The past weeks of wrenching volatility in the financial markets and the evident confusion in both Europe and the U.S. over how to avoid tipping into a double-dip recession — or a straight-out depression — have once again brought the question of a declining West to the fore.
The free-market model of capitalism is dysfunctional, one hears. The markets are in for a prolonged period of frightening see-sawing. Nobody knows how to create jobs or induce corporations to invest in them. Deprivation and shrinkage are necessary preludes to future growth (on a smaller scale). For recent graduates, the only thing to do is “Go East, young man (or woman).” There is little left on the home front unless you like the spectacle of a gradual downward drift.
That line of thought certainly squares with the experience of a professor friend who teaches at a college in Connecticut and took some of his students to China this summer. Before departing for the Middle Kingdom, they visited the old Pratt & Whitney plant in East Hartford. Not so many years ago, the aircraft-engine maker employed 18,000 highly skilled engineers, technicians, and machinists. Now it employs almost none. In one far corner, past the rows of empty factory sheds, they found a small R&D shop with a few live bodies still at work. That was all.
When the group got to China, it went to the Pratt & Whitney plant in one of the industrial zones along China’s southeastern coast. There they found thousands of engineers, technicians, and machinists. China already owns 53 percent of the facility. The New Zealander running it figured Pratt & Whitney had 10 to 15 more years to profit from the place; after that, the plant and everything it made and earned would belong to the Chinese. If the Kiwi is right, another blue-chip American name (this one 86 years old) will be no more.
Decline is now part of the American conversation. But distinctions must be made. The most important lies between the phenomenon of relative decline and—another matter altogether—absolute decline.