Guest post: Has America caught the British disease?

By permission of the author:

As the economy stalls, analysts are worrying that the United States might repeat the experience of Japan’s “lost decade” (actually, two lost decades). Is America turning Japanese? We should be more worried about the prospect that America is turning British.

The United Kingdom went from creating the first industrial economy and establishing a global empire to lagging Italy by the 1970s. The neoliberal reforms of Thatcher and Blair, intended to modernize the economy, merely replaced a rotting manufacturing economy with an unstable rentier economy centered in the City of London. With a zombie economy characterized by industrial wastelands, off-limits aristocratic landholdings, tourist kitsch and a financial sector that choked on its own excesses, Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” looks more like “Ghoul Britannia.”

The decline of Britain was generations in the making, as Corelli Barnett has argued in his “The Pride and the Fall Books,” a series of polemics that include “The Audit of War” and “The Collapse of British Power.” The industrial strength that made the island nation the pioneer of the modern era was the result of unfashionable people – middle-class manufacturers – in the unfashionable industrial towns of the British midlands.

Unfortunately, Britain’s industrial revolution was not accompanied by a revolution in values that emphasized making things over inheriting things. The old elite of aristocratic parasites, Church of England drones, and their snobbish retainers like elite lawyers and professors despised upwardly mobile arrivistes, although their children and grand-children might become socially acceptable if they abandoned “trade” for the lifestyle of genteel rentiers and were laundered through public schools like Eton and Oxbridge. The equivalent of Germany’s technical high schools and polytechnics and America’s agricultural and mechanical colleges were (and are) sneered at in Britain as vulgar “redbrick” universities.

The failure to change Britain’s elite attitudes was accompanied by a failure to change Britain’s temporarily-successful free trade policies when they became anachronistic. From the Tudor era until the nineteenth century, the British state used mercantilist policies of the kind nowadays associated with the “East Asian model” – selective protectionism, subsidies to exporters, procurement, taxes on resource material exports to keep prices low. The American colonies, forbidden to manufacture anything and forced to supply the metropole with food and raw materials in return for high-value-added British manufactures, were part of the mercantilist system, like Scotland, Ireland and India.

By the 1840s, Britain’s technological supremacy allowed it to take off the protectionist training wheels and practice and preach free trade, confident that its manufactured exports would kill off infant industries in other countries. Beginning in the 1870s, however, the newly-united Germany and post-Civil War America adopted their own high-tariff policies of industry-supporting mercantilism. Despite the warnings of trade reformers like Joseph Chamberlain in the 1880s and 1890s, the British continued to practice one-way free trade, allowing German and American corporations based in their own giant, protected domestic markets to increase their shares of the market in Britain, its dominions and its colonies.

As British industry shrank under American and German competition, the City of London became even more important. Finance was a clean business, untainted by the grime and odor of the factory, and could be practiced by gentlemen. The British discovered too late that finance follows industry, as the epicenter of global banking migrated from London to New York during World War I.

Today the U.S. is repeating Britain’s mistakes. First the Japanese and now the Chinese have used a variety of methods, from nontariff barriers (Japan) to currency manipulation (both) to keep U.S. products out of their markets while enjoying unimpeded access to America’s consumer market, the biggest in the world. As in Britain, the center of gravity in the business world has shifted from manufacturing to finance. The catastrophic deregulation of the U.S. financial industry was based on the argument that unless the U.S. scrapped the New Deal era regulations that provided decades of financial stability and steady growth, Wall Street might lose out to the City of London or Hong Kong or Shanghai. For America’s bipartisan oligarchy, Wall Street is more important than Detroit.

Not content to re-enact the British cycle of deindustrialization and decline, the U.S. imports British pundits to lecture Americans on nineteenth-century free market ideology. Asking dogmatic British free marketers how to organize a successful economy in the twenty-first century is the equivalent of asking unreconstructed Japanese militarists how to run a successful foreign policy or asking Iranian mullahs how to create a world-class R&D sector.

Innovation without production is not the answer, as Britain’s sad history shows. Britain continued to have a world-class science and technology sector, inventing the jet engine and radar, among other things. But the British were unable to commercialize the products of British R&D because they lacked adequate mass production industries. Similarly, innovation will enrich few Americans other than technologists and venture capitalists if the new products that result are then licensed to be produced in industrial Asia or industrial Europe.

The irony is that, while the American colonists were right to rebel against their role of hewers of wood and drawers of water in the British Empire, the British mercantile system of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries was a great success story, producing not only temporary British supremacy but also modern technological civilization. The Germans, Japanese and Chinese have always practiced subtle and not-so-subtle versions of the technonationalism that Britain pursued before its misplaced confidence led it to adopt the free market ideology that accelerated its downfall. Modern America has more to learn from the pre-liberal, industrializing Britain of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Adam Smith denounced than from the post-1840s Britain that sat nobly on its laurels as it sank beneath the waves it briefly ruled.

Michael Lind is Policy Director of the >Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and author of The Next American Nation.


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