I remember seeing a cartoon years ago that portrayed a group of people at a self-service gas station. The cashier yells out “You, with the U.S. license plates, you pay BEFORE you pump!”. The caption read “On a recent trip to Canada, Howard discovered the shame of being from a debtor nation”.
I thought of that cartoon last week when I was reading El Pais in the Spanish hotel where I was staying. The second page had a photo of President Obama coupled with sympathetic coverage of the U.S. likelihood of default. I cringed in embarrassment, imagining millions of people in a country that faces a genuine, unavoidable risk of default opening their paper and saying to their spouse “See, it’s not so bad here after all, the U.S. is as broke as we are”.
The story explained that we are not broke and that the debt ceiling follies are all about politics, but I suspect that distinction will be lost on many international media consumers who learn of our plight. The associations the mind draws between nouns and adjectives are rapid and typically unconscious. Marketing firms earn the enormous sums they do because they are masters at getting us to associate “Tasty” with such and so brand of cereal and “Bargain” which such and so brand of soap, and these brand associations shape our economic behavior whether we realize it or not.
Even if we resolve the debt crisis tomorrow, the U.S. brand has been damaged throughout the world. The debt impasse and the attention it has drawn have retrained an unknown number of minds to move from reflexively associating brand “USA” with adjectives such as “rich” and “stable” to adjectives such as “default-prone” and “bankrupt”. The aggregate impact this will have on the future willingness of people in other countries to invest in our country, buy our products, or stand by us when the going is tough is impossible to calculate and equally impossible to deny.