Interest in learning Chinese may be growing in the United States, but English-language studies in China could very well be on the wane.
On Oct. 21, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, the organization that decides what students in the city study, proposed a series of reforms to the gaokao, China's all-important national higher education entrance examination, which would reduce the weight the test places on English-language ability. The state-run Xinhua news agency confirmed that other potential changes included postponing English-language education until the third grade (Beijing students currently begin studying English as soon as they enter primary school). Initially, these reforms would target the Beijing version of the test. But what happens in Beijing is often a bellwether for the rest of China.
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Since the election picked up, I've been remiss in updating our semi-regular "Decline Watch" feature, which charts examples of America's falling fortunes and reduced influence in the world. But after reading that America's newest job creator might be Foxconn -- the Taiwanese technology manufacturer best known for suicides and riots at its Chinese plants -- I'm wondering if we should create a new category for news that could conceivably be signs of either decline or renewal:
With an 800,000 strong workforce largely based in mainland China, Foxconn is one of the businesses that has profited from the decline of western manufacturing. Now the firm is apparently planning to reverse the labour drain by opening American factories.
As labour costs surge in its home market Foxconn has been looking overseas for opportunities, and sources have told Taiwanese trade publication DigiTimes that the company is evaluating cities including Detroit and Los Angeles.
The Guardian notes that despite the welcome increase in U.S. manufacturing jobs, "Foxconn will have to adapt its formula, however, because America does not have armies of workers willing to survive on a few hundred dollars a month and live in dormitories."
Talking Points Memo is asking if this is Romney's " first big foreign stumble" and the Obama campaign is sending it out to journalists, but it's not exactly clear who exactly made a gaffe or about what.
Here are some comments made by Romney at a San Francisco fundraiser yesterday, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald:
"I met today with the Foreign Minister of Australia. He said something, and I said 'Can I quote you?' and he said yes. He said, 'America is just one budget deal away from ending all talk of America being in decline,''' Governor Romney told attendees at a fundraiser today.
''And this idea of America in decline, it was interesting [Carr] said that, he led the talk of America being in decline. See that's not talk we hear about here as much as they're hearing there. And if they're thinking about investing in America, entrepreneurs putting their future in America, if they think America's in decline they're not gonna do it."
In the AP's telling of the story, the speech claimed that Carr "privately warned Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that foreign leaders see "America in decline." Carr's office has come out to deny that there was any "warning" implied:
But despite headlines today such as ''Mitt Romney Gets Grim Warning From Australian Leader'', a spokesman for Senator Carr says Australia's Foreign Minister was talking up the US economy, not talking it down. That is, any fears that Australia's foreign minister has been overseas criticising a key alliance parnter, would be misplaced.
''That interpretation is not correct,'' the spokesman told The National Times.
Indeed, Senator Carr has used a similar phrase about the US budget before - on people such as former World Bank chief Robert Zoellick - to indicate his belief in the US economy's strengths and potential.
TPM's Josh Marshall interprets this as Carr coming "forward to shoot down Romney’s characterization of the discussion." But it seems like he may be mischaracterizing the statement, which was aimed at the media for mischaracterizing his statement. Or something like that. It's all a bit confusing and a sign of how out-of-hand the campaign gaffe-spotting is getting.
In the end, it seems like a pretty inoccuous statement from both Carr and Romney: Foreign investors would be a lot more enthusiastic about the United States if phrases like "fiscal cliff" weren't such a regular part of its political discourse. Which party is more to blame for this state of affairs is another question.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImages
Last month, General Motors announced that it would not be advertising in this year's Super Bowl, because of the high prices charged by network CBS. But as the Detroit Free Press reports, the company isn't pulling out of sports advertising, it's just looking further afield:
General Motors, which said earlier this month it would not advertise in next year's Super Bowl, plans to announce today a broad marketing and sponsorship plan with the Manchester United soccer team, a person familiar with GM's plans confirmed.
The deal would give GM major visibility alongside a soccer team that has a worldwide following -- and it would fit with the automaker's strategy of making Chevrolet and Cadillac strong global brands.[...]
Manchester United, one of the most successful clubs in English soccer, released a survey Tuesday conducted by Kantar Media Compete that showed it has 659 million followers throughout the world. But about 89.2% of its fans are located outside the Americas, the survey found. The team is particularly popular in Asia, where it has 325 million followers. It also boasts 173 million in the Middle East and Africa.
As Yiping Yang notes, Chevy will be sponsoring two Man U games in China this summer as part of the deal.
It seems like a good idea on paper, but has anyone told them how few commercial breaks there are in a soccer game?
What exactly are the U.S. Army's Twitter minions thinking here:
First of all, "RT if you agree" is only acceptable Twitter usage if you're 14 and shouting out fellow members of Team Jacob.
Second, not "strongest" or "most powerful," or "mightiest," but "most decisive"? That's all $250 billion buys us?
Third, why are they fishing for compliments on Twitter? Feels kinda insecure.
Ball's in your court, PLA.
The "town" -- which is really more of a "gas station" -- of Buford, Wyoming, has a new owner:
The population of the least populous town in the United States appeared to at least double Thursday when two mysterious businessmen from Vietnam won the tiny hamlet with a bid of $900,000 at auction.
