Saturday, July 7, 2012

Patriotism and Such

Ah, another post that is not about environmental economics.  Don't worry: it will be back.  In the spirit of Independence Day, I would like to offer some thoughts on the "American Dream" and the like.  Don't get me wrong; I love many things about this country.  "Amurica" is amazingly successful and prosperous, especially for such a large area.  And although I despise American politics, I will readily admit that they are not the worst among developed nations.  Italy elected Silvio Berlusconi three times as prime minister, basically the equivalent of voting for Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen for president.  Greece has just elected a bunch of loony socialists to the majority, while giving neo-Nazi fascists a quarter of the seats.  I could go further in describing the sorry travails of South Korean Parliament or Japanese ministers, but I want to focus on America.  I just want people to be realistic about what they say, and this goes for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Since I don't expect many conservatives to read this blog, I will focus more on the things that everyone says that irk me.  I will pay some lip service  to conservative dogma though.  No, we are not the greatest country in the world in every way.  We are neither the most free country nor the most wealthy country (per capita).  We do not have the best healthcare or the best education.  In fact, we are well behind most developed countries in these two crucial areas despite spending far more.  Enough of that though; most people living in the real world (which may not include a majority of Americans) know that we have vast room for improvement.  And I'm not sure exactly how any statistics back America's status as the hands-down greatest country in the world.  Of course, if any American politician asserted that Norway or Sweden were run better, then he or she would be chastised for a lack of patriotism.  In fact, the US ranks 23rd in inequality-adjusted HDI (Human Development Index).  Even disregarding inequality, we are measurably behind Norway and Australia.  I have no problem saying that the US is one of the greatest countries, but we are certainly not the best.

Okay, so over-the-top nationalistic fervor is disingenuous, but for the most part harmless.  As long as we still realize that there is room for improvement, it doesn't hurt to feel a little overly smug of our country.  I have no problem with having a day to celebrate (July 4th), although I doubt most people remember the history behind it.  Unfortunately, our self-infatuation goes beyond nationalism.  There is of course the obvious case of immigration, where liberals are quick to point out the racism and xenophobia of many Republicans. Arizona has gone crazy recently with its crackdown on immigration, and perhaps worse, banning ethnic studies.  There is also the wildly irrational fear of world governments (the UN for example).  God forbid that we have to interact with other countries.  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many Americans are not willing to help the rest of the world, evidenced by the widespread lack of support for foreign aid.  We hear many liberals saying that we should focus on our own problems before helping out others.  I don't think one precludes the other; in modern society, improving the standard of living in any country will make America better off.  I think that trade globalization have been important steps towards a better world.

I am the first to acknowledge that there are some horrible tragedies in free trade.  Poor working conditions, corporate-supported terrorism (for example, Banana Republics), and vast environmental degradation have resulted from unfettered trading.  Of course there is cause for concern.  Unfortunately, the most commonly proposed "solutions" do nothing to remedy most of this.  Shuttering trade does nothing to improve working conditions; they will still have to make a living somehow.  There is no reason that the Chinese would be better off if they were working for local companies instead of American ones.  International trade has done far more to improve living standards despite the perceived awful conditions.  We must work to further the improvement, pressuring China and other countries to develop better regulations.  Limiting trade is only going to increase the likelihood of terrorism and conflict by further isolation countries.  Environmental exploitation is the biggest long-term consequence of trade, but this is an unfortunate result of rapid development.  We are sacrificing short-term improvement for the potential of vast long-term harm.  The practice of dumping all of our garbage in third-world countries is despicable; that is something that I believe needs to be cracked down on.  We need to handle our own toxic waste rather than shipping it off to China.  Unfortunately, the same people who say this will not support facilities here due to the health consequences.  Again though, there is no reason that we cannot have international trade without causing so much environmental destruction.

While we must be cognizant of the damages, we should not get carried away into blindly supporting everything American.  There is no reason that manufacturing should be done in America and not China.  There is zero reason that as compassionate, bigotry-free liberals, we should not embrace foreign workers as much as we care about Americans.  I cringe whenever I hear Obama (or anyone else) talking about the travesty of shipping jobs overseas.  The end goal for us, as people, should be to make the world a better place for everyone, not just America.  Other countries are not "stealing" our jobs; they are simply doing a better job competing.  I do not think that it is a bad thing if there is one more programmer in India, or a million more.  A loss of jobs is a result of overpopulation, not of outsourcing.  We should not impede the development of other countries by protecting American jobs or American manufacturing.  I don't think that there should be special tax breaks for American production or American companies.  We need to make things better, not necessarily make things American.  I see nothing wrong with outsourcing, nothing wrong with China beating us technologically.  The great thing about globalization is that every country benefits.  So yes, we need to do better, but not for the sake of being better than China.  We should applaud China's development and help it become more efficient and (especially) more sustainable.  As far as improving the situation for America, the only thing that is really going to make a long-term difference is better education.

Next time you're thinking about the greatness of America, whether it's tomorrow, this election season, or next July 4th, take a moment to remember our shortfalls.  And please don't chastise foreign workers just because they don't live in America.  After all, you would protest the anti-foreigner fervor inside the border as bigoted and racist.  You don't get a free pass outside the border.

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