Feature

Is America in Decline?

A preliminary inquiry. Contributions by W. James Antle III, John Bolton, Midge Decter, Stefan Halper, Matt Latimer, Seth Lipsky, David Malpass, William McGurn, and Jeremy Rabkin.

By From the May 2011 issue

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W. JAMES ANTLE III

At a low point in our experiment with nation-building in Iraq, longtime conservative columnist George Will identified what was missing. "Iraq is just three people away from democratic success," Will wrote. "Unfortunately, the three are George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall."

Needless to say, these three Founding Fathers cannot simply be transported to a new time and place. This is too bad, because America could once again use leaders of this caliber just as much as any fledgling democracy in the Middle East.

Consider: It took the federal government 200 years to produce its first $1 trillion budget. Washington now runs annual deficits twice as large, a scant 10 years after being in surplus. Social Security and Medicare are broke; Medicaid is having a similar effect on state budgets across the country. If left unreformed and unchecked, these entitlement programs will subsume the entire national GDP. Total federal unfunded liabilities stand at $88.6 trillion.

We have spent the better part of the last decade mired in two wars, conflicts longer in duration than World War II despite facing smaller and weaker enemies. Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has now entered us into a third. No less a hawk than David Frum concedes, "Three wars is a lot, even for the United States." The Middle East, a cauldron of terror-fueling resentments, is in a state of political upheaval.

The economy is weak, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent. Our leaders' solutions range from increasing the government spending that drives the looming debt crisis to expanding the money supply in an attempt to re-inflate the bubble. The latter is akin to downing a fifth of vodka in order to drown a hangover.

The culture is awash in the raw sewage of vulgarity and avarice. The family is shattered. The average American cannot articulate why marriage is not a unisex institution. One baby in three is born out of wedlock. Another million per year are snuffed out in the womb. We are bound by no common faith or culture. Mass immigration, much of it illegal, without accompanying assimilation may deprive us of a common language.

Our political leaders, many of them preening, squabbling, and petty, have proved inept at meeting these challenges. Once the Cold War seemed lost, yet we prevailed. Thus despair is premature. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States remains three people away from democratic success. The three are Washington, Madison, and Marshall.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.


JOHN BOLTON

Fulminating about America in decline is fashionable today across the political spectrum. Contemporary political commentators are seemingly rewarded for drawing the broadest possible conclusions from an ever-narrower range of data. Whatever the reason for the commentators' grandiose predictions of decline, their conclusions du jour, they are describing what can and should be understood simply as a unique civilization's momentary indigestion.

The international left and its U.S. acolytes welcome decline as long-overdue payback for our past sins, while many American conservatives see it as the inevitable consequence of decades of bad policy decisions. Both are wrong. There is no decline that can't be reversed by electing a real president in 2012 to unleash our country's vibrant political and economic strengths.

I acknowledge that, as they say, "mistakes were made," including under prior presidents, but the mistakes are not ultimately consequential if we can just get a grip on ourselves. Moreover, by comparing ourselves to the mistaken or exaggerated views of other nations' current performance and prospects, we simply increase a perception of decline that doesn't exist in fact.

Take the economy. Obviously, 2008 was a bad year, but the governmental policy mistakes that led to the recession (such as Fannie and Freddie) can be reversed, and so can the political mistakes that followed it (such as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill). Pointing to the continuing strength of China's economy and straight-lining it forever may suggest U.S. decline, but China's economy will not grow at its present rate forever. Internal political and social strains are already taking their toll, and we will find out relatively soon just how real China's economic statistics actually are, and how much is derived from imaginary government planning figures, a common problem of Communist regimes. And anyone who thinks Europe is prospering needs to respond honestly to the question of which country's government bonds they are really prepared to buy.

Similarly, regarding international geopolitics, observers cite Obama's indecisiveness, his deference to multilateral institutions and foreign governments, his incessant embarrassment about America, and his general lack of interest in national security. All too true, but hardly evidence of decline that an unapologetic U.S. president couldn't fix after 2012.

Americans still hold their fate in their hands, and there is no real reason to bet against us. We will once again confirm Churchill's observation that "you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else." 