About a dozen bidders gathered around the town's one business to bid on Buford, Wyoming, which consists of a gas station, a three-bedroom house and a few small outbuildings on 10 acres along Interstate 80.
The bidding began at $100,000 and quickly escalated. The winning bidders were immediately whisked away by auction officials, who would not let them speak to the media.
The town's only resident, Don Sammons, said he'll miss the town but not the billboard of his face that currently adorns the highway. "I can always rent one somewhere if I need to see my face," he told CNN.
The intentions of the town's new owners have not yet been revealed.
The number of Asians with at least $100 million in disposable assets overtook North America’s tally for the first time as the world’s “economic center of gravity” continued moving east, Citigroup Inc.’s (C) private bank said.
There were 18,000 “centa-millionaires” in Southeast Asia, China and Japan at the end of 2011, compared with 17,000 in North America and 14,000 in Western Europe, the bank said today in The Wealth Report 2012, published in partnership with Knight Frank LLP.
James Poulos notes that this might actually be dangerous for Asian countries since "a growing class of superwealthy might actually exacerbate class tensions at a moment when the promise of cherry-picking Western hypercapitalism could turn more sour than ever."
Still, if you're in, say, the car elevator business, it's prety clear where your new customers are going to be.
Hat tip: My eagle-eyed colleague Preeti Aroon
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I was in Vancouver over the weekend for a conference that I will likely blog about in more detail shortly, but while I was there, my attention was struck by this story in Saturday's Globe and Mail, which suggests there's some interest in Iceland around the idea of dropping the struggling krona for the Canadian dollar:
There’s a compelling economic case why Iceland would want to adopt the Canadian dollar. It offers the tantalizing prospect of a stable, liquid currency that roughly tracks global commodity prices, nicely matching Iceland’s own economy, which is dependent on fish and aluminum exports, and in the future, energy.
There’s also a more sentimental reason. They’re both cold, Arctic countries.
“The average person looks at it this way: Canada is a younger version of the U.S. Canada has more natural resources than the U.S., it’s less developed, has more land, lots of water,” explained Heidar Gudjonsson, an economist and chairman of the Research Centre for Social and Economic Studies, Iceland’s largest think tank.
“And Canada thinks about the Arctic.”
Officially, the Icelandic government is targeting membership in the 27-member euro zone. But support among Icelanders is slipping.
In a recent Gallup poll, seven out of 10 Icelanders said they would happily dump their volatile and fragile krona for another currency. Their favoured alternative is the Canadian dollar, easily outscoring the U.S. dollar, the euro and the Norwegian krone.
The Icelandic government's official plan is still to adopt the euro, and the Canadian ambassdor to Iceland was upbraided by his bosses back in Ottawa for plans to give a speech promoting the Canadian dollar as a new currency for Iceland. There a number of countries where U.S. dollars are in circulation, either as an alternative to the local currency or as the sole legal tender, but none, so far, using the loonie -- currently trading at US$ 1.00497.
The fact that there's even this much enthusiasm for the idea could be evidence in support of Laurence Smith's notion of power shifting to the NORCs -- Northern Rim countries -- in the century ahead.
On Monday, we disussed Ruth Bader Ginsburg's now-controversial interview with an Egyptian television station in which she suggested that the U.S. Constitution may not be the best guide for a country writing its own founding document in the 21st century and suggested that the South African constitution, which includes both more enumerated rights and "positive" rights -- such as healthcare and economic equality -- might be a better fit.
It turns out this may be an increasingly popular view. The New York Times' Adam Liptak summarizes a recent study which found that fewer democracies have looked to the U.S. Constitution as a model in recent years:
In 1987, on the Constitution’s bicentennial, Time magazine calculated that “of the 170 countries that exist today, more than 160 have written charters modeled directly or indirectly on the U.S. version.”
A quarter-century later, the picture looks very different. “The U.S. Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitutional drafters elsewhere,” according to a new study by David S. Law of Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia.
“Among the world’s democracies,” Professors Law and Versteeg concluded, “constitutional similarity to the United States has clearly gone into free fall. Over the 1960s and 1970s, democratic constitutions as a whole became more similar to the U.S. Constitution, only to reverse course in the 1980s and 1990s.”
“The turn of the twenty-first century, however, saw the beginning of a steep plunge that continues through the most recent years for which we have data, to the point that the constitutions of the world’s democracies are, on average, less similar to the U.S. Constitution now than they were at the end of World War II.”
There are lots of possible reasons. The United States Constitution is terse and old, and it guarantees relatively few rights. The commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century may send the signal that it is of little current use to, say, a new African nation. And the Constitution’s waning influence may be part of a general decline in American power and prestige.
I'm not sure I buy that this is a sign of declining American power. Rather, it seems more like adaptation over time. The most controversial legal battles of American history have involved the interpretation of non-specific language in the constitution -- whether the bill of rights implies a right to privacy, whether the first amendment mandates a complete seperation of church and state, whether firearms laws are prohibited by the second amendment.
If the U.S. were writing a new constitution today, it would likely address these issues in more specificity, and make reference to a number of modern. political issues that weren't concerns in the 18th century. It shouldn't be a surprise that new democracies are attempting a bit more specifity and modernity in their documents. (There is a danger in too much specificity, as the EU's unwieldy, 219-page monstrosity attests.)
