America is Not in Decline

Is America in decline?

This begets another question : in comparison to whom?  For all the talk of American decline (a particularly prominent theme in an election year) and Fareed Zakaria’s constant reminders of how America is losing its edge, the truth of the matter is this is hardly the case. Believing the U.S. has fallen from grace is one of America’s favorite pastimes. Every American generation broadly laments the decline of the U.S. This debate is the perfect opportunity to provide some much needed perspective.

In the 1980s, the talking heads were heralding the arrival of Japan and its expected usurpation of the U.S. as a global economic superpower. The authors ringing the alarms in the 1980s are the same ones beating the tired drum of American decline today. Today’s “declinlism” is eerily close to that of the 1980s, with commentators often pointing to the same metrics: military spending, infrastructure, and national debt (to name but three). 

Defense spending accounts for less than 5% of its gross GDP – historically among the lowest levels in the post-World War II world. And now, with military cuts pending and a shift away from the “two-war” posturing, the U.S. can hardly be accused of being overstretched. Yes, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were (and are) costly. Yes, taking the cost of veterans’ affairs into account adds to this even more. But military overstretch? With technology, the government can now do more with less and is able to spend, as a percentage of GDP, less than it ever has before without sacrificing hard power capabilities. And in comparison to entitlements, defense is a drop in the bucket.

Can the U.S. infrastructure use some fine tuning? Certainly. Does that mean it is a crumbling mess on the verge of collapse? Hardly. 

Charles Lane does this more justice than I can in a paragraph, but suffice it to say the U.S. can fix all that ails it with a modest investment. For instance, rather than spending 2% of GDP on infrastructure, go back to spending 4%. That’s an arbitrary number – maybe 3% is enough; maybe it would take 5%. The point is, the U.S. is not so far gone that it would take some colossal investment to bring it back up to its leading ways. There is nothing that indicates the nation is incapable of fixing what ails it.

Debt is an obvious problem and one that should not be easily dismissed. But America’s financial woes are largely the results of policies rather than an actual decline in economic output or capability.  Policies can be undone. The Reagan administration left the U.S. with large deficits. A tax increase started by George H. W. Bush and later expanded by Bill Clinton enabled Clinton to finish his second term with a budget surplus. The debate over whose policies are to blame for America’s current woes is for another post. Ultimately, the blame should fall on both parties, with a healthy dose left over for the American people themselves.  But the economy is slowly turning around. In 2011, the U.S. GDP as a percentage of the world’s total was 25% – China’s was 8%. If the U.S. was in actual decline, how is it able to maintain such a large share of global GDP for decades on end?  

Is the United States in a great place? No. But then again, who is? The point is, the country has been here before and, if history is any indicator, will be here again. The key is maintaining perspective.  None of the problems facing the country today are particularly unique. And, more importantly, none point to any real decline. You can pick out stats, but as a whole, America is not showing any signs of decline. It can be argued that in terms of international reputation, the nation is in decline. But like any popularity contest, opinions are finicky. In 2003 the world was worried about the U.S. being an unrestrained hyper-power. Today, we debate American decline. Ultimately, it is too soon to tell whether that will be a lasting trend or whether America can lead the world the way it has in the past. Bill Clinton said it best: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” American decline? I don’t think so.

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