SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is in Decline. Get Used To It.

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We knew this was coming.

The American Century, after all, was the 20th.

Things were bound to go downhill.

Like 4th century Romans and post-World War II Europeans, Americans are beginning to realize that they are no longer citizens of an unrivaled superpower. And they’re kind of freaking out about it.

Using a novel “purchasing power parity” measure, the World Bank estimates that China’s economy will surpass the United States later this year. By per capita GDP — and most useful indices — the U.S. still maintains its lead. Nevertheless, many Americans agree with the thesis of Marxist economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” thatAmerica’s boom days are behind us, unlikely to be seen again. As The Economist summarizes Piketty: “The middle of the last century was unusual in its growth rates as well as in the distribution of income; the good times most of us see as our due as residents of rich economies were in fact a fleeting anomaly.”

By historical terms, back to normal slogging is a yawner. But humans don’t live in historical terms. We compare where we are now with where we were 10, 20, 30 years ago, and where our parents were. Psychologically if not fiscally, you’re better off never having experienced prosperity than to have had it and lost it. Downward mobility as America’s middle class has experienced it over the last 40 or 50 years — a boom-and-bust cycle featuring shorter expansions and longer, deeper recessions and depressions — is a bummer.

“We’re walking small,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote on May 3rd. “And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.”

As Bruni points out, we have good cause for bad ennui: America’s shameful global ranking on education quality (#39), collapsing social mobility (it’s easier to get rich in Old Europe and Canada), and our crumbling infrastructure. China unveils its awesomely cool pressurized bullet train to the Tibetan plateau; when they’re not hours late, our Amtraks derail.

Not that there aren’t upsides. “Less assertiveness could mean less overreach. Less confidence could mean less hubris. And money isn’t everything,” Bruni allows.

Not that the U.S. doesn’t have at least as much money as it used to. Overall, the U.S. is richer. The trouble is, all our loot has gotten aggregated into the claws of too few people. As The Times’ Nicholas Kristof notes in a piece titled “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!”: “Over all, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006. But 99% of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99% of the American population. Exclude the top 1%, and the average French citizen did better than the average American.”

Of course, Americans have always worried that America was in decline.

A kind of depression has set in,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in 2011. “We’ve lost our mojo, our groove.”

Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech (which despite our faulty collective memory contains neither the word malaise nor its existential French cousin “ennui”), addressed what he called a “crisis of confidence…the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” (And that was before the Iran hostage crisis.)

The Atlantic’s James Fallows (age 64) addressed America’s longstanding we’re-screwed vibe in 2010:

“Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half-century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. ‘Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,’ Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. ‘Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,’ said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. ‘And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.'”

Context matters, and it’s smart not to panic.

Unless…

Unless we really are screwed now. The usually-ignored takeaway from The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that there really was a wolf.

In other words, it is entirely possible the events Fallows and Perlstein downplayed — environmental degradation, the military disasters in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, soaring energy prices and institutionalized political corruption that has gotten so much worse that Nixon now looks like a saint — really were as bad as the worrywarts fretted because, throughout the conscious life of someone Fallows’ age, the U.S. really has been in decline.

Aside from a lot of geopolitical and ecological (metaphorical) birds coming home to roost, the simple truth is that there’s only one world and the U.S. is being forced to share its stuff. Despite a foreign policy centered around disruption and harassment of emerging major regional powers such as China, India, Brazil and Iran, Americans had better get used to a smaller share of power and wealth.

Which isn’t the worst thing. It sucked at the time, but losing their colonial empires is the best thing that ever happened to Europe’s once great powers, both morally and economically. The question for Americans is: What do we do about it? Do we allow our slide into Third Worldism to continue? Or do we scale back the drones and stupid wars, reject the NSA’s Orwellian (and wildly expensive) security nightmare, tax the hell out of the rich, and rebuild the social safety net?

One thing’s for sure: we can’t vote our way out of this problem.

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22 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is in Decline. Get Used To It.

