The zero-sum president
STATE of the Union addresses tend to be long, winding affairs, filled with a grab bag of policy ideas that will altenatively appeal to and irk people across the political spectrum. Last night, Barack Obama's latest address had plenty of sensible ideas in it: tax reform, including reductions in corporate rates; more spending and accountability on education and infrastructure investment, streamlining of the regulatory environment, and so on. He led off, however, with a call for a reshoring of manufacturing jobs seemingly calculated to cost him The Economist's endorsement. Granted, annoying The Economist is, almost definitionally, good politics. For a president whose hallmark has been soaring orations promising hope, however, Mr Obama's take on the global economy is strikingly bleak and depressing.The president was not so unreasonable as to suggest that the American economy could recapture all of its lots manufacturing jobs. Nor was he wrong to point out that countries like China have used direct subsidies, financial shenanigans and currency manipulation to give their exporters a leg up. Yet at no point did he attempt to justify the unstated assumption that what America ought really to do is develop an economy like China's—a place, recall, scarcely one-sixth as rich as America, riddled with potentially debilitating economic imbalances, and governed by an unaccountable monopoly of a communist party. Perhaps more distressing, he implied in several places that the reason to become more like China was that only be doing so could America defeat China, and others, at economics. Consider the line:Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.Leaving others, one is forced to conclude, to lose—not once, not occasionally, but always. And what is likely to be the outcome of unending defeat? Destitution? Are we to hope that other countries are left with no gainful employment opportunities at all? If that means dreadful poverty, then Mr Obama ought to be dragged before an international tribunal. But maybe it's not so bad, in which case we have to wonder why it's so damned important to "win" whatever contest it is we're having. Is the implication that it's possible to get by all right, to not be poor, without having lots of demanding manufacturing jobs? That doesn't sound so bad, actually, are we sure America doesn't want to sign up for that? Of course, if this is the nature of economic activity, and if America is determined to defeat other countries, it's worth asking whether it wouldn't make sense to deliberately sabotage other places, or bomb them; after all, it's hard to lose to a country whose people are dead. On the other hand, if victory is so important, we might expect other countries to retaliate, or preemptively attack. Maybe it would be better if the world divided itself into two competing but fairly isolated factions locked in a sort of "cold war".Later, the president added:Don’t let other countries win the race for the future.The context, innocuously enough, was in calling for greater support for American research and development efforts. But the language of this statement is either daft or ghastly, depending on how charitably one is willing to read it. Is Mr Obama so dense as to miss that when America invents things other countries benefit, and vice versa? If a German discovers a cure for cancer, shouldn't we be ecstatic about that, rather than angry. Indeed, shouldn't we be quite happy and interested in ensuring that Germans and Britons and Indians have the capability and opportunity to develop fantastic new technologies? In the more nefarious reading, Mr Obama seems to accept that only relative standing really matters. A sick, poor world in which America always triumphs is preferable in all cases to one in which America maybe doesn't "win" the race to discover every last little thing that's out there to be discovered. And hell, one has to ask again whether the easiest way to prevent other countries from winning the race for the future isn't simply to blow up their labs.Look, I understand the forgiving interpretation of these remarks. Americans are motivated by competition and patriotism, and if that's the only way to rally the country behind fundamentally sound policies like subsidies for basic research, then that's the card you play. And, in practice, Mr Obama's reforms will probably not do much more than offset the crummy, mercantilist choices made by other governments elsewhere. No one is talking about going back to the early 19th century, or to the days of communist containment.I don't see that that's an acceptable excuse. People who live outside of America are people just like Americans, and we should all rejoice in their rising prosperity, the more so when it occurs through additions to the stock of human knowledge that will benefit people everywhere. If an American president can't communicate that simple idea to his citizenry, out of fear that he'll be drummed out of office on a wave of nationalistic outrage, then he doesn't deserve to be president and his country doesn't deserve to win a damned thing, least of all the right to call itself "exceptional", a beacon of hope and freedom. A zero-sum world is a world without hope, and if Mr Obama is convinced that's what we're in then I don't see much need for Mr Obama to stick around.