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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 01/26/2011

We won't always be the biggest

By Ezra Klein


This bugged me last night, and it's worth talking about today: One of the first big applause lines of the speech came when Barack Obama said, "For all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world." But as Matt Yglesias notes, soon, we won't. China will. And that's okay.

A decent future includes China's GDP passing ours. They have many, many more people than we do. It's bad for both us and them if the country stays poor. A world in which China becomes rich enough to buy from us and educated enough to invent things that improve our lives is a better world than one in which they merely become competitive enough to take low-wage jobs from us -- and that's to say nothing of the welfare of the Chinese themselves.

But perhaps it's better to think of it in terms of Britain rather than China. Was the economic rise of the United States, in the end, bad for Britain? Or France? I don't think so. We've invented a host of products, medicines and technologies that have made their lives immeasurably better, not to mention measurably longer. We're a huge and important trading partner for all of those countries. They're no longer even arguably No. 1, it's true. But they're better off for it.

In the best global economy we can imagine, the countries with the largest GDP are the countries with the most people. That's not America. And that's okay. We want America to have the most innovative and dynamic economy in the world, and we want living in America to be better than living anywhere else. But we don't want everywhere else to remain poor. We can't want that.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  | January 26, 2011; 10:38 AM ET
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"But perhaps it's better to think of it in terms of Britain rather than China."

Yup, China's just like the UK -- except for the parliament stuff.

Posted by: leoklein | January 26, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

"But we don't want everywhere else to remain poor. We can't want that."

I think this moral issue is often left out of the discussion on competitiveness. Not only do we not want China to remain poor for our own sake (innovative ideas, etc.), but for their sake. It's pretty perverse to want to keep everyone else down just so we can remain on top! Let's work toward increased prosperity all around, yes?

Posted by: madjoy | January 26, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm not an economist, but can't China have the largest economy in the world while we have the biggest economy per capita? Isn't the per capita part the important part? I mean, even if China was still poor but doubled its population, wouldn't they probably have a bigger economy?

As long as we're not in the running to be the most populace country in the world, isn't getting passed by inevitable?

Posted by: MosBen | January 26, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I suspect, though, that many Americans, perhaps unconsciously) append two conditions:

- that China (and any similar country) undertake reforms that lead to institutions that can be claimed to be patterned after American ones;

- that China openly admit that it was America's beneficent influence that led them to do that.

Yes, they're allowed to be bigger, but not if they do it their way, because then where is American exceptionalism?

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | January 26, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

The European Union, albeit not a country, also currently has a larger GDP than the US (source: CIA Factbook, IMF).


Posted by: chrisgaun | January 26, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm nearly 54 years old.
I was told by someone wise, in the late 70's, that China would be the next dominant power. My gut reaction was whaaa?
But this freakout reaction Americans seem to have is wholly unjustified. It is, in my opinion, a holdover from the last century's world war mentality i.e. when the next one comes we (obviously) are the ONLY ones who can save humanity.

This belief/fear will die, when that generation finally dies. The current young generation WANTS to live globally. Maybe not so oddly, they envision a world similar to that of Star Trek, a 1960's series that I watched as a child. You know, the Federation and all. I saw this age 11, and thought "OF COURSE!!!

It would be foolish to assume that just as the 13 colonies wanted to remain separate & sovereign FOREVER, and the European Union could not have been conceived of in the 19th century, let alone the 20th century, that the inevitable movement towards global unity will proceed, regardless of how long it takes.
It's a wise country that can envision itself as a part of that whole.

I think that Ezra "sees" this, in a way.
Having a great country doesn't not require having the biggest anything.
But 'The Boomers' are still in charge and THEY don't want to hear that

It's just the fear talking...
Keeping writing about this Ezra, you're on the right track.

Posted by: tomperri | January 26, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse


Yes per-capita does matter and I don't think we are #1 actually. I'm pretty sure Luxembourg and Qatar have us beat.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | January 26, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

The U.S. has the third largest population with Indonesia a rather distant fourth, so there is no real prospect of us being less than the third largest economy any time in the forseeable future.

