Political, demographic and diplomatic changes in the U.S. during the past decades suggest the country will probably continue to be polarized into Democrat and Republican extremes, and the superpower will probably continue to rely on immigrants for economic growth and will likely play the global policeman role to a lesser extent, five academic researchers said at a symposium in Tokyo.

The five, from different academic backgrounds, each explained the trends in the U.S. in the past decades and tried to predict the future while pointing out some uncertainties, such as the global economy, and changes in the political situations in Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world.

The five scholars were guest speakers at the symposium, titled “Destination of the U.S.; predicting what the U.S. shapes up to be in 10 years,” organized by the Keizai Koho Center on Nov. 1.

Political polarization

The first speaker, Shigeo Hirano, an associate professor of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, started off by saying, “U.S. politics today appears very polarized,” in his presentation, “Polarization in U.S. Politics.”

The polarization is evident from the conflict in Congress in October, with politicians split along party lines over the national budget, which includes a huge health-care spending plan. The conflict resulted in a partial government shutdown and the U.S. came close to defaulting on its government debts.

Political polarization in large part contributed to the difficult situation, which was eventually resolved by a compromise by members of Congress.

Hirano brought up a study showing the results of roll call voting behavior in Congress in the past.

“According to the study, Congress is even more polarized than the polarized Congresses in the late 19th and early 20th century,” he said.

He showed graphs of Republican and Democratic roll call voting in Congress in 1960, 1990 and 2010. The graphs evidently showed Congress was most polarized in 2010, the second most in 1990 and the least in 1960.

Another graph shows the degree of polarization dropped rapidly around 1930, coinciding with the global struggle during the aftermath of the Great Depression, and it began surging sharply around 1980, coinciding with the inauguration of the Ronald Reagan administration and has continued the trend ever since.

Although Congress appears to have become more polarized, the American public in general has remained relatively moderate during the same period, he said. A majority of respondents to surveys by the American National Elections Studies between 1972 and 2008 consider themselves moderates, or only slightly liberal or conservative.

However, those respondents who self-identify as Republican or Democrat do appear to have become slightly more conservative or liberal during this same period. This sorting among Democrats and Republicans could be contributing to the polarization or may be a consequence of the polarization, he said.

Some scholars have pointed out factors for the polarization trend, which are: gerrymandering, primary elections and money politics.

Gerrymandering means manipulation of district boundaries, conducted by political parties for their advantage in elections. Gerrymandering and primary elections make it easy for candidates with extreme political views to win elections, scholars argue. With so much money in politics, politicians tend to bend their political beliefs toward individual donors.

The media’s sensationalism and inequality in voters’ wealth also contribute to polarization, some scholars say.

Hirano stressed, though, there is little direct evidence that these are contributing to polarization and much empirical research needs to be done.

“Regarding the future of polarization, the trends and factors believed to contribute to polarization would suggest that polarization is not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Still, uncertainties remain. There may be some changes in the system aimed at reducing polarization as general discontent with the situation grows. There might be some intraparty conflicts that may change the landscape of the U.S. political party system. Increases in the Latino populations in Republican states may contribute to the changes as well, he said.

Immigration policy

Pia Orrenius, assistant vice president and senior economist of the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, made a presentation on “The U.S. Economy and Prospects for Immigration Reform.”

The U.S. economy is supported by immigrants to a certain degree. Immigration policy changes result from workforce needs, Orrenius said.

The U.S. economy recovered in 2013 to a level higher than the peak before 2008 when the global recession began while employment, which has been steadily showing a moderate recovery, hasn’t reached the pre-2008 peak, graphs in her presentation showed.

While the economy returns to normalcy from the devastating recession, triggered by the subprime loan crisis and accelerated by the European sovereign debt crisis, several reform plans are being discussed, including health care, tax reform and trade agreements. Immigration policy should be one such reform to boost the economy further, she said.

In explaining why immigration reform matters to the U.S. economy, she said, “the U.S. is basically a country of immigrants.”

