Reasons to be cheerful – even if American

A few days ago I reviewed Josef Joffe’s new book, [amazon_link id=”0871404494″ target=”_blank” ]The Myth of America’s Decline[/amazon_link]. It’s partly a history of declinism in the US and partly an argument about the near future based on a compare and contrast between the US and (mainly) China. The new insight I took from it was about the way the threat of decline is used as a promise of political redemption in election campaigns.

In a mildly random way, I followed it up with Charles Kenny’s [amazon_link id=”0465064736″ target=”_blank” ]The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West[/amazon_link]. I thoroughly enjoyed his previous book, [amazon_link id=”0465020151″ target=”_blank” ]Getting Better[/amazon_link], a cheerful survey of the many ways and many places things (life expectancy, incomes, access to technologies, women’s emancipation….) have improved in many countries in recent decades. There is a similar chapter in the new book, and it made for equally uplifting reading.

[amazon_image id=”0465064736″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Upside of Down[/amazon_image]

One of the most telling sections looks at the Democratic Republic of Congo. As Kenny reminds us, it was the setting for Conrad’s [amazon_link id=”1853262404″ target=”_blank” ]Heart of Darkness[/amazon_link], having suffered the depredations of Belgian colonial rule (now there’s a real example of decline from imperial might!). DRC suffered through Mobutu’s rule and a decade-long civil war that killed millions of people. Rape was rife, HIV infection ran amok. This is not a good news story. Even in DRC, though, infant and maternal mortality rates of declined, as has the prevalence of HIV. Two-thirds of children have been vaccinated against diptheria, pertussis and tetanus, and about 40% with symptoms of malaria or pneumonia get medication. School enrollment has risen to match the 1980s level in Kuwait or Honduras. All this on public spending on health and education of $9 per person per year.

The rest of the book moves from the evidence of progress around the world to consider its implications, especially for “us” in the old west. Kenny wants to persuade others that the march of progress is a positive sum game, not least because of the self-fulfilling nature of global economic relations – the belief that flows of goods, capital and people are mutually beneficial is part of what makes them so. I for one agree that we need to think about the global economy in this dynamic, interlinked, increasing returns, non-linear manner, where the choice is broadly speaking between joint contraction and joint expansion over time. So it wasn’t hard for the book to persuade me that western economies will benefit from growth in emerging markets or BRICs, or of the “Folly of Fortress Thinking”, to cite one chapter title. No doubt other readers will be nore inclined to stick with the global race metaphor, where your country is a winner or loser.

I had the most doubts about the chapter on the environmental impact of global growth. The conclusion is upbeat: “With bold but plausible and affordable action, the planet can enjoy continued global growth, convergence in living standards, and two billion more people, all while preserving the global commons.” The chapter ticks off one by one potential environmental limits, and some are less worrying than others. The depletion of minerals for instance, or the scope for agricultural productivity gains and cutting meat consumption. But, thinking back to Mark Lynas’s [amazon_link id=”0007375220″ target=”_blank” ]The God Species[/amazon_link], I think Kenny skates over the question of water too quickly, and is just a bit too cheerful about climate change risks. Of all the environmental questions economics needs to address, the interaction between energy and growth is surely the key one. One aspect of this chapter I did enjoy, though, was the mischievous characterisation of environmentalists: “Once you’ve convinced yourself that the world is on an inevitable course to disaster if … India builds another car factory, then the only logical thing to do … is to sit back, put your TOMS-shod feet up on the couch, and drink microbrewed herbal tea until civilisation collapses.” Fun – but maybe too dismissive of some genuine concern.

Will either this book or Joffe’s persuade Americans and other westerners not to be pessimistic? Doubtful. The emotional power of the narrative, and perhaps its political usefulness as Joffe argues, will sustain the declinists. I’m sure people will read [amazon_link id=”0465064736″ target=”_blank” ]The Upside of Down[/amazon_link] but often to argue with it – the narrative of Anglo-Saxon cheerfulness when the dynamism in the world has moved to Asia has an uphill struggle.