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America: Denial or Decline?

May 16, 2012, 5:27 PM

Is America going to hell? It certainly seems that way if you read about the "post- American" world and listen to the television news programs that eulogize America's position as the premier superpower. That is the reason why it was refreshing to read a reassuring article in Atlantic Magazine.

The writer, James Fallows, claims that if you look at the comforts and abundance of American life, even at a time of recession, you realize that America is still one of the best places in which to live. Even if America is supposedly in a decline, it still has a standard of living that is the envy of most of the world. The simplest measure of whether a culture is dominant is whether outsiders want to be part of it, he says. There are still plenty of people around the world for whom an American green card would be a dream come true. You don't see many people clamoring to immigrate to China or sneaking over the border illegally to work in Shanghai.

Nevertheless, It is entirely normal for great empires to believe that they can escape the vicissitudes of history, the normal graph of rise to power and then the subsequent decline. In their heyday Britain, France, Spain and Portugal believed that they were the exception to the rule and that they were exempt from the cycle of rise and decline. In each case the illusion faded along with the empire into the dustbin of the history.

So is America in denial or in decline? Fallows points out that there have always been periods during which it seemed that America was falling behind or falling apart --presidential resignations, assassinations, race riots, divisive wars, failing schools, failing industries, etc. In fact, America has a tradition of gloom and doom that goes all the way back to the first European colonists. Pick any decade in American history and you will notice the same cycle of despair and renewal that seems to be built into the American psyche, he says. There have been other periods when it seemed that America was falling behind, as, for example, with Sputnik when Nikita Khrushchev said "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side and we will bury you." Later, there were the Japanese, the Germans and now China that serve as standards whose achievements dramatize American decline.

Barack Obama, while he was still campaigning, put this feeling into words.

"The dream that so many generations fought for feels as if it's slowly slipping away, and most of all, we've lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it," he said during a campaign speech.

There are many reasons to believe in America's resilience, says a historian that Fallows interviewed. There is the good luck of geography and resources, the First Amendment's success in reducing religious friction, and the decentralization of power and culture. Racial relations, a major problem in American history, have never been better.

Fallows points out that China has about four times as many people as does America and that someday its economy will be larger. That is good for everyone because a business-minded China is likely to be more benign. Besides, China has plenty of reasons to worry about its own future. There is the issue of a looming environmental disaster due to the overly rapid development. Then there is the demographic legacy of the one-child policy, which will leave an aging population dependent on relatively fewer young workers. Politically, tensions between an open economy and a closed political system with constraints on free expression might cause instability.

America, he says, is likely to lead in the development of future industries and technologies that depend on a society that is flexible, open and inventive.

American society is perfectly positioned for such innovation. The American advantage depends on two pillars of American strength-continued openness to immigration and a continued concentration of excellent universities that people around the world wish to attend. Although there are troops of engineers and computer scientists marching out of Chinese universities, China lags behind in scientific discovery and technological innovation. Of the top 20 universities in the world ranked according to scientific research papers, 17 are American. Of the top 100 in the world, none are Chinese.

"What I've seen as I've looked at the rest of the world has generally made me more confident of America's future, rather than the reverse," writes Fallows. "What is obvious from outside the country is how exceptional it is in its powers of renewal: America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back."

Fallows doesn't ignore the problems facing America, which he sees mainly as a failing of the political system. He ends the article on a positive note.

"America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built towards the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s. During just the time when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside land for the national Parks, when Dwight Eisenhower created the Pentagon research agency that ultimately gave rise to the Internet, the American system seemed broken too. They worked within its flaws and limits, which made all the difference. That is the bravest and best choice for us now."

A new book that presents an ambitious program for retooling America is “That Used To Be Us” by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.

The two pick out four areas of policy in need of change: America’s response to globalization, the ongoing revolution in information technology, the country’s chronic indebtedness and its excessive reliance on imported environmentally toxic oil. Friedman and Mandelbaum present a prescription designed to enable America “to remain the global leader that we have been and that the world needs us to be. We, the authors of this book, don’t want simply to restore American solvency. We want to maintain American greatness.”

That remains to be seen.

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Shula Kopf
Sunshine Profits' Contributing Author

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