“Immigration is important to economic growth, innovation and competitiveness. Foreign-born workers fill gaps in growing labor demand and a changing native labor force,” she said.

Immigration adds workers in the low end and high end in the U.S., meaning immigrants supply high-skilled and low-skilled labor, but not medium-skilled labor.

In low-skilled labor, foreign-born workers accounted for 50 percent of those who have not completed high school in 2012, up sharply from only 8 percent in 1960.

In high-skilled labor, the percentage of those with college or higher degrees rose to 16 percent in 2012 from 6 percent in 1960.

Citing a 2011 American Community Survey, Orrenius said about half of medical scientists and 40 percent of computer software developers in the U.S. are foreign-born, compared with 16.4 percent, the percentage of foreign-born college graduates in any field.

Meanwhile, labor supply from high- and low-skilled native workers has declined as society ages, women’s participation has peaked and is retreating, and the number of working students has declined, she said.

While immigration is helping the U.S. economy, there is room for immigration policy to improve.

“Many say the immigration system is broken and I echo that statement,” she said.

The U.S. can increase the number of high-skilled immigrants by policy reform. Currently, green cards, equivalent to permanent resident certificates, go mostly to families, rather than workers, due to the humanitarian focus of the system. Orrenius did not say that’s a bad thing but proposed immigration policy can focus more on work skills.

Other problems include the insufficiency of the work-visa quota, the rise of illegal immigrants and the long wait facing legal immigrants wanting to get permanent residency.

In the future, there should be more employment-based immigration with higher quotas, more electronic verification so that employers can check the visa status of immigrant workers, more border enforcement and legalization for illegal immigrants, she said.

Family matters

Phillip Smith, director of the Center for Cultural Sociology, Institute for Social Policy Studies, Yale University, discussed demographic changes in the U.S. in his presentation, “Predicting the U.S.A. in 2025: Social and Cultural Trends.”

The U.S. is a diverse country with non-Hispanic whites accounting for 63 percent, Hispanics 15 percent, Africans 12 percent and Asians 4 percent of the population. Diversity will definitely increase in the future, Smith said.

Consequently, interracial marriage will also increase from the current 15 percent of all marriages in the U.S.

Also, the rate of marriage in the U.S. has been declining over the last 50 years, a problem mirrored by Japan.

Needless to say, female workforce participation has also increased in past years. He pointed out that about 40 percent of households have a woman as the main breadwinner, many of whom are single parents.

But the level of female participation varies in different industries.

“Some fields are traditionally male-dominant, such as mining and engineering. Silicon Valley also has a relatively high level of sexism,” he said. “The law and medicine, meanwhile, are the fields with female strength.”

In conclusion, Smith said we must “pay attention to Latinos, women and older people.”

“Those groups will have growing purchasing power and wealth. Patriarchal America is starting to slip away,” he said.

End of global police?

Erik Snowberg, a professor of economics and political science of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at California Institute of Technology, made a presentation titled “The U.S. is not an Island,” in which he discussed the relative decline of the power of the U.S.

“The reason I chose this title is that it’s difficult to think about the U.S. by thinking about only the U.S.,” he said.

Snowberg showed a graph indicating the correlation between food prices and unrest in the world. It shows unrest takes place when the Food Price Index is high and the timing of unrest is more focused than dispersed. The unrest took place around 2008 and 2011 while the world hardly saw any unrest in 2009 and 2010.

“What this means is that it will be too expensive for the U.S. to be the world’s policeman because there will be so many countries that need our attention in a short period of time,” he said.

Snowberg said the U.S. government is somewhat aware of these patterns and budget deficits continue to put pressure on military spending. Also, he said recent interventions, such as Iraq, have not gone well.

“Therefore, I suspect military spending will decline as a share of GDP,” he said.

“This does not mean the U.S. will abandon its old allies. In fact, this may be a good time to strengthen ties with old allies, such as Britain and Japan,” he added.

