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Common Currency: Country, state at turning point on many fronts

Alan Zemek

Two unrelated events took place within hours of each other last week that anyone with a sense of historical perspective should find a little unsettling, if not perhaps, alarming.

Minnesota lost its AAA credit rating and NASA lost its capability to launch astronauts into outer space.

Are these two events even remotely related to each other? I think maybe so.

On Thursday last week a major credit rating agency downgraded Minnesota's $5.7 billion dollars of outstanding general obligation bonds, citing budgetary gimmicks to close deficits during the last recession and "an increasingly contentious budgeting environment."

And on Friday, NASA launched the last and final flight of the space shuttle program. After nearly 50 years of dominance in human space flight, the United States now has no way to lift astronauts into orbit for the first time since the early 1960s.

The next time an American flies into space it will be as a paying passenger on a Russian rocket. Ticket price? Twenty-six million dollars a ride. So much for the "right stuff" and "failure is not an option."

Henry Kissinger, in a recent debate on the proposition that the 21st century will be dominated by an ascendant China, noted that for 1800 of the last 2000 years China was the world's pre-eminent power.

Memory of the modern experience of China as a destitute country with a prostrate economy is already fading away. China has lifted 300 million people out of poverty in less than a generation, and it is likely just a matter of time before China once again emerges as the world's largest economy, probably sometime in the next couple decades.

Here is the parallel that I think is worth taking note: The 18th century collapse of Imperial China that led to 200 years of humiliation and domination by western colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th century, and ultimately invasion from Japan in the 1930s was largely self inflicted.

For centuries China had been a vigorous and expansive world power. Then the country's leaders grew timid, resisting innovation, fearing change and influence from foreign ideas. Government isolated itself from the populace. Bureaucrats insulated themselves behind ever more elaborate regulations and sclerotic layers of incomprehensibly dense administrative processes.

Science and exploration stagnated. Eager young university students studied laboriously for national exams to gain admission to the most coveted career: a government job. Merchants and commerce was considered the work of a lesser class.

The government spent more and more money on itself and borrowed its way into near bankruptcy. Then it refused to pay its bills or modernize its armed forces. By 1841 all it took was a few British gunboats to seize the port of Hong Kong and impose humiliating territorial treaty demands on a paralyzed and demoralized China.

Actually, I think historical analogies usually make pretty weak arguments, and this one is no different. But I think it is worth noting that the bickering factions of Minnesota politics dismissively corrupted the state's highest AAA credit rating just to score ideologically pure bragging rights with their hardliners.

It is completely outrageous and irresponsible. It is also a warning to those who believe the pending federal default in the next two weeks will either be no big deal, or might actually be a good thing. Make no mistake; a federal default would be an unprecedented disaster.

Perhaps the only thing more valuable to this nation than the full faith and credit of its government is the creative spirit and innovative drive of its people, especially the foreign born, who bring a particularly unique vigor and enthusiasm for this country.

In truth, the space shuttle technology is obsolete and dangerous to fly, and the calculus has changed from the height of the cold war in 1981 when the shuttles first started flying. Risks to human life that were acceptable then are not now. So, it is probably a good idea to retire the space shuttle fleet and allow NASA to reinvent itself with a new mission.

But still, for a kid who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969 by the light of a flickering black and white television set on a warm July evening in Park Rapids, the prospect of an American astronaut being reduced to thumbing a ride is not the romantic vision of the future that dazzled me then.

But what would really dazzle me now is to see some courageous action by leaders of both parties to subdue the partisan hacks in their own ranks and do a historic budget deal that puts the best interests of the state, and of the country first, with everything on the table.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera tion