The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg is skeptical about the study, but actually makes a stronger case that U.S.-style constitutions have gone out of favor.
The problem is that the study focusses almost exclusively on rights—the individual and civil rights that are specified in written constitutions. But it almost totally ignores structures—the mundane mechanisms of governing, the nuts and bolts, which is mainly what constitutions, written and unwritten, are about, and which determine not only whether rights are truly guaranteed but also whether a government can truly function in accordance with democratic norms. Or function at all with any semblance of efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.
Even in terms of structure, the U.S. model isn't particularly popular. A U.S.-style chief executive is a popular feature among Latin American governments, but over the years this has proven problematic by facilitating the rise of autocratic caudillos. Far more popular today are "parliamentary systems with some form of proportional representation."
But again, this isn't really a new phenomenon -- there hasn't been a new democracy with an American-style presidential system for over a century so it's hard to attribue it to a loss of prestige.
Hat tip: Daily Dish
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Global Human Resources firm Mercer has released its 2011 Quality of Living worldwide city rankings. The index ranks cities based on political stability, economic environment, cultural environment, sanitation, education, public services, recreation and other factors. In theory, the list is used by firms to allot appropriate compensation for employees relocated to these cities.
As it turns out, Europe's economies may be imploding, but its cities are still pretty nice places to live, comprising more than half the cities in the top 25, including first ranked, Vienna. (At least it's not those smug Norwegians again! Oslo's down at 33rd.)
Decline-o-meter: How did America's shining cities on hills fare? There are eight U.S. cities in the top 50, more than any other country, with the highest ranked being President Obama's hometown, Honolulu, at 29. That's the same number as last year, although Portland fell out of the top 50 and Pittsburgh squeaked in. (Congrats yinz!)
That's not too shabby. Although it's slightly less impressive when you consider that Canada, with about 1/10th of the population and a slightly lower urban population by percentage, has five, nearly all of them higher than 29th place. Germany has seven. No BRIC cities made the cut.
Of course, compare the U.S. to the EU as a whole and it's not even close. But still, for all the talk of Americans' distrust of urbanization, over 80 percent of them live in cities and many of them are quite nice.
See also: Global Thinkers Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen's list of 16 cities to watch from the new print issue.
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Don't think it's all fun and games up on Capitol Hill these days. Important steps are being taken to protect our nation's children from being forced to eat vegetables:
The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay all of those efforts.
The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.
Decline-o-meter: Yes, this seems like an odd priority at a time when the U.S. has the highest obesity rate of any wealthy country, but as the Washington Post notes, it's not exactly new:
Nutritionists say the whole effort is reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s much-ridiculed attempt 30 years ago to classify ketchup as a vegetable to cut costs. This time around, food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested the changes and lobbied Congress.
Pass those (frozen) hash browns. It's morning in America again!
Also, this is probably good preparation for the Cain presidency.
The New York Times has a very strange op-ed today from Paul V. Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. The piece makes the case that the U.S. should trade Taiwan to China for a deal on debt. Here's the argument:
There are dozens of initiatives President Obama could undertake to strengthen our economic security. Here is one: He should enter into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the $1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan and terminate the current United States-Taiwan defense arrangement by 2015.
This would be a most precious prize to the cautious men in Beijing, one they would give dearly to achieve. After all, our relationship with Taiwan, as revised in 1979, is a vestige of the cold war.
Kane argues that with this one bold stroke, Obama can "correct the country’s course, help assure his re-election, and preserve our children’s future." It could also "pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan."
Decline-o-meter: Giving this a two for the fact that we've gotten to the point where a suggestion like this is being featured on a prominent op-ed page. I'm all for counter-intuitive thinking, and intelligent people can disagree on the wisdom of the current U.S. Taiwan policy, but like most magic bullet solutions to major international crises, this makes absolutely no sense.
1. Why would China take this deal? According to the figures Kane himself cites, Beijing will spend around $500 billion over the next decade on Taiwan-related defense spending. So a $1.14 trillion debt write-off isn't really a bargain. Obviously Taiwan is a major priority for Beijing. But its trade relationship and relative economic position with the U.S. is a much, much bigger one.
2. U.S. debt is approaching $15 trillion. Lowering that to $14 trillion isn't going to "save our economy". And I can't imagine a write-off on the scale doing wonders for the U.S. credit rating.
3. How exactly will this help Obama's reelection chances? I've always thought the argument that Obama is "selling out" U.S. allies was overblown, but it would be a bit hard to refute if he literally sold a U.S. ally.
4. Even if this deal magically resolved the Taiwan situation, what does that have to do with Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Pakistan -- countries where China has completely different interests at stake? If anything, it takes a bargaining chip off the table.
Flawed as it is, the idea got me thinking. Canada holds about $90 billion in U.S. debt. Maybe they'd take a Dakota or two for it.
Update: Via James Fallows, I see that the good folks at Taiwan's Next Media Animation have weighed in:
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times reports on the latest cuts to the Department of Agriculture:
Last year, Wisconsin led the nation in mink farming, producing 833,430 pelts. Texas was the undisputed king of pansies, growing 1.8 million flats of the flowers. And no state harvested more hops than Washington, with 24,336 acres.
This year? Who knows? The government has stopped counting.
