When will China's economy finally overtake America's? A recent report from the National Intelligence Council puts the date at 2030. The chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank says it will happen in 2020. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns—or, perhaps, gloats—that the moment may come as soon as 2016, before President Obama leaves the White House.
Josef Joffe, editor and publisher of Germany's Die Zeit newspaper and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, takes a different view. As he convincingly lays out in "The Myth of America's Decline," China will never overtake the U.S. That's in part due to China's inherent weaknesses, but mostly it is because of America's enormous, if easily overlooked, strengths.
The author's case is bolstered by the long history of past false alarms. After the 1957 launch of Sputnik, Americans had a full-blown panic attack that they would be buried by the Soviet Union, as Nikita Khrushchev had famously promised. The U.S. was suffering a "crisis in education" along with a "missile gap." Paul Samuelson, the future economics Nobelist, predicted that the Soviet economy would overtake America's sometime around 1984. "Only self-delusion can keep us from admitting our decline to ourselves," a Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger mused in a 1961 book.
Similar warnings and premonitions of decline would sound with every passing decade, usually in tandem with the emergence of another contender to the American throne. In 1979, Ezra Vogel, also a Harvard professor, published "Japan as Number One." It helped inaugurate a decade of awe and hysteria about the country that—according to common belief—would own the 21st century.
As with the Russians of the 1950s and the Chinese today, the Japanese were credited with having harder-working students than ours, better bureaucrats, a more consensual style of politics, an economy geared toward manufacturing and savings rather than services and consumption, and a culture that put a premium on long-term social goals over instant personal gratification.
It also helped that the Japanese economy seemed to be tracing an unstoppable upward arc, with double-digit growth year after year. For declinists, Mr. Joffe observes, "percentages are destiny," and the percentages all seemed to be going Japan's way. Until they weren't. On Dec. 29, 1989, the Nikkei stock index hit an all-time high of 39000 and then crashed. Today the Nikkei hovers around the 14000 mark as the country stumbles through its third decade of stagnation.
Among the pleasures of Mr. Joffe's book is the sheer accumulation of silly comments by smart people about America's many impending dooms. (My favorite: "The Cold War is over; Japan has won," from the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992.) Another pleasure is Mr. Joffe's explanation for why declinism seems to have such a grip on the American mind. " 'The sky is falling' should not be a very lucrative pitch," he writes. "But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flip side, which is redemption."
But the heart of the book lies in Mr. Joffe's vivisection of the China myth. Beijing boosters take a linear approach to China's growth, imagining that it will continue at current rates until the U.S. has been left bobbing in its wake. In reality, countries that start from a low base, as South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand did, often grow quickly at first but inevitably slow down as labor costs grow, corruption and rent-seeking spread, the population ages, political expectations rise, and the export-led growth model runs out of steam.
So it is with China today, except that Beijing has failed even notionally to abandon the commanding heights of the economy. A notable detail: "The total profits earned by China's top 500 private companies in 2009 were less than the total revenue of two state-controlled firms, China Mobile and Sinopec."
Meanwhile—and despite breathless reports to the contrary—Americans continue easily to outperform the Chinese on any metric of national power. Research and development? "The United States produces more science and engineering journal articles than Asia's top ten together, and three times more than China." Demography? By 2035, a larger percentage of Chinese than Americans will be over the age of 65. Education? Of the world's top 20 universities, 17 are in the U.S., according to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings from 2012. None are in China. Military might? Even as the U.S. Navy shrinks, it fields 11 supercarriers against China's one not-so-super carrier.
And as for sheer economic size, the gap between the two countries will widen assuming growth in the U.S. of about 3%—the long-term historical rate—against 7.5% for China. Under President Obama the U.S. has been having trouble hitting 3%, but as Mr. Joffe notes, the U.S. enjoys "myriad sources of rejuvenation" (think of shale gas or iPads) whereas China is mainly counting on a shrinking pool of cheap labor.
All of this makes for a lively, convincing, salutary argument. It is, however, marred by the absence of any extended discussion of America's burgeoning debts or of the growth of entitlements that move us in the direction of European social democracy—where notions of decline are no fantasy. Nor is it helped by Mr. Joffe's cavalier (and factually dodgy) discussion of 1970s fears about Soviet military strength and U.S. economic weakness. We emerged from past ruts not because decline was impossible but because we elected wiser leaders and adopted better policies to reverse the trends. With luck we'll do it again, but there are no guarantees. America's decline will remain a myth only for as long as we see that it is so.
Mr. Stephens is the Journal's foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor.