Heads up on the content of this column: it contains big thoughts in a short space. These are not original thoughts but the result of thinking sparked by a number of recent articles by Sudha Shenoy, Paul Craig Roberts, Bjrn Lomborg, and Butler Shaffer, among others. These writers have persuaded me that the really important trends in our time are not being noticed, not being talked about, or not discussed from the proper angle.
The market economy — globalized, enormously powerful, breathtaking in scope and breadth — is remaking the world in ways that far surpass any existing political development in the US, from the crafted blather of the State of the Union to the mad rush to grab the Democratic nomination. We are living through changes that may appear slow if observed from the point of view of the daily headlines, but which are momentously fast and completely transforming when looked at globally and from the point of view of years and decades into the future.
These developments are going to bring about surprising political shifts, profound upsets in rooted cultural assumptions, and an eventual and merciful end to the US imperium. These changes will touch everyone in ways that will be both stunning and glorious for average Americans, and deeply disturbing for the American regime that aspires to unchallenged global hegemony.
What is the underlying cause? The unleashing of human energies in nations that have been isolated, regimented, and closed for centuries. China, Malaysia, India, the countries of Latin America, and the new economies of Eastern Europe, among many others, are expanding at as much as twice the rate of American and European markets. This is not only remaking their nations, but the way we perceive the geographical distribution of wealth and power. Over time, and extended far into the future, this trend is going to mean dramatic upheavals in the way Americans perceive their role in the world.
Let’s begin with the pocketbook of Americans. The people in these emerging countries, confronted with new economic opportunities, are making the fruits of their labors, assisted by investments by US firms, available to American consumers, driving down prices and driving up the quality of everyday goods and services consumed by Americans. This phenomenon has been the saving grace of the US economy for a decade, and, in the future, it will become integral to our very lives.
To get a glimpse of the change, take a tour of the local Wal-Mart, the largest company in the world, and take note of the stunning availability of a huge range of consumer goods at very low prices. Note too that such an array would be inconceivable without the work of international trade. From bicycles and electronics to foodstuffs and flowers, we find the shelves dominated by goods that were produced, in part or in whole, by countries outside US borders, and to this we owe the low prices and the quality that accords with US consumer preferences. Now, Wal-Mart isn’t on some campaign to become the leading importer; it is only looking to make available to consumers all the things they want at the lowest possible prices. Where they find these goods is outside the US, where we find ever more comparative advantages.
Every retailer in the world is taking notice of this fact, studying the case of Wal-Mart to see how and why it so quickly became the dominant player in the world economy. Its example of seeing both the wholesale and retail market as global in scope — all in the interest of consumer service — has taught the entire business class that nationalism and parochialism are losing propositions. The left may continue to rail against this company, and the right may continue to warn of its dangers to local culture and life, but the example is there for all to see. Average people love this company. It is all old-fashioned consumer service combined with a global reach to bring to average people things that improve their lot in life.
No, I am not predicting that Wal-Mart will become a member of the Security Council of the UN (unfortunately). Wal-Mart may eventually go the way of so many companies, displaced by some other firm that knows how to do it even better. The point is the model from which it is working. It is a global model focused on the individual buyer, and it works its wonders by depending on the voluntary decisions of average people. The nation state as such plays no part in its calculus, and this has proven to be the winning ticket. So it will continue to be.
What about the economic impact? Is marketing all these wares to the world a danger? One might be initially alarmed by this, until one considers the savings to the consumer. For every dime saved in consumer prices, one more dime is made available for other pursuits, whether savings, consumption, or investment. It is this fact which is subsidizing American prosperity right now. Far from being a sign that America has lost its edge, it constitutes the world’s gift to American consumers. The trade is mutually beneficial, producing winners on all sides, with the only losers being those American producers who can’t seem to drive their costs down low enough to compete in the world marketplace. It is because of this, and despite the constant attempts by central banks to inflate the currency, that prices are continuing to fall for consumer goods.
