Transition Shock

Ezra Klein says America should feel okay about the looming specter of China’s economy being larger than ours:

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.

I think that’s all too, but that this is also a bit too complacent. One can make too much of the idea of a “special relationship” between the US and the UK, but there’s obviously a very real sense in which the deep cultural linkages between England and the formerly-English settler-states mean we relate to one another in an unusual way. You can see this in part by the fact that Australian, Canadian, and English (but not necessarily Scottish!) nationalists are very friendly to American nationalism. It’s with good reason that John Howard was George W Bush’s special friend among world leaders. Winston Churchill was able to write a History of the English Speaking Peoples that basically argues that the cause of human freedom was first carried by England, then by the British Empire, and then the torch was passed to the United States of America. The ability of English nationalists to accept and promote that kind of discourse was vital to making the transition so peaceful.

After Jeb Bush completes his second term in 2020, the transition to China as number one will be well under way. Can you imagine him spending his retirement years publishing a similar argument about China? I can’t. Our nationalist discourse is just way too different from and incompatible with China’s. Effecting a peaceful and mutually beneficial transition would require a substantial weakening of nationalist sentiment in both countries. I certainly hope it happens, but it’ll be a much thornier situation than the US-British transition.