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Amid the continuing trend of polarization into Democrat or Republican extremes, an increasing flow of immigrants and a waning, but still the strongest military presence, the U.S. will continue to be a superpower, but to a somewhat lesser extent, a group of academic experts recently concluded.

The four, one Japanese and three Americans, discussed the future of the U.S. in a symposium “Where is the U.S. going? — Pictures of the U.S. in 2025,” organized by the Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo on Nov. 21.

Current situation

The first speaker was Fumiaki Kubo, a professor in the Faculty of Law, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo. Kubo, who is also an A. Barton Professor of American Government and History talked about U.S. elections, politics and diplomacy.

The U.S. midterm election in November revealed the strength of the Republican Party, which commands a majority in the senate and holds the largest majority of seats in the history of the House of Representatives.

It is not uncommon for the president’s party to lose Congressional seats in midterm elections, but “the scale on which (the Democrats) lost was huge,” Kubo said.

If the Democrats win the presidential election in 2016, the standoff between the president and Congress will be bigger, he said.

In predicting which party will win the 2016 presidential election, Kubo said it will depend on whether voters feel the economy is in good shape as the incumbent party typically wins when the economy is brisk.

Kubo said the U.S. economy is “not so bad” now. Unemployment fell to 5.9 percent from the recent peak of 10 percent, stock prices have been going up and the GDP was good in the July-September period.

“But those strong economic figures don’t match American sentiment,” he said. “Everybody thinks the economy is bad now.”

A similar situation in 1992 gave the Democrats a victory. Despite a solid economy, people felt it was bad, allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to beat out the Republican candidate, he said. In 1996, as people felt the economy was good, they voted for the incumbent, giving Clinton a second term, he said.

He also said it is rare for the same party to win three consecutive presidential elections. Only Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush achieved that after Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman did so around the time of World War II.

Kubo also said that Americans are increasingly thinking the U.S. should not intervene in foreign conflicts, citing a recent poll that about 60 percent of Americans feel that way, with the exception of airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“U.S. public opinion will probably continue to be that the U.S. should not intervene in foreign conflicts because they are tired of recession and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

Polarization

The second speaker, Nolan McCarty, who chairs the Department of Politics at Princeton University, delivered a presentation titled “Three Trends that Define Modern America.”

The tree trends are: The ideological polarization of the party system, massive increases in economic inequality and social transformation brought about by large-scale immigration.

He showed graphs indicating polarization in Congress, which had been high between 1877 and the early 20th century, but fell through the 1940s during World War II and the turmoil immediately following the conflict. Since then, polarization has been steadily rising and it now hovers near its 1877 high.

He also presented a graph covering the period from 1947 to 2011 showing that economic inequality and polarization correlate.

“It’s remarkable how closely they track each other over the post-war period,” he said.

The correlation can be explained by, in part, difficulties facing the government in implementing measures to assist the poor with a polarized Congress.

Also, increased immigration leads to increased inequality as immigrants are typically low-skilled laborers. Unnaturalized immigrants have no voting rights, and thus increased immigration reduces potential opposition to conservative economic policies, resulting in an absence of public policies to reduce inequality, he added.

Additionally, increased inequality leads to increased immigration. Inequality creates demand for low-skilled workers by the wealthy, increasing the demand for immigrants, he said.

“So not only have the three trends I identified proven durable, but I believe them to be strongly linked,” he said. “It is hard to imagine the government will be able to address either immigration or inequality (with) the extensive partisan polarization, which centers on exactly these issues.”

In other words, reduction of polarization is essential to tackle the problems of inequality. However, McCarty is not optimistic as his picture of the U.S. in 2025 is more inequality and more immigrants. Reforms passed under the Obama administration may be scaled back or repealed should Republicans come to power and economic growth will stall as consumer demand drops on inequality, he said.

Immigration trend

The third speaker, Madeline Zavodny, a professor at Georgia’s Agnes Scott College, made a presentation titled “Immigration, Economics and Demographic Change in the U.S.”

She started off by saying, “The U.S. is a nation of immigrants.”

“Immigration has been central to the country for most of its history and it plays an important role in U.S. economic and population growth,” she said.

U.S. immigrants come from many countries, but they primarily from Mexico, which accounts for 29 percent. Asia accounts for 28 percent, Europe 12 percent, the Caribbean 9 percent, Central America 8 percent, South America 7 percent, Africa 4 percent and Canada 2 percent, according to her presentation.

