U.S. Flies Solo In A Globalized World

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This column was written by Eric Rauchway.

If, somewhere on our warming globe, a migratory bird is insisting that, by God, his ancestors went no further north than this, and whatever the heat this year, he's staying put — well, we know what nature has in store for creatures who mistake habit for virtue.

But what God's creation does at its peril, the United States of America does on a regular basis: We claim that our old habits still suit us; and, moreover, that everyone else should follow our lead. Somehow, though, our call to tax less and spend more, eat more and exercise less, and throw our weight around in the world with little care and less success has made us a role model others find easy to resist. The only puzzle, for them and us, is how we could have pursued our illusions for so long, failing to notice that our peculiar approach to managing globalization and engaging the world is unsustainable.

In truth, we are neither especially cheerful nor stupid; our politics represent a reasonable past adaptation to specific historical circumstances. But they are circumstances we no longer enjoy, and no other nation ever has. If we don't shift course, we're as cooked as that stubborn bird, and we'll have even less of an excuse — because we learned this lesson the hard way once already, a century ago.

Most nations learned to govern themselves by solving standard problems of modern economies. Industry enriched them, but it also used up workers and raw materials at an alarming rate. So rich countries developed welfare states to keep workers from revolting, and warfare states to get and hold resource-rich colonies.

Not so the United States, which developed incredible industrial riches without likewise developing its central government. This is not to say that Americans lived in a libertarian idyll: they developed a government suited to their own problems. They just faced different problems, because they occupied a different place in the global economy.

Unlike other rich countries, the United States was a labor-importer — most of the Europeans who went overseas between the Irish potato famine and World War I went to America. But unlike other immigrant-receiving countries, the United States welcomed a wide variety of immigrants, with no ethnicity dominating among American newcomers.

There's an old argument that leaps from this point to say that this is why Americans didn't want or need a welfare state. Places with lots of ethnic or racial diversity adopt less generous social policies, especially when ethnic divisions parallel class divisions — that is, when swarthier people are, generally, poorer. But in fact Americans did pay considerably for education and for public health measures. These payments were made at the local level, and we can see that American cities with more diverse populations were more likely to spend money on public health (to make sure foreign germs got stamped out, lest they infect Americans) and on education (to make sure foreign ideas got stamped out, lest they infect Americans).

So instead of a national welfare state to deal with a permanently resident, native-born class of workers who needed unemployment insurance and pensions, the United States wound up with a set of local welfare policies to deal with a mobile working class of whom a noticeably large portion was foreign-born.