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.