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Good Reads: America's decline, China's rise, the way forward

There's a new genre of American journalism called 'Decline Watch,' tracking America's slow steady decline and China's rise. Here's your daily cup of sunshine.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / January 26, 2012

Workmen stand on scaffolding as they work on the construction of a building in central Beijing January 17.

David Gray/REUTERS

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Most adult Americans today grew up with their feet on the terra firma of American superiority.

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Faced with a cold war rival, the Soviet Union, Americans confidently paid taxes and sent their sons off to war in Korea, Vietnam, and oddly, Grenada, in order to keep communism at bay. From Washington, President Reagan proclaimed that it was “morning in America,” which was great if you were a morning person, and Americans took the metaphor to heart. Intuitively, they knew that a free-market democracy would win against a soul-crushing authoritarian form of communism.

But now in the early part of the 21st century, that terra firma has begun to shift underfoot. Intellectuals from developing countries have argued that democracy is not always suited for all cultures, particularly those with poor education systems. Terrorist groups have attacked America’s symbols of prosperity and strength – the Pentagon, the World Trade Center – and even America’s friends have begun to doubt that America has the mettle to carry on. The global economic crisis rounded out a very tough decade, and on the stage that America once dominated, a few new players emerged. They were familiar faces: America’s old rivals, Russia and China, who have devised hybrid models of capitalism very different from America’s that seem to function better, at least for now.

Now, it’s estimated that within the next 6 years, China may overtake America as the largest economic power in the world.

The changing global mood has created an entirely new genre of American journalism. Call it “Decline Watch.” The writers tend to be economists – the same profession that made us believe in the superiority of American capitalism, and in the logic of tearing down borders to create a unified European economy – and their arguments are persuasive, if a little self-defeating.

Consider Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher’s piece in the New York Times this week, called “How the US Lost Out on iPhone Work.” The reasons why Apple and every other American corporation with access to a travel agent have relocated their manufacturing to China go far beyond mere cheap wages, the authors write.

And they’re right. As the Atlantic magazine’s Jordan Weissmann notes in a blog, China has an education system that produces 600,000 engineers a year, compared with the US’s 70,000. China has an industrial policy that subsidizes the building of factories at home and the sale of products abroad.

Here’s a point in the New York Times piece that took my breath away.

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