Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

Obama and Xi’s weekend getaway

Zachary Karabell
Jun 7, 2013 17:44 UTC

This weekend, President Obama and China’s new leader Xi Jinping will meet at a retreat outside of Los Angeles. The two men are scheduled to spend six to seven hours covering a range of issues that confront the two countries, from the increasingly fraught issue of hacking and cybersecurity to what to do about an evermore unpredictable and rogue North Korea. The summit was arranged only recently, almost impromptu and more casual and low-key than the pomp and circumstances state visits of the past decade. That should in no way, however, obscure just how important the meeting is.

Rarely in history has an emerging power met an existing power without mayhem and conflict ensuing. China today is clearly emerging, with an economy that will soon be larger than the U.S.’s, though the income of Chinese citizens will remain far behind their U.S. counterparts for many years to come. In spite of recent stumbles, the U.S. remains the only country with global reach both economically and militarily.

Yet tensions notwithstanding, by any historical standard, the U.S.-China relationship has been managed remarkably well, and this casual but symbolically significant summit between the two leaders is yet another indication of that. We focus habitually on all that is going wrong in the world, yet for now at least, the China-U.S. relationship is going right. That’s not because either country and its people like the other or trust the other, but it is because we need each other.

Regardless of the outcome of the summit — and in truth, there is likely to be very little substantive public outcome — how this relationship is managed matters more to the long-term health of both the United States and China than what, say, the Fed does or does not do in the coming months. For more than ten years, the China-U.S. relationship has been an anchor of economic growth and the fulcrum of the global economy. And that is likely to be true for the next decade as well.

The importance of China to the United States, of the U.S. to China, and of the two to the world has, if anything, increased in the past two years as the European Union has sunk ever more deeply into recession and disillusion. For much of the early 2000s, you could credibly say that there were three pillars of the global economy. Now there are two.

Budgeting for mistrust

Zachary Karabell
Mar 13, 2013 15:01 UTC

Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”

The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

I think we’re turning Japanese, I really hope so

Zachary Karabell
Feb 22, 2013 17:22 UTC

Why the U.S. would be lucky to become Japan.

By Zachary Karabell

Over the past few years, it’s become ever more common to hear comparisons between the United States and Japan. They are not favorable. They come in the form of dark warnings that the current policies of the United States will lead to a fate similar to Japan’s over the past 20 years: stagnant growth with no end in site.

Let’s just say for the moment that the United States is becoming Japan – a nation of little to no economic growth, high public debt and a broken financial system. How bad is that? Is becoming Japan really a worst-case scenario?

The past 20 years for Japan have been called the lost decades. Government debt is in excess of 200 percent of GDP. The country has suffered from chronic deflation, a sluggish job market, an aging population, an insular culture and growth stalled at between 1 percent and 2 percent a year. Governments have come and gone. What’s most notable is that until recently, Japan has rarely been at the forefront of economic news the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s, even though it is the world’s third-largest economy and one of its wealthiest. If you factor in deflation, Japan hasn’t just seen tepid growth; it has seen none: Nominal economic output has barely budged since 1992.

Obama sees the limits of government

Zachary Karabell
Feb 15, 2013 18:15 UTC

President Barack Obama made the middle class the focus of his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He was lauded by some as fighting for jobs and opportunity, and even for launching a “war on inequality” equivalent to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. He was assailed by others for showing his true colors as a man of big government and wealth redistribution.

Yet the initiatives Obama proposed are striking not for their sweep but for their limited scope. That reflects both pragmatism and realism: Not only is the age of big government really over, so is the age of government as the transformative force in American society. And that is all for the best.

Wait a minute, you might reasonably object: What about healthcare? What about the proposals for minimum -wage increases, for expanded preschool, for innovation centers, for $50 billion in spending on roads and infrastructure? Surely those are big government and aim, effectively or not, for transformation?

The fiscal cliff showed America is a country addicted to crisis

Zachary Karabell
Jan 3, 2013 17:14 UTC

So we did not fall off the cliff. But the reaction to the news of the deal suggests that we’ve become a culture addicted to crisis, because barely had the vote been taken when the spin from politicians, from the mainstream media, and from the cacophonous web was angry, sullen, and negative.

The problem is said to be, in no particular order: Washington, partisanship, Tea Party ideologues, tax-and-spend Democrats, unions, rich people, America, unemployment, underemployment, the shafting of the middle class, the end of the American dream, the untenable deficit, unfunded mandates, and unreasonable expectations. But maybe the problem is none of those; maybe it’s a deepening love affair with crisis. The perverse lure of descent and an inability to break out of the cycle is threatening to overcome us.

What did the deal actually accomplish? Taxes went up significantly for the wealthy and modestly for most, yet the core of lower rates for the vast majority of Americans was retained. Financial markets reacted giddily and made up some lost ground. And for all of the legitimate carping about the dysfunction and polarization of Washington, the deal was actually bipartisan. An overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats backed it in the Senate, while in the House the deal fractured the Republican caucus. The party split its vote and was then joined by a majority of Democrats.

When did America get so pessimistic?

Zachary Karabell
Nov 15, 2012 15:46 UTC

Barely had the counting ceased in last week’s presidential election when the news took a somber turn. Two of the next day’s headlines read “Back to Work, Looming Fiscal Crisis Greets Obama” and my favorite, “America has Sown the Seeds of Its Own Demise.” Politicians either celebrated or decried the results, but regardless of party affiliation most warned of formidable challenges and a perilous future.

How did it come to pass that even the resolution of a contested election brings almost zero relief from the relentless focus on problems and threats? How did a country that for much of its history exhibited a (sometimes naive) willingness to ignore obstacles and plunge forward become a society that struggles to turn its gaze away from the dangers that loom just ahead? In short, how did the United States become so pessimistic?

Some of it surely has to do with how the past decade has unfolded.  Without question, this has been a challenging time for America and much of the Western world. We can all recite the crises, disasters and failures: Y2K, the bursting of the Nasdaq stock market bubble in 2001, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Enron, WorldCom, the bursting of the housing bubble, the Wall Street implosion of 2008, the euro zone’s troubles, chronically high unemployment, anemic growth, the continued emergence of China as a global economic force. I could go on.

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