We knew this was coming. The American Century, after all, was the 20th. Things were bound to go downhill.
Like fourth-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. maintains its lead. Nevertheless, many Americans agree with the thesis of Marxist economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” that America’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 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 3. “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 Europe and Canada), and our crumbling infrastructure. China unveils its 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 percent of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99 percent of the American population. Exclude the top 1 percent, 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.”
U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech 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.”
The Atlantic’s James Fallows (age 64) addressed America’s long-standing 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 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 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 on 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, morally and economically. The question for us now is: 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.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer. © 2014 Ted Rall
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