by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

The port of Oakland is one of the largest in the United States. More than 750 million metric tons of goods enter this country through Oakland each year. So much is arriving that another dock was recently added so cargo could be unloaded more rapidly.

The most essential pieces of equipment to be installed at the new dock are the massive cranes that do the work of unloading the container ships. One might assume local steelworkers or a company like Link or Caterpillar would build the new cranes. But the cranes for Oakland’s new dock are constructed entirely in China and shipped fully assembled on a specially made ship.

For all practical purposes, most goods are no longer made in the United States. But I thought an American could at least get the job of making and installing the cranes at our nation’s ports.

I guess this is all just part of living on a “Flat Earth,” as journalist Thomas Friedman famously reported in his book about the wonders of globalization. It makes me wonder what we can expect next in the Flat Earth marketplace. Perhaps we can just have our stores prefabricated in China and shipped over as well.

Just imagine. Developers throughout the United States will rush to the mailbox to get their monthly BIGbox catalogs. Best Buys, Circuit Cities, Sofa Marts and Wal-Marts all available for easy purchase and quick delivery. Small, medium or large. Available in plain cinder block or fancy red brick. Simply choose the store you want, and it will be assembled, stocked and delivered to the Small Town, USA, of your choice. All you have to do is open the doors.

Who knows what might be possible on this new Flat Earth?

It makes me wonder what role we will play in this great global economy if we are not producing goods, oil or other products? Well, it took me a bit – I am still getting used to living on flat land – but I think I figured it out. Our role is to produce debt. And we do a hell of a good job of it.

Debt is one of our main exports. China ships us goods, and we ship them Treasury bonds. In the “round” world, we used to call this a trade deficit. Regardless of what it might be called in the Flat World, you will be proud to know we have the biggest trade deficit in the world, more than $700 billion a year. Yes, we are leading the world in debt production.

America is the only country where the government and people are as willing to leverage the future for instant gratification. The president and the federal government are leading the way. The federal debt is more than $8 trillion – that’s $8,000,000,000,000 – and climbing. Pork barrel projects reached an all-time high last year: more than $223 billion. All levels of government, from our fair city to the University of Missouri, seem addicted to these debt-financed projects. The nearly $500 billion defense budget, which doesn’t even include the costs of the Iraq war, is also borrowed money.

Average Americans are following the president’s lead. We now spend $3 billion a day on just the interest payments for our loans and credit cards. The majority of our fellow citizens have a negative net worth. And in 2005 the average American spent more than he earned, in the process borrowing more than $800 billion against his home.

It is liberating when you understand our new role in the Flat Earth economic system. I used to wonder how so many people could afford to live in all the new, expensive apartments, condos and houses around Columbia. Now I realize a lot of these expensive abodes are really just holding pens for debt producers, who in fact won’t ever be able to pay off their debts. Like CAFOs for pigs, the houses, cars and other things that we can’t afford keep us confined and continually working at our jobs as debt producers.

A flat Earth might be a great boon for corporate America, drive the economies of China and India out of poverty and let us buy sweaters at Wal-Mart for $1.50, but in the long run I wonder whether we will be the ones who get flattened.