Forced to cut its budget, the Agriculture Department has decided to eliminate dozens of reports, including the annual goat census (current population: three million), and the number of catfish on the nation’s fish farms (177 million, not counting the small fry).
The government began producing regular crop reports in 1863, the year after Lincoln created the Agriculture Department. One of the reports being eliminated, an annual sheep inventory (5.5 million head on Jan. 1), can trace its roots at least as far back as 1866. Also ending are reports on bees, honey production, flowers and nursery crops.
The statistics service said it was forced to reduce the frequency of some reports and eliminate others because its budget was cut for the fiscal year that ended in September and it expects further cuts for the current year. The eliminated reports will save $11 million a year.
“These are not cuts we wanted to make, but budget reductions by Congress made it necessary,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.
Decline-o-meter: Lord knows there's ample room for cuts in U.S. farm policies, but spending $11 million to obtain accurate figures about a fairly vital sector of the economy actually sounds pretty reasonable to me.
Of course, the goat census is ripe for mockery, according to the longstanding principle in American political discourse that any government policy involving animals automatically sounds ridiculous. And yes, given the title of this post, I can't really complain about that.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The FEC and FEMA carried out an unprecedented nationwide test of the U.S. emergency alert system today, which was supposed to interrupt television and radio coverage at around 2 p.m. eastern time. Results of the test were mixed, as the New York Times's Media Decoder blog reports:
Many of the reported failures affected cable and satellite television subscribers, and some were quite head-scratching: Some DirecTV subscribers said their TV sets played the Lady Gaga song "Paparazzi" when the test was underway. Some Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York said the test never appeared on screen. Some Comcast subscribers in northern Virginia said their TV sets were switched over to QVC before the alert was shown.
In some cases the test messages were delayed, perhaps because the messages are designed to trickle down from one place to many. A viewer in Minneapolis said he saw the message about three minutes late. A viewer in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she saw it about 10 minutes late.
In Greensboro, N.C., a local reporter saw the alert on all the cable news channels but on none of the local broadcast networks. In Los Angeles, some cable customers said the alert lasted for almost half an hour.
Many other viewers and listeners reported that the alert arrived right on time at 2 p.m. Eastern. It halted digital video recorder playback in some households and surprised radio listeners in their cars.
The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were the two federal agencies in charge of the test. "We always knew that there would probably be some things that didn't work, and some things that did," a FEMA official said an hour after the test, acknowledging that some glitches had occurred. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agencies had not publicly acknowledged the glitches yet.
Perhaps this was all according to plan, and the government thinks Americans would prefer to spend their last moments before nuclear annihilation shopping for costume jewelry and fishing equipment while listening to Lady Gaga. But assuming this wasn't a coded message from the Illuminati and the glitches were accidental, it's not that encouraging.
Decline-o-meter: As a side note, as someone who almost never turns on the radio and does a good portion of my "TV" watching online, it occurs to me that I would likely be blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe my government was trying to warn me about. On the other hand, the idea of FEMA commandeering Gmail, Twitter, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, etc. feels pretty icky from a privacy point of view.
I suppose we'll have to count on someone to be watching TV at the time to tweet at the rest of us so we tune in.
The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index presents a very different picture of global wellbeing than the Legatum Prosperity Index discussed yesterday, though those smug Norwegians are still on top.
The big headline from this year's index is the secondary list, which adjusts scores for internal inequalities in health, education and income. On that scale, the United States drops from fourth place to 23rd.
I spoke with the UNDP's chief of communications and publishing for the report, about why the effect of inequality was so striking in the United States:
In high income countries, there are many countries in which the years of schooling that adults already have wouldn't vary that dramatically among, region, among gender, or ethnic minorities. In the United States, the opposite is true. All those variables have a huge effect. The average years of schooling that adults over 25 have in greater Boston as opposed to that in the Mississippi delta is going to be really different. The level of disparity is very unusual among high-income countries.
The inequality-adjusted Human Development Index is an attempt to try to portray that. The United States isn't the only country that's effected but it's certainly one of the most seriously affected.
Other seriously affected countries include South Korea, which falls from 15th to 32nd on inequality-adjusted HDI and Israel, which falls from 17th to 25th.
I also asked Orme what the big takeaway of the report was for rising powers like Brazil, India, and China:
The whole question of distribution has been central to their national debates and the analysis of their development models. Take Brazil, which had long been portrayed as the most unequal large economy of the world. Income inequality was quite acute.
What's interesting [in Latin America] is that if you look at the education and health distribution as well as income, the picture is a little different than what we're used to seeing. They, the Latin Americans, especially countries like Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, have been doing much better at extending education and healthcare to their populations, including the poor, in the last 10 years or so. Even income gaps are beginning to narrow slightly, whereas in most of the world, including Asia and the United States, the trend is toward increasing disparity and widening gaps in income.
In its seamless blending of globalization, "rise of the rest," and the gnawing anxieties of upper middle-class American parents, the New York Times piece which arrives just in time for college admissions season comes pretty close to hitting the NYT trend story sweet spot. (All it needs is an animal and a health trend to achieve ultimate most-emailed status.):
NEW DELHI — Moulshri Mohan was an excellent student at one of the top private high schools in New Delhi. When she applied to colleges, she received scholarship offers of $20,000 from Dartmouth and $15,000 from Smith. Her pile of acceptance letters would have made any ambitious teenager smile: Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Wesleyan, Barnard and the University of Virginia.
But because of her 93.5 percent cumulative score on her final high school examinations, which are the sole criteria for admission to most colleges here, Ms. Mohan was rejected by the top colleges at Delhi University, better known as D.U., her family’s first choice and one of India’s top schools.
“Daughter now enrolled at Dartmouth!” her mother, Madhavi Chandra, wrote, updating her Facebook page. “Strange swings this admission season has shown us. Can’t get into DU, can make it to the Ivies.”
Ms. Mohan, 18, is now one of a surging number of Indian students attending American colleges and universities, as competition in India has grown formidable, even for the best students. With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed.
This summer, Delhi University issued cutoff scores at its top colleges that reached a near-impossible 100 percent in some cases. The Indian Institutes of Technology, which are spread across the country, have an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent — and that is only from a pool of roughly 500,000 who qualify to take the entrance exam, a feat that requires two years of specialized coaching after school.
Decline watch: Like I said, this one's going viral because, like Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it feeds into the fears of American parents that they're not doing enough to prepare their kids to compete with a massive influx of smart kids of India and China. But the real story here is that India doesn't have enough elite educational institutions to meet the demand of its qualified students. The fact that students like Moulshri are willing to pay$41,736 per year for Dartmouth instead of $500 for an Indian school says a lot.
See Ben Wildavsky's Think Again: Education for more on this topic.
A.G. Sulzberger reports from Topeka:
Three arms of government, all ostensibly representing the same people, have been at an impasse over who should be responsible for — and pay for — prosecuting people accused of misdemeanor cases of domestic violence.
City leaders had blamed the Shawnee County district attorney for handing off such cases to the city without warning. The district attorney, in turn, said he was forced to not prosecute any misdemeanors and to focus on felonies because the County Commission cut his budget. And county leaders accused the district attorney of using abused women as pawns to negotiate more money for his office.
After both sides dug in, the dispute came to a head Tuesday night.
By a vote of 7 to 3, the City Council repealed the local law that makes domestic violence a crime.
Decline-o-meter: Thankfully, this doesn't actually mean domestic violence has been decriminalized in Topeka. The move was a ploy to force the District Attorney to prosecute the offenses, which remain illegal under Kansas State law. But it's a scary sign of the times and highlights the fact that the prosecutor's office has recently been cut by 10 percent at a time that the city has seen a “recent uptick in violent crime.”
Also worth a read is Michael Lewis' new Vanity Fair dispatch from California, which makes the case that state and municipal governments are the real ticking time bomb of the crisis:
The market for municipal bonds, unlike the market for U.S. government bonds, spooked easily. American cities and states were susceptible to the same cycle of doom that had forced Greece to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.
Lewis' piece sketches out what this will mean for public-safety services like police and firefighting in debt-wracked cities like Vallejo.
There are few signs of the Amerislump in Stockholm. U.S. economists Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims were awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Economics. This is the 11th straight year that at least one of the recipients of the economics prize has been American. All three of the physics winners this year and one of the medicine winners were also American.
In terms of total, all-time Nobel wins, the United States has more than twice as many as any other country and as this chart from Flowing Data shows, that dominance has only increased in recent years. The glaring exception is the literature category, which no American has won since Toni Morrison in 1993.
China is something of a Nobel underperformer. While there have been dozens of Nobel winners of Chinese descent, and Chinese birth, the only one who actually made his career in China was last year's Peace Prize winnder Liu Xiaobo, one that Beijing is not exactly proud of.
Decline-o-meter: The U.S. has a formidable lead on this one. But keep in mind that this is something of a lagging indicator since, in the science categories, as opposed to the Peace Prize, awards are typically given for work done several years in the past rather than in the previous year.
Also, the large number of immigrants and dual citizens who have won awards in the sciences suggests that the U.S. edge may be its ability to attract talent as much as its ability to produce it. The U.S. will need to continue to be a desirable destination for the best and the brightest if the streak is to continue.
The pioneering children's show has always striven to include characters representative of its viewing audience. Sadly, that now increasingly includes children who don't get enough to eat:
A new poverty-stricken Muppet will highlight the issue of hunger struggles on an episode of "Sesame Street", the show said in a statement on Tuesday.
Pink-faced Muppet Lily, whose family deals with food insecurity, will join Big Bird, Elmo and other favorites on a one-hour prime-time special featuring country star Brad Paisley and his wife Kimberly Williams Paisley called "Growing Hope Against Hunger," to air Oct 9.
The new Muppet will bring awareness to the ongoing hunger struggles that families face in the United States, the show said.
"Food insecurity is a growing and difficult issue for adults to discuss, much less children," the Paisleys said in a statement.
Decline-o-meter: Good for Sesame Street for taking this on, but it's still a pretty grim sign.
I do have to wonder if the special will include Cookie Monster -- a potent symbol of American excess and overconsumption if there ever was one.
On a lighter note, be sure to check out the #OccupySesameStreet hashtag today.
Today's Amerislump data point comes from Ylan Q. Mui of the Washington Post:
For the first time, lawmakers, businesses and even White House officials are courting consumers from cash-rich countries such as China, India and Brazil to fill the nation’s shopping malls and pick up the slack for penny-pinching Americans. They are wooing travelers with enticements such as coupons, beauty pageants and promises of visa reform. The payoff, they say, could be significant: 1.3 million new jobs and an $859 billion shot in the arm for the economy over the next decade.