  1. It isn’t “decline” so much as it is that it is simply too easy now for influence to gain force multiplication. In 1500, a king could declare war. He needed thousands of soldiers, and a lot of money and supplies. Five hundred (and one) years later? You don’t need to be a king. You just need 19 people who will do exactly as instructed and a relatively small amount of money.

    The number of examples of how it takes fewer people to cause more trouble is enormous. And as more and more of the meritocratic pathways are shut down, the odds increase that eventually, some poor bastard who went to college for four years, has a 3.96 GPA, $70,000 in student loans and who can’t find a job is going to exploit one of those force-multipliers just for spite.

    That’s the big risk because we’re no longer in a world where just one house will burn. We’re all so interconnected that block after block will burn.

    • >We’re all so interconnected that block after block will burn.

      Isn’t that what you’re advocating/working for? Because that burning is an inevitable consequence of revolution.

      • There are different ways to burn. For instance, if you burn away part of a forest to create a firebreak to stop a larger conflagration, you’re actually doing something useful.

        The block-after-block burn I’m talking about will be more of a panic thing than a well-reasoned response: as the system breaks down, people will pull Ye Olde “take care of myself and screw you” approach.

  2. In the days of Claudius and Nero, Romans wrote about the decline of Rome. It was another 400 years before Rome collapsed, and when it did, no one had time to write any predictions of Rome’s demise. The wolf came, but not until hundreds of years after the last time the boy cried.

    Using this prognostication tool, the US has another 400 years or so.

    A poem by Maxwell Anderson published in the May 8,1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine (pg 26) .

    HI-YO, HI-YO, DISCERNIBLE TODAY
    (A Song After Reading Toynbee)

    Has it come to your attention how the race of man
    Has been climbing upwards since time began,
    How it’s been climbing steady, and it’s climbing there still,
    But every time you notice it, it’s going down hill?

  3. Good column. It’s unusual to read one of these decline articles that admits people have been harking back to the halcyon days of yore of as long as civilization existed. It’s nice to read an article with perspective.

    However, I disagree with your thesis. America is not in decline. In fact, I strongly believe America is on the verge of a vast expansion in our (its?) influence and power. Why? Couple of reasons:
    (1) When the ice caps melt a large portion of the developing world will be underwater. Where will those people go? Not here, I’ll tell you that! I suspect Asia will convulse with war and destroy it’s economy.
    (2) The middle east will run out of oil. America, via Canada and Mexico is gonna be the last country to run out of oil. Well, Russia might still have oil. If they can stop bleeding themselves dry by corruption they could do great things again.
    (3) Most defensible borders in the world. Nobody else so thoroughly controls their continent. Tensions with Mexico will subside and in the coming century, I expect we will be one big happy North American family. The only continuous land mass that shares a single culture, an arsenal of nuclear weapons, lots of untapped oil reserves, vast tracts of unpopulated farmable land, a good river network controlled by one political entity, and a huge navy and airforce with lots of oil to power it.
    (4) The only country that could possible challenge us is China. I think China is much more likely to fall apart in the 21st century then we are. They are gonna get a 1-2 demographic and global warm punch to the gut. They have a tremendous demographic problem– the male to woman sex ratio is way too skewed toward men because the one child policy encouraged people to abort female babies. This is gonna fuck them bad in the coming years. Even if they make it through this, China has another huge hurtle to cross: their alphabet or rather their lack of an alphabet combined with a tonal language will make it very hard for foreigners to learn their language. This will keep English lingua franca of commerce and science and maintain Americas cultural dominance through the world. I expect to continue hearing US pop songs in ever country I travel to for my lifetime. Bollywood will continue to grow in the near term but in the long term, Global Warming will doom them.
    Finally:
    (5) American culture will continue to dominate because it’s the only culture that embraces creative destruction. It’s no accident that lights, FM radio, TV, induction motors, airplanes, nuclear bombs, telephones, cellphones, the internet, e-commerce– basically the modern world was invented in America. Most countries value stability, we don’t. Our culture is pretty unique in it frantic quest to change everything– to hell with all the displaced old folks we say. This isn’t going to change and that means to big innovations will continue to start in America which gives us the bulk of the new wealth generated from these innovations.

