The global economy isn't zero-sum
Matt Miller's got a very good column on education today that allows me to make an almost entirely unrelated point about the way China (and, for that matter, India) gets used in the domestic political conversation. Miller's column argues that we need to do more to improve America's schools than we're already doing. Most people, I think, would agree with that. But in order to arm his point with more urgency, he writes that "the real race we're in is not a 'race to the top' within the United States but a race to maintain middle-class living standards in a world where rising, hungry powers such as China and India now threaten them."
You see this rhetorical move a lot. Barack Obama's State of the Union pitch for clean energy used the same tactic. "We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," he warned. "And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient."
Polls and focus groups show that people go nuts for this sort of rhetoric. If you want the country to get behind your policy initiative, just tell them that China is beating us to the punch. But global economic growth is not a zero-sum game. Quite the opposite, in fact. If China and America both develop large and innovative clean-energy sectors, the result will be cleaner energy. If India graduates more engineers than we do, that means the world will have more engineers. If China gets a serious medical-research sector going, it will develop cures that will work on diseases that afflict Americans, too.
Competitive language is used in service of worthy goals, but it's also dangerous stuff. We're telling Americans to fear the economic development of other countries, when what they should actually fear is the reverse. If China or India stagnate, that means they won't become huge markets for our exports, it means they won't develop new technologies that can better our lives, it means that they won't be geopolitical anchors in the way that only rich, stable countries can be. The global economy isn't a race so much as it's a relay.
Photo credit: By Liu Jin/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
June 3, 2010; 11:40 AM ET
Categories: Economic Policy | Tags: clean energy, ezra klein, global economy, renewable energy
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