November 29, 2009

The Chimera That Is Chimerica

I'm currently reading Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It. It's interesting, in that it starts out as a fairly standard history of post-Maoist China, then abruptly turns into a disquisition on the inadequacy of traditional economic statistics in an age of transnational capitalism and production chains that span continents. Think of it as a gearshift book.

It's also interesting as a kind of non-fiction prequel to Firefly/Serenity, which posits a world in which Chinese and American cultures have intermingled: White characters curse in Mandarin, and so forth. But of course China and America haven't even arrived yet at a consensus about the nature of their relationship, much less begun cross-breeding their civilizations. You could argue, as Karabell does, that Chimerica as a bi-national self-conception is not so different than the sense of continental identity that animates the EU, which was also far-fetched when first proposed. Yet the physical and linguistic proximity, &c. of most European nations makes agglomeration a much more feasible task than in the case of Chimerica -- and even the EU is still disturbingly fragile, as the case of Greece demonstrates.

For the present, Chimerica is mainly the partnership of Chinese labor and American capital, as well as that of Chinese savers and American borrowers. As the late unpleasantness has shown, this isn't a very sustainable dynamic.1 The question is, how do we build on the current relationship in order to find more mutually beneficial terms of cooperation? In part, it's a matter of how the Chinese and the Americans conceive of themselves, and of each other. The current trade imbalance is viewed by many as a bad thing, not least because many Americans find it distasteful that any foreign country, let alone China, has so much potential influence over the US. (And the feeling seems to be mutual, if Chris Hayes is correct.) Getting past that discomfort means viewing interdependence as something to be desired rather than to be avoided, if only as a steppingstone to better things. America will be a better country for allowing China (and India, Brazil, et al) to assume a more prominent role in world affairs, rather than trying to maintain a stranglehold on hegemony.

But it's also worth asking how this interdependence -- which certainly has benefited the Chinese -- benefits Americans, especially those who aren't members of the investor class. It's hard to see, for example, a world in which American labor competes with Chinese labor on an apples-to-apples basis; at the least, the dollar would need to depreciate by a lot and the renminbi would need to appreciate by a lot. But how do we get there with the minimal amount of dislocation? It doesn't seem like anyone has a good answer for that.

1 See, for example, Tyler Cowen's column on a possible bubble in Chinese manufacturing, and what its bursting could mean for the US.

Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral Tower. Chimeras and Man originally uploaded to Flickr by Cornell University Library.

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