On the economic front, because the U.S. wants to be No. 1 in everything, the U.S. sometimes goes too far, he said. For example, the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 stemmed from banking deregulation, which was implemented with the intention that the U.S. wants to win in global competition. But it hurt the global economy as well as the U.S., he said.

“Sometimes it’s OK to lose. That means it’s a healthy competition. But the U.S. will not give up on being No. 1 in everything, which is bad for the U.S. because there is less competition,” he said, adding that the U.S. will continue to create “false” competition to try to win the economic game.

U.S. grand strategy

Kelly Greenhill, an associate professor and research fellow, Tufts and Harvard universities, outlined the U.S. grand strategy on power politics in her presentation, “The U.S. in the World in 2025: the Future of U.S. Grand Strategy and its Implications for East Asia.”

She presented four categories by different levels of commitment to intervene in other countries to secure global order and the U.S. position as the world’s superpower.

Those four categories are “Neo-isolationism,” “Selective engagement (Restraint),” “Liberal internationalism (Deep engagement)” and “Primacy.” Neo-isolationism is the state of being the most indifferent about anything; U.S. Selective engagement means intervening only when there will otherwise be negative concrete results; and in liberal internationalism the goal is to maintain order globally. Primacy, the opposite extreme to neo-isolationism, is to prevent competition from emerging.

“The U.S. grand strategy today is straddling primacy and liberal internationalism,” Greenhill said.

U.S. forces are facing operational shifts as they increase the use of covert operations, and reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles and standoff weaponry. They have heightened focus on cybersecurity and reduced military deployments overseas.

Greenhill showed a slide indicating Department of Defense budgets will continue to drop from 2010 to 2024.

These operational shifts suggest scaling back military forces while the focus on East Asia has increased and will increase, she said. East Asia and the Pacific, except for Korea, accounted for 15 percent of the U.S. military’s overseas personnel strength in March 2009, and the percentage has risen to 30 percent in September 2012, she said, citing the U.S. Department of Defense.

“We are deeply committed to East Asia,” she said.

However, scaling back military forces does not mean a change in the “grand strategy.”

The redistribution of some military forces and the tightening of the defense budget will happen, maybe even some disengagement, but people in the primacy and liberal internationalism categories are likely to persist.

And after all, “we will continue the same grand strategy because we are still rich. We have powerful, sophisticated weapons and strong allies,” she said.

Lesson for Japan

After each presentation, Fumiko Nishizaki, a University of Tokyo professor, moderated a Q&A session.

She asked if there are any benefits to polarization. Hirano said giving voters a clear choice is the benefit.

The audience also asked some questions, including whether Japan can learn anything from U.S. immigration policies.

Orrenius said in response that Japan should learn how the U.S. makes it easy for immigrants.

“The U.S. makes it easy for immigrants to enter the labor market. For example, they don’t even have to know English because they can learn on the job,” she said. “If you put language as a criteria or commitment to stay in Japan for good, very few immigrants want to come to Japan.”

Also she mentioned that the U.S. gives citizenship automatically to babies who are born in the U.S.

On collective defense, which the Japanese government is currently discussing, Greenhill said she welcomes it and is very sympathetic with the move toward collective defense, given the current trend.

Asked what economic impact can be expected from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Orrenius said that what happened to Atlanta will happen to Tokyo. Atlanta was a homogenous city and the economy was slow, but lots of people moved there and visited the city, which hosted the games in 1996.

Meanwhile, Smith warned that what happened to Athens, which hosted the 2004 Games, may happen to Japan. Money spent on the games in Athens piled up as a financial burden, leading to the sovereign debt crisis. He said it may be wise for Japan to earmark money for social security, instead of spending massive amounts on the games.

Snowberg agreed with Orrenius as tourism will see a boom as it did in other cities that hosted the Olympics.

“If you are looking for something to take advantage of, I think it’s openness and hospitality. The world will appreciate it and it is beneficial to Japan,” he said.