The US’s greatest danger isn’t China, it’s much closer to home
China's increasingly aggressive geopolitical and economic stance in the world is sparking a violent backlash between both parties in America. That's fine if it leads to more public investment in basic research, education, and infrastructure - like the Sputnik shock in the late 1950s. But there are also dangers.
More than 60 years ago, the sudden and palpable fear that the Soviet Union was stumbling before us shook America from a postwar complacency and caused the nation to do what it should have done for many years. Although we did this on the pretext of national defense - we called it the National Defense Education Act and National Defense Highway Act, and relied on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration for basic research on semiconductors, satellite technology, and the Internet - the result was an increase in US Productivity and American Wages for a Generation.
When the Soviet Union began to implode, America found its next slide in Japan. Cars made in Japan took away market share from the Big Three automakers. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi bought a sizeable stake in Rockefeller Center, Sony bought Columbia Pictures, and Nintendo was considering buying the Seattle Mariners. Countless Congressional hearings took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the Japanese "challenge" to American competitiveness and the Japanese "threat" to American jobs.
A deluge of books demonized Japan - Pat Choate's Agents of Influence claimed Tokyo's alleged payouts to influential Americans were aimed at "achieving effective political rule over the United States." Clyde Prestowitz ’Trading Places argued that because of our failure to adequately respond to the Japanese challenge," the power of the United States and the quality of American life in all respects is rapidly declining. " William S. Dietrichs In the Shadow of the Rising Sun claimed that Japan "threatens our way of life and ultimately our freedoms as much as the dangers of the past from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union".
Robert Zielinski and Nigel Holloways Unequal Equities argued that Japan manipulated its capital markets to undermine American companies. Daniel Bursteins Yen! Japan's new financial empire and its threat to America claimed that Japan's growing power puts the United States at risk of falling victim to a "hostile Japanese ... world order."
And on it went: The Japanese Power Game, The Coming War with Japan, Zaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms are Colonizing Vital US Industries, The Silent War, Trade Wars.
But there was no malicious conspiracy. We hadn't noticed that Japan had invested heavily in its own education and infrastructure - which enabled it to produce high quality products that American consumers wanted to buy. We didn't see our own financial system resembling a casino and asking for instant wins. We have overlooked that our education system makes nearly 80% of our young people fail to understand a news magazine and many others unprepared for work. And our infrastructure of unsafe bridges and potholed roads weighed on our productivity.
In the present case of China, the geopolitical rivalry is palpable. At the same time, American corporations and investors are tacitly making bundles by running low-wage factories there and selling technology to their Chinese “partners”. And American banks and venture capitalists are eager to write business in China.
I don't want to downplay the challenge China poses to the United States. But throughout America's post-war history, it was easier to blame others than to blame ourselves.
The greatest threat we face today does not come from China. It is our tendency towards proto-fascism. We must be careful that we do not demonize China so much that we encourage a new paranoia that further skews our priorities, encourages nativism and xenophobia, and leads to greater military spending, rather than public investment in education, infrastructure and basic research on America's future Prosperity and security depend crucially.
The central question for America - an increasingly diverse America whose economies and culture are rapidly merging with the economies and cultures of the rest of the world - is whether it is possible to rediscover our identities and mutual responsibilities without creating another enemy.
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