In an age of hype and hoax it is nearly impossible to credibly assess the talk of America’s alleged decline that abounds in the media and academia. Facts are overwhelming and seldom able to provide the certainty we need to adopt more substantial political and social change or to comfort us in knowing things are all OK.
Some current titles on my bookshelf are rather depressing. There is “America: What went Wrong?” “That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind In The World it Invented and How we Can Come Back,” “Why America Failed” and “It is Even Worse Than it Looks.” Many periodicals, including establishment outlets such as Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, have carried articles wondering if America is on the decline. The recent Foreign Affairs magazine's focus is on “Can America Be Fixed?” with the cover showing the Statue of Liberty surrounded by a scaffold.
According to The Economist’s quality-of-life index, the U.S. is now the 16th best place to be born. The U.S. held the top spot back in 1988. Consistently, now, the U.S. lags in education performance, health care costs and impacts, and savings rate.
My nomination for the most disturbing pattern in American politics is the long streak of federal budget deficits. Since 1969, the year I graduated from high school, the U.S. federal government has only had a surplus for four years (1998-2001). Only four years did the federal policy-making process perform responsibly, even though in about half of those years we enjoyed an expanding economy. Party politics muddies the search for solutions, but this pattern is not a simply a Democratic or Republican party problem — it is a result of our checked-and-balanced political system that most of us cherish and are predisposed to defend.
Much of the government’s resources and activity just routinely keeps society running, though not without mistakes that get disproportionate media attention. Just in the past decade or so, we survived 9/11 and the 2008 fiscal crisis, continued advancing the personal freedom of gays, lesbians and other individuals and some states are restoring their fiscal health. Yet, public infrastructure such as roads and levees, education and prison institutions, and water systems remain underinvested and neglected. Additionally, child poverty, economic inequality, increasing pension liabilities and environmental degradations are practically forgotten policy issues.
Wrapped around almost all policy debates is debt — both governmental and personal. The $16 trillion national debt and the approximately $23,000 college debt held by individual graduates are oft cited evidence that we are living on our children’s dime.
Health care and disability costs are still rapidly growing while the political process appears to deal with them like a bunch of school boys arguing about Foursquare during fourth-grade recess. “Health care” has become a trump card that might soon challenge “preserving Social Security” as a sure way to scare off any politician.
Confidence in government is now persistently, perhaps permanently, low. About one-third of Americans responds that we are on the “right track” when given a choice between “right track or wrong track” and offers less than 15 percent approval of how Congress is doing its job.
It seems that “the truth” is now more elusive than in the olden days. Life is faster, more complex, with more information, often of unknown origin and motive. There are alarmists and apologists, often earning big bucks to persuade us which way the wind is blowing.
Skeptics of the America-is-in-decline argument are certainly right about one thing: This view is not new. In the 1980s, it was Japan that many thought would surpass the U.S. economically, before that, Sputnik and the Cold War worried most Americans.
On the other hand, decaying infrastructure, mounting debt, maintaining international and domestic security at a reasonable cost, and more drastic weather-related disasters will require decades of good government to address. When an ounce of prevention is much less demanding than a pound of cure, it seems prudent to check the foundation, even if overly cautious.
This semester I am teaching an upper-level political science class at MU titled “Is America in Decline?” where we will be examining the case for America’s decline and analyzing the facts and reasons often provided in this continuing debate. I welcome comments, suggestions and reactions and intend to provide several reports in this space as the semester develops.
David Webber is an associate professor of Political Science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.