    • While there is no doubt that the US will maintain it’s influence, it won’t be to the same degree as in the 20th century. And we are no more immune to global warming than any other country. Manhattan could be under water in the future.

      And while the Chinese spoken language is unlikely to replace English, written Chinese has the potential to become prominent as a universal written language. More and more people are learning Chinese characters.

      And finally, the Powers That Be seem more intent on making us Third World, and income disparity has the potential to limit creativity. Ever notice that “Yankee ingenuity” has taken a nosedive accept for certain electronic gagets (which are made in China, btw)?

  4. >One thing’s for sure: we can’t vote our way out of this problem

    Completely and utterly wrong. If “progressives” would grow up, show some patience and frustration tolerance and generally pull their (collective) head out of their (collective) ass with regards to an election strategy which would actually GET them what they claim to want eventually instead of making it MUCH, MUCH harder to do so…

    …well lets just say I guarantee we could reverse the gains that the right has made over the past 40 years inside of a generation and accomplish every progressive goal inside of two.

    But CrazyH is right- it’s not gonna happen. “Progressives” have made it repeatedly and perfectly clear that they would rather remain entrenched in their delusions about how the world works and pay lip service to the goals they claim to want then give up their delusions and do the hard work and make the necessary compromises in order to actually achieve those goals.

    • > they would rather remain entrenched in their delusions about how the world works …

      True dat. Then again, it’s also true about the “Conservatives”.

      I suspect that delusions are a survival trait. If Alley Oop had spent too much time worrying about sabre tooth tigers and Tyrannosaurus Reges, he’d never have left his cave.

    • The Idiot Whimsical, right on time. As usual, the Idiot is a broken record. You’d think someone so dogmatic in their thinking would get a clue, but no dice — and that’s a scary thing.

      As per Ted’s column, one only need know that a Democrat named Bill Clinton signed a trade deal call NAFTA (even the Idiot Whimsical may have heard of it) that resulted in millions and millions of lost working class jobs, gone forever.

      But The Idiot Whimsical still thinks that progressives are the problem, and that they should just be good little boys and girls and vote Democrat — and just wait for nirvana. As the NAFTA results show, people like Whimsical are incredibly dangerous. Progressives are not the problem, morons like Idiot Whimsical are.

      The REAL question is: When will progressives deal with enablers like Idiot Whimsical as they SHOULD be dealt with? The clock is ticking …

      • Silly silly plant- you’re going to attempt to claim that Clinton- the inevitable result of 20 years of the left’s “stuck on stupid” election strategy somehow negates rather than proves my point!?! LOL

        *pats you on the head*

        That’s a new low in gibberish and idiotic argument, even for you.

    • @Whimsical

      Since you are not anywhere near “progressive” or “leftist” in your political philosophy, it shouldn’t matter to you either way.

      • LOL.

        Since I am clearly and demonstrably the most progressive voice on this blog (in large part because I actually believe in celebrating progress) I can only conclude that your Vitis vinifera are rancid.

      • @Whimsical

        ROTFLMAOWTFBBQ. Ted is undeniably the most progressive voice on this blog.

        You’re always preaching “keep doing what we’re already doing.” The proper word for that is, “Conservative.”

        You repeat the same actions over & over again while expecting different results. There’s a word for that, too.

    • @CrazyH-

      You are confused. It is Ted who advocates doing the same failed thing over and over again and expecting different results- in other words- to keep on doing what the left has been doing over and over again for the past 40 years- abandoning and bashing the Democrats for not delivering the impossible immediately.

      This is directly responsible for the Democratic party moving hard right and the worsening of every problem Ted and other “progressives” like him claim to care about.