The foreign-born population is large, but it isn’t a record high. It stood at 40 million, or 13 percent of the population, in 2010, compared with the peak of about 15 percent in 1910, she showed in a graph. The percentage generally fell from 1910 to a low of about 5 percent in 1970 and has been increasing since then.

In allocating green cards, family ties accounted for 66 percent, employment 14 percent and humanitarian 14 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to the presentation.

One of the outstanding characteristics of immigrant laborers is that they have either very low or very high skills. In terms of the ratio of foreign-born to U.S.-born share by educational breakdown, the category “High school or equivalent incomplete” is the highest, while the category “Ph.D.” is the second highest, followed by “Graduate degree,” “Bachelor’s degree,” “Completed high school, no college” and “Some college.”

“There is little evidence that immigration negatively affects most natives’ labor market outcomes,” she said. “However, the least-educated natives do appear to be hurt by immigration.”

Meanwhile, some groups clearly benefit from immigration, such as businesses that hire immigrants, consumers of immigrant-produced goods and services and complementary workers. Highly educated women may benefit the most, she said.

Also, immigrants are necessary as a driving force of U.S. economy. Immigrants account for 16 percent of the U.S. labor force and more than half of labor force growth in the last decade. Immigration helps offset declining labor force participation among U.S. natives.

In terms of demographic effects, immigrants have higher fertility rates than U.S. natives, contributing to the population of workers.

However, many Americans oppose immigration because of job-loss fears and declining incomes. Americans also fear immigration will change their cultural identity as some immigrants don’t assimilate or speak English well.

Zavodny said she expects no major changes to immigration policy any time soon, adding that strong economic growth is the best path to immigration reform, because concern about job loss are less worrisome if the economy is doing well, especially for the middle class.

Global leader?

The fourth speaker, Sarah Kreps, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University, delivered a presentation “The U.S.A. in 2025: End or Rebirth of the American Century?”

She began with graph showing U.S. military spending trends between 1988 and 2013, with the spending low being about $370 billion in 1999. Since then, it increased to about $700 billion in 2010 before dropping to about $600 billion in 2013.

U.S. defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been basically on a steady decline between 1952 and 2000, with a slight increase since then.

U.S. military spending as a percentage of the entire world’s spending has swung between about 34 percent and 41 percent, with a recent peak of slightly over 41 percent in 2010. It fell to around 36 percent in 2013.

“Military spending has been falling, but the U.S. still spends more than next 10 countries combined,” she said, adding that the gap between the U.S. and China has been narrowing.

Economically, Kreps showed a sensational article headline that read, “America usurped: China becomes world’s largest economy, putting USA in second place for the first time in 142 years,” as the International Monetary Fund released the estimate in October that China’s GDP, adjusted for the purchasing power of currency, will surpass the U.S. in 2014.

But Kreps is “not worried” because the U.S. economy is still much stronger than China by different economic indicators.

In real GDP terms, the U.S. overwhelmingly commands first place with $14.26 trillion, followed by Japan with $5.07 trillion and China with $4.52 trillion in 2014, according to her presentation. Chinese per capita GDP is far lower than that of the U.S., Japan, Germany and Russia, according to the presentation.

Considering public opinion in other countries, she said strong majorities oppose policies such as surveillance and drone strikes, but generally some 65 percent of countries hold a positive opinion of the U.S.

She showed a diagram of U.S. favorability by countries, which indicate Russia had the biggest drop of U.S. favorability, 28 percentage points, from 51 percent in 2013 to 23 percent in 2014, apparently due to economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. Uganda saw the second biggest drop in percentage points, with 11, followed by Brazil’s 8 and Senegal’s 7.

She also showed poll results indicating Americans are still, although to a lesser extent, willing to intervene in other countries’ conflicts.

“The bottom line is that the U.S. will continue to play a central role in the world,” she said.

Q&A

After the presentations, Kubo moderated a question and answer session, opening up with asking if there is a causal link between inequality and polarization.

McCarty said yes. Polarization undermines the government and thus the less fortunate do not receive help, he said. Also, about 13 percent of immigrants cannot vote and polarization has been increasing over the past 15 years.

Kubo also mentioned President Barack Obama’s executive actions to crack down on illegal immigrants at the border in November, and asked for Zavodny’s take on it.

She said Americans are confused about who illegal immigrants are. People generally think they entered illegally, but the fact is that most of them entered the U.S. legally and stayed illegally, she said. “So there is a lot of confusion and fear about them”

“The general agreement among politicians is the importance of reform in the immigration system. … Everybody thinks immigration policy is broken, but the problem is that people disagree on how to fix it,” she said, hinting that immigration policy continues to be a sensitive issue.

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