On January 31, 2012 I wrote a post called The Empire Is NOT In Decline? The post's title was meant to be sarcastic, of course. I deconstructed some articles which defended the claim of America's continued pre-eminence. Then I put together a short, incomplete list of the obvious reasons American is indeed in decline. Making that argument is a lot like shooting fish in barrel.
Today I was going to write a quick critique of Robert J. Lieber's Is American decline real? (Salon, May 14). But then a Google search revealed that the recent "pushback" against us "declinists" is far greater than I thought it was. Here's Lieber on the subject—
These depictions are pervasive on the Internet and in the press. A quick Google search for the term “American decline” yields 117 million “hits” in 0.13 seconds. A columnist for The New York Times writes that, “Wherever you choose to look . . . you’ll see a country in sad shape.” A leading German news magazine headlines, “A Superpower in Decline.” And from the realm of pop culture, the comic book action hero Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship. But are such assessments accurate?
As we would expect, Lieber goes on to argue that pessimistic assessments are not accurate. But there's lots more.
- America Is So Not In Decline: Ritholtz (Daily Ticker, interview with Barry Ritholtz, March 6)
- 8 Reasons American is not in decline (Christian Science Monitor, April 28)
- American Decline A Mirage In A World That's Rising (Ezra Klein, Bloomberg, May 16)
- America Is Not in Decline (policymic, February 12)
The argument that America is not in decline usually rests upon misleading premises. Those arguing for our continued dominance say that in so far as the United States is still the most powerful global military power, and still has the world's largest economy in dollar terms, we are still #1 and will remain so for some time to come.
The DOTE argument, and that of every commentator who does not have a kool-aid dispenser mounted on their water tap, is that our decline is almost entirely due to the steady deterioration over 30 years of American society at large and its economy in particular. Those who argue we are not in decline invariably dodge all the compelling evidence documenting that deterioration.
Another argument—my favorite—says that yes, American is going down the toilet, but everybody else has already been flushed, so we're still #1. Here's Erza Klein.
If hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians continue to be stuck on unproductive farms or in unskilled jobs rather than being freed to develop their human capital, the rest of the world will be denied access to the endless innovations they otherwise might have developed. Put another way, the sun may now set on the British Empire, but the average British citizen lives much better because of the medical and computer technologies developed in Britain’s former colonies. If those colonies hadn’t grown rich and strong enough to throw off the mother country’s yoke, the result would be a worse world for everyone—including the British.
[My note: Did young Ezra learn to construct specious arguments like this in college? If so, I think we need to take another look at the alleged "benefits" of a college education.]
So, yes, the U.S. has its problems. But I wouldn’t trade our problems for anyone else’s. Europe, China and Japan face immense demographic challenges. All three are aging rapidly and, for cultural and political reasons, immigration is unlikely to swell their workforces. Japan, with a median age of 44.6, is one of the oldest countries in the world. In China, the birth rate has fallen from 2.6 births per woman 30 years ago to 1.56 today.
Then Klein goes on to argue how all the other big economic powers—Europe, China, Japan the other BRICS—are well and truly fucked. Way more fucked than we are. This reminds me of the old lawyer joke in which the defense attorney says "sure, my client killed that man. But look at the all the other stuff he didn't do!"
The pushback against America's obvious decline is as predictable as the morning sunrise. Those whose bread is buttered will argue that America is still great. Those with no butter on their bread, and perhaps no bread at all, don't need to be convinced.
Bonus Video — Barry Ritholtz embarrasses himself once again