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Meltdown

James Fallows sets forth an interesting tale in attempting to make the case that an economic meltdown looms by 2016 ("Countdown to a Meltdown," July/August Atlantic). Yet although the public sector figures prominently in his crystal ball, he doesn't address what might become of wealthy corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Pfizer, and ExxonMobil, all of which have billions of dollars on hand and would presumably weather a meltdown of the scope Fallows describes. Microsoft and Pfizer, in particular, might not even require a well-maintained public infrastructure so long as the Internet survived—which Fallows says it will. And with gas at $9 a gallon by 2016, ExxonMobil shouldn't do too badly either.

Jube Shriver
Washington, D.C.

Although I enjoyed James Fallows's mind-walk through a future economic collapse, I was disappointed to see Fallows bow to Washington convention rather than write clearly and simply about U.S.-Venezuelan relations. The United States is deeply hostile to President Hugo Chavez and has been actively seeking to undermine his rule since he took office.

To portray U.S. complicity in a hypothetical future coup as either paranoia or fabrication by Chavez ignores the history of U.S. policy in the region. The likelier scenario is that such a coup—successful or not—would have been fomented or at least well supported by the United States.

John Canham-Clyne
New Haven, Conn.

James Fallows's "Countdown to a Meltdown" is doubly discouraging, first for its detailed portrayal of prospective U.S. economic decline and second because the major political players in Fallows's scenario ignore environmental threats.

Will the United States become hostage to oil controlled by Hugo Chavez, and will the U.S. dollar lose 50 percent of its value against the Chinese yuan and the Japanese yen, before our president tells us that aggressively developing alternative energy sources and reducing our dependence on imported oil is an urgent matter of national security? Such a commitment from the largest national consumer of oil in the world (until China replaces us) would affect oil-futures markets immediately.

By burning oil and other fossil fuels we are also increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels not seen since the days of the dinosaurs. By 2016 the results will be more obvious than they are today. A policy memo to a would-be president in 2016 that ignores this problem will be woefully out of date and out of touch.

Will the United States become a Third World country because we refuse to recognize environmental realities? Remember the people of Easter Island, who built a high culture on a wood-based economy and then (as Jared Diamond describes in his recent book, Collapse) consumed their island's every last tree. We owe future generations more than that.

Bruce E. Johansen
Professor, School of Communication
University of Nebraska
Omaha, Nebr.

James Fallows paints a riveting scenario of America's looming economic crisis. I want to focus on a few additional factors that could swing the outcome.

On the plus side, the spirit of invention that spawned so much of America's economic power may yield new energy supplies and energy-saving devices that stimulate an economic boom and ease America's reliance on foreign oil. True, such inventions are increasingly likely to emerge from China and India, but America's inventiveness, combined with its ability to marshal capital in support of technology transfer, could keep the economic dominoes from falling.

On the minus side, Fallows's scenario does not provide for weather catastrophes—earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods—that could further destabilize the American economy and diminish foreign investment. Another swing factor is infectious disease, and here Fallows makes reference to avian flu. Let us hope that those who reread this article in 2016 can smile on this reference as a possibility that failed to materialize.

Fallows predicts that a year's tuition at a private college will double in another decade. However, the endowments of the wealthiest colleges should still be sufficient to offset tuition increases and provide need-based scholarships for talented students. Fallows's scenario reinforces the belief that college endowments should be used in part to keep prime educational opportunities available even in the face of harsh economic headwinds.

William E. Cooper
President, University of Richmond
Richmond, Va.

North Korea

In discussing the Agreed Framework of 1994, Scott Stossel ("North Korea: The War Game," July/August Atlantic) mentions that the United States, South Korea, and Japan were to supply North Korea with light-water nuclear reactors, among other items. He goes on to say that "congressional Republicans attacked the agreement, calling it 'appeasement'"—and that the North Koreans eventually cheated on it. This does not do justice to the history of that situation.

Stossel could have made it much clearer how we landed in our current dire straits had he noted that congressional Republicans did much more than "attack" the agreement rhetorically—they blocked every attempt to make the appropriations required to construct those light-water reactors and slowed the approval of appropriations that were necessary to finance many of the other items that constituted our end of the bargain. The fact is that those reactors never got built.

Stossel might have further noted that the North Koreans did not begin cheating on the agreement until nearly four years later—after it probably became clear to them (as it did to the rest of us who have followed the situation) that the United States would fail to fulfill its part of the bargain as long as Congress was controlled by blindly ideological Republicans. Only after George W. Bush was elected president and effectively blew off the agreement did North Korea again become belligerent.

It's certainly possible that the North Koreans would have cheated on the agreement anyway. But it's also possible that they would have abided by it. It would have cost us only about $15 billion to find out. That's less than what the federal government has spent to bail out the major U.S. air carriers—about $3.00 per taxpayer.

Steven Charles Warren
Waldoboro, Maine

Americans who are curious as to why Europeans and others are wary of U.S. foreign policy will find the answer in Scott Stossel's article. Although it purported to be a simulation of genuine government discussions, huge areas of the subject were just left out—namely, the politics (or, as one might say, real life).

No one talked about what the people of South Korea or any other U.S. allies in the region, real or potential, might think about American decisions. No one appeared to understand the broader history surrounding the issue. Nor did anyone analyze the structure of the North Korean regime, which was seen as a homogeneous tyranny of bad guys.

We all know that life is much more complex than that. Yet Stossel is keen to convince us that this is how the U.S. government makes its decisions, and to "draw conclusions" from this little exercise. If he's correct, America's allies are right to be nervous.

David Wilson
London, England

I haven't slept at all well since reading the conclusions of your panel regarding the future of North Korea. With the fate of so many hanging in the balance, and the Bush administration doing—in my opinion and the opinion of your panel—so little right in tackling the North Korean threat, I'd like to offer another option that, oddly, seems not to have been considered by your team of experts.

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