Fool’s Gold Politics

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Brett Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal notes that the "America is declining" meme is growing popular, yet again. This happens on a fairly regular basis and the doomsayers are generally wrong.

In 1788, Massachusetts playwright Mercy Otis Warren took one look at the (unratified) U.S. Constitution and declared that "we shall soon see this country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence." This, roughly, is the origin of American declinism — and it's been downhill ever since.

A couple centuries later, an international relations theorist at Yale named Paul Kennedy sought to explain the decline of great powers in terms of a ratio between military commitments and economic resources. The Reagan military buildup and the deficits that went with it, he warned, had brought the United States to the point of "imperial overstretch." Not quite. Within a few years, the Soviet Union collapsed, Europe and Japan (with no military burdens to speak of) entered a long period of economic stagnation, and the U.S. consolidated its position as the world's only true superpower.

Heh, I'm sure it the negativity started long before that. But consider some evidence that refutes the ones who keep saying things like this:

Yet each of these assumptions collapses on a moment's inspection. In his 2006 book "Überpower," German writer Josef Joffe makes the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: "Assume that the Chinese economy keeps growing indefinitely at a rate of seven percent, the average of the past decade (for which history knows of no example). . . . At that rate, China's GDP would double every decade, reaching parity with today's United States ($12 trillion) in thirty years. But the U.S. economy is not frozen into immobility. By then, the United States, growing at its long-term rate of 2.5 percent, would stand at $25 trillion."

Now take military expenditures. Yesterday, the administration released its budget proposal for 2009, which includes $515.4 billion for the regular defense budget. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this would be the largest defense appropriation since World War II. Yet it amounts to about 4% of GDP, as compared to 14% during the Korean War, 9.5% during the Vietnam War and 6% in the Reagan administration. Throw in the Iraq and Afghanistan supplementals, and total projected defense spending is still only 4.5% of GDP — an easily afforded sum even by Prof. Kennedy's terms.

Finally there is the issue of our allegedly squandered prestige in the world. There is no doubt America's "popularity," as measured by various global opinion surveys, has fallen in recent years. What's striking, however, is how little of this has mattered in terms of the domestic political choices of other countries or the consequences for the U.S.

As Stephens points out, there are two main groups who inhabit the declinosphere; those who simply accept the meme as fact and those who are actively rooting for it. I'd only add that memes like this can become self-fulfilling prophecies if enough people buy into them. But do read the whole thing, things are never as gloomy as the America in decline Eeyores make them out to be.

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