“They’re their own little stimulus program,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, a trade group.
The trend underscores the depth of the United States’ reliance on countries once considered to be at the bottom of the global totem pole. The nation already counts on China and other countries to manufacture its goods, creating a $45 billion trade imbalance that is paid for with money borrowed from their coffers. Now officials are encouraging foreign travelers to buy some of those products back — and a growing number are happy to oblige.
Guo Hui, 37, who lives in Beijing, recently returned home from a two-week tour of Yellowstone National Park, Houston and Los Angeles. He estimated he spent $2,000 to rent a car and pay for gas and lodging for himself and his wife. Then there was the Ed Hardy T-shirt, the Apple laptop, the HP laptop, even baby food and formula for his child, totaling an additional $6,000.
Still, Guo said prices are significantly cheaper than in China — a pair of Adidas sneakers costs only $25 at a U.S. outlet mall.
“For that price in China, you can’t even buy counterfeits,” he said.
Increasing tourism is a great goal, but the idea of kick-starting an economic recovery by attracting Asian shoppers to the United States to buy goods that are, for the most part, made in Asia doesn't sound all that sustainable. The fact that Guo flew back over the Pacific with a pair of shoes that probably were shipped over the Pacific from Indonesia a few months earlier and that he saved money in the process sounds frankly ridiculous.
On top of that, draconian security regulations mean the U.S. isn't even taking full advantage of its new status as the world's outlet mall:
Last week, Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) introduced a bill aimed at cutting the time it takes to get a tourist visa to 12 days, citing waits at consulates in key markets that can stretch to more than 100 days.
The State Department has pledged to reduce wait times for appointments to 30 days, and a spokesman said it is adding a “significant” number of staffers in Brazil and China to keep up with demand. The bill is awaiting a committee hearing.
Guo, of Beijing, said he waited nearly two months for an interview for his visa. He said he is also frustrated that the pass is only good for one year, which means he could have to reapply before his next trip. New York, Miami and Orlando are on his list.
“I guess too many people want to go to the U.S.,” Hui said.
Well that's something, I guess.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Opinions differ between economists, investors, and psychologists as to whether alcohol consumption is a cyclical or countercyclical good. The latest annual report from the Beverage Information Group suggests the Amerislump is taking a toll on the U.S. beer industry, but there are some interesting side effects:
The total volume of beer sold in the U.S. fell by 1.9% in 2010, according to data from the Beverage Information Group. This compares with flat sales in 2008, at the height of the recession, and a loss of 2.1% in 2009. However, unlike 2009, when overall figures were dragged down by a big hit to the imported beer category, in 2010 import sales were positive, and weaker domestic beer sales accounted for the negative total. Among the top-selling 10 domestic beers, seven brands showed losses for the year. Every category of beer lost volume, except for progressive adult beverages, craft and imports.
Domestic premium sales fell by 7.6%, better than the 9% loss of the previous year, with the country's second best-selling brand, Budweiser, taking the biggest volume hit with a decline of 8.0%.…
Sales of sub-premium or "popular" beers fell in 2010 by 4.1%, suggesting that losses in premium beer sales are not generally being picked up by sub-premium alternatives. Major brands suffered across the board, with the exception of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which continued to ride its hipster credibility to a volume growth of 16.9%.
The imported beer category returned, barely, to positive numbers after two years of negative growth. Losses in volume sales by leaders Corona and Heineken were offset by the double-digit growth enjoyed by Modelo Especial, Dos Equis, and Stella Artois. Those three beers have little in common beyond the fact that they are brewed outside the U.S., and they cultivate different audiences.
(Three weeks into the NFL season, I must say I don't find this all that surprising. Ads predicated on the notion that failure to drink domestic light beer may result in the loss of your "man card" do smack of desperation.)
It sounds like a classic decline story at first: big, traditional American brands floundering, imports surging. But let's remember that A-B InBev and SABMiller -- though they account for 80 percent of the U.S. beer market -- are multinational corporations based in Belgium and Britain, respectively. And let's take a look at the one part of the U.S. beer market that is doing well:
Unique among beer categories, craft beer has enjoyed positive growth every year since 2003. In 2010, the category returned to double-digit growth with a 12.6% increase (data from SymphonyIRI Group (IRI), a Chicago-based market research firm). Boston Beer's flagship Sam Adams Boston Lager gained 7.7% to 14 million 2.25 gallon cases, according to Beverage Information Group. Other growing well-known craft brands include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (up 9.0%) and New Belgium's Fat Tire Amber ale (upa 15%). Indeed, 18 of the top 20 "craft families" experienced positive growth (IRI).
See Matthew Yglesias for more on the role government deregulation played in creating the craft beer market, but the innovation of small beer producers isn't just good for the quality of American brews -- it's also spurring the big guys to make some changes as well: Blue Moon, Coors' imitation of a Belgian-style wheat beer, is among its most successful offerings, growing at 30.4 percent. The company has created a new specialty division specifically to compete with microbrews.
So like nearly every industry, beer's taking a hit from the recession, but it also seems like it's become more innovative and more "American" than it was before the crash. Also, apparently sales of Four Loko are down, so that's good news for everybody.
