Over the last few years, a number of reports and books have appeared making the case that the United States is in decline. All of these studies and books contain elements of truth, although we need to keep in mind the distinction between absolute and relative decline and to remember that relative decline, if it is in fact occurring, may not be such a bad thing.
At first glance, it seems clear that the U.S. economy is declining in relative terms. China has had an annual growth rate averaging 9 percent or 10 percent for more than 30 years and India 6 percent to 7 percent since the early 1990s, while the U.S. has averaged about 2 percent annually over the past decade.
It is just as clear that the nation has economic problems, any short list of which would include the residual effects of the Great Recession of 2007-2008 (particularly the housing overhang and stubbornly high unemployment); the deficit and burgeoning national debt; rising levels of inequality and upward mobility; problems relating to education (particularly K-12) and the so-called skills gap; an aging, increasingly decrepit infrastructure; our low rate of savings; and the erosion of parts of our manufacturing base. And all of these problems are exacerbated by our increasingly dysfunctional political system.
Such problems have led many analysts in recent years to suggest that America’s days as the world hegemon are numbered, if not over. Thus, you see titles of books appearing such as Martin Jacques’s 2009 bestseller: “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.”
My intention here is not completely to debunk the narrative of relative decline, nor to minimize our national problems, which, admittedly, are serious. What I would like to do, however, is to complicate the “relative decline” story, to contextualize our problems, to pay a bit of attention to our continuing strengths.
One of the many interesting points that Robert Kagan makes in his celebrated new book “The World America Made” is that “in every single decade since the end of World War II, Americans have worried about their declining influence and looked nervously as other powers seemed to be rising at their expense.” Despite the fears of and evidence for America’s relative decline, we’re still at the top. Remember, too, that even very bright analysts can be inconsistent and have their blind spots. In 1993 Lester Thurow, an eminent economist at MIT and one-time head of the Sloan School of Management there, wrote a book called “Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America.”
Second, we must ask whether “relative” decline is necessarily a bad thing. While many in Japan, the European Union, and the United States look back with horror at the first decade of the 21st century, the “oughties” meant boom times in China, India, Southeast Asia, Africa, much of the Middle East, and Latin America. And think about how much worse the Great Recession of 2007-2008 would have been without continued strong growth in China and other emerging economies. In many systems — ecosystems, for example — complexity often leads to greater stability. This would seem to be true in economic systems as well. Relative decline—up to a point at least—may, then, be a positive rather than negative development.
And let us not forget that, our problems notwithstanding, the U.S. still has formidable economic strengths. Such as? For starters, our openness to ideas — and people — from other parts of the world. The way we embrace innovation and entrepreneurship and embed these attributes in a supportive ecosystem. Excellence in most high-tech areas, and in advanced economic applications of almost all types. A superior system of higher education, particularly graduate and professional training. High productivity virtually across the board.
Taken together, these strengths are formidable, and help to explain how and why, in spite of our problems, we are still No. 1 or 2 in the world in manufacturing output, and by far No. 1 in value-added by manufacturing. We are virtually even with China in total manufacturing output. Our manufacturing output — in constant dollars—is the highest it has ever been, but that output is produced by far fewer workers and a much smaller proportion of the total labor force than in the past.
We could also compare the United States and other countries in terms of military strength and a range of qualitative variables as well, ranging from levels of corruption to degree of unity or cohesion. In all of these areas, the United States, for all of its problems, fares well. And in terms of all-around global competitiveness — based on rankings in a range of measures such as economic performance, government efficiency, infrastructure, and business efficiency, The Economist ranked the United States second in the world in 2011 (behind Hong Kong) and ahead of Singapore. A number of northern European countries were in the top 10, but neither China nor India was in the listing of the top 44.
What’s the main takeaway, then? Despite our problems, we’re still here — and are likely to remain here — here, as in No. 1 — for some time to come.
– Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.