For a moment last week, there was promising news for the American economy. Major news outlets briefly carried the story that the US economy had grown at a 3.3 percent annual rate for the second quarter, more than doubling the Commerce Department’s initial predictions. Given all of the recent financial gloom, I hope that this news has allowed Americans to begin dreaming of a brighter future for our country. Unfortunately, all of my dreams since the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics have consisted of being chased by thousands of Chinese men in color-changing LED light-up suits.
Before Beijing, Americans already had some indications that it was time to become nervous about China. In March, several news agencies breathlessly reported the Pentagon’s concerns with the extent of China’s military spending, which, including hidden expenditures, may total an astounding one-fifth of our own. Meanwhile, CNN anchor and resident xenophobe Lou Dobbs has frequently reiterated his firm belief that “Communist China” is poisoning our toothpaste.
During the Beijing opening ceremonies, NBC commentators described how the Olympics were meant to be China’s “coming out party” as a world superpower. And so they were: China won more gold medals than any other nation, while also presenting the world with an eye-popping spectacle that used 15,000 performers to simultaneously amaze and unsettle its viewers. The images varied: tai chi masters, a giant human printing press, Chinese soldiers eerily goose-stepping with their flag, but the main message seemed to be constant: “There are a lot of us, and we are very well coordinated.”
The most chilling commentary on the Olympic ceremonies came from the director of the proceedings, Zhang Yimou. In an interview with China’s Southern Weekend newspaper after the Olympic Games, Yimou opined with some degree of modesty that Chinese performers are “second best in the world.”
“Number one,” he said, “is North Korea. Their performances are totally uniform, and uniformity in this way brings beauty.”
In Yimou’s mind, Chinese performers are far superior to their whiny coffee-break-taking counterparts in the West. “What a hassle,” he said of his experience staging an opera in London. “They would tolerate no discomfort at all, because of people’s rights.” In China, on the other hand, “the actors listen to the orders, and can carry them out like computers … this is the Chinese spirit.” This comment alone is enough to put Lou Dobbs in the market for a new (American-made) set of undergarments.
Apply this “Chinese spirit” to economics, and one understands how China’s government has managed to pile up $1.4 trillion in American dollars, despite the crushing poverty of much of its populace. In an article in The Atlantic, correspondent James Fallows explains how whenever a Chinese bank takes in dollars, it is required to exchange them with the government for Chinese currency. Much of the resulting stockpile is then invested in the U.S. national debt. While analysts point out that China’s economy would suffer greatly if they used this pool of “dollar assets” to undermine our currency, this does not preclude them from holding that possibility over America’s head.
Though the strictness of China’s command economy has given them incredible leverage on us, it is our good old-fashioned American laxity that keeps us in this mess. George Carlin, may God have mercy on his soul, described our consumer culture as consisting of “people spending money they don’t have on shit they don’t need.” This comment provides an alarmingly apt description of the current — and presumably, future — spending policy of the United States government. In order to be elected, a presidential candidate must promise to lower taxes and increase our already-vast military expenditures; this is what Americans demand, because on the whole we are greedy, shortsighted and scared.
Likewise, Sens. McCain and Obama are hardly the sort of politicians who would defy the collective will of the American people, such as it is. Both are extending the Bush tax cuts in different ways, both advocate more military spending and both have projected budgets that their campaigns claim might balance — but this is more of a quantum physical claim than an actual possibility.
Despite China’s ascendancy and the continuing decline of the dollar, there still may be reason to take heart. As the autumn breeze brings with it an influx of bright-eyed young freshman to our University, we must remember that there is a powerful commodity — a commodity beyond mere currency — in which we Yalies can invest; a commodity that even a rising economic powerhouse such as China would be hard-pressed to devalue. Even in the lean years of the American economy, this precious good shall continue to be cherished, just as it has been by countless pioneering minds across history.
I am talking, of course, about gold. Get your hands on some while there’s still time.
Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at