Spengler delivers a Shakespearian sermon.
Here is the plot of Hamlet in a nutshell: The soldiers who meet the Ghost of Hamletâ€™s murdered father on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle were not posted there by accident: As they explain in the playâ€™s opening lines, the King of Norway, young Fortinbras, will invade Denmark soon, and they are set as lookouts. The Ghost comes along and distracts them and young Hamlet, and the dramatis personae engage in various machinations until, at the end, all of them lay dead on the stage. Just as Hamlet expires, who should enter but Fortinbras, who asks: â€œWhoâ€™s in charge here? Uh, everybodyâ€™s dead. I guess I am.â€
Shakespeareâ€™s audience doubtless rolled in the aisles. Fortinbras, the playâ€™s shadow protagonist, typically is cut from modern productions (for example, the 1948 Laurence Olivier film version), which makes the rest of the action meaningless. Such is the atrophy of the modern sense of humor.
In our present version of Hamlet, the role of Fortinbras is played by Xi Jinping. China wants dominant position in what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution â€“ the transformation of economic life by ubiquitous high-speed communications and artificial intelligence. Industrial robots that talk to each other and work out industrial processes without human input, mining robots operated via 5G by technicians with virtual reality visors, a global medical system powered by real-time uploads of the vital signs of a billion smartphone users and digitized health records, autonomous vehicles, e-commerce and e-finance links easing the retail transactions of billions of people will become standard over the next two decades.
Meanwhile, the United States has invested virtually nothing in the driver of this revolution, namely high-speed, infinite-capacity and zero-latency broadband. Less than 1% of all venture capital investments are now devoted to hardware. The American tech giants are content to invest in high-return, infinitely-scalable software and leave the physics to Asia. In 2015 America shipped about 30% of semiconductors worldwide, but barely 10% today.
No American company offers 5G manufacturing equipment, which has become a Chinese monopoly. Huawei dominates the market with a 30% market share, but its two largest competitors, Ericsson and Nokia, depend on a Chinese supply chain, offering equipment with the same components, but a Scandinavian label and a higher price. …
Fortinbras invaded Hamletâ€™s Denmark. His modern avatar Xi Jinping doesnâ€™t covet Cleveland, but aims for a controlling position in the decisive technologies of the 21st century. The United States is busy with the twists and turns of a macabre political plot that serves as a distraction from the main thread of the plot. As I wrote on January 26, the Pentagon last week abandoned attempts to further restrict US component sales to Huawei, arguing (correctly) that they would hurt American tech companies more than they would hurt China. And now the United Kingdom has asked Washington, â€œWhat have you done for us lately?â€
The United States should cancel an aircraft carrier or two and announce a whatever-it-takes, Manhattan Project-style program to build out its own 5G capacity. Short of that, it has no choice but to reconcile itself to the mediocrity of its circumstances.