't believe in an infinitely positive-sum game.

Let me illustrate. Four of us bring $100 apiece to a card game. Through some magic, over the course of play, $100 more is thrown into the pot. And the four players go home with $200, $150, $125, and $25. The system as a whole has become richer, which is a great outcome...except for the fourth player, who has lost 75% of his stake. This is a contrived example, to be sure, but it's intended to demonstrate that multiple-player positive-sum games provide no guarantee of individual outcomes.

Zakaria's tendency to look at things politically rather than economically is a huge flaw. When he writes that the dominance of the United States in "economics, politics, science, and culture...has been unrivaled" over the past twenty years, he's looking at aggregates, ignoring the rather large number of Americans who have not shared in this dominance. The statement is true in so many ways, but tell it to the Youngstown auto worker who has seen that bounty stuffed into the hands of his former bosses.

Current events cause problems for this book, as one might expect. Zakaria makes quite a point about the stability of markets in the face of external shocks, a hypothesis that is belied by the financial crisis. Much of our apparent growth was illusory, both in the '90s (the Internet boom looked good on paper, but left a lot of rubble) and in this decade (as debt fueled much of our apparent increase in wealth).

A word here about the book's style. I have trouble understanding the choppy nature of the narrative, as sections that are positive about America alternate with sections that are less happy. We're still doing very well, but our policies have made the world hate us. The world loves us, however, you can tell by how many of them are learning English. But we still show a lamentable lack of interest in other countries, and they resent us for it. After a time, the mind begins to reel.

The center of the book is taken up with three (out of six) chapters concerning some history (how did the West, and, ultimately, America come to dominate?), the rise of China (they're growing, but in a relatively benign way), and the rise of India (they're growing too, but their own internal factionalization may prevent them from moving as fast as China). This is all fairly interesting, though suffering from the stylistic whiplash I mentioned above, but also quite basic to anyone who has some familiarity with these matters.

[A large quibble: Zakaria decries the Chinese reluctance to fully embrace Japan, arguing that they have gone out of their way to keep tensions high. I think he misses something of the Chinese character, that history has an immediacy and vividness that Americans have somewhat deliberately cast off. In the U.S., we use history to extract certain myths, then throw away the rest ("why can't those Native Americans just let it go already"). There is still active pride in the feats of Ts'ai Lun, despite his having died almost 1900 years ago. For a culture with that kind of memory, asking them to forget the atrocities of 1937, simply to advance economic interests, is a bit much.]

As for the rest of PAW, it pretty much goes on in the same vein as before. America's current plight isn't bad at all, though they better watch out. Our schools aren't as bad as everyone thinks, but other countries are getting better at education, and all the good students who go to our universities are foreign anyway. Much of this is straight out of the standard boiler-plate thinking of 2008 (we need to educate the working population "to compete in a knowledge economy"; if we can't, "it will drag down the country" - couple that with the non-knowledge jobs that are expected to be the big growth industries, which Zakaria doesn't do, and ask yourself who will do those - oh wait, he provides an answer a little later).

I could pick more nits here, but I discuss those matters all the time on this blog; as I said, his is standard-issue thinking. Zakaria has no answers to the economic problems, none at all. Friedman-esque, he says nothing to the fact that we are not losing jobs based on ability, but on price (oddly, though, he does quote the one insight along those lines from The World Is Flat, the statement whose implications aren't followed up on that Tom doesn't know how his daughters will compete with people who will work for "a fraction of the wages").

America will remain a superpower for a long time to come, mainly because of its vast military apparatus. This raises the specter that we will become the world's mercenaries, traveling from place to place with our cruise missiles and aircraft carriers to keep the peace for a grateful world. Should we, maybe just a little, be concerned about that?

More broadly, Zakaria comes up with six ways for America to operate "in this new world." I won't recount them, they're not very deep insights, and all deal with foreign policy. One of the great problems is that we're given no guide as to how we might mediate among these six oft-conflicting objectives. But all of them suffer from a common flaw, namely, they're designed around the idea that America can retain its position by doing things for the rest of the world, that we can intervene in difficult situations and make ourselves useful.

Of course, this is a new world, and involving ourselves in the world's problems, essentially for free, is no longer an option. But this is what Zakaria espouses. We'll lead the effort, we'll intervene, we'll continue to embrace the world's population. And we'll ask nothing in return but respect.

But the conclusion, I expect, is what Zakaria has been heading toward all along. As an immigrant who came here to go to college and became enthralled by this country, he feels that our openness is our most important asset. We are the first "universal nation...we offer unlimited generosity and promise."

And this is a nice thought. But we've stopped offering those things to our own citizens; heck, we have trouble getting health care for everyone. A lot of this openness has come from having the luxury to do so, from being wealthy enough to give away education, knowledge, jobs. A great deal of the uncertainty people feel comes from wondering if we really still have that luxury when we're being underbid for our livelihoods. And, sadly, Zakaria gives us no way to think about that.


Citizen Carrie said...

I agree. The Flat Worldians have been saying the same thing for too many years. It's time for them to take their discourse to the next level, particularly since we're well into their much-desired "creative destruction" phase.

Androcass said...

I guess if there's one thing I've tried to put across in the body of work that is this blog, it is the need to doubt conventional wisdom, to ask the questions which go a level (or two) farther than the point at which discussions tend to stop. It's probably unfair to label the likes of Charlie Rose as fatuous when they let the usual talking heads ramble on about how we just need to pump more kids into STEM fields and we'll be competitive again. Just because I'm yelling at the screen, "Charlie, ask Mr. Cisco or Mr. FedEx how many of these new grads they'll be hiring, and on what basis they moved those jobs to begin with, competence or cost," doesn't mean I can expect Charlie to hear me.

But I do grow weary of the Zakarias of the world, who surely are smart people, failing to go even one step further in a chain of implications. Someone, at some point, needs to ask what Americans will do with their STEM degrees - who will hire them as long as they expect to make enough money to pay back their student loans? But no one, at least no one who holds a microphone or a notepad, ever does ask, and we're left with the bold geo-political plans of a Zakaria, but no way to pay for them, and no hope of payback from the countries that will profit the most from them. We despair for lack of these answers.

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