Posted by: tl_houston | January 26, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"Was the economic rise of the United States, in the end, bad for Britain?"

It depends.

Yes, Britain has benefited from advances made in America, but if those advances had been made in Britain instead, they'd also have benefited. And, yes, global trade has historically promoted wealth for all parties.

But economic power is political power, and when measuring control over their own destiny, no, Britain absolutely has not benefited from America being a stronger economic power.

Imperial Britain could do anything it wanted (for good or bad). Now Bush decides to invade Iraq and pulls Tony Blair by the ear into it. Did Blair want to go as well? Maybe, but it's not like he had a choice.

When it comes to environmental agreements, arms treaties and any other global issues, the rest of the world is beholden to the U.S., and the U.S. is beholden to no one.

Would the U.S. be comfortable playing the role of Britain to China?

"We want America to have the most innovative and dynamic economy in the world, and we want living in America to be better than living anywhere else. But we don't want everywhere else to remain poor."

This is a false dichotomy. I don't see how your first sentence is any different than Obama's message.

The U.S. does not need to be (and shouldn't be) the sole power in the world; but it also should not be happy anointing another sole power.

Posted by: dpurp | January 26, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

The fear is that with economic size goes military might, which is the basis for the current American dominance. Its as if you ignore the reality of the American empire.

Posted by: staypuftman | January 26, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

"Imperial Britain could do anything it wanted (for good or bad). Now Bush decides to invade Iraq and pulls Tony Blair by the ear into it. Did Blair want to go as well? Maybe, but it's not like he had a choice."

Of course Blair had a choice! What was the U.S. going to do if Blair didn't tag along? Launch cruise missiles at London?

Posted by: justin84 | January 26, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I've seldom been in stronger agreement with Ezra. Keep saying this! Will it take 20 years for it to sink in?

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 26, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

@justin84: It was Bush, remember?

Seriously, yes, of course that was an oversimplification. Believe me, I think Blair should have told Bush to go to hell. I imagine Blair could have said no, and the U.S. would have used what diplomatic and economic force it wanted to make things that much more difficult for him.

If, however, Britain was the major economic power, that would not be the case.

Posted by: dpurp | January 26, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Your statement is only true in a world where technology and organization grows fast enough that competition over resources doesn't become acute. A non-rosy scenario for a developed China involves sky high commodity prices, inflation, anemic global growth, and even resource wars.

Posted by: zosima | January 26, 2011 11:22 PM | Report abuse

Global trade is not always good for everybody. We can't have the kind of prosperity we think of as normal. i.e. the postwar years until the 70s, without a healthy balance of trade. That's really what Obama was talking about last night.

Posted by: PaulMcGrath | January 26, 2011 11:57 PM | Report abuse

Obama spoke of the future. He doesn't know what it will be, and no one does. But he's hoping for a break, saying get ready for it, and do ourselves some good while we're getting ready for it. Make a business about getting ready for the next Steve Jobs, or Zuckerberg, or Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. And be standing at the door when opportunity knocks.

Posted by: PaulMcGrath | January 27, 2011 12:05 AM | Report abuse

You are correct that economic power as measured by GDP does not matter and that China's GDP per capita increasing is good for the people in China and good for the world -provided there are technological solutions to resource constraints and provided that the handover of hegemony goes smoothly.

Posted by: MGriebe | January 27, 2011 7:23 AM | Report abuse

I do not know if this kid Klein is a traitor, a resident of Berkeley, or the step son of either Jane Fonda,Ezra Pound or Saul Alinsky, but his view of American free enterprise reminds me of that of past socialist jugheads like Henry A. Wallace, Charles Beard, or these two clowns Cloward and Piven.Being owned by the vicious murderous PRC, the Chi-Coms is not a funny thing or a lesson in humility. It is a lesson in poor economic, political and military policies that the Left has pursued since 1945. Of course, this punk Klein would not remember that but he surely is not representative of the best of the old journalists that WAPO once had. My guess is his hero is Alger Hiss though he knows nada about him.

Posted by: phillyfanatic | January 27, 2011 11:42 PM | Report abuse

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