Opinion

From Pax Americana to slacker Americans

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There has been much talk in the media about America's threatened superpower status -- a result of its near-fatal exposure to the Kryptonite of subprime mortgages, among other factors -- and how the country will inevitably find itself going the way of that other once-undefeated political juggernaut, the dear old British Empire.

To which I say: Lucky America!


FOR THE RECORD:
British Empire: A Dec. 27 Op-Ed article referred to a street in London as Caledonia Road. It is Caledonian Road. —


I mean, yeah, it's going to sting a bit. Losing any big, sexy-sounding job title will inevitably deliver a blow to your self-esteem. Yet it can also be liberating.

Do Tehranis and Muscovites blame Britain for the culture of mindless self-gratification that brought down the global economy? Of course not. They blame America -- even though Britain is arguably the more guilty party, what with its foreign-debt-to-GDP ratio standing at an unconscionable (and, really, quite embarrassing) 490%, as opposed to the United States' puritanical 89% (according to the 2007 "purchasing power parity" GDP and external debt figures supplied by the CIA World Factbook).

The fact is that when you're No. 1, you always get blamed for everything. When you're No. 3, or No. 5 -- or No. 135 -- you can put your hands in your pockets and whistle tunelessly with a "Who, me?" look on your face, and no one ever asks any questions.

Take Slovakia. Five years ago, Slovakia invaded Iraq. Admittedly, it did this with the help of a few other countries. But still, does Slovakia ever get the blame for all the trouble that has gone down over there since then?

Nope.

Imagine, for a moment, the relief of being simply too unimportant to be held responsible for any event of consequence. Imagine Barack Obama being roused by the proverbial "red phone" at 11 a.m. -- the leaders of low-ranking countries can presumably nap until late morning -- to be informed of a terrible rumpus in deepest Nmbubu-Oobu, and his only responsibility is to write a stern news release calling on Belgium to act. And when it all goes horribly wrong -- as it inevitably will -- all he has to do is tut disapprovingly and mutter something about those arrogant Flems in Bruges.

Being British, I speak from some experience when it comes to lost superpowerdom. I was born in northern England in the mid-1970s -- a time when my grandparents still believed that Britain was the mightiest nation on Earth, even though the prime minister, Harold Wilson, was being warned that the country was facing "wholesale domestic liquidation" unless it could secure an emergency, Third World-style bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

In Britain in those days -- as in America now -- people bought consumer products based on patriotism. The misery! I later fell victim to this nonsense myself: My first car was an antique 1974 MGB, the electronics supplied by the pride of postwar British manufacturing, Lucas Industries. When I bought the MGB, I sincerely believed that British sports cars were the finest in the world. Then the wiring loom under the steering wheel short-circuited when I was halfway down Caledonia Road in North London and I had to jump out with my trousers literally on fire.

My next car was Japanese.

Today, of course, there are pretty much no truly British cars. And who cares? We live in an era of globalization. The Indians might own the company that makes Jaguars, but I probably have money in a pension fund somewhere that owns stock in that very same Indian company. So, in a small way, the British are still in the car business -- with the added benefit that a modern Jag probably won't cause a trouser fire.

And even if you own a "foreign" car these days, chances are that at least a few bits and pieces of it have been sourced from your homeland. That's the way it should be: Countries that are good at one thing should concentrate on it, and countries that are bad at that same thing should stop doing it.

Besides, abandoning consumer patriotism is as liberating as no longer being blamed for everything. It's especially liberating when shopping for an automobile. Farewell, beige Ford Taurus! Hello, gunmetal-gray BMW M3!

Not all domestic industries suffer when a nation goes into an irreversible decline, of course. Others suddenly find themselves booming. The beleaguered American newspaper industry, for example, might very well be able to profit immensely by simply dispatching its most snide and ironically detached correspondents to the new capitals of world power, from which they will be able to report with maximum condescension about the hilarious earnestness of the locals. Mark my words: Demoralized Americans won't be able to get enough of these reports, and thus will buy multiple newspapers every morning while traveling to work on buses and trains, having abandoned their cars when the U.S. government stopped qualifying for its bulk oil discount from the Saudis.

Not that working 8-to-7 six days a week will seem so important when you're no longer ruling the world. If Britain's experience is anything to go by, Americans will soon find more satisfaction by trying to break pointless world records -- crossing Greenland on a pogo stick, using only one arm, while dressed in native Bolivian costume, for example -- or writing absurdist comedy, or recovering from apocalyptic, three-gin-and-tonic lunchtime hangovers.

Oh yes, you're in for a treat.

Chris Ayres is Los Angeles correspondent for the Times of London and the author of "Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale" (Grove Press, February 2009).

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