Whatever happens on August 3rd, whether a full default or a spluttering decline, we are now at an historic turning point in the history of US hegemony. For the first time since the US ascended to the role of world leader in 1945, the leadership (and the people) of the US must deal with the implications of world leadership—and realize its accompanying costs just as they have enjoyed its benefits.
Despite the rhetoric on the right, the US government is not spendthrift, wasteful, or bloated. Rather, it has attempted through the decades to chart a course that balances domestic with international requirements in such a way that Americans avoid paying the costs of maintaining US leadership in the world. Initially, maintaing Pax Americana meant spreading a US military presence virtually everywhere around the globe that it would be tolerated, and even some places where it was not.
In exchange for fighting communism, American taxpayers would become the customers of the world, and to do so, their currency would be as good as gold. Unlike other countries, the hegemon is able to avoid the full costs of its expenditures by manipulating the value of its currency, something the US resorted to in 1971 at least in part to avoid paying for the Vietnam War. However, domestic and international roles still essentially coincided, since what was good for the US as a world leader was also generally good for US consumers.
As long as there was little real conflict between the domestic and international roles of the hegemon, the US could continue to spend with impunity. Relatively sheltered from global crises of inflation that damaged their trade partners, Americans could afford to keep buying, borrowing, and spending without having to worry about maintaining their export markets or competitiveness, as other countries had to. Consumers responded to this exceptional situation essentially rationally, by using their dollars to purchase cheap imports. The government responded by lowering taxes and interest rates to reflect the strength of consumer purchasing power relative to other countries, and hoped for continued growth and the goodwill of trade partners to make up the difference.
Eventually, the costs of hegemony must be borne—if not by Americans, then by someone else. As long as Americans kept buying, the emperor’s lack of clothes could be conveniently ignored. However, the conflict between the interests of Americans and the interests of the world is now apparent. If history is any judge, do not expect Americans to sacrifice to maintain US leadership. The US has little experience in being a normal country, and it seems unlikely that it will now take its place among the rest without a fight.
After reading William H. Gross’s blog on Global Public Square I realized that the attack on liberal arts education had reached a new level. Yes, recently, there has been a lot of talk about university education in general being overvalued and overpriced. At first, I thought that this was just another foray into what is really an attack from the right on academia in general.
This in itself is nothing new, I remember similar things being said during the 1980s recession when unemployment was hovering around a similar level, and university enrollments surged for similar reasons. However, the attack this time is more subtle. What those on the right seem to be saying is that it’s not university education or universities that are the problem, but liberal arts education specifically, for not sufficiently responding to the vagaries of the job market and ensuring that graduates are able to find jobs.
Let’s leave aside the implication that it is somehow central to a unversity’s purpose to churn out employable graduates in numbers that the economy can absorb, and to anticipate these needs and adjust their programming according to the demands of a fickle market (an assumption that I don’t accept).
Even if one were to assume that liberal arts education is really about preparing for the job market, why would North American society choose to abandon it just when it is paying dividends, and other countries around the world are adopting the liberal arts model, which includes inculcating critical thinking, reflection, historical knowledge, and self-awareness? Business schools around the world are encouraging their graduates to learn ethics, business history, and philosophy, in order to avoid another financial meltdown caused by irresponsible behaviour. Universities in China, tiring of the rote-learning and stilted memorization that instill monolithic and narrowly-focused skill sets, are turning to the freer-thinking models of Western universities to ensure their graduates are more flexible and globally-focused. Western educational experiences based on liberal arts models are in high demand around the world (one of the things that permits universities to charge such high tuition!)
Finally, although I agree that technical, apprenticeship and skills training are important and I agree that more needs to be done to ensure that students have access to these programs and training, without a corresponding push from governments to invest in public infrastructure, building projects, and non-military industrial development, it may well be that these graduates find themselves out of work and heavily laden with debt. Without the ability to communicate and think clearly, and to be flexible and adaptable, it may be more difficult for such graduates to adjust to a changing economy in the long run.
Let’s stop bashing liberal arts education, and start a conversation about the content and purpose of education in society. Such a conversation should not exclude economic considerations, but it should begin with the idea that education should ensure accessibility, instill the values of good citizenship, and ensure that students leave university more empowered than they were when they entered.