      Doing things Ted’s way has been proven over the past 40 years to retard progress- as evidence by the continual worsening of -well, just about everything over that time span. Doing things MY way will result in a slow return of the Democrats to the left and progress will slowly and steadily be made.

      Ted’s way impedes progress, mine accelerates it- ergo, I am more progressive than Ted.

      • > Doing things Ted’s way has been proven over the past 40 years to retard progress.

        Wait … what?! So far as I recall from my grade school history class, revolution hasn’t been tried for 238 years, let alone the last 40.

        OTOH, during those last 40 years, the democrats have been voting for gradual change, just like you advocate.

        A Leader, For a Change – Jimmy Carter, 1976

        “America Needs a Change” – Walter Mondale, 1984.

        “Keep Hope Alive” – Jesse Jackson, 1988

        “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” – Bill Clinton, 1992

        “Prosperity and Progress” – Al Gore, 2000

        “Hope … Change … blah…. blah … blah” – Barack Obama, 2008

        “How’s that been working out for you?” – Dr. Phil, day before yesterday.

      • @CrazyH

        You’re mistaken on both counts.

        First, Ted isn’t advocating revolution. Oh, he believes that it’s necessary, and that it won’t be successful unless its violent, but I’m a fairly regular reader and I don’t recall a single time Ted has called for people to pick up arms and turn on the government.

        The things I’ve seen Ted actually advocate- abandoning the Democrats, spreading lies about them, bashing them for things which are clearly not their fault, demanding things that no one could achieve- these are the things that both drive the Democratic party hard right and guarantee Republicans win elections. And the consequence of that is to retard progress on every issue Ted and those like him claim to care about. As far as I am concerned, you simply cannot be a progressive while at the same time retarding progress.

        No, the only person actually advocating for revolution on this blog is the plant and he/she (the persona is classic cranky old male, but that could just be clever writing) is only doing so at the behest of their right wing masters- but that’s another topic altogether

        Second- the people are clearly NOT voting for gradual change. They are voting for immediate, impossible, transformation and viciously turning on their politicians when the impossible is not delivered immediately.

        Which is why- if you factor out the people who ran in elections immediately after the Republicans fucked things up so badly we could’ve run literal houseplants and still won- everybody on your list lost.

        If “progressives” like Ted actually had the level of patience and frustration tolerance that my four year old niece possesses, and actually believed in slow and steady incremental change (or, y’know, to put it in other words-progress) that would have been a very different list.

        And we’d live in a very different world.

  5. Russia celebrated its victory over Germany in WWII today.

    Is it likely that Germany will do the dirty work of invading Russia again, this time in the guise of the EU, and at the urging of the US? There are some dumb punks running the US now but they must really be stupid if they think they can twist Germany’s arm into bleeding massively into Russian soil again.

    Germany resisted invading Iraq when punk Bush was running the show and I doubt Obama, AKA Bush 4, will even do as well. Germany has laws against overt support of the Nazi types invading Kiev and I don’t think they would want to embolden these fringes within their own borders.

    The naive stupidity from the bottom has percolated all the way to the top in this latest phase of US decline.

  6. > there’s only one world and the U.S. is being forced to share its stuff.

    Bingo, we can either share nice with others or they will come & take it from us. Many folks tend to forget that we’ve got 5% of the world’s population and 70% of its wealth. That’s nineteen of them for every one of us. (imagine nineteen people coming after you with pitchforks; even if you’ve got a 40 round clip in your Glock, you’re going down.)

    Ultimately, redistribution is a good thing for the planet; even though it’ll be painful for all us murikans in the short term. Of course, if we could just pry the goodies out of hands of the furschlugginer plutocrats, we’d have more than enough for everyone to have an above-average income.

    > we can’t vote our way out of this problem.

    Well, we could Theoretically. Maybe. If everyone would just turn off the TV and start using their brains…

    :: sigh ::

    …not gonna happen.

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