Look and Listen: Talk of U.S. Decline is Premature

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

For more than a century, European intellectuals have predicted the decline of the United States. The German philosophers Hegel, Nietzsche and Spengler saw Western democracy and capitalism as pernicious — the unfortunate wages of a classical civilization that had lavished upon natural man too much wealth and indulgence.

Later the Nazis bragged that they were descendants of untainted Germanic tribes of old, and promised that poorly disciplined American “cowboys” wouldn’t stand a chance against their Panzers. The Japanese militarists claimed that their ultra-nationalist Bushido code would give them an edge over the “decadent” GIs.

During the Cold War, hard-core socialists pontificated that the (soon-to-collapse) Soviet Union was ascendant, inasmuch as it had realized Karl Marx’s triumphant New Man who was reborn from the ashes of capitalism.

In President Jimmy Carter’s days of “national malaise,” the state-subsidized industries of Japan Inc. were supposedly making us all wage slaves to Sony and Toyota — until the Asian financial meltdown.

Now a new generation of pessimists is warning that it is the turn of the European Union, flush with trade surpluses, a small defense budget and a strong euro. Larger in size than us, with a greater population, a better-educated youth and a supposedly more humane social net, will Europe gradually nudge the United States from its world pre-eminence? Or does the new Asian axis of 2 billion in China and India instead foretell American decline?

Some long-term indicators here at home are indeed worrisome. The deficit is again spiraling. Our trade debt is enormous. The dollar is weak. Materialistic Americans are buying more consumer goods than their global scorecard might otherwise warrant — all predicated on borrowed money from Asia that could be recalled with little warning. Few of the huge container ships from China, Japan and South Korea that dock in California return to Asia stuffed with American exports.

However, such pessimism is premature. Other indicators generally point in our favor. Interest rates are steady. Rates of real economic growth are strong. Unemployment and inflation are both low.

Our rivals face their own social crises on the horizon. The Europeans await a demographic crisis, as their aging populations shrink and they become more reliant on unassimilated immigrant Muslim minorities. Even without a military, they cannot sustain the social entitlements promised to millions older than 55.

As China and India embrace free markets, they resemble raucous America circa 1870. Vast imbalances in wealth, unregulated and untaxed, erode public confidence. Their governments have a rendezvous with unionism, environmentalism, minority rights and suburban malaise — the dividends of a newly affluent society that long ago were diagnosed and accommodated in the United States.

A better way to assess our relative health is simply empirical — to look and listen to what goes on around us. I spend three days a week in upscale Palo Alto. The four other days, I reside on a farm in one of California’s poorest rural areas. Statistics would perhaps depress us that the former smaller population is highly affluent and educated and has a greater range of life choices, while the latter larger one is not so well-served.

Yet new suburban homes are about 25 percent of the cost around my farm as they are near Stanford — and thousands of first- and second-generation immigrant families are snapping them up, with garages full of new cars. If households make a lot less in central California, their money also goes a lot further.

My optimistic rural neighbors may not shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, buy Mercedeses or live near museums and opera halls. Yet Wal-Mart, brand-new Kias and an array of low-cost sporting events, fairs, state universities and junior colleges provide at least the semblance of lifestyle parity.

What we miss in statistics about relative national strength are the extraordinary vibrancy and inclusiveness of American culture. It has an uncanny ability to assimilate minorities and newcomers. The United States allows freer access of information and bases decisions more often on merit than on nepotism or tribalism.

We engage in greater self-critique and seem to foster in our citizens a stronger desire for constructive emulation rather than useless envy of the more successful in our presence. The Constitution is unique in safeguarding prosperity, security and fairness — as Europeans, the United Nations and Asians all have learned when they have tried their own less successful versions.

All in all, America is still in pretty good shape, whether in Palo Alto or south of Fresno — and far stronger than its perennial critics think.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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