Is the U.S. Public Both “Realist” and “Uninformed?”

by Peggy McGuinness

Dan Drezner’s take at Foreign Policy on the latest Pew Research Poll on U.S. foreign policy attitudes uses a more provocative term than “uninformed,” but the point is the same.  Can the public be “realist” in its attitudes to the world when those attitudes are based on factual assumptions that don’t exactly align with reality? Lots of interesting comments over at Drezner’s post.

Also at FP, check out the survey of their “top 100 thinkers” for a different take on world events than the Pew “wisdom of the crowd” approach.

One Response

  1. Drezner’s article asserts that the US public is uninformed because it believes that China has more economic power than the US, while in fact the US has a larger GDP.  Power is the ability to use something to achieve results. Large numbers of Americans buying golf clubs and Twilight posters does not translate to power.

    Today there are relatively few factories in the US capable of turning out simple parts for manufactured goods. The machine tools needed cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, so they are not difficult to count. You may find some in Mexico, but more in China. In the US, those factories went out of business because they were outbid a few cents per thousand units by foreign factories.

    During WWII the US almost brought German industrial production to a halt by bombing the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt Germany. Today, American industrial production depends on parts made overseas that could be simply cut off.  This is not just an American problem. A few years back the manufacture of computer parts was reduced world-wide by a fire in the one factory in Taiwan that made a particular industrial resin.

    Mao said that power derives from the barrel of a gun. In economic terms, power is production or spending that can be directed to an objective. US consumers buying Hanna Montana lunchboxes cannot be directed at anything. Now a serious analysis may still find the US to have more power than China, but Dan Drezner’s piece is not serious analysis.

    This touches on the edges of a larger problem that not only affects the economy but also explains the recent financial crash. Fisher’s Law in biology says that the more specialized an organism is for a particular environment, the more likely it is to become extinct when the environment changes. A lot of modern economics was influenced by Darwin, but by a silly optimistic view of Darwin that imagined that evolution improves species over time. It was only later that we learned that geological history is full of mass extinction events.

    Today the world global economy has become intensely specialized. Markets informed by the internet and low cost shipping allow companies to prosper or fail based on a 0.5% cost difference half a world away. We imagine that markets and competition are making things better and more efficient, just as Wall Street imagined that squeezing extra profit out of the sale of credit swaps was a smart move. As long as everyone is making money, you cannot fight the herd mentality.

    Then something big changes and the whole system collapses. Stuff happens. Fires, earthquakes, wars, whatever. The current economic system will not forgo an extra 0.25% profit this quarter against the speculative possibility that some major shift in the supply chain will blow the entire economy apart. So just as happened on Wall Street, everybody sits back and books profits and acts surprised when the highly specialized economy goes to hell when conditions change.

    The threat, then may not be from the power of China as much as the vulnerability of the US to even natural changes. The question that should be asked is not which country has the most power, but which is most vulnerable when shit happens.

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