Saturday, April 19, 2008

A very silly futurist article

Whilst writing that last post, I came across this article - "Why the US will still be the only superpower in 2030" - which is a good example of a) shallow US triumphalism, and b) a remarkable disconnection from reality. I thought I'd write a commentary on it. My remarks in red italics after each paragraph of the original.

To match the US by 2030, China would have to :

1) Have an economy near the size of the US economy. If the US grows by 3.5% a year for the next 25 years, it will be $30 trillion in 2006 dollars by then. Note that this is a modest assumption for the US, given the accelerating nature of economic growth, but also note that world GDP only grows about 4% a year, and this might at most be 5% a year by 2030. China, with an economy of $2.2 trillion in nominal (not PPP) terms, would have to grow at 12% a year for the next 25 years straight to achieve the same size, which is already faster than its current 9-10% rate, if even that can be sustained for so long (no country, let alone a large one, has grown at more than 8% over such a long period). In other words, the progress that the US economy would make from 1945 to 2030 (85 years) would have to be achieved by China in just the 25 years from 2005 to 2030. Even then, this is just the total GDP, not per capita GDP, which would still be merely a fourth of America's.

This is barmy. I wonder whether a further two years (the article was written in May 2006) has done to this sunny optimism. The US economy is essentially bankrupt and will significantly contract over the coming years; moreover the US dollar will continue it's decline - gently if the Chinese are benign, harshly if the US embarks on some more foreign adventures. Have a look at this blog for more detail on all this (there are many others).

2) Create original consumer brands that are household names everywhere in the world (including in America), such as Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonalds, Citigroup, Xerox, Microsoft, or Google. Europe and Japan have created a few brands in a few select industries, but China currently has none. Observing how many American brand logos have populated billboards and sporting events in developing nations over just the last 15 years, one might argue that US dominance has even increased by this measure.

Brands as such are irrelevant, what matters is the underlying manufacturing capacity and ability. Brands are very much the icing on the cake - and at the moment the US has a lot of icing, China (and other countries) are making the cakes.

3) Have a military capable of waging wars anywhere in the globe (even if it does not actually wage any). Part of the opposition that anti-Americans have to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the envy arising from the US being the only country with the means to invade multiple medium-size countries in other continents and still sustain very few casualties. No other country currently is even near having the ability to project military power with such force and range. Mere nuclear weapons are no substitute for this. The inability of the rest of the world to do anything to halt genocide in Darfur is evidence of how such problems can only get addressed if and when America addresses them.

This is myopic. I'd recommend getting familiar with John Robb's writings, and perhaps a little historical study, eg of the change in the balance of sea power from 1885 to 1910 after the invention of the dreadnoughts. Things can change very suddenly.

4) Have major universities that are household names, that many of the worlds top students aspire to attend. 17 of the world's top 20 universities are in the US. Until top students in Europe, India, and even the US are filling out an application for a Chinese university alongside those of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or Cambridge, China is not going to match the US in the knowledge economy. This also represents the obstacles China has to overcome to successfully conduct impactful scientific research.

Again, the description is both misleading and short-sighted. What are all the Chinese engineering graduates going to do with their expertise?

5) Attract the best and brightest to immigrate into China, where they can expect to live a good life in Chinese society. The US effectively receives a subsidy of $100 to $200 billion a year, as people educated at the expense of another nation immigrate here and promptly participate in the workforce. As smart as people within China are, unless they can attract non-Chinese talent that is otherwise going to the US, and even talented Americans, they will not have the same intellectual and psychological cross-pollination, and hence miss out on those economic benefits. The small matter of people not wanting to move into a country that is not a democracy also has to be resolved.

This touches on what I perceive as an enduring strength in US culture, ie that it is in moq terms a very dynamic and resilient one. However it seems to me that both US strength and Chinese weakness in this regard can be overemphasised, and is liable to rapid change. It is not totally outside the realms of speculation that in 2030 China might be a democracy of sorts (and a Christian one no less), whereas the US might have fragmented after another civil war.

