Recessions always bring economic change. Headlines typically focus on the new economic forces they unleash. But even more powerfully, they reinforce economic changes that were already unfolding. When that happens, recessions contribute to fundamental and long-term shifts that impact every profession.
Ongoing economic trends are doing just that. Before the recession, economic growth in China and most of Asia (except Japan) was outpacing growth in North America and Western Europe. The recession has magnified this gap. While the American economy last year was contracting by more than 2 percent, China’s economy was still growing by more than 8 percent. This year it’s projected that the U.S. will rebound to positive growth of more than 2 percent; China will grow by more than 9 percent.
All of this adds up. By the end of next year, China likely will surpass the U.S. in market size for the purchase of automobiles, personal computers, television sets and many other products.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the largest market in the world for virtually all major products. But when it comes to economics, demographics eventually do become destiny. We increasingly live in a world in which economic consumption and production more closely resemble population. North America has only 5 percent of the world’s people. Asia has 60 percent.
What does this mean for Americans and U.S. lawyers in particular?
First, we’re going to have to learn more about the rest of the world and Asia specifically.
This needs to start well before law school. A recent study showed that only 4 percent of the nation’s public high schools offer courses in Mandarin. In contrast, 13 percent offer Latin.
We also need to learn more about Asia’s history, culture and philosophies. This includes the way these societies think about the role and rule of law. Comparative legal courses in U.S. law schools traditionally concentrated on the French, German, and British legal systems and their influences. While these remain of obvious importance, Confucian and other philosophies have also influenced legal thinking in Asia.
In all the meetings I’ve had with government officials around the world, there’s only one place where I’ve found that people discuss legal issues in part by talking about something that happened in the year 221 B.C. That’s the year the Qin Dynasty unified China. It shaped the way people in China think about the world today. If we’re going to be effective counselors and advocates in the new global economy, it’s the type of thing about which we need to be informed.
We need to embrace a second priority as well. The country and its leading institutions need to nurture our competitive economic strengths.
As the U.S. economy ceases to lead the world based on the size of its market, it’s even more important that we lead in the influence of our innovations. Last year inventors in the U.S. accounted for just less than half of the world’s newly granted patents. Innovation across the country remains robust, especially in technology fields based on science and engineering.
Yet it’s clear that we need to continue to strengthen our innovation capacities. We need to improve education and augment basic research in critical fields. We need to continue to improve our intellectual property laws, and we need to ensure that our IP rights are better respected overseas.
The shifting global economy will be one of the defining elements of the entire 21st century. The country’s long-term prosperity will depend in part on how we adapt. As lawyers advising institutions across the economy, we have an important role to play in helping the country adapt to the changes needed for long-term success.