Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The good, the bad...TIME edition

The current issue of TIME magazine is a disconcerting mix of good news, bad news, and something in between. The bad news is an article about four countries, Ireland, Spain, Taiwan, and Singapore, and how they're hurting in the current financial crisis. Ireland, for example, is suffering the bounce effect of globalization; many of the jobs that came there from the United States over the last decade are now moving again, to Eastern Europe. It would be good if someone could tell us where all the jobs will eventually land, then we could all move there - Abidjan, anyone?

There is little hope in any of these countries. Ireland hopes to use wind and water to get a toehold in renewable energy, Singapore's diversity is not protecting it against a systemic downturn, Spain is not certain of being able to employ anybody, and Taiwan may have to embrace the mainland to keep their economy going. Even countries that made many of the right choices are facing unpleasantness.

The in-between news is an essay with photos on the plight of Detroit. This once-proud city is now under a million in population, with a third of its land vacant. The items that cite its decline are by now familiar: the loss of jobs as the automakers have fallen, the corruption, the unemployment, and on and on.

The article tries to present hope, but I find it difficult to see how turning an auto body plant into a haven for artists will stem the tide. There are new hotels, and the state is offering massive tax breaks to Hollywood; various Detroiters are quoted as saying that the city is a canvas upon which new and wondrous things can be wrought.

But even in a piece that wants to fill us with optimism, the news is pretty bleak. Here is the end of the story:
As America's 11th largest city tries to mount a comeback, locals battling lean times are far from the only stakeholders. "The problems facing Detroit are definitely going to be cropping up in cities all over the country," says Hollander. "The kind of devastated postindustrial landscape we associate with the Rust Belt is starting to creep into the Sun Belt and may start to become a universal problem." Says Covington: "The rest of the world is just catching up to the hard times we've been experiencing." Which is why the world is now watching Detroit with interest--and waiting to see if it finds a way to rise from the ashes.
Pretty thin evidence for a potential comeback here.

The good news is the cover story, written by novelist Kurt Andersen. The cover features a red RESET button and the text, "The End of Excess: Why this crisis is good for America." The subtitle inside ends, "How a reset can make America a saner, better place."

And I've now told you pretty much everything you need to know about this think piece. It's the standard "we've put ourselves into a big hole, but what will emerge will be brighter and more wonderful than ever." Yes, Andersen cites the ant and the grasshopper. There are also pop-culture swings by Homer Simpson (old bloated America - bad!) and Road Runner cartoons, references to silver linings and exhortations to continue thinking big grand thoughts. Our young peope will move away from the crass, money-making interests of their elders, and dedicate themselves to the public good. We'll be able to do housing right, avoiding our soul-crushing, resource-wasting suburban sprawl. And, as an extra bonus, we'll stop paying attention to Paris Hilton.

Finally, somewhere on the fifth page of five, Andersen gets more serious and confronts some of the hard reality. And you'll be happy to know that even our putative economic competitor doesn't have to be a problem:
Twenty-first century China is the greatest country of the 20th century. Muscular industrialism gets you only so far. Further increases in productivity and prosperity require ingenuity and enterprise applied at the micro scale — digital devices and networked systems, biotechnology, subatomic nanotechnology. As China and other developing countries finally achieve the industrial plenty that we enjoyed 50 years ago, the U.S. can stay ahead once again by pioneering the next-generation technologies that the increasingly industrialized world will require.
That's right, it's more of the idea that a country that can find no jobs for people who want to work in technology will somehow take the lead in developing the next big thing (other than Twitter or Facebook).

The other pillar of Andersen's strategy is that we need to take in more immigrants. He does qualify it by saying we need to, "to encourage as many as possible of the world's smartest and most ambitious people to become Americans." That we have no idea how to identify which of the people who want to come here are smart and ambitious does not deter Andersen in the least.

So what this boils down to is a cleverly-written article right out of the Noonan/Friedman handbook. All inconvenient realities, any recognition of the ways in which the world has dramatically changed, the need to temper balloon-headed thinking about "American ingenuity," these are swept away in a tide of feverish excitement about our "reconstruction and reinvention."

Very little of it is convincing; cheerleading will not get the job done (see Detroit above). Even if this time did present an opportunity to get real about what America can be, we're unlikely to do the hard work necessary. One need only listen to the various leaders, who are pretty well unanimous that we will get through this time, then return to the fervid, profligate ways we "enjoyed" before.

On second thought, TIME doesn't have any good news at all...

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