Will Gathering Storm of Negative Hype Sink Hopes for Global Prosperity?

Listening to Fareed Zakaria at an Arthur Page Society meeting in New York earlier this year, I was struck by his relentless optimism and faith in a coming global prosperity. The author of The Post-American World was not speaking of doom for America but of a rising tide that would lift up the standard of living of people throughout the world.

It isn’t a zero-sum game, he said, where losers have to equal out winners. America should welcome, not feel threatened by, the rising fortunes of countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Speaking without notes, he phrased his case in nearly the same words that I would soon read in his best-selling book:

 

This will not be a world defined by the decline of America but rather the rise of everyone else. It is the result of a series of positive trends that have been progressing over the last 20 years, trends that have created an international climate of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Zakaria acknowledged that the present era feels anything but peaceful and prosperous, attributing our heightened sense of danger to the rise of instant information, news that feeds off the negative and the omnipresence of hype.

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Why do we think we live in scary times? Part of the problem is that as violence has been ebbing, information has been exploding. The last 20 years have produced an information revolution that brings us news and, most crucially, images from around the world all the time. The immediacy of the images and the intensity of the 24-hour news cycle combine to produce constant hype. Every weather disturbance is the "storm of the decade." Every bomb that explodes is BREAKING NEWS.

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So true. A few months after hearing Zakaria’s speech, I was interviewed for a story on CNBC on high fuel prices. When I later asked the producer when to expect the story to air, I was told it was on hold because Hurricane Gustav – still days away from its expected Gulf-coast arrival – had turned the network into the All-Gustav-all-the-time news channel. Remember Gustav? It was hype about this storm, rather than its actual winds, that caused the cancellation of the first day of the Republican National Convention. And when Gustav missed New Orleans altogether, couldn’t you see the disappointment on the faces of legions of weathermen-newscasters dispatched to the Gulf?

The same relentless hype has worsened the recent stock market meltdown, as normally staid financial news networks use frightening all-caps slates like “CRISIS UPDATE: WALLSTREET IN PERIL.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that retail investors, like scared sheep, have panicked and sold at what will likely prove to be the bottom of the trough.

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A final thought: An email making the rounds in these last days of the Presidential campaign features this photo

Obama-post american

 

from the New York Times of a certain candidate and the book he’s reading, none other than Zakaria’s Post-American World – which the scare-mail describes as a “Muslim’s view of a defeated America.” (More about this on snopes.)

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There are lots of things to find fault with Obama, but not his choice of reading material – nor his intellectual curiosity into the thinking behind Zakaria’s well-articulated global optimism.

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- Jon Harmon

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