Magazine | December 16, 2013, Issue

Looking on the Bright Side

The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies, by Josef Joffe (Liveright, 352 pp., $26.95)

There is usually a moment in the course of a typical English picnic of drizzle, hard-boiled eggs, and chill, when someone looks up at the gray, unyielding sky and brightly announces that the weather is “clearing up.” If Josef Joffe attends English picnics, he would be that someone.

In this cheery take on America’s prospects, Joffe, the editor of Die Zeit, looks around and ahead and decides that, for all its problems, the U.S. will do just fine. He reminds us that pundits and politicians have been awaiting the end of America since its beginning. In itself, of course, this proves nothing: Time passes, facts change; what once was set in stone ends up slithering on sand. Joffe takes care to say that the failure to come true of previous prophecies of America’s decline “does not mean that [one] never will,” but, given the broader themes of this book, those words — and a handful of others like them — are the equivalent of the quick-fire muttering that accompanies some car commercials, caveats that no one is meant to notice.

Joffe, a shrewd and subtle analyst, is on firmer ground when he turns his attention to the nature, origins, and history of “declinism.” Predictions of an American tumble, he argues, frequently owe more to the dreams, fears, or ambitions of those who made them than to any reasonable calculation of what the future might hold. There have always been those, abroad, who have taken comfort in the thought that this over-mighty giant — and dangerous inspiration — might be faltering. Here at home, however, prophecies of doom are often intended to be self-defeating, designed to change behavior — enough already with the twerking, enough already with the neglect of missile defense — that would otherwise lead to catastrophe.

And declinism is a powerful political tool (fear sells) that has long been used and abused. Joffe relates how insurgent presidential candidates have a habit of basing their campaigns on existential threats that have a way of disappearing by the time, four years later, that the insurgent-turned-incumbent, “first Jeremiah, now redeemer,” is seeking reelection by a country where it is, again, morning. This record of apocalyptic bunkum does not mean that every politician’s prediction of approaching Armageddon can safely be ignored, but skepticism is generally a better response than panic.

Next, Joffe asks if there is any country in a position to topple America from its “towering perch,” a perch that is, he shows, far loftier than widely imagined. By contrast, Britain, even at its imperial peak, was merely first among some fairly grand equals. Joffe again buttresses his argument with the wreckage of earlier predictions — that Japan would overtake America, that Europe (Europe!) would fly by, that the Soviets would bury us — before turning a bracingly cold eye on China. The starting point of his enjoyably iconoclastic take on this latest contender is a blend of math and history — “as the baseline goes higher, as economies mature, growth slows” — but it quickly evolves into a perceptive critique of authoritarian modernization (and particularly its Chinese variant) that would make Thomas Friedman very unhappy indeed. Imagining a Chinese Sorpasso any time soon is, maintains Joffe, an extrapolation too far.

What is true of the economic contest is, broadly, true of the military race too. Joffe acknowledges, as he must in the wake of 9/11, “the power of the weak,” but concludes — too sanguine, perhaps, about the equalizing effects of technology — that America is so far ahead of its rivals “that it plays in a league of its own,” and it does so more cannily (“on top, not in control”) and, if not exactly on the cheap, more frugally (amazing, but true, despite those famous Pentagon toilet seats) than the alpha nations that preceded it. America may one day abdicate (Joffe highlights Obama’s combination of “reticence” abroad with “nation-building” at home), but it is unlikely to be imperial overstretch that brings it down.

#page#A drawback of Joffe’s focus on the competition is that it allows relative strength to obscure absolute decay, an error avoided by Alan Simpson when the former senator compared the fiscal condition of the U.S. with that of some European nations. America was, he said, the “healthiest horse in the glue factory,” an ugly truth not inconsistent with the broader observation by Joffe (who, we should note, also frets about deficits) that “only the United States can bring down the United States.”

But an even more profound menace to this country’s future may come from a transformation that owes little to foreign plotting or domestic excess and quite a bit to free trade, free enterprise, and technological progress, features — rightly applauded by Joffe — of the American system that have done so much to make the country what it is today. That America’s generosity and optimism, in the form of an immigration policy — nuttily cheered on by a Joffe still in thrall to ancient Ellis Island myth — may make things even worse only sharpens the irony still further.

The exceptional nation has undeniably been exceptionally successful. Yes, America is an idea and a dream and all that, but above all, it has worked. As Joffe recounts, there have been busts, panics, and slumps, but overall this has truly been a land of opportunity. The result has been a nation held together in no small part by the shared belief that a better life is there for the taking by those who work hard, a belief fed by the fact that it was true enough for enough people for enough of the time, a belief that may now be becoming a delusion.

Inflation-adjusted household median income has yet to return to its 1999 peak — 14 years ago, in case anyone is counting — and now stands at only a fraction more than the level a decade before that, a stagnation that cannot (despite some wishful thinking to the contrary) be explained away by changes in household size. It is no coincidence that the percentage of Americans in work also peaked around the turn of the century, before going into a decline that the Great Recession has only intensified: Work-force participation is back to levels last seen in the disco era, a regression with ominous ramifications for the sustainability of Social Security, Medicare, and all the rest.

The tentative nature of the current recovery, and its particular shape — hiring at the top and bottom of the wage scale has picked up, in the middle not so much — looks a lot like yet more evidence that happy days will not be here again for the American middle class anytime soon. Its labor is simply not as valuable as it was. As technology gets ever smarter, and as workers in lower-cost emerging markets upgrade their skills, opportunities will narrow in the office suite as well as on the factory floor, squeezing cleverer, well-educated Americans of a type who have only rarely been squeezed before. And they won’t like it one bit.

In his fascinating and, in its implications, terrifying new book, Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen surveys this scene and predicts the arrival of a “hyper-meritocracy” in which a comparatively small segment (maybe 10 to 15 percent) of the population does extremely well, most people eke their way along, and there are few in the middle: a vision that may be exaggerated, but not by enough to save what’s left of Bedford Falls.

Unlike many apocalypticians, Cowen has room for a little relief (of sorts). He accepts that there will be “some outbursts of trouble” but anticipates a future that is “downright orderly.” The country will be older, and shared pride in America’s leading position in the world (Joffe would not disagree) will throw additional social cement into the mix, while “cheap fun” distracts the potentially restless.

“Revolts,” writes Joffe, “are the hardest part of the soothsaying business.” I’m not so sure. Smashed expectations, a large cohort of well-educated (and often young) underemployed, high numbers of unemployed men looking for work in factories that no longer exist, ethnic and cultural fragmentation (the last apparently not a concern to Joffe or Cowen, immigration enthusiasts both), and the window that the Internet provides into the lives of the rich are a recipe for disorder that it will take more than Grand Theft Auto to head off.

And the increasing emphasis on growing inequality (the inequality is real enough, but it is a symptom, not a cause, of middle-class woes) in today’s political debate — from Occupy to Obama — is characteristic of a society in which the focus has shifted away from growing the pie to slicing it up. That’s a harbinger of a crisis within the American model, and, I suspect, an early taste of an Argentinian future to come.

Joffe dismisses a mid-’90s prediction of a coming automated dystopia as “a stew of Malthus and Marx.” He would be unlikely to be much kinder about Cowen’s Skynet lite. That’s a mistake. The clouds aren’t clearing. They are getting darker.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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