Nicholas Kronos has a fascinating essay on the future of Japan — and the potential lack thereof:
The Japanese are a resilient people who proved themselves capable of a miracle recovery after World War II. Even so, their 2011 population is an aging one, with almost one in four Japanese over 65. As difficult as such demographics are for a stagnant economy to support, rebuilding economic prosperity to its previous levels with such a workforce challenges credibility. It seems to me–even should the nation avoid the ultimate disaster of Chernobyl-type nuclear accidents rendering its scarce land resource even scarcer through 1,000-year half-life contamination–reconstructing Japan will require something like the Marshall Plan.
The United States no longer can provide that level of assistance, but perhaps the Chinese–their coffers bristling with reserves from years of trade surpluses–can. Thus far, I am not aware of any large-scale assistance from the one long enemy to the other, and it seems that a Japanese decline should, in fact, benefit the Chinese. Nevertheless, a competitor’s misfortune may be a wise investment opportunity.
Thus, aside from all the human tragedy that has thus far occurred and the risks for far greater that could well end in making this the greatest natural disaster in modern times–recall that the fire after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 caused 90 percent of the damage–I also see a great loss for America.
As Amity Shlaes wrote at the very beginning of 2007’s The Forgotten Man, brilliantly — and tacitly — linking a natural disaster in the late 1920s which inadvertently stage set for Hoover, FDR, and the calamity of the following decade with Katrina and our own dormant economy,”Floods change the course of history, and the flood of 1927 was no exception.”
The America of the 1920s was a still largely rural nation with a few urban pockets about to face all of the challenges of the 20th century and ultimately very much up to the task. Japan has a demographically exhausted population and a rapacious neighbor right next door. As Kronos writes, “Undoubtedly this disaster has knee-capped our loyal ally Japan’s regional power for some time to come and perhaps permanently. China enjoys the best position to move into the resulting vacuum and exploit Japan’s hobbling.”
What happens next?
(And what about us? Jeff Goldstein boils America’s potential fate down to six simple words: “USA Inc.: Bought high, selling low.”)