Is America as great as its Olympic athletes?

Pessimism has flavoured this election campaign. America is in decline. The country is on the wrong track. We're getting our clocks cleaned in global trade deals. We're still suffering from the humiliation of Iraq.

The share of Americans who say that democracy is a "fairly bad" or "very bad" system of government is rising sharply. A quarter of young Americans feel that way, according to data drawn from the World Values Survey. A majority of young Americans believe that the United States should stay out of world affairs, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs report.

Yet when you watch the Olympics, we don't seem like some sad-sack country in terminal decline. If anything, the coverage gets a little boring because we're always winning! And the winners have such amazingly American stories and personality types (Biles, Ledecky, and, yes, Lochte).

American Olympic performance has been astoundingly consistent over the recent decades. With rare exceptions, we can be counted on to win between 101 and 110 medals, Olympiad after Olympiad. The 2016 team seems on pace to win at least that many.

We're not great when measured by medals per capita (New Zealand, Denmark, Hungary, Australia and Britain are the big winners there), but America does have more medals than any other nation in history, and that lead is widening.

The US flag about to be raised for an American gold medallist during an awards ceremony at the Rio Games. The writer says the country's economic success is like its Olympic success, writ large. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Moreover, America doesn't win because we have better athletes (talent must be distributed equally). America does well because it has such great systems for preparing athletes. Medals are won by institutions as much as by individuals. The Germans have a great system for training kayakers, equestrians and throwers - the discus or javelin. The US has amazing institutions to prepare jumpers, swimmers, basketball players, gymnasts, runners and decathletes.

The big question is: Is the greatness of America's sports institutions reflective of the country's strong institutions generally, or is it more like the Soviet Union's sports greatness, a Potemkin show masking national rot?

Well, if you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America's institutions are generally quite strong.

Over the past decades, some developing countries, like Brazil, India and China, posted glitzy economic growth numbers. But those countries are now all being hampered by institutional weakness and growth is plummeting.

But America's economic success is like our Olympic success, writ large. The nation's troubles are evident, but our country has sound fundamentals. The American dollar is by far the world's currency. The Food and Drug Administration is the benchmark for medical standards. The American patent system is the most important in the world.

Nine of Forbes' 10 most valuable brands are American (Apple, Google, IBM and so on). The US is the leading energy producer. We have 15 (at least!) of the world's top 20 universities, while Hollywood is as dominant as ever.

America is also quite good at change. The median age in the US is 37.8, compared with 46.5 for both Germany and Japan. The newer a technology is, the more the US is likely to dominate it. According to The Economist, 91 per cent of online searches are done through American companies' services, and 99 per cent of smartphones run on American-made operating systems. Some American industries have declined, but others are rising. American fund managers handle 55 per cent of the world's assets. American businesses host 61 per cent of the world's social media users.

On the campaign circuit, global trade is portrayed as this great national disaster. We're being destroyed by foreigners! The Trans-Pacific Partnership was the central dominating bogeyman at the Democratic National Convention, especially among people who have no clue what's in it. In fact, America succeeds in global trade about as well as at the Olympics. We rank third, behind Switzerland and Singapore, in global competitive rankings put out by the World Economic Forum. When trade is levelled by international agreements, American firms take advantage and win customers.

As (banker) Robert B. Zoellick noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, in the first five years after the US concluded free-trade agreements, the country's exports to those places have risen three times faster than overall export growth. Over the past five years, Mr Zoellick wrote, the US has run a US$320 billion (S$431 billion) trade surplus in manufactured goods with its free-trade partners. The country's farmers and ranchers boosted exports to free-trade partners by 130 per cent between 2003 and 2013.

In one important way sports is not like economics. In Rio there are only three medals in each event. Global trade is not zero-sum. It spreads vast benefits across societies, while undeniably hurting some businesses in narrow fields along the way.

Of course, we have to take care of those who are hurt, but the biggest threat now is unmerited pessimism itself, and the stupid and fearful choices that inevitably flow from it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'Is America as great as its Olympic athletes?'. Print Edition | Subscribe