American Decline Is a State of Mind

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

We are hearing of all sorts of reasons why the United States is doomed to decline.

After all, America is piling up deficits at a record rate of about $1.5 trillion a year while other countries are slashing their spending. The national debt cascades over $13 trillion and is on track to reach $20 trillion within a decade.

The current recession is heading into its third year. Unemployment still hovers at nearly 10 percent.

Much of the country thinks the war in Afghanistan is as good as lost. There are more than 80,000 American troops deployed there, along with nearly 50,000 allied soldiers — facing fewer than 10,000 Taliban insurgents.

The largest oil spill in American history has been gushing up from the sea for nearly 80 days, with vague promises that it could be plugged in another month or so.

Between 11 million and 20 million illegal aliens currently reside in the United States. And we cannot seem to stop another half million from crossing illegally into America each year.

Politically, the fickle electorate was furious at Wall Street for the 2008 meltdown. But it is now angrier at a government that threatens to take over more private enterprise. In 2006, voters renounced congressional Republicans; in November 2010, even angrier voters will probably be more unforgiving of the once-dominant Democrats.

George W. Bush left office with dismal poll numbers. Yet Barack Obama, who campaigned on the theme that he would serve as a reset button for the prior administration, and who enjoyed an approval rate of nearly 70 percent at inauguration, has seen his own ratings dive below 50 percent in just 18 months.

No wonder this dismal news — coupled with constant predictions of a rising, all-powerful China and the emergence of new, upcoming regional powers like Turkey, Brazil and India — prompts nonstop gloom about inevitable American decay.

Even Obama, at times, seems to envision a multipolar world in which the United States no longer is “exceptional” in the manner of the last 70 years.

In the midst of our current malaise, we feel overwhelmed by largely short-term problems and our current inability to address them — without appreciating our long-term strengths and present bounty, or learning from past recoveries.

We are soon to revert to the Clinton income tax rates last used in 2000, when we ran budget surpluses. If likewise we were to cut the budget, or just hold federal spending to the rate of inflation, America would soon run surpluses as it did a decade ago. For all our problems, the United States is still the largest economy in the world, its 300 million residents producing more goods and services than the more than 1 billion in either China or India.

The U.S. military defeated both Saddam Hussein and the Islamic insurgency that followed him in Iraq, while fostering consensual government. With the same determination, there is no reason why it cannot do the same in Afghanistan. Certainly neither enemy is comparable to Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, which a much poorer America helped to defeat simultaneously within four years of engagement.

Nearly 70 years ago, a far less scientifically sophisticated country developed the atomic bomb in three years. It could likewise surely mobilize to plug a leaking oil well in three months.

If the United States chooses to close its southern border — by finishing the fence, fining all employers of illegal aliens and increasing patrols — illegal entry from the south would cease almost at once. The pool of resident illegal aliens would shrink through assimilation, intermarriage and voluntary repatriation while Congress keeps haggling over the particulars of comprehensive reform.

Our supposedly intractable problems are hardly insurmountable. Ascendant China and India have much less freedom and far greater environmental problems, political turmoil and class disparity. Europe is not as productive as America and is shrinking in size, not growing as we are.

In the bleak 1930s, we were told that German discipline and order were the answer; during the depressing stagflation of the 1970s, Japan Inc. was supposed to be the way of the future. Then a resurgence of American confidence and renewed faith in our exceptional system dispelled all such nonsense.

The United States still remains the most racially diverse, stable, free, productive and militarily strong country in the world. Its current crises are largely the political and cultural creations of the most affluent and leisured generation in civilization’s history — not due to long-standing civil unrest, structural weakness or a sudden shortage of natural resources.

America may well soon decline and simply become no different from any other nation. But such a depressing future would largely be our generation’s own free choice; it is not a historical inevitability.


©2010 Tribune Media Services

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