6) Become the nation that produces the new inventions and corporations that are adopted by the mass market into their daily lives. From the telephone and airplane over a century ago, America has been the engine of almost all technological progress. Despite the fears of innovation going overseas, the big new technologies and influential applications continue to emerge from companies headquartered in the United States. Just in the last two years, Google emerged as the next super-lucrative company (before eBay and Yahoo slightly earlier), and the American-dominated 'blogosphere' emerged as a powerful force of information and media.

This is really a function of the underlying economic strength and so isn't a separate point to #1.

7) Be the leader in entertainment and culture. China's film industry greatly lags India's, let alone America's. We hear about piracy of American music and films in China, which tells us exactly what the world order is. When American teenagers are actively pirating music and movies made in China, only then will the US have been surpassed in this area. Take a moment to think how distant this scenario is from current reality.

This is a remarkably insular perspective. Bollywood is already bigger than Hollywood on many criteria.

8) Be the nation that engineers many of the greatest moments of human accomplishment. The USSR was ahead of the US in the space race at first, until President Kennedy decided in 1961 to put a man on the moon by 1969. While this mission initially seemed to be unnecessary and expensive, the optimism and pride brought to anti-Communist people worldwide was so inspirational that it accelerated many other forms of technological progress and brought economic growth to free-market countries. This eventually led to a global exodus from socialism altogether, as the pessimism necessary for socialism to exist became harder to enforce. People from many nations still feel pride from humanity having set foot on the Moon, something which America made possible. China currently has plans to put a man on the moon by 2024. While being only the second country to achieve this would certainly be prestigious, it would still be 55 years after the United States achieved the same thing. That is not quite the trajectory it would take to approach the superpowerdom of the US by 2030. If China puts a man on Mars before the US, I may change my opinion on this point, but the odds of that happening are not high.

Putting a man on the moon in 1969 may in retrospect be seen as the peak of US world dominance (not accidentally close in time to peak US oil production of course). There will be different peaks in different ages, and this isn't an argument that China won't be dominant in the 21st century in the way that the US was dominant in the 20th.

9) Be the nation expected to thanklessly use its own resources to solve many of the world's problems. If the US donates $15 billion in aid to Africa, the first reaction from critics is that the US did not donate enough. On the other hand, few even consider asking China to donate aid to Africa. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the fashionable question was why the US did not donate even more and sooner, rather than why China did not donate more, despite being geographically much closer. Ask yourself this - if an asteroid were on a collision course with the Earth, which country's technology would the world depend on to detect it, and then destroy or divert it? Until China is relied upon to an equal degree, it is not in the same league.

This is describing a criterion of dominance (or parity) - it doesn't advance an argument that China will not be able to meet the criterion.

10) Adapt to the underappreciated burden of superpowerdom - the huge double standards that a benign superpower must withstand in that role. America is still condemned for slavery that ended 140 years ago, even by nations that have done far worse things more recently than that. Is China prepared to apologize for Tianenmen Square, the genocide in Tibet, the 30 million who perished during the Great Leap Forward, and the suppression of news about SARS,every day for the next century? Is China remotely prepared for being blamed for inaction towards genocide in Darfur while simultaneously being condemned for non-deadly prison abuse in a time of war against opponents who follow no rules of engagement? The amount of unfairness China would have to withstand to truly achieve political parity with America might be prohibitive given China's history over the last 60 years. Furthermore, China being held to the superpower standard would simultaneously reduce the burden that the US currently bears alone, allowing the US to operate with less opposition than it experiences today.

This is an adaptation of point #5 above.

My two pennies: I expect the world in 2030 to be multi-polar, and poised to enter a minor renaissance after some horrifically destructive conflict. I would expect the poles to be: a significantly diminished and chastened US, Brazil, the EU, India and China. I think the Middle East will be a ravaged wasteland; Russia will return to its 19th century status at best; and a possible sixth pole may be Southern Africa (with a nod to the late Arthur C Clarke).

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