John Bolton is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


MIDGE DECTER

It is hard to think of a moment when the government of the United States has behaved more absurdly than it is doing at the moment of this writing -- stupefied as it so clearly is by uprisings in the Arab world that, having failed to predict, it can neither identify with any degree of confidence nor figure out how to respond to. It certainly appears to be in a condition for which the word "decline" would be a fitting one. And yet I do not think the answer to The American Spectator's question is yes. The great Adam Smith, who once offered the observation that "there is a lot of ruin in a nation" may not have had in mind such a moment as the one we Americans are now living through -- even so large an understanding as his could perhaps not quite have accommodated it -- and I for one now take comfort in his reckoning. And having myself so often in the overheated days of my youth been prepared to apply the term "decline" to this or that national mishap or unconscionable behavior (the dreadful time that came to be known as "the 1960s" and our hatefully misbegotten exit from Vietnam being two leading examples), I am nowadays inclined to be behindhand with my use of so large and so definitive a term. What we are going through instead, it seems to me, is a kind of temporary payback (and may it be short-lived!) for what was a seizure of national foolishness: the idea that we could in one, or two, or maybe three, fell swoops buy our way out of the racial and economic and foreign policy messes in which we had for some time been immersing ourselves. In times, both nationally and internationally, when courage, clarity, and care were called for, the quick fix became king. Deal with a nuclear Iran? Debate in the UN and hope for the best. Too many of the sources of power and wealth had fallen into the bloodied hands of terrorists? Grow more corn, trap winds, and hand out prizes to those who declared that the issue was merely one of national greed. Too many among us are poor? Give them nice houses to live in. Too many of the country's racial problems are in too many places still festering? Elect a handsome, well-spoken, politically questionable, and totally inexperienced black man president.

And the result? With two foreign wars to finish, a foreign policy it is a joke even to call by that name. We leave East European allies naked to the nuclear weapons of the Russians. We halfheartedly, and with an unarticulated, let alone un-thought-through end in view, move in on uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East while we treat our one totally reliable ally in that God-forsaken region, namely Israel, with open hostility. As for the rest, we are at least soon to find ourselves having large -- and no doubt heated and ugly -- debates.

Thus we are not, I think, in decline. But we are certainly citizens of a country currently subject to the dumbest -- and almost certainly the most ignorant -- administration in living memory. 

Midge Decter's books include Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait; Liberal Parents, Radical Children; and An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War.


STEFAN HALPER

Americans, often a self-critical and aspiring lot, have feared the nation was "in decline" from the early 19th century -- and with great regularity, ever since. If it wasn't Sam Adams fretting about the brazen assault on morals from newly public theaters sprinkled around Boston, then it was the abolitionist Senator Sumner of Massachusetts rumbling that the "Peculiar Institution" debased the great American experiment in liberty and would bring us to ruin. In the last century F. Scott Fitzgerald's Oculist helped us worry about our moral fiber during the twenties while Steinbeck chronicled America's dust-blown desperation and yet Americans evinced a plucky determination to climb forward -- even in the darkest days of the Depression. Later, amidst fears that Communism would rob us of our postwar prosperity, the nation was jolted in 1957 by Sputnik -- left reeling with self-doubt; our leadership, our security, and our second-rate educational system were all in question.

But in crisis we have always found opportunity. Eisenhower used Sputnik to revamp American education. His investment in R&D closed the high-tech gap, allowing Neil Armstrong in 1969 to be the first man on the moon. Still, the prospect of American decline was ever present; Nixon in 1968 asked, with great effect, if people were better off than when Kennedy was elected in 1960...a refrain we heard again in 1980. And so even amidst our greatest achievements, we are riddled with doubt.

Pessimistic projections of declining technical prowess, educational and health standards, slow growth, various "happiness indexes" are all around us today. It is a continuing feature of American life that growth and progress proceed at uneven rates, and today globalization and "apples to oranges" statistical comparisons further distort perceptions. Comparing U.S. and Danish education achievement, for example, compares a small, homogeneous country, focused on its quality of life -- and a large, diverse, global leader, home to a million legal immigrants since 2000 and an unknown number of illegals, the majority of whom are impoverished and do not speak English.

There are reasons for concern, however. We are at a crossroads -- and America will become a lesser place if we don't act with effect. Embroiled in two "un-won wars" at the cost of $12.2 billion a month, we are denying needed education, health, housing, research and development, and infrastructure investment to America. We have a choice -- and have taken a step in the right direction with President Obama's careful position on the Libya crisis. We need not intervene unilaterally in such contingencies unless U.S. interests are directly threatened.

Acting with effect also means confronting a challenge posed today by the rise of authoritarian regimes -- Russia, China, and in the world beyond the West -- unseen since the Cold War. At stake is the continuing preeminence of democratic government, which sets the standard for today's global civic culture. Can it work? Yes. We must demonstrate, by example, that we can once again put our house in order, curb our debt and our military appetite -- the alternative is to follow Rome, Persia, and Great Britain. 

Stefan Halper is senior fellow at Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies and author of The Beijing Consensus.


MATT LATIMER

I have little patience for the America-is-doomed crowd. Hardly novel is the assertion; we've heard it since the republic's founding (a writer in 1775: "America has seen its best days") and in every decade since, often from our envious enemies (Nikita Khrushchev: "We will bury you"), and on occasion by our own dreary leaders (Jimmy Carter: "The only trend is downward").

Invariably statistics are citied to buttress the case; America ranks umpteenth in this, or at the bottom in that. But statistics are fun to play with, and those of us not reaching for our suicide capsules have our own. (America is the strongest military force in the world, our workforce remains comparably productive, our people prosperous; our population, in contrast to many other Western democracies, is growing.) There are less tangible measures, too -- people around the world look to America for help in disasters, millions apply every year to become U.S. citizens, our culture remains the touchstone for populations the world over. What free people, after all, ever say that they want their own countries to be just like Cuba? Or Sudan?

That said, there are number of things that a prudent populace must watch for if we hope to maintain our leadership role in a world with a rising China, a wealthy, expansionist Russia, a drifting Europe, and the ever present terrorist threat. We need to understand what has made America a resilient and powerful nation. We must maintain a strong, robust, and flexible military force that deploys its considerable power with patience and prudence. We must launch fiscal reforms so that our nation is not awash in debt. We must insist that younger generations are taught the core values of our Constitution -- among them the proper balance between the freedom of the individual and the needs of the state. Why should young people in other countries know more about how our system works than our own children do? We need to recognize the value of different cultures and traditions without our society while also working to make them part of our own.

Of course the America-is-failing routine will be very much in vogue over the next year, as Republicans seek a cudgel against President Obama. But Democrats offered the same charge against George W. Bush, to little avail. Our Founders spoiled us, creating a system of government that can survive even the most inept of administrations. As a Republican leader once said of America, "We have even lost, but we have lasted, and we have always come through." That is as true today it ever was. 

Matt Latimer is a bestselling author and former deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush.


SETH LIPSKY

The optimist in me resists the idea that America is in decline. My own view is that we are being poorly led in pursuit of change without vision. So we are in a terrible pickle. But there's no reason why this has to turn into an endless decline. The great lesson of the Reagan era is not only that America's decline could be turned around but that it could be turned around quickly and peacefully. What one needs is the right leader to bring in the right policies. In Reagan we found such a leader, one with an astonishing grasp of the possibilities and the savvy to move with assurance on every front.

He brought in supply-side fiscal measures while Chairman Volcker used the tools of the Fed in the battle against inflation. In the strategic realm, Reagan dispensed with the idea of containment and introduced the idea of rollback. He eschewed the strategy of mutually assured destruction and brought in, with Star Wars, the idea of strategic defense. He embraced, in his pro-growth agenda, both the pro-life movement and immigration. He declared for democracy in his first overseas speech, and he went up against the Soviets arm-in-arm with Big Labor and Solidarity, the Scoop Jackson Democrats, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and Pope John Paul II. He did it all while tippling with Tip O'Neill.

What a political lesson to inspirit a new generation. Its task will be to tease out the enduring principles. I like the idea being articulated this season of Constitutional Conservatism. It presents a broadly welcoming formula and, in the Constitution, a place to get ourselves grounded and a law around which to structure our policies. It places a premium on understanding the way the Founders limited the federal government by dividing and enumerating its powers and by reserving the rest to the states or to the people. It reminds us that the Constitution provides no rights -- it prohibits the government from abridging rights that were already given to all of us by our creator. All in all, it's a stronger formula than that being followed by any of our enemies. 

Seth Lipsky is founding editor of the New York Sun.


DAVID MALPASS

Though a great nation, we are making such deep policy mistakes that we are in decline. We've let our federal government borrow unlimited amounts just like failed kingdoms in the Renaissance. Spending wildly, the government decides which schooling techniques to approve, which energy resources to finance, and how many cents to charge for debit card usage.

We allow our central bank to operate with practically no boundaries on its size, budget, or dominance over financial markets. The Federal Reserve has chosen to become the primary financier of the federal debt, a clear and present danger to the republic. This is the institution that allowed the value of the dollar to shrink by 90 percent in the 1970s and another 75 percent under Presidents Bush and Obama, driving capital out of America.

Our global advantage in living standards has been squandered. Per capita income is stagnant in dollar terms and actually declining when measured in the more valuable monetary standards of China and Europe.

Putting aside our intense patriotism and pride, our global leadership in innovation, wealth, and clout is fading fast. We produce a small and declining fraction of the world's engineers. Our companies are moving assets and profits abroad at a rapid clip, leaving our jobs dependent on smarter policies elsewhere.

Our decline hasn't reached the point of no return -- the horrendous tipping point plaguing Europe's debtor nations. Vision and leadership can reverse our course, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

The Founding Fathers never dreamed the government they were creating could borrow and spend billions, much less trillions, of dollars -- if they'd known, they would have created strict financial straitjackets to protect the people. We have to force the government to drastically reduce its spending, now $3.7 trillion per year. And we need a permanent ceiling on the debt-to-GDP ratio, with escalating penalties on Washington for non-compliance.

The president or treasury secretary must rein in the Fed, ordering it to stop expanding -- the Fed's liabilities are nearing $3 trillion -- and to provide a strong and stable dollar. The Founding Fathers thought deeply about the permanent value of the dollar; it is wrong for the Fed to debase it.

Our nation is great in part because the Constitution limited the power of the government just as the vital Magna Carta had limited the power of English kings. We are in temporary decline because we the voters granted the governing class $14 trillion of debt -- too much raw power, too few boundaries. 

David Malpass is global economist and president of Encima Global LLC.


WILLIAM McGURN

The short answer: of course not.

I am old enough to remember when people were predicting that Japan would overtake us. A generation later, and the Japanese are stuck with a stagnant economy, an aging society, and barely any presence in the world beyond its economy. That doesn't mean the predictions about (take your pick) China, India, or the Middle East surpassing us will not come true, but it does suggest that a free society may underestimate its strengths and overestimate its weaknesses.

Does America have weaknesses? You bet. We are spending beyond our means, and saddling our children with the bill. We seem to be in danger of producing the first generation of Americans whose educational attainments are lower than their parents'. The social dysfunctions of the inner cities are well known, and many of our once-proud states are languishing. Meanwhile, overseas, we remain in Afghanistan 10 years after we started, with the outcome as elusive as ever.

We also have tremendous strengths. When you look at a country such as China, and see all the things it is doing right, it's easy to be glum. But our universities and companies still attract talent from around the world. We're still highly productive. And we have found since September 11 that there are still enough Americans willing to step forward to keep us safe and free, no matter that it will put their own lives in peril.

These are not small things. We have nowhere near the problems that, say, Europe has, either in terms of debt or assimilating newcomers. And as we are seeing in the new Republican leaders, we seem to have a unique capacity to regenerate ourselves just when things look their darkest. Who would have thought that the resurgence of the movement for smaller, more accountable government would be led by New Jersey and Wisconsin?

Ronald Reagan was always called an optimist, and for good reason. But too many assume that his optimism was a form of Panglossian dreaming. To the contrary, Reagan was not so much perpetually cheerful -- see his "Time for Choosing Speech," his "Bear in the Woods" ads, his use of the "misery index" against Jimmy Carter -- as confident, confident that Americans could overcome any challenge. Without denying the many serious challenges facing our society, I see no reason to doubt that confidence today. 

William McGurn is the Main Street columnist for the Wall Street Journal.


JEREMY RABKIN

Whoever is not worried about America's future is not paying attention. Or is willfully shutting his eyes, stopping his ears, and holding his nose. It's not just the staggering debt burdens -- and the still more staggering cost increases we face from health care and retirement entitlements. We seem incapable of addressing these challenges in serious political debate. Even modest spending restraints -- or, at the state level, modest curbs on public employee unions -- provoke near hysterical political resistance.

We've seen how this plays out in Europe. Among other things, military budgets get more and more tightly squeezed and ensuing anxieties assuaged with cheerful talk about international understanding and shrewd diplomacy to fill the gaps. Politicians explore subsidy schemes or regulatory gimmicks to prop up failing industries and rely on foreign bureaucratic monitors -- at the European Commission in Brussels or the WTO in Geneva -- to avert excessive mischief. Successive programs to "restore competitiveness" or "invest in new technology" are trumpeted -- and then forgotten. People learn to cope with decline by lowering their expectations.

But we can hope that America wrenches itself back before its national capacities erode much further. We'll certainly face some painful wake-up calls in the next few years. When investors demand much higher interest premiums for holding U.S. debt, when we face a new international crisis and the UN or NATO are back to their customary paralysis, we may hope for a serious political response. Europeans have been lulled with the thought that the EU or, in the last resort, the U.S. would rescue them from their own incapacities. The American people are not going to be reassured by wistful assurances about rescue by foreign friends. 

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law.

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