Update: Apprently, Google is now getting into the beer game as well.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
It's not all doom and gloom here at decline watch. We keep our eyes out for signs of recovery as well. Via Marginal Revolution, here a new paper from Princeton University's Angus Deaton, showing that Americans' contentment levels have returned to where they were before the crash. From the abstract:
In the fall of 2008, around the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and lasting into the spring of 2009, at the bottom of the stock market, Americans reported sharp declines in their life evaluation, sharp increases in worry and stress, and declines in positive affect. By the end of 2010, in spite of continuing high unemployment, these measures had largely recovered,
though worry remained higher and life evaluation lower than in January 2008.
This sounds great until you read into Deaton's conclusions, which substantially undercut the usefulness of this data. First of all, this may just show that Americans are adapting to their circumstances:
If people become accustomed to economic misery, so that the response of SWB to such pain is only temporary, the continuing harm is no less real nor demanding of policy attention just because people say that they are used to it. Sen (1985, 14) notes that “a person who is ill-fed, undernourished, unsheltered, and ill can still be high up in the scale of happiness or desire fulfillment if he or she has learned to have `realistic’ desires and to take pleasures in small mercies.”
Taking a look at the world's top 20 happiest countries, according to Gallup's data, you get a sense of what this means. Yes, the top five consist of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands -- the teacher's pets of international development statistics -- but the U.S. is also outranked by several much poorer countries, such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil, as well as one with a much higher level of political strife: Israel. Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive states, cracks the top 20, though I have my doubts about the reliability of polling there.
In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St. Valentine’s Day than to a doubling of unemployment, are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread.
Perhaps it's time to get the good folks at Hallmark working on some new holidays?
Frankly, the idea that Americans are becoming so accustomed to the idea of economic distress that they're not even that unhappy about it anymore is actually more depressing.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images for USTA
Remember when anti-American clerics used to call it the Great Satan? Those were the days:
A clerical alliance in Pakistan has issued a religious decree (fatwa) saying that it is illegitimate (haram) to call the United States a "superpower" because "only Allah Almighty deserved the title."
The Sunni Ittehad Council may not carry the same weight as, say, Standard & Poor's when it comes to assessing American power, but it's still troubling that an alliance of generally moderate Sufi Barelvi leaders, who are often targeted for attacks by the Taliban, are calling for "jihad against the U.S., in defense of the homeland."
This, however, is telling:
The scholars called upon the [Pakistani] government to end the country’s role as front-line state in the so-called US war on terror and try to establish a new bloc comprising China, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also urged the government to start preaching Jihad in the way of God with the armed forces making preparations to counter any foreign aggression. They urged all politicians to bring back their assets from abroad as well as returning bank loans got through political influence.
As RFE/RL's Gandhara' blog notes, the clerics "probably don't know that China is a majority non-Muslim country. They are also seemingly unaware that one of Beijing's major security nightmares is the rising appeal of jihad among its minority Turkic Uyghur Muslims."
In other words, they're not really paying attention to China. They may not want to call the U.S. a superpower, but it still seem to be the dominant global player in their worldview.
Thanks to RFE/RL's Zach Peterson for the tip
Cocaine-related emergency-room admissions, overdoses and requests for rehab have declined since the economy started its 2008 decline, according to data obtained by The Post.
“It is sort of on a slight but steady downward trend,” said Dr. Stephen Ross, director of NYU’s Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction. “I treat patients in private practice. Many cocaine addicts tell me stories they don’t have enough money to buy it anymore.”
There were 478 “accidental” deaths in which cocaine was a factor, typically overdoses, in New York City in 2006, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
That number plunged to just 274 in 2010.
Powder-cocaine addicts typically shell out $60 to $80 a gram, so perhaps the high cost of blow is why also a smaller number of people -- 7,693 -- sought treatment for cocaine addiction in New York City last year, according to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. That number is a drop from 9,654 in 2008.
This might be an indicator of a slower economy, but it also might not be the worst thing -- for their own health and the global economy -- for aspiring masters-of-the-universe to lay off the nose candy.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón said at the U.N. last week that the United States and other consumer countries are "morally obliged" to reduce the demand for narcotics. Perhaps the recession may help accomplish that. On the other hand, as White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told FP in an interview this year, "We've become much better at producing drugs in the United States." American jobs!
Hat tip: Mike Nizza
Flickr user stopherjones
Voiceover: The road is not exactly a place of intelligence. Across the nation, over 100,000 miles of highways and bridges are in disrepair. Add to that, countless distractions every mile, millions of ill-equipped vehicles, half-a-million cubic yards of debris, and the 38 million drivers who couldn't pass the drivers' exam today... even if road signs actually did make sense.
This is why we engineered a car that analyzes real-time information, reads your handwriting, and makes 2,000 decisions every second.
The new Audi A6 is here. The road is now an intelligent place.
Good lord. Not only is a car commercial -- traditionally the domain of brash, fist-pumping Americana or at least salt-of-the-earth populism -- built around the downbeat topic of America's crumbling infrastructure, but it's a commercial for a German car! The message seems to be, America's roads are so bad, it's no longer safe to drive American cars on them. The post-apocalyptic hell-scape we call a highway system is only navigable in a high-end European luxury sedan. (As a side-note, I'm not really sure how a car that can read your handwriting is supposed to help you avoid distraction, but this isn't really my area of expertise.)
