As the political primaries attest, arguing declinism is just about the easiest and most tempting case to make in all of punditry, particularly in the wake of a serious financial crisis. As Stanford Business School's Edward Lazear offered up this week in The Wall Street Journal in a mashup of statistics and, to be kind, tortuous historical comparisons: "The Worst Economic Recovery in History." (In all of history? Since the advent of economic statistic-keeping? How do we know that the Babylonians or the Romans didn't suffer a similar slow recovery from some economic overreach? And how do you compare a recovery from, say, 70 years ago, with its much more precipitous drop and fundamentally different safety net, with today?) But there are far more nuanced and conventional arguments about declinism that struggle to rise above political tendentiousness. Alas, these arguments often suffer from many of the same underlying tendencies, notably to see in current woes, future decline.
In the Financial Times on Sunday, the paper's chief U.S. commentator, Edward Luce, offered up an essay that apparently paves the way for a new book with the cheerful title Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Descent. Luce's argument touches on all the usual declinism memes: the loss of manufacturing in the U.S., rising inequality, political polarization and policy paralysis, educational failures. Luce opens the piece in salubrious Gary, Ind., gestures toward the technological wonderland of Palo Alto, Calif., and goes on to argue that both poles of the American dream are in deep, deep trouble. In fact, just so we know exactly what he thinks, the headline on the essay is "America's Dream Unravels."
Is Luce wrong about any of this? Not necessarily, though like Lazear, his use of statistics can often be misleading, nearly always tilting toward the apocalyptic. All trends are arrows blinking red. And it's easy to find, scattered across his verging-on-dystopian landscape, any number of policies that are counterproductive at best, to idiotic and destructive at worse, like casino gambling or a Congress that can't get out of its own filibustering way. And Luce overlays this with the most conventional of big thoughts: the shift of economic power from West to East. Hello, China.
There are several reflexive responses to this Spenglarian gloomfest. There's every possibility that all, or part, of Luce's critique may come true. But then there's every possibility that all, or part, of this critique may represent a passing phase, a transition to something, if not better, then different. Luce claims powers of omniscience; but it's a kind of fortune-telling that American news magazines traditionally cranked out weekly (and that has since migrated to daily cable TV) and that emerges from a close reading of each other.
Take Gary, which Luce focuses on in the first part of his essay. Gary has been a staple of one form or other of American decline since, perhaps, the '60s: racial tensions, pollution, the decline of the inner city, the decline of manufacturing, the plight of the underclass, poverty. Yes, Gary is blight on the American landscape, just like Flint, Mich.; Detroit; New Orleans; Camden, N.J.; and many more. Has it gotten worse? Perhaps. Are the policies to fix it often absurd or desperate? Sure. But in historical terms, what does this mean? At the height of industrial America, say the '50s, when Gary was booming, you could have gone through the South and seen a racially divided society sunk in extreme poverty, particularly for blacks (it wasn't great for poor whites either), who were forced to escape by fleeing north to places like -- well, Gary. Could you have anticipated the rise of a New South (still with considerable impoverishment) based on what you saw in Alabama or Mississippi in 1954? Could you have anticipated what Silicon Valley would become in 1950? Could anyone have anticipated the changes that took place in New England in the depths of the oil crises and working-class breakdowns of the '70s?
Luce's best argument is that American economic market share will decline over time. This is probably indisputable -- at least for now. But whether that relative decline suggests an unraveling of the American dream is arguable. After all, the American economic and military dominance that Luce seems to believe is necessary for American happiness and prosperity really only came after World War II and was partially the result of the destruction of war around the world. America has been shedding economic dominance for decades: First Europe recovered, then Japan, then Singapore and South Korea, now the BRICs, led by China. Certainly, it may be accelerating, and yes, we ignored it mostly while confronting the Soviet Union. And true, this "decline" in share is not always smooth, though it is a powerful trend over time, much like economic growth generally.
The world is becoming increasingly multipolar, not unlike the late 19th century. This is not outside the American experience. There was no American dominance throughout the 19th century, when the seeds of the American dream were planted (albeit fertilized by a vast, empty and rich land, which no longer exists in quite the same way, although as even Luce says, America remains a very big and diverse place); and even when the U.S. began to supplant Great Britain early in the 20th century as the world's largest economy, it remained predominately isolationist. All this is to suggest that the bipartisan internationalism of the Cold War and recent post-Cold War isn't inevitably part of the American makeup. To many on left and right, the underlying allure of American identity is a kind of spiritual (if often secular) exceptionalism -- democracy, opportunity and reinvention -- not the ability to police the world.
The U.S. isn't necessarily facing the decline of Great Britain, the mental homeland (with Rome) of every serious declinist. But in fact, even Great Britain was often perceived to be in "decline" for well over a century before two devastating 20th century wars and the loss of its empire in the '50s truly brought that prediction home. Great Britain appeared in decline with the loss of the American colonies in the late 18th century; with the rise of Napoleon; with the emergence of unified Germany under Bismarck. Particularly in the years before and after the fall of Napoleon, with farmers driven from the land to Blake's Satanic mills, with first the Luddites rampaging, then the Chartists gathering, with British cities, notably London, sinkholes of desperate and seemingly ineradicable poverty, and with British political institutions dominated by dim hereditary monarchs and aristocratic Whig and Tory magnates, any reasonable person might have said: Decline is upon us. But the glory years were still ahead. Politics were reformed. Industrialism drove growth. And eventually the cities were cleaned up, the most egregious poverty tackled, and Britain prospered.
Again, Luce in his diagnosis of the current situation is not necessarily wrong. But he (well, no one) has any real purchase on the wayward path of the future. Nearly all we can say is that present opinions about the current situation will prove to be wrong, for good or ill; and that the future unfolds in complex cyclical patterns, not from rulers applied to current trends. There are many trends, visible and invisible, and many futures.
Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.
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