Opinion
09.11.16

On America's malaise

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

Helmut K. Anheier says it’s time to ponder the causes, not the symptoms, of America’s malaise.

Paul Krugman wonders in today´s New York Times whether the United States is on the verge of becoming a failed society.  He no longer feels confident in his answer and writes “I thought there were more Americans who believe in progress and equality than there were Americans who were racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic.”  These are strong words, to be sure, and they are also wrong and reflect a profound misdiagnosis of the fundamental dynamics that have shaped American society in recent decades.  At the core of America´s misery as a society is a tragic failure of politics – not of making people less racist, xenophobic and so on – but of managing the challenges neoliberal policies meant for society.  Politics left American society alone, somehow believing and without any deeper thinking that the market and the promise of the American Dream would do the trick.  They did not.

To blame globalisation for America´s misery, as has become fashionable across the political aisle, is as naïve as it is convenient.  Economic globalisation is not something out there, but it is happening inside all societies.  The United States was and remains the greatest globaliser of all, yet in stark contrast to other OECD countries, it does little to manage its social effects on the labour market.  Two related aspects speak volumes when we consider that white men without college degrees voted for Trump in greater numbers than any socio-economic group:  their labour market participation has dropped for decades, and, in contrast to other OECD countries, dropped even further since the financial crisis of 2008.  What is more, the US has virtually no active labour market policy.  The country ranks at the bottom of OECD countries in terms of spending on activation policies.  Other policy fields would tell similar stories of such neglect. No wonder white men feel left alone and ever more ready to blame “elites” for their failure.

A major finding of comparative research on globalisation, first formulated by Geoffrey Garrett in the heady decade of the 1990s, still holds: only countries that actively shield their populations from the effects of economic globalisation will reap its benefits in the long run.  Some countries like Germany or Sweden have taken this to heart and tried to balance economic globalisation and domestic policy challenges.  The United States did not even try (nor did Britain, by the way).

The whole world will pay the price, but first and foremost the American people themselves.  In a sense of irony that harbours tragic elements, the political failure of domestic policies of Washington and 50 state capitals means — for better or worse — that a globalising world relies ever less on the US. If the European Union had a better sense of itself and better leadership, it could seize the moment and leave Krugman and other pundits behind as they continue to ponder the symptoms but not the causes of America´s malaise.

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