The Lovely Smell of U.S. Stagnation

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It has become a cliche to point out that the government is busy reviving various ideological and symbolic trappings of the Soviet Union. One of the most amusing ideological constructs in the writings of "patriotic" pro-Kremlin commentators, as well as in the minds of ordinary Russians, is the growing belief that the U.S. economy is somehow a spent force.

Those who grew up under communism remember Marxist-Leninism's "scientific" conclusion that the capitalist system was rotting away. This Soviet mantra, endlessly repeated in the face of evident Western prosperity, gave rise to jokes like this one:

Rabinovich applies to emigrate to the United States.

"Why do you want to go to America?" his KGB minder inquires. "Capitalism is rotting."

"I know it is. But by God, comrade major, doesn't it smell lovely?"

Naturally, capitalism failed to collapse, but communism did. Ironically, the Soviet economy did rot away, and, in line with Marxist predictions, the Soviet Union crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions. Undeterred by the failure of the old prophesies, we now have a new crop of Russian Cassandras. If Nikita Khrushchev and Mao couldn't bury the United States in their time, perhaps Chinese President Hu Jintao will.

I've just come back from a trip to Southern California. I stayed an extra day to visit a school friend of mine, a microbiologist, now living in San Diego and working at one of its world-famous research institutes.

The last time I visited San Diego was 30 years ago. After my freshman year at a New York college, I came out to the West Coast and spent a summer frying chicken at an amusement park. San Diego was then a sleepy, pleasant burg inhabited by U.S. Navy retirees and their Mexican gardeners. Now, it is a global hub of the biotech industry. My friend is part of a sizeable group of Russian biologists doing academic research or working for various startups. Many of his former classmates at Moscow State University and colleagues from research institutes are also scattered around the United States. Some have even started their own biotech companies.

"I don't know where they have learned," shrugs my friend. "They used to be your regular Moscow scientists, with thick glasses. Now, they put companies through venture capital financing and IPOs."

Actually, he has worked for a startup himself and does consulting for private business. Although he remains very much tied to Russian culture (a Pushkin volume lies casually on his kitchen counter and his kids speak fluent Russian), he is extremely comfortable in San Diego. Who wouldn't be? He has absolutely no interest in returning to Moscow. Some Russian scientists working in the United States might return, but very few, if any, will do so for professional reasons. Conditions for research and its practical application are simply too good in the United States.

Nor have they been matched elsewhere. At my friend's institute, most foreign researchers prefer to work in the United States, even though their countries now offer them incentives to come home. For all the money China and India spend on science and technology, they have yet to find a way of chipping away at the United State's primacy in innovation.

President Vladimir Putin's pet project, nanotechnology, is a good illustration why. In most countries of the world, support for science and innovation is a top-down exercise, where bureaucrats decide what needs to be developed and how. Typically, they get it wrong. The U.S. system, meanwhile, thrives by being bottom-up, allowing scientists to succeed -- or fail -- on their own terms.

It is true that the U.S. economy has problems. It is heavily dependent on imports, there is too much debt and the middle classes have been hollowed out. But as long as the United States controls innovation, there is little chance of it surrendering its global economic leadership.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.