Nice Work, America: We've Totally Trashed Our Image Abroad

It was shocking to many.  Then it was engrossing.  Then it was sad.  Now it borders on the pathetic. 

I am referring to the credibility of Americans as they confront the consequences of their financial irresponsibility, accomplished on a scale that assures it a chapter or two in economic histories to be written for decades to come, at the very least.

For many years as I worked in economic development with the old “Third World” and later with the emerging nations, I had a problem.  I got too much respect.  Why? Because I was an American. 

Back in the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s, that qualified you as an “expert” in many nations who had no experts of their own yet and who very much needed help.  They would sit there across the table too often, waiting for the “American expert” to tell them what to do.

These folks were not stupid.  But they had very limited experience and typically none outside their own nation.  I brought a wealth of information with me from my own experience and that of many other nations where I had worked and consulted.  I was happy to share that information and help them apply it to their situation, but they had to make the decisions, not me.  I was not there for disaster relief.  I was there to assist the economic development process, but it was their process, not mine.

They were also deeply impressed with all that Americans had accomplished.  Those few that had visited, often as university students, only felt this more strongly.  That was all very nice, but Americans had to do most of the work and make all the decisions on their own and that was going to be the same thing in their nation.  I look back today with mild amusement, remembering how I struggled to get this across successfully in a professional manner.

Well, no need to worry about that now, folks.  Over the last couple decades particularly, Americans have managed to trash their image and finally convince countless numbers of others that we no longer know what the hell we are doing.

It began not long after we “won” the Cold War and suddenly found ourselves without a major league enemy.  The party started with high tech.  We all know the results.  Not that many years ago and after the 21st century was underway, we watched our stock market collapse.  Trillions of dollars were lost, some of them by those folks in other nations who thought we knew what we were doing and where we were going, and had jumped on for the ride.  Ooops.  Sorry about that.

That wasn’t all bad.  It may have gotten way out of hand, but that bubble was based on some dramatic progress made in science and technology that will repay us over and over for a very long time to come.  And let’s not forget that if you invested 100K, only to see it fall to 30K when you sold, you indeed had lost 70K.  That really smarts.  But at least you had your 30K and there was no debt involved or further responsibility on your part.  But it is definitely not something you want to repeat.

Needless to say, it didn’t impress too many people in other nations who had invested their money in the same American-made bubble and lost it along with everyone else.

Did that sober us up?  Nope, no sooner did we finally accept that the first bubble was a bubble that had popped than we began working on the second bubble.  We were going to make creating that stock market bubble look like child’s play and we did it!  This time, we left ourselves with a huge mountain of debt and we continue to add to it as I write.  Are we capable of a “three-peat”?  God help us, I hope not, but if we can, I recommend you hang onto your money.

I am not going to waste your time and mine going into detail.  You can find plenty, if you aren’t already overwhelmed.  That’s not my point.

My point is simple.  We have screwed up twice on a massive scale in full view of the global public.  The first time could be “understood”, even if it hurt investors globally, but the second was stupid.  Sorry guys, that’s how we look, in part because we were stupid, in part because we can’t stop hollering that we were stupid (and continue to be, if you listen to us) to anyone unfortunate enough to be within hollering distance.  With the Internet, that means just about everybody who might even remotely care.

It’s one thing to be your own worst critic.  It’s something else to be your own worst nightmare.

We have been doing this for the last few years and it looks like we have plenty more coming.  I am not interested for the moment in names like Obama, Palin, Pelosi, Rand, and a whole slew of others.  From outside where I live now and have worked for more than four decades, America simply does not have a leader.  We have a President and plenty of wannabes, but no one who has successfully communicated with and gained the confidence of perhaps 60% of the people on a continuing basis.  In other words, enough people to keep policy moving so that we appear to be a nation with a sense of purpose.

So let’s recap.  We went from winning the Cold War to blowing up the stock market to shooting ourselves in both feet and a couple other appendages by trashing our real estate market and helping trigger a global financial crisis.  In other words, we went from successful (and admirable) to foolish to stupid in two decades.  Now, that’s pretty impressive.  Who would have guessed two decades ago?  With the latest crisis, we have literally outdone ourselves.

Mind you, I am amazed at the lengths our friends across The Pond have gone to in order to assure us that we are not alone.  I suppose we should thank them for that, but it’s probably best that we stick to our own business until we get ourselves straightened out.

The last couple decades have shown two major trends among many.  The first is the rise of the New World of nations that are beginning to really grow and profit from that growth.  Sure, they have plenty of problems of their own and some are facing near-term challenges, but so did my home nation for many decades.  After all, nearly a century after declaring its independence, my home nation was riven by one of the ugliest and deadliest civil wars in history.  So let’s not be too quick to predict terrible consequences for these emerging economies that no longer need my expertise or any American’s.  They have their own and, good or bad, they are on the move.

The other trend is the hard work of the Old World of the North Atlantic to wreck itself.  We didn’t get to where we are today without having put our shoulders to it.

For now, we Americans need to do two things on a long list, but important things.  First, we need to focus on the mess they have for themselves and cleaning it up.  We all know that, but we haven’t put our shoulders to it yet.  Second, we need to stop lecturing the rest of the world on what it is doing wrong and, while we’re at it, stop whining when they ignore us, politely or otherwise.  If there is one thing that is clear to me in my global work over the last couple decades, it is that we have to re-earn our credibility and stop complaining that we have lost it.  We can do it and I believe we will do it, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.  To those who want to see the world as if it was still the late 20th century, I can only say, forget it.  You’re out of date.  Enough whining (it has gotten very, very old).  Every minute wasted on arguing the past is one less minute available to build the future.

I look forward to offering ideas and suggestions in the weeks to come.  For today, I will leave you with this thought.  The United States of America is not the king of the hill.  The question that remains, are we the Wizard of Oz or not?

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