The Decline of America Reconsidered

James Fallows published an interesting essay in the January/February 2010 Atlantic on “How America Can Rise Again.” I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read on the American penchant for declension narratives. He points out that Americans have been engaging in jeremiads about the decline of the nation since before there was a nation. The Puritans were complaining about the lost golden age of the colonies just six years after landing in the New World. So from the historical perspective there’s nothing new under the sun. To bolster this argument Fallows mentions The American Jeremiad by Sacvan Bercovitch (another book for the to be read pile).

On the positive side of the ledger Fallows puts America’s openness to immigrants and our schools.

“We scream about our problems, but as long as we have the immigrants, and the universities, we’ll be fine,” James McGregor, an American businessman and author who has lived in China for years, told me. “I just wish we could put LoJacks on the foreign students to be sure they stay.” While, indeed, the United States benefits most when the best foreign students pursue their careers here, we come out ahead even if they depart, since they take American contacts and styles of thought with them. Shirley Tilghman, a research biologist who is now the president of Princeton, made a similar point more circumspectly. “U.S. higher education has essentially been our innovation engine,” she told me. “I still do not see the overall model for higher education anywhere else that is better than the model we have in the United States, even with all its challenges at the moment.” Laura Tyson, an economist who has been dean of the business schools at UC Berkeley and the University of London, said, “It can’t be a coincidence that so many innovative companies are located where they are”—in California, Boston, and other university centers. “There is not another country’s system that does as well—although others are trying aggressively to catch up.”

The main problem he sees in contemporary America is public-private partnerships or the lack of them. There are major problems that need to be addressed: jobs, debt, military strength, and overall economic independence. What will happen if America is no longer the wealthiest nation on the planet or the consumer of last resort? We could address these problems but there is no sign that the political infrastructure is up to the task.

That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.” When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and again that America needed “a government as good as its people.” Knowing Carter’s sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was actually a sly barb—and that the imperfect American public had generally ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 911 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

He goes on to cite another interesting book by Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations. According to Olson special interest groups gain power over time in any governmental system and eventually they nibble away at the public institutions that were once capable of coping with our problems. Fallows concludes that the only way forward is to muddle through as best we can with the gangrenous system.