Yesterday at an event called One Day University, I saw a talk by William Burke-White of Penn and formerly of the Obama state department (I think he was one of many consultants, but I can never figure out seniority from people's biographies - his is here).
Mr. Burke-White was discussing the liberal world order created by the US after WWII and recent decline / threats to this world order and American power. He discussed five trends or forces driving changes, and you probably can predicts many of them. He discussed the rise of new world powers (e.g. China), the rise of powerful NGO's (e.g. ISIS) and the expansion of the Internet (which can destabilize traditional powers). All fine, I have no particular comment on that stuff. He also discussed climate change, with a picture of Manhattan underwater, and though I am tempted, I won't even respond to that.
What caught my attention was his fifth point -- about income inequality. He showed a slide with the meme that 8 people (Warren Buffet et al) had more wealth than something like half the world's population put together. His conclusion was that the liberal world order had failed because so much wealth had been concentrated in a few hands.
Well, if American power and influence is declining in the world and Mr. Burke-White is an example of the thinking of the Obama administration over the last 8 years, I now have a better understanding of why. Sure there are really rich people. There were probably 8 really rich guys in 1400 (though they would have all been Kings and Emperors rather than private business people). The really different, world-changing event over the last 50 years has been the emergence from poverty of over a billion people, as facilitated by market capitalism. Never before in all of the history of the planet have so many people been pulled out of poverty in such a short time. Never before has such a large percentage of the globe moved beyond pure subsistence farming. If the leaders of this country find it impossible to communicate this simple good news, then of course the post-WWII liberal world order is going to struggle.
Look, I understand that baby boomers (a group of which I am barely a member) have a hard time figuring out how to cope with this country's many past missteps. Yes, we have been ham-handed (and that is generous) in exercising our power and we have often failed to live up to our stated values. But helping to unleash a wave of market capitalism on the world is among our true successes. And this is the US's one true source of power, this wave of prosperity we have helped to birth. Other supposed sources of our power -- a big military and atomic bombs -- are horrifying. Market capitalism is our one source of strength that is genuinely positive. If we are staffing the state department with people who don't get this, then no wonder we are losing influence in the world.