New column: America’s No. 1 export

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What is America’s No. 1 export? Debt. And that’s what my column in the new issue of TIME, with the clipout ballot on the cover, is about. It begins:

Japan and Germany make cars. Saudi Arabia pumps oil. China supplies the world with socks and toys and flat-screen TVs. What does the United States produce? Lots of stuff, but in recent years this country’s No. 1 export–by far–has been debt.

When you look at things this way, it becomes clearer what the frenzy in New York City and Washington is all about. There are major quality issues with our nation’s flagship product. The authorities have acknowledged the problem–“This is a humbling, humbling time for the United States of America” is how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson put it in one TV interview. So now Paulson & Co. are recalling defective financial products en masse, slapping GUARANTEED BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT labels on some of them and replacing others outright with U.S. treasuries.

It’s textbook crisis management, similar to Johnson & Johnson’s famously forthright and successful reaction to the Tylenol tampering scare of 1982. So far, so good. But while Johnson & Johnson was soon able to restore Tylenol’s lost market share, the U.S. faces a different challenge. Read more.