First in a series of year end pensees: grand strategy

Could end up being a very brief series, but here is one to start:

As my wife and I near our third consecutive Christmas/New Year stretch outside the United States, mainly we feel lucky for all that we've been able to see and do and experience in China and its environs.

But of course there are costs. And while I wouldn't exactly put this at the top of the list of things we regret missing out on (compared, say, with seeing our families and friends etc), I am in fact sorry not to have been around for the last few installments of the John Boyd Conferences, where people interested in Boyd's theories of competition gather to apply them to topics ranging from financial meltdowns to handling Iraq. Much more about Boyd via links you can find here, here (second item), herehere, and here, for starters.

Boyd.jpg

(Left: the classic photo of Boyd in his days as a Korean War fighter pilot.)

So I wasn't at the University of Prince Edward Island early this month for the Boyd 2008 session. But I am struck by this summary of the session from its organizer, Robert Paterson, and how many sobering truths about the years just past and just ahead it presents.  Here is one sample from a long list of bullet points:

  • The search for efficiency and the urge to consume has set us all up like a row of dominoes - there is no buffer, no resiliency. As one problem rises it causes another. As one solution is tried it drives another problem. We all pull back and the consumer economy stalls. The auto industry and credit firms feeds the media (40% of conventional advertising). Papers and TV and Radio networks, many subject to LBO's will have to fail as per the Tribune. Every sector will be laying people off. Sales of all things fall off a cliff - driving more business failures and layoffs. Cities and states that depend on sales tax and property tax and the credit markets can rely on none of these. So they too will have to lay off millions - thus making all the problems worse. National governments will be asked to save us all and of course cannot. As States and Cities get squeezed and cannot borrow, they will too lay off millions - teachers, firemen police. No one will be safe.

This is very close to what I was trying to explain three and a half years ago in my "Countdown to a Meltdown" imagined-history article in the Atlantic. The way that everything really is connected -- I recently saw a school in southern China that will be in trouble because its donors are losing money through the Madoff fraud in New York  -- and that no one has "any buffer, any resiliency" is something we've known in theory but are only now comprehending in its daily, cascading reality. It's worth looking at the summary for similarly uplifting thoughts.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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