People who have noted these trends say that we should panic that there won’t be any jobs left for Americans to do. What this forgets is the reality of scarcity in the world, which implies that they are always and everywhere jobs to do because there are always and everywhere unmet needs. Specialization and the division of labor permits Americans to produce most efficiently in a way that is integral to world demand and not waste time and resources in jobs that can be done more cheaply elsewhere. This does indeed mean a change in world patterns of production, but the market will manage the change with minimum disruption, as it has for the last several hundred years.
For the developing world, it means something far more dramatic: a nearly complete abandonment of traditional economic pursuits that were imposed on them by virtue of their previous isolation from the capitalist West. The point is not that their economies are free or have been completely unleashed from the chains of the state. If you look at the Index of Economic Freedom, the US and Western Europe dominate the countries listed in the free and mostly free categories, whereas the newly emerging economies do not. What matters here is the direction of change. Whereas the US and Europe are increasingly controlled, countries such as China, India, Romania, Poland, Thailand, and many others, are far less controlled than they once were.
This has unleashed pent-up human energies and made a fantastic difference in the ability of these people to integrate themselves into the worldwide division of labor. This has meant rising incomes, better diets, less starvation, less disease, better sanitation, falling infant mortality, much longer lifespans, and ever more economic opportunities for work and investment. The fate of these economies has two major links to that of American citizens: in their capacity as consumers, they have a strong interest in seeing it continue, and, as investors, many portfolios of US investors are heavily invested in these emerging economies.
The quality of life in these distant lands is increasing in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, with information technologies made available by the private sector coming into the hands of a new generation that relies on cell phones and high-speed web access, where their parents struggled barely to survive. The lifespan in China alone has risen from 25 years to 65 years in the course of a century. It also means more revenue for the governments of these countries, which, if driven to build up militaries to fend off US political influence, could eventually challenge the supremacy of the US in world public affairs.
Again, this is nothing to regret. A world dominated by a single superpower is a gravely dangerous place, especially when that power is irresponsibly managed (and, some would say, is managed by maniacs). A decline in the power, might, and influence of the US is not the same thing as a decline in America; quite the opposite. The only real downside is the transition: the US government may increasingly behave like a dying and rabid animal, posing a danger to its random victims. But once you hear the “thud” of the final fall, the world will be more peaceful and prosperous than ever before.
In the meantime, political trends in the US will become increasingly irrelevant, despite appearances. Until recently, Americans thought of themselves as a self-contained people with a nationally bound culture and economy that can be conceptualized and managed in the way that civics texts describe. This is on the verge of being impossible. The managerial class of the regime will continue to pose as experts and top-flight managers, but old assumptions about government are being shredded. Trends on this scale reduce the bellowing of politicians for protection to mere peeps.
Americans are famously ignorant about the affairs of other countries, and this wouldn’t matter in the slightest but for the ongoing political pressure to demonize foreign nations and deny their value to the world economy. This is a problem for the present. In the future, however, as the world becomes ever more integrated, and emigration becomes a more viable option for American workers, there will be a growing consciousness that the US is not a country divinely appointed to rule the world, but a wholly normal country that has much to offer the world via its commerce and culture.
There is a tendency on the part of everyone to judge a historical moment by our own daily affairs and in relation only to the headlines that dominate the news. Economic analysis takes a much broader view to consider the overall impact of billions of people in many lands over a long period of time. It is through examining these trends that we can see that we are entering into a new world of global economic expansion that will rout any attempt to keep it at bay. Now, clearly, this will not occur without periods of crisis, particularly so long as the world is on a dollar standard and governments are still at work bringing calamity wherever they can.
Take look at where and how the products you use every day are made. Therein lies a remarkable story of the genius of entrepreneurship, the capacity for the world economy to manage itself and overcome ten thousand barriers, and the direction we are headed. It is a world in which consumers and producers from all nations can join hands in praise of the networks that draw them together, and against their common enemy: governments that would stand in the way. To understand the world being recreated before us, we must constantly keep this principle in our mind: trade is always and everywhere mutually beneficial. If we understand that, we have no reason to fear our fate except to the extent that anyone anywhere dares to interfere.
Think I’m wrong? Wait 15 years and you will see otherwise.