In a characteristically sassy column on October 11th, the New York Times' frequently forwarded columnist Maureen Dowd summed up the declinist mood currently sweeping the sushi-and Schopenhauer set. The piece, entitled "Are We Rome? Tu Betchus!," consisted mostly of a typical Dowdian flight-of-fancy: an extended riff in what might be called Pig Latin -- the tongue of the Ancient Romans rendered decipherable through neologisms like "Sabbatis Nocte Vivo" (Saturday Night Live), "supralupocidit" (aerial shooting of wolves), and "IV 0 I K" (401(k)) -- that attacks John McCain ("mavericus et veteranus captivusque Belli Francoindosinini") and Sarah Palin ("barracuda borealis") for the nasty vibe at their campaign rallies. The saucy redhead sets up her Ciceronian declamation with the glibly-expressed thesis -- and it's a popular one in salons from Bridgehampton to Brentwood -- that the current state of things proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that America's long overdue reckoning is at hand. The inexorable forces that punished the vanity and folly of the Ceasars are poised to sweep us away like Ozymandias.
A friend wrote to me a week or so ago to say that she felt happy every time the Dow plunged even though she knew that she and her family were losing money, if not directly, then through their pension and 401(k) plans or via the decline in value of their house. And this caused me to wonder: why do so many smart people see comeuppance around every corner? The familiar narrative of imperial overreach abroad and decadence at home seems too simplistic for inquiring minds but something about the idea of an all-inclusive apocalypse that punishes the current administration as well as those greedy hedge fund managers (who we're allowed to hate collectively, even if all the ones we've actually met all seem perfectly pleasant) has an irresistible appeal.
A psychiatrist -- and perhaps HuffPo's commenting class -- may be able to shed some light on why our intelligentsia has been openly pining for the end of the American Era for so long. For those of us who support Barack Obama, for example, it seems that our hope should be that, if he wins in November, he'll be inaugurated as the president of a country with a future, that is capable of great things, not an enfeebled dinosaur. If you believe as Maureen Dowd does, that an American Implosion is already well underway, then you probably ought to vote for John McCain, just so he winds up taking the blame.
Both candidates, of course, exhibit a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when they say that America is going to hell in a handbasket but that our best days lie ahead of us. The rationalization, which allows these contradictory facts to both be true, is at the essence of electoral politics: "elect me because I can lead us out of the deep, deep shit we're in." This year no one needs persuading that, well, things have been better. Remember those elections when our biggest problem was complacency? That seems like another country.
Still, despite recent events, the facts are not on the side of the fin de siecle coffee house crowd. In a friendly review of one declinist text, The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria, in Ms. Dowd's own paper, Josef Joffe, the editor and publisher of Germany's centrist weekly, Die Zeit, lays out the facts of the matter:
'The problem is size,' Zakaria writes. 'China operates on so large a scale that it can't help changing the nature of the game.' True, but let's play another game, that of compound interest. China's (nominal) G.D.P. is about $3 trillion, while America's is $14 trillion. Assume indefinite Chinese growth of 7 percent. That will double G.D.P. to $6 trillion in 10 years and double it again to $12 trillion by 2028. Assume now that the United States will grow at its historical rate of 3.5 percent. By 2028, G.D.P. will measure $28 trillion. This is a silly game, but no more inane than those projections that see China overtaking the United States as early as 2020. American output would still be about one-quarter of the world total, the average for the past 125 years, as Zakaria reminds us.
What about the shifting tides of power? In the affairs of nations, 'power' is more complex than in physics. The 'hard stuff' -- military clout -- is certainly central. China's defense budget may be the world's No. 2, but in dollar terms, America spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Hence, might -- at least American might -- doesn't just 'grow out of the barrel of a gun,' as Mao Zedong famously had it; 'it's the economy, stupid.'
Joffe goes on to highlight Zakaria's points that, when fairly counted America "actually trains more engineers per capita than either India or China does," that "the United States absolutely dominates higher education," and to remind us that "China, Japan and Europe are aging rapidly" while, thanks to immigration, "the United States will remain a young country way into the 21st century."
Still, the Times seems to have decided that Chicken Little will sell more newspapers than Chickens Fat, Dumb, and Happy.
The excellent David Leonhardt, also of the Times, wrote a column the same day as Dowd's Juvenalian juvenilia, which, judging by the headline, echoes her point. (And which gave her a run for the money in the Paper of Record's "Most Popular" sweepstakes.) The article, entitled "A Power that May Not Stay So Super" and illustrated with the sort of ironic photo (of the Prince of Wales on a tiger hunt in 1921) that makes Timesmen giggle, begins straightforwardly enough (if a little wanly) with a statistical measure of American pessimism and an obnoxious quote from the German finance minister. But about halfway through, something strange starts to happen and Leonhardt drifts into Oppositeland, laying out the case against decline so much more persuasively than the case for it, that he undermines his own headline.
