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Since coming back to the United States after three years away in China, I have been asking experts around the country whether America is finally going to hell. The question is partly a joke. One look at the comforts and abundance of American life—even during a recession, even with all the people who are suffering or left out—can make it seem silly to ask about anything except the secrets of the country’s success. Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town—yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.
And the people! The typical American I see in an office building or shopping mall, stout or slim, gives off countless unconscious signs—hair, skin, teeth, height—of having grown up in a society of taken-for-granted sanitation, vaccination, ample protein, and overall public health. I have learned not to bore people with my expressions of amazement at the array of food in ordinary grocery stores, the size and newness of cars on the street, the splendor of the physical plant for universities, museums, sports stadiums. And honestly, by now I’ve almost stopped noticing. But if this is “decline,” it is from a level that most of the world still envies.
Video: James Fallows talks to Atlantic editor James Bennet about a uniquely American tradition—
cycles of despair followed by triumphant rebirths.
The idea of “finally” going to hell is a modest joke too. Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. “Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,” Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. “Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,” said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. “And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.”
But the question wasn’t simply a joke. Through the final year I spent in China, in which the collapse of the U.S. financial system was blamed for half the bad things happening in that country, I got used to hearing sentences that began “With U.S. power on the wane …” or “In a post-American world …” From Australia I have just received an invitation similar to many others I have heard about. The conveners began, “We would like to develop a session we have tentatively titled ‘America: In Decline?’” I also heard from Chinese and other foreigners who look at America with an analytic eye and find it wanting. Just as the material bounty of America is more dramatic on return to the country, so are areas of backwardness or erosion you do not notice unless you’ve been somewhere else. Cell-phone coverage, for instance. In other developed countries, and for that matter most developing countries I’ve visited, you simply don’t have the dead spots and dropped calls that are endemic in America. There are reasons for the difference: China, in which I never lost a signal when on subways, in elevators, or even in a coal mine, has limited competition among phone companies that coordinate to blanket the country with transmitters. Still, this is one of several modern-tech areas in which the U.S. is now notably, even embarrassingly, behind. I went several times to a private medical clinic in Beijing and once to a public hospital in Shanghai (the Skin Disease and Sexually Transmitted Disease Hospital—it’s a long story). In each, the nurses entered my information at a computer, rather than having me fill out the paper forms, on a clipboard, on which I have entered the same redundant information a thousand times in American medical offices. Again, there’s a reason for the difference; but we’re not keeping up.
When I was a schoolboy in California in the 1950s and ’60s, the freeways were new and big and smooth—like the new roads being built all across China. Today’s California freeways are cracked and crowded and old. A Chinese student I knew in Shanghai who has recently entered graduate school at UC Berkeley sent me a note saying that the famous San Francisco Bay Area seemed “beautiful, but run down.” I remember a similar reaction on arriving at graduate school in England in the 1970s and seeing the sad physical remnants—dimly lit museums, once-stately homes, public buildings overdue for repair—from a time when the society had bigger dreams and more resources than it could muster in the here and now. A Chinese friend who flew for the first time from Beijing to New York phoned soon after landing to complain about the potholed, traffic-jammed taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan. “When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.” America is supposed to be the permanent country of the New, but a lot of it just looks old.
Since everyone knows that America’s passenger-rail system is a world laggard, there is no surprise value in saying so. But it’s still true. Stephen Flynn points out that the physical infrastructure of big East Coast cities was mainly built by the 1880s; of the industrial Midwest by World War I; and of the West Coast by 1960. “It was advertised to last 50 years, and overengineered so it might last 100,” he said. “Now it’s running down. When a pothole swallows an SUV, it’s treated as freak news, but it shows a water system that’s literally collapsing beneath us.” (Surface cave-ins often reflect a sewer or water line that has leaked or collapsed below.)
At a dinner in Washington this fall, I heard a comment that summed up the combination of satisfaction and concern that ran through many of the interviews I held. The day before the dinner, three U.S. citizens had been named the winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. The day after, three more would be named winners of the Nobel Prize for physics. All the more impressive for America’s attractive power, four of the six winners had been born outside the country—in China, Canada, Australia, England—and had taken U.S. citizenship, in some cases jointly with their original country, while they trained and did work at U.S. or other foreign institutions. The dinner discussion topic was the future of America’s scientific-research base—and the prize announcement, rather than a cause for celebration, was taken almost as a knell. “This was for work done 10 or 20 years ago, based on research funding that started 30 or 40 years ago,” the main speaker, the CEO of a famous Silicon Valley firm, said. “I don’t know what we’re funding that will pay off 30 years from now.”
“After almost a century, the United States no longer has the money,” the economists J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen Cohen, both of Berkeley, write in their new book, The End of Influence.
It is gone, and it is not likely to return in the foreseeable future … The American standard of living will decline relative to the rest of the industrialized and industrializing world … The United States will lose power and influence.
This judgment differed from many others I heard mainly in being more crisply put.
So the question is: Are the fears of this moment our era’s version of the “missile gap”? Are they anything more than a combination of the two staple ingredients of doom-and-darkness statements through the whole course of our history? One of those ingredients is exaggerated complaint by whichever group is out of political power—those who thought America should be spelled with a “k” under Nixon or Reagan, those who attend “tea bag” rallies against the Obama administration now. The other is what historians call the bracing “jeremiad” tradition of harsh warnings that reveal a faith that America can be better than it is. Football coaches roar and storm in their locker-room speeches at halftime to fire up the team, and American politicians, editorialists, and activists of various sorts have roared and stormed precisely because they have known this is the way the nation is roused to action.
Today’s fears combine relative decline—what will happen when China has all the jobs? and all the money?—with domestic concerns about a polarized society of haves and have-nots that has lost its connective core. They include concerns about the institutions that have made America strong: widespread education, a financially viable press, religion that can coexist with secularism, government that expresses the nation’s divisions while also addressing its long-term interests and needs. They are topped by the most broadly held alarm about the future of the natural environment since the era of Silent Spring and the original Earth Day movement.
How should we feel? I spoke with historians and politicians, soldiers and ministers, civil engineers and broadcast executives and high-tech researchers. Overall, the news they gave was heartening—and alarming, too. Most of the things that worry Americans aren’t really that serious, especially those that involve “falling behind” anyone else. But there is a deeper problem almost too alarming to worry about, since it is so hard to see a solution. Let’s start with the good news.