Addendum: Continuing with the car theme, one of my coworkers nominated Heinz's new Dip & Squeeze ketchup packet, made for less messy ketchup consumption while driving, as a sign of decline. But I see it as a sign that America's boundless ingenuity is still alive. Rating: 5
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Proctor and Gamble has, "for the first time in 38 years... launched a new dish soap in the U.S. at a bargain price." The implication here is that the company is now marketing to an American middle class under severe distress.
It's a very interesting article. And columnist Richard Cohen, likely after watching Mad Men clean up at Sunday's Emmy awards, weaves it into a textbook example of the American Decline column genre:
Aside from his multiple infidelities, prodigious drinking and having the personality of a mud wall, what finally caused Betty Draper to separate from Don Draper, her husband and the protagonist of the wildly popular series "Mad Men," was a clutch of Heineken beer. As Don Draper knew she would, Betty purchased the beer for their home because he had her infuriatingly pigeonholed as the typical upwardly mobile housewife of the early 1960s. The American Dream, it turns out, is about 5% alcohol.
The Heineken affront was the last straw, a bizarre crisis even for the "Mad Men" series. In a trenchant essay in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn explains the show's appeal by saying it "represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency." For me, the memory - now, alas, a fantasy - is the assumption that Americans would get richer and richer and that, if you were an adman or a client, it made sense to market products to the affluent. Heineken, imported and thus hardly prole in origin, oddly represents an America that used to be and we may never see again.
I direct you to a recent Wall Street Journal article about Procter & Gamble. This iconic American company - Ivory, Tide, Bounty, Gillette - has introduced a dish soap at a bargain price. It's called Gain, and it represents P&G's attempt to attract less affluent customers, not out of the goodness of its corporate heart but because the middle class is shrinking.
Ah, you want me to say it will soon be morning again in America. Maybe not. We are crippled by a political system and culture that resists excellence and falls back on bromides. Our problems are national, and yet a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination says he wants Washington to shrink in importance. Ditto say his fellow candidates. And at the top of this heap is a President who hasn't a clue as to how to be President.
"Mad Men" - with yet another Emmy the other night - is not about the nostalgic past and such lost pleasures as smoking. It's about the unattainable future. Betty Draper is old now. She shops at Costco, buys the cheap beer and passes up Ivory for - what's this? - Gain. A Mad Man would put it this way: Her Gain is our loss.
Cohen's overwrought prose aside, the numbers cited in the original Journal article are alarming. As the article reports, "the middle fifth of American households grew by 2.4% a year between 2001 and 2007 and plunged by 26.2% in the following two years." The income of a median family is now lower than in 1998.
Charles Kenny may be right that the Middle Class isn't any more economically productive than other sectors of society, but on the consumption side, it's hard to dispute that Americans today are increasingly tailoring their expectations to a different kind of Middle Class life.
And as Main Street goes, so goes Madison Avenue. If the Betty Draper of today is shopping at Costco, her huband is trying to figure out a way to make fuel economy sound sexy.
We actually kicked this off with David's post yesterday, but we're now making it official. In this regular Passport feature, we will be tracking signs of U.S. economic and political decline -- and the "rise of the rest," especially China.
We don't intend this to be an excercise in schadenfreude -- we're Americans ourselves and don't wish any misfortune on the country -- but there does seem to be an emerging conventional wisdom on American decline in the foreign-policy media that's worth tracking. We'll also hopefully use the column to puncture a few bogus decline trend stories.
Each post, we'll choose a datapoint or article that purports to show a sign of American decline and rate it from 1 to 5. Here's the scoring system:
1: We're totally screwed. Start learning Mandarin.
2. Being a superpower was nice while it lasted.
3. Stay calm and carry on.
4. Decline, schmecline. We're gonna be just fine.
5. USA! USA!
Today's sign of decline ... falling SAT scores:
Average scores on the college acceptance test, the SAT, fell across the nation this year, with the reading [comprehension] score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to 497, the lowest on record, according to a report on Wednesday by the College Board, which administers the exams.
The average writing score dropped two points, to 489, and the math score was down one point, to 514.
Douglas McIntyre at AOL business makes the case:
What these test scores suggest is that in general, Americans who enter the work force in the next one to five years will not be as well educated as many of their foreign counterparts. That spells bad news for America's ability to lead the world in science and other critical disciplines. With a workforce whose education and skills are in decline, the U.S. will struggle to hold its lead in the industries that are key to our economic future.
Verdict: 3. Falling test scores are obviously not a good sign. On the other hand, the fact that English scores, in particular, are falling can be attributed to increasing national diversity and the fact that parents from around the world still want to raise their kids in the United States. The New York Times reports that "27 percent of the nearly 1.65 million test-takers last year came from a home where English was not the only language, up from 19 percent a decade ago." And while average scores may be falling, the number of students receiving high scores on math -- about 700 -- have increased by 20 percent over the last five years.
But any way you slice it, low income and minority students continue to lag behind. The numbers are nothing to be proud of.
Feel free to nominate any American decline stories you see. (No Jersey Shore references please.) E-mail Joshua [dot] Keating [at] foreignpolicy.com.
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