Quoting the historian Niall Ferguson, Leonhardt points to the dramatic strengthening of the dollar as evidence that, although we may see ourselves as Rome with the barbarians at the gate, the "barbarians" didn't get the message and have been buying up our currency and T-bills at such a clip that the interest rate on the latter has shrunk to practically zero. Foreign investors trust our government so much, it turns out, that they will effectively pay it just to hang on to their money for them.
He cites the American economy's "durable flexibility" and American ingenuity as two bulwarks against calamity that have allowed American investors, though battered, to avoid the rout that has eviscerated economies overseas.
Leonhardt also takes up the question of, "if not us, then who?" When talking declinist smack, Pelligrino drinkers like to pontificate about the rise of India and China or sometimes Brazil or maybe the European Union. As Joffe points out, China's dominance is, mathematically at least, a long ways off and far from certain. Leonhardt reminds us of other declines more recent than that of Ancient Rome:
"This is not the first time in recent history that the economic position of the United States has appeared precarious. At various points between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, Europe and Japan each looked like the next great power. Neither turned out to be.
"Japan suffered through its own burst bubble and spent years denying the depth of its problems. Europe proved unable to create engines of growth that could match the software, biotechnology or entertainment industries in the United States."
Lately, Europe tut-tutted in Old World style about American naivete and extravagance through the first few weeks of the crisis. But as soon as their own highly-leveraged banks reached the tipping point and began to see-saw in the opposite direction, sure enough, they came scurrying for Uncle Sam's skirts. A notable exception to the Europeans, well, European behavior was Great Britain where Gordon Brown forced Hank Paulson's hand on the matter of direct capital infusions for banks. There's life in the old tiger hunters yet.
As for Russia, which La Dowd calls a "solvent superpower," guess again. The Russian economy has been plunged into Zimbabwean disarray ever since their sad little adventure in Georgia. After this supposed return to the world stage closed out of town, Russia's leaders were propelled on the classic Slavic psychological trajectory from swagger to self-pity in record time. Since then, the two principal Russian stock exchanges have become mired in slapstick farce worthy of the Marx Brothers, opening and closing will-nilly when the averages sink too precipitously or rise too abruptly. Say what you want about Wall Street but at least no one there ever suggested just turning off the lights, locking the door, and opening a bottle of vodka when the news was bad. (Although I'll admit that the ban on short-selling comes close.)
The piggish post-Soviet billionaire class, who never shared their wealth with the general public, thankfully never got around to sharing their risk with them either, meaning that, for once, Russia's peasants may be spared the brunt of the latest of their country's epic misfortunes. As for the nouveau riches, they are now nouveau tres, tres pauvres and, who knows, in a month or so it may again be possible to buy a decent house in Mayfair or Cap d'Antibes for less than $100 million.
(Beside Russia, the collapse in the price of oil has also given international irritants Venezuela and Iran a long overdue financial bitchslapping.)
Last week proved that the decoupling of world economies from the American economy supposedly underway for a decade now is a complete fraud. When we fall, others fall as well and often further. That's no reason to declare that the near-collapse of the global banking system is yet another American triumph but a slowing American economy does not present an opportunity for China or India or Russia to surpass us. It's a horrible, terrible disaster for them because a shrinking marketplace in the United States cannot be replaced elsewhere.
The truth is that we're stuck on top, the "default superpower" in Joffe's words, and "doomed to lead," as others have said. To put our status in Classical terms that Maureen Dowd might appreciate, sometimes we may command like Coriolanus, arrogantly and with disdain for the common horde, while other times we may behave more like Cincinnatus, who though no lover of the Plebeians either, did his duty for his fellow men when circumstances required it and then returned to till his fields and mind his own business until the next crisis.
Okay, so we all know some earnest multipolar dreamers, many of them still in high school, who fairly ask, "Why does any country have to be the most powerful and most important? Why do we need a boss nation with a group of henchmen and sidekicks telling everyone what to do? Can't we somehow do away with this language of dominance and find a better way"
Maybe you're ready to turn over the global steering wheel to the gentle people of Bhutan in a "Mouse that Roared" scenario, but I'm not there yet. To the student council crowd who might think that I'm missing a more basic possibility, that no one needs to be worldboss, I can only say that, like it or not, geopolitics is a power game and to the extent that countries behave themselves, it tends to be out of fear rather than good conscience.
So, if the reviled American hegemon is going to emerge from the current crisis bloodied but unbowed and still the toughest guy on the block, how might we all be the better for it? We will have a new president in just a short time, one with an unprecedented opportunity, now that the rest of the world has been forced to acknowledge how much they need American leadership, to use our unequalled power more effectively and for good. Add that to the plate of our new president: the prospect of redefining America in the eyes of the world in not just his first term but in the first year of his first term.
In the face of unimaginable technological revolutions, wars, nations and even human beings may become obsolete in a matter of time. But, for the moment, I can't see any sensible reason to begin carving our epitaph. I admit, it appeals to my vanity and sense of self-importance to believe, as Maureen Dowd and Sarah Palin do, that we are living in the End of Days; but the facts suggest that the American Century may very well give way to the American Millennium.