How America Can Rise Again

Is America going to hell? After a year of economic calamity that many fear has sent us into irreversible decline, the author finds reassurance in the peculiarly American cycle of crisis and renewal, and in the continuing strength of the forces that have made the country great: our university system, our receptiveness to immigration, our culture of innovation. In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world. But here’s the alarming problem: our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. Fixing it—without resorting to a constitutional convention or a coup—is the key to securing the nation’s future.
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The Main Concerns

If we’re worried, perhaps that’s a good sign, since through American history worry has always preceded reform. What I’ve seen as I’ve looked at the rest of the world has generally made me more confident of America’s future, rather than the reverse. What is obvious from outside the country is how exceptional it is in its powers of renewal: America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back.

Late last year, on the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s election, I was at a lunch where an immigrant billionaire discussed his concerns about the new administration’s economic policy. By the meeting’s ground rules, I am not supposed to identify the speaker—and the wonderful thing about America is that “immigrant billionaire” does not narrow the field down too much. The man thought that deficit spending was out of control, that other world leaders judged the new president as weak and therefore might test him, and that a run on the dollar might begin any day. “But long term, America will be fine,” he said, as if the truth was so self-evident, it didn’t need to be explained.

So what could be the contrary case? It starts with the aspects of relative decline that could actually prove threatening. The main concerns boil down to jobs, debt, military strength, and overall independence. Jobs: Will the rise of other economies mean the decline of opportunities within America, especially for the middle-class jobs that have been the country’s social glue? Debt: Will reliance on borrowed money from abroad further limit the country’s future prosperity, and its freedom of action too? The military: As wealth flows, so inevitably will armed strength. Would an ultimately weaker United States therefore risk a military showdown or intimidation from a rearmed China? And independence in the broadest sense: Would the world respect a threadbare America? Will repressive values rise with an ascendant China—and liberal values sink with a foundering United States? How much will American leaders have to kowtow?

The full details are beyond us here, but the crucial point is that in principle, the United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong in each case. Take jobs, as a very important for-instance: the loss of middle-class jobs is America’s worst economic problem. But that would be so even if China were still as closed as under Mao. According to prevailing economic theory, a country’s job structure and income distribution are determined more by its own domestic policies—education, investment, taxes—plus shifts in technology than by anything its competitors do. That’s especially true of a large economy like America’s. Those policies are ours to change. With differences in detail, something similar is true of America’s public and private debt, its maintenance and careful use of military power, and its management of the “soft power” that enlarges its freedom of action.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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