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The greatest country on earth

When wasps started coming into my office this morning and banging against the window (there’s a nest outside, behind some moulding that’s come loose–the joys of owning an old house), my son Tom said maybe they had invested in Lehman Brothers and were in a state of total panic. It’s been quite a day in the United States, another Black Monday on Wall Street. Historical comparisons have been flying about, along with a lot of predictions of more collapse to come. Tom later said that if China were to use its holdings of dollars as the United States used the threat of selling pounds sterling during the Suez Crisis, we’d be in even bigger trouble. I obviously need to read up on the Suez Crisis, but this does seem a perfect lead to an article I’d planned to post anyway, “We’re #1? Tell China,” from the Internet Review of Books, June 21, 2008:

Contrast these countries with China, an empire expanding by peaceful means. “China does not have to conquer weak island nations in the Pacific—it buys them,” Khanna writes.For example, China buys stakes in foreign companies and exports low-cost and often low-quality goods that supplant what the locals used to make. Case in point: Egypt grows plenty of cotton, so why are even their national flag and their clothing produced in China? If only Egypt “designed better garments than the Chinese—hardly a tall order—it could greatly enhance their value,” he writes.

Many Asian countries now have large Chinese minorities with strong ties to their homeland. They are increasingly taking over markets and broadening their influence without ever suggesting a military threat. China is a second-world country making a strong bid for first-world status, and many Chinese feel that they have already arrived. “If America is the greatest nation on earth, then someone forgot to tell the Chinese,” Khanna writes. “Today China portrays itself like a great merchant ship once again navigating globalization’s waters.”

I also want to recommend an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Reflections: New Orleans and China,” that compares the urban development and restoration efforts underway in the United States and China. Here’s an extract from the conclusion:

[New Orleans] will need to tie efforts to rebuild the city’s infrastructure to a broader plan that takes into account its shrinking population, the realities of global warming and the racial and social patterns that have shaped New Orleans for decades. And that plan will have to integrate the needs of those who are still suffering the most: working-class people who don’t own their homes and can’t find an affordable place to live. This will take real brainpower, of course. But the idea that it can’t be done — or that Americans can’t afford it — seems more ludicrous than ever, given the example of China. Sometime later this year, Steven Holl, one of the brightest talents working today, will complete his Linked Hybrid residential complex in Beijing. The project is both a model of sustainable design and a breathtaking example of how to build an urban community in the 21st century.

I titled this post “The greatest country on earth” because I always think of an English friend who was dumbfounded on his first visit to America when he was welcomed, repeatedly, with a question about how he was enjoying being in the greatest country on earth. I love the United States, and I came back after living in England for 10 years because I didn’t want to be an expat anymore, or to raise my children as expats. But I, like my friend, think that we should focus on being a good as we can be: we should try to walk the talk, instead of, as we do all too often, just talking the walk.

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