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The World’s Largest Trope

Fareed Zakaria has stimulated an amusing discussion on the subject of whether America has lost its world supremacy because it no longer strives to build the biggest things on earth. Zakaria’s List of Giant Things Built Elsewhere

The world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai. Its largest publicly traded company is in Beijing. Its biggest refinery is being constructed in India. Its largest passenger airplane is built in Europe. The largest investment fund on the planet is in Abu Dhabi; the biggest movie industry is Bollywood, not Hollywood…. The largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. The largest casino is in Macao, which overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenues last year….The Mall of America in Minnesota once boasted that it was the largest shopping mall in the world. Today it wouldn’t make the top ten. In the most recent rankings, only two of the world’s ten richest people are American….[O]nly ten years ago, the United States would have serenely topped almost every one of these categories.

–so displeased the businessman-blogger Jim Manzi that he went to Wikipedia to prove Zakaria was talking out of his hat, and, I fear, he succeeded:

Iran already had the world’s largest oil refinery by 1980. Russia had already built the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in 1995, topped by Japan in 1997. Canada had already built the world’s largest mall by 1986. Malaysia had already built the world’s tallest building in 1998. I couldn’t find any data on Bollywood in 1998. Using this data for 2001 and estimating back three years, it looks like Bollywood was already larger than Hollywood in 1998 in terms of films produced and total number of tickets sold.

Fareed’s larger point is that the rest of the world is on the rise, and that we are entering a “post-American world.” Like all superficially convincing Grand Theories of Everything, this one seems inarguably true for about three minutes. Then you spend a few seconds thinking deeply about it, as Manzi did, only to come up with a dozen ways in which it is false.

Still, Fareed has hit on something very interesting in this ill-conceived list of ways in which America is now #2, but it has nothing to do with the other nations and everything to do with America. What does it mean that this country evidently cares less and less about building capitalist monuments?

It may mean nothing more than we don’t have to — that the country itself is the capitalist monument par excellence, with a GDP that is almost triple what it was 25 years ago and a per capita income of nearly $46,000. When America began its frenzy of construction, it was trying to prove something; now it needs to prove nothing.  And Americans have gotten wise to the ambiguous nature of capitalist monument-building, since inevitably such things happen only with a considerable amount of taxpayer expenditure with no hope of return except to the private developer who takes on little risk and gets most of the reward.

Nonetheless, this does suggest America has lost some of its striver’s hunger. In New York City, for example, no major project can get off the ground, not even construction at Ground Zero. But this too is a double-edged sword. Most respectable opinion in the city supported a mammoth project in downtown Brooklyn to build a Frank Gehry stadium with 16 apartment buildings around it on the grounds that the stadium would sit on a platform above a rail yard in a mostly blighted neighborhood. Some people living an entire neighborhood away began to protest wildly and irrationally.

But in the five years since it was first proposed, the Brooklyn project has made less and less sense. The neighborhood, like the borough, has improved so radically that it really does seem as though the state’s power of eminent domain is being used to remove a perfectly functional middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood for the benefit of a private contractor (in this case, a developer named Bruce Ratner). And with the credit crunch now underway, it appears the project may die on the vine anyway.

On the one hand, the inability of very liberal New Yorkers to tolerate economic development offers a small-scale portrait of some of what ails this country. On the other hand, the notion that state power shouldn’t be used in this way and that private citizens can band together to prevent it is part of what makes this country such a remarkable world-historical experiment.


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