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China has cut the ribbon on the New Century Global Centre, which has the largest floor space of any building in the world. It is part hotel, part shopping center, part Mediterranean resort. Beyond the usual boutiques and displays, visitors can enjoy a quarter-mile long artificial beach and massive wave pool. It is backed by the world’s largest LED screen that can simulate any horizon you want – breaking morning, dramatic sunset, clear blue (or presumably green or purple) skies, romantic full-mooned evenings – or maybe two or three moons, why not? Enjoy artificial sun, artificial waves and artificial sea breezes. It is like reality, only better.

Can you imagine something like that in the United States? Maybe in Las Vegas, known for its outsized vision in catering to human desire. In fact, the Palazzo resort in Vegas has the largest floor space in the U.S., slightly more than the Pentagon. But the Palazzo has just over a third the square footage of the New Century Global Centre. When it comes to floor size the U.S. does not even have a building in the global top 10.

Granted, size isn’t everything. In the 1930s Joseph Stalin launched construction of the Palace of the Soviets, the planned capital of the Communist world. Stalin envisioned the largest, tallest building in the word, topped with a statue of Lenin, which would also be the largest in the world. The figure was so gigantic that Lenin’s outstretched arm would be about the size of the Statue of Liberty. This plan failed, but the excavated foundation was turned into the world’s largest swimming pool as consolation. The never-completed Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, was supposed to have been the world’s tallest hotel, but instead has become a monument to the failure and human misery of old-style communism. Yet somehow communist China gets it done – mostly by rejecting almost every principle of communist economic theory.

Remember when the United States could do astonishing things? Yes, we do still have our moments. One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, will officially open in the coming months, and is the third tallest building in the world. It has taken a dozen years to rebuild from the tragedy of September 11, 2001, but the new building is a fitting successor to the Twin Towers. However, while we were getting our act together, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates knocked out the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, built in five years between 2004-2009. Nearby, at the Mall of the Emirates, you can go to Ski Dubai, an indoor winter wonderland with skiing, tobogganing, an ice cave and penguins — all in what used to be desert. Dubai also has been building artificial islands off its coast, for those who have always wanted to buy an island. Can you imagine if a developer tried that in this country? The indignation from environmentalists would produce enough wind energy to power a small town for weeks.

Meanwhile the big design debate in the nation’s capital has been over the Seasonal Inflatable Structure project, a massive bubble that was supposed to inflate periodically in the middle of the Hirshhorn Museum to make it look less like a bunker salvaged from the beaches of Normandy. Proponents said adding this blob to the D.C. skyline would be “transformational,” but the project foundered over exploding costs, an uncertain rationale, and the growing sense that it was just another expensive vanity project for upper income Washingtonians that was inappropriate in these tough economic times. Anyway how impressive would it have been, really? If it came with a bouncy house maybe the kids would have enjoyed it.

There was a time when the United States could thrill the world. Democrats in Congress have proposed establishing the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park on the moon, to preserve the artifacts that were left behind during the Apollo lunar missions, the last of which was 41 years ago. This proposal is an astonishing conceit from a country that no longer has a manned space program. Future park rangers would have to hitch a ride with the Chinese, who plan to visit the moon sometime in the next decade. Most estimates of how long it would take for the United States to be able return to the moon under its own power are longer than the time it originally took us to get there, when we were starting from scratch and using 1960s technology. The then-state-of-the-art Apollo 11 guidance system had a fraction of the computing power of the average smart phone. How is it possible it would take even longer to get back to the moon? We should be going to national parks on Mars by now.

All of this speaks to a country that has lost its spirit and pride in itself. A country more focused on limits than vision. A country in which the concept of providing leadership has been replaced by the norm of ducking responsibility. Remember a time when America was more than an amalgam of foreign debt, food stamps and self-serving talking points? When we had power, pride, and a limitless sense of the possible? China builds artificial oceans, Dubai builds real-life islands, we can’t even blow a bubble.

James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare and author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins

by James S. Robbins |