There seems to be a certainty in the minds of many pundits, writers, and citizens in this highly volatile world of geopolitics: the United States’ days as the world’s powerhouse are over. Against forces like China, Russia, and the countries of Europe, critics argue, the US will simply not be able to keep up. In A Giant Reborn: Why the US Will Dominate the 21st Century, Johan Van Overtveldt masterfully lays out a case for why, despite these predictions, America is set to continue its 20th-century success into this millennium.
A critically acclaimed author and economic journalist, as well as Belgium’s former Minister of Finance, Van Overtveldt offers a measured, insightful, and thoroughly engaging examination of America’s future. Learn more about Van Overtveldt and his book below!
Why did you feel it important to challenge public opinion about the future of the United States?
In doing my research for The Chicago School (Agate B2, 2007), my first book in English, I learned how the Chicago school of economics is critical of accepted truths. The demise of the United States as the world’s leading superpower—and the inevitable rise of China to that top position—is an almost universally accepted truth these days. So I started thinking about this “truth” in terms of the Chicago tradition. The more evidence and the more literature I looked at, the more I became convinced that something was missing, that the whole story of the position switch between the United States and China lacked coherence and substance. Too many loose ends, so to speak.
Second, long-term economic growth has always been a point of intellectual interest and curiosity for me. Institutions, human capital, entrepreneurial drive, and technology are the main drivers of long-term economic growth. More specifically, the interaction between human capital and knowledge on the one hand and entrepreneurial drive on the other will produce economic growth that is characterized by change—not only in the economy but in society at large as well. In the book, I call this phenomenon “turbochange.”
My basic argument is that in an environment of turbochange, the societies that can best adapt will thrive. Given the historical, institutional, social, and, economic characteristics of American society, I claim that the United States is best placed among the major economic powers of the world to deal with change and profit from it. So, while there’s no denying that the United States faces serious problems (debt, inequality, infrastructure, etc.), economic growth can and will contribute to the resolution of these problems.
Which country do you believe is currently in the best position to edge out the United States as chief economic superpower?
The obvious candidate is China. China faces huge problems, the major one being the rising tension between its political dictatorship and a free market economy. One of the biggest tradeoffs in China over the last 35 years was that the Chinese people accepted Communist Party hegemony, and less freedom, in exchange for rising living standards and more jobs. But the prospects for growth there are increasingly being adjusted downward—which is normal for a country that went through such a catch-up phase. The enormous debt sloshing around in its economy will make it very hard for the Chinese political leadership to keep that economy growing. Deleveraging requires serious adjustment—slower growth if not outright recession. Do the Chinese leaders have the stomach to face such an adjustment? If not (which I think is the most likely outcome), China will become more like Japan, with zombie companies being kept alive by zombie banks—the recipe for a prolonged period of stagnation. It remains to be seen how Chinese society will deal with a prolonged period of subpar growth.
Another possible contender is the European Union. The EU certainly has the economic weight, the human capital, and the historical and cultural heritage to become the world leader. But in order for that to happen, the EU must become politically and economically unified. The recent euro-area crisis shows how difficult it has become to take further steps in that direction, even at moments when the need for such action is highly visible. Too many EU members still cling to their strict national interests. Moreover, the European economic and social model is much more conservative and opposed to change than the American system. Thriving in a world of turbochange requires openness to change and acceptance of its consequences, two characteristics not strongly present, to say the least, within the EU.
Have your perspectives on the subject shifted since you began writing this book?
I started out with a general feeling—call it, if you want, a gut feeling—on the subject. As I studied the material and talked to experts, I confirmed my hunch and realized that the roots of the story ran quite deep. The journey to produce this book also taught me that subtleties are all around. Arguments are seldom black and white. It is, for example, possible that the United States will turn its back on its immigration tradition. I think it is (very) unlikely, but if it happens, America would not be as capable of adjusting to turbochange. Similarly, if the EU-members would embrace further integration and state building at the European level, the EU’s relative position might end up by, say, the mid21st century, substantially different from what I expect it to be. I think such an evolution is very unlikely, but it cannot be excluded.