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By Steve Kelman

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World to US: You are destroying yourself!

capitol dome and bills

It is a common psychological phenomenon that when you are outside your own country, you are inclined to defend your country more than you would at home. I am in Sweden as the U.S. may be on the brink of going over the debt cliff, and I have to say that this nightmare has challenged my own adherence to this phenomenon more than anything else of the many times I have traveled abroad. There's not much I can say to all those outside the United States who are watching this spectacle with amazement and horror other than that I share those reactions.

The 7 a.m. segment of the TV news on one of the three main channels was completely devoted today to America's debt ceiling crisis, featuring an interview with Sweden's Conservative Minister of Finance Anders Borg. "The U.S. economy is in the process of healing itself," he told viewers. "That makes all this even more unnecessary." He added that, even if a temporary stopgap agreement is reached at the last moment, "It is completely unacceptable for the world economy that these crises return every other year."

Borg – and again I note he represents the Swedish Conservative Party – was very clear about what he thought the problem was. "People in the U.S. realize this is serious. There are many responsible people in the U.S. In Sweden, we have Conservatives and Social Democrats on opposite sides. But people have a sense of responsibility for our country. In the U.S., there is an irrational and weird group, and I'm not sure the responsible people can control them."

Americans should pause for a minute and think about how this spectacle looks to anyone outside our country. Some may say they don't care, but in a globalized world, that is madness. Admiration for our culture – the so-called "soft power" of the U.S. – is one source of both our economic strength, because people are attracted to our products, and of our political strength. It's hard to feel admiration when reading today's headlines. We enjoy considerably lower interest rates, and hence a better economy, because of the U.S. dollar's status as a reserve currency and the attractiveness of our government debt. You can be sure that foreigners (the Chinese have said as much) are now actively looking for alternative ways to invest their cash.

The world looks at this, and it makes them think more and more of a declining nation that is eating itself up from within. It's bad enough to shoot yourself in the foot. Here, we seem to be coming closer to shooting ourselves in the heart.

Posted on Oct 16, 2013 at 8:11 AM


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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 22, 2013 LittleZ

I would like to provide some feedback on the reactions from young Chinese. Most of my friends got the news as the shutdown occurred. For the people who stand as liberals (Chinese liberals), they did not take this as a joke or problem but a self-adjustment mechanism within the U.S. political system. As for the others, who always take a critical stance over American issues, they surely would not have good words for it. I know George Washington has warned American people of partisan conflicts in his Farewell Address and this shutdown, as usual, would cause certain losses for the national finance. Maybe it is not suitable for a foreigner to say this; I still incline to take this shutdown as an adjustment of the democracy system. Since The Founding Fathers want America to avoid despotism, the people therefore have to embrace certain weaknesses of democracy. Anyway, it did not last long.

Thu, Oct 17, 2013 Steve Kelman

I appreciate the comments from those with a different point of view. But please note that I never have written -- and I suspect few did -- that the shutdown would be a catastrophe for the economy. Not paying back our debts, by contrast, would have been -- and will be, if this ever happens. The shutdown was a catastrophe for our political system, and the confidence of both Americans and others in the world about the status of our democracy and our ability to work out differences of opinions. Some of the tone of these comments reminds me of the left-wing student revolutionaries whom I worked against as a student many years ago.

Thu, Oct 17, 2013 Al

Earth: our finances are a disaster that that are neither quick nor total, but slow and preventable. The "shutdown" will now soon be over and I don't see any consequences, other than people are beginning to notice that they don't need large parts of the Federal Government. If we are to take these warnings seriously, strive for accuracy. If there is a Rube Goldberg chain of events that results in calamity from the shutdown or the sequester, please educate the unwashed masses. One can only cry "Wolf" so many times . . .

Thu, Oct 17, 2013

We are eating ourselves from within. Uncontrolled debt will cause our downfall. We should hug the those who are bringing it to the attention of the public. The liberal media calls these heros "racists" and "whackos" which is irrational and inexcusable.

Thu, Oct 17, 2013

Are the people opposed to adding more to an uncontrolled US debt limit the "irrational and wierd" group? I say they are the rational half of the US population. The professor is a Democrat with progressive ideas. Let's keep politics out of this blog.

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