Is China the New Us? Or Are We?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Author Kurt Andersen's new book, Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America, examines the economic, political and cultural opportunities to be found in the wake of the financial crises. In this excerpt, the first of five on, he glances back through history to see how national destinies can change.

It was fitting that as I was writing my previous book, an historical novel called Heyday published in 2007, I turned 50. Once your life has lasted a full historical unit of time — half a century! — and assuming you've been paying reasonably close attention, "history" becomes less of a bookish abstraction about treaties and battles and bills and dates, and begins to acquire a more palpable reality. Around age 50, I started to feel, in ways I really hadn't when I was younger, as if I could see and feel the rhythms of history. The year of my birth is now closer to the 19th century than it is to the present day. I was only a small child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but I have a firsthand sense of what that era looked and felt like, and the ways in which it looked and felt different than the late 1960s and 1970s, and in turn how life since the 1980s has looked and felt compared to those earlier times. I've watched a quarter of all U.S. Presidents in action. This is the sixth recession I remember, and the ninth of my lifetime. Simply by living, one registers historical data points, and draws conclusions.

So it's no wonder that as I became middle-aged, I decided to write an historical novel. And then, by plunging deeply into research for a couple of years in order to invent my fictional version of 1848 — the year Heyday begins — I became even more attuned to the arcs and patterns of history. Indeed, I became hopelessly addicted to the Long View. Last fall, as Wall Street crashed and a very grim New York City future looked very plausible, my historian's tic kicked in again. In my New York magazine column I compulsively imagined the present from the future as a memory of the recent past:

The other night, as I drove down one of New York's more conventional and lovable Main Streets — Bleecker, west of Sixth — looking at the glowing shopfronts and bustling restaurants and strolling pedestrians, I had a sudden elegiac impulse to register the scene and its details. Because, I thought, once a Depression descended, these same blocks would look and feel very different; in 2010 or 2011, I might think back to this particular evening — autumn! twilight! — and remember how sweet and jolly the city had felt and looked not so long ago.

And just as history comes to feel like a living entity and coherent narrative after one has experienced a few decades of it, so does the future. Having been an adult for 30 years now, I find I have a pretty fair ability to imagine how American life will and won't change during the next 30. Thus my new book, Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America, in which I explain how the recent meltdown was both inevitable and a long time coming, and how it amounts to one of our rare but regular national opportunities to give ourselves a sensible and sustainable makeover.

"History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "but it rhymes." What's happening right now is not a repetition of 1932, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 90% from its peak three years earlier and the unemployment rate exceeded 23%. But now most definitely rhymes with then: the crash, the severe economic contraction and crisis, the graceful new Democratic President (and First Lady), the possibility of a serious reshaping of not only our economic and financial systems but the ways that Americans think about their country and themselves.

And there are other, less familiar historical moments that also have unmistakable resonance with the present. We've just finished living through a long Gilded Age, in which rich Americans got richer, and more and more people began consuming conspicuously. The original Gilded Age began a century earlier, in the 1870s, during a laissez-faire boom that lasted — déjà vu! — from the end of one Wall Street and banking meltdown (the Panic of 1873) to the beginning of another (the Panic of 1893).

The idea of historical cycles can be reassuring: what comes down must go up. However, great nations can shrivel and empires do come to an end. And America in 2009 also looks as if it could rhyme, uncomfortably, with Great Britain circa 1909. A hundred years ago, the British were coming off a proud century as the most important nation on earth. But during the 30 years between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II, the United States emerged as the unequivocal world leader, and Britain became an admirable also-ran. Applying that template to the 21st century, China would be the new us — feverish with individual and national drive, manufacturer to the world, growing like crazy, bigger and much more populous than the reigning superpower. And thus 21st century America would evolve, according to this analogy, like Britain in the 20th century.

Historical destinies are directional, not precisely preordained. History runs in cycles, but how well or badly we respond as individuals and a society to those cyclical shifts — such as the big one we're experiencing now — is up to us. Both my middle-aged sense of history and hardwired American hopefulness make me more optimistic than pessimistic — but just barely — about the present reset. I suppose it wouldn't be a catastrophe if my children, when they reach middle age, are living in an America that has become a supersized Britain. But I'd prefer to think of them growing old in a country that's still unequivocally great and grand. And the choices we're making right now will determine the legacy we leave.

Read Kurt Andersen's RESET blog on

Read the second, third, and fourth excerpts from Reset.

Click here to purchase a copy of Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America.