America in Decline? Don’t Bet on It

“Americans have been dreaming since our national birth,” H.W. Brands writes to start his new book, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945.

“Americans in 2010 were collectively less confident than their grandparents had been in 1945 that reality would favor their dreams,” he acknowledges a few paragraphs later, because “the world was catching up to America, and the bill for all the previous dreaming was coming due.”

“But,” he reassures us in concluding his two-page Preface, “the moral foundation of America’s dreams had always been the right to dream, and Americans were not about to surrender that.”

These days, however, others seem less sure about the endurance of American optimism. Over the last week, leading commentators and their newspapers have described an America that’s unsure of its ability to perform and to prosper.

Specifically, they see an America with an economy that’s too weak to create enough jobs for its people, an educational system that cannot teach its children, and a leadership that cannot meet its challenges.

“The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote.

“This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.”

“The country I was born into,” she continued, “was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought – wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances – that their children would have better lives than they did… They’ll be richer or more educated, they’ll have a better job or a better house, they’ll take a step up in terms of rank, class or status…

“Parents now fear something has stopped,” she went on, “…they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes – too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it – will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up.”

In its news pages, the New York Times focused on what Wall Street officials, academics, and TV commentators have come to call the “new normal” – in which the economy grows too slowly to reduce unemployment, stocks and bonds “yield paltry returns,” and the biggest victim becomes “the optimism that’s been at the root of American success for decades, if not centuries.”

New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman painted a broad picture of American impotence, telling us that, in a nation that once invested proudly in its human and physical capital, communities are turning off street lights to save money, cities are breaking up streets that they can no longer afford to pave and returning them to gravel, and school districts are firing teachers or shortening the school year.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson, who has relentlessly urged policymakers to address the nation’s spiraling budget deficits, nevertheless warned that they must be do it the right way or suffer the consequences. He noted that current budget policies “punish parents, who are taxed heavily to support the elderly” while providing only “modest” tax breaks for children.” If future deficit reduction “aggravates these biases,” Samuelson said, “more Americans may choose not to have children or to have fewer children. Down that path lies economic decline.”

To be sure, the arguments of our commentators are compelling, as are the “facts on the grounds” to which they allude. Lest we accept their grim prognoses, however, we might want to remember something.

Predictions of American decline are, quite literally, as old as the nation itself. For as long as there has been an America, there have been prognosticators to forecast that its best days have come and gone.

Europeans expected the new nation to fail. Americans then viewed their struggles in the War of 1812 ominously. Later in the 19th Century, Americans fretted about the long-term impact of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Panic of 1873, and the economic transition from farming to manufacturing.

Not even America’s emergence as the world’s dominant power after World War II could stop declinism from rearing its head. Mao’s takeover of China, the U.S. stand-off in Korea, and the Soviet launch of Sputnik – among other U.S. setbacks – ignited claims that America had lost the Cold War almost before it began.

The 1970s brought another bout of declinism. This time, it was America’s defeat in Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis, Soviet and Cuban adventurism in Africa, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that fueled the prophets of doom.

Then came the last decade, with the U.S. struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, China’s rise, and Russia’s resurgence each raising questions about America’s continued dominance of world events. The recent global economic crisis, which raised questions about the staying power of U.S.-led free market capitalism, only provided further ammunition for the most recent prophets of American decline.

So, we have seen this movie before. For over two centuries, we have witnessed hot wars and weak economies, surging deficits and soaring social problems, urban unrest and communal decay – and they have each shaken our collective confidence.

But, facing each hurdle, we have always found a way to jump just a bit higher. We have prevailed at war, rebuilt our economy, re-balanced our budget, and surmounted our social problems.

Yes, we again live in troubled times. We have no shortage of challenges at home and abroad. And we could, in fact, stumble into long-term decline, with a weaker economy and a less prosperous future, if we do not act wisely.

But decline is hardly inevitable, and it is surely avoidable. We retain the capacity to prevail once more.

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