Defining Ideas

'Exceptional' America

Wednesday, December 7, 2011
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Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

Accepting inevitable national decline is the new pastime of both the media and government elite. Some of the pessimism revolves around current federal financial insolvency. In response to the Bush administration’s borrowing of $4 trillion in eight years, Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate, called such profligacy “irresponsible” and even “unpatriotic”—only as president to trump Bush’s debt in three years.

Democrats now talk grandly of going back to the Clinton-era income tax schedules to balance budgets as was done between 1998 and 2000. Republicans counter that, since 2001, spending has soared to such levels that even a return to the old income tax rates would not come close to ending the serial annual deficits of $1.5  trillion without massive budget cuts—deemed intolerable by Democrats. The worried public senses that sometime very soon there are going to be either massive new taxes or historic cutbacks in federal spending, and most likely both.

 Is America in Decline?  
 Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Most sharp recessions lead to robust recoveries. But unemployment continues to be above 9 percent. GDP growth remains anemic. The old “misery index” is at an all-time high—as if this chronic downturn was somehow different from past post-war recessions. Near zero interest rates, unchecked borrowing, and record numbers on food stamps and unemployment insurance—all that “stimulus” has not jumpstarted a stalled economy.

Then there are the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are still fighting the Taliban, a decade after the September 11 attacks. The United States went into the heart of the ancient caliphate, removed Saddam Hussein, and established a consensual government, which survives to this day. And yet, Iraq is still considered an American tragedy given that a brilliant three-week removal of a dictator was followed by five years of insurgent violence that cost nearly 4,500 American lives. The acceptance that Americans have a massive military and yet cannot win wars quickly and permanently against outmatched enemies contributes to the growing sense of American paralysis.

The fiscal meltdown of September 2008 shattered American confidence in Wall Street. The sense of despair was heightened as conservatives blamed the disaster on profligate and politicized government mortgage agencies like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae; liberals countered that the real culprit was the incomprehensible greed of speculators and grandees at firms like Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. The public agreed with both analyses—and grew further disheartened as their 401k retirement accounts continued to shrink. That the panic occurred amid the unraveling of the European Union only intensified the sense of Western despair.

Despair, anxiety, and paralysis define the current public mood.

Amid such a depressing landscape, there are also the usual warnings of long-term pathologies. American K-12 students score far behind their counterparts in most industrial nations on math and science tests. Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan have both longer work and school weeks, and greater labor productivity. Americans spend far more per capita on healthcare than other Westernized nations and yet do not enjoy greater longevity. The China chimera is raised constantly—as if its more impressive rate of economic growth will soon doom America to permanent second-tier status.

In reaction to this assorted bad news, President Obama sought to condition Americans to their newly perceived reduced role. In the trivial sense, Obama bowed to foreign monarchs, apologized for the supposed sins of America’s past, and once quipped, in relativist fashion, that America was now only exceptional to the degree that all peoples—such as the Greeks and the British—share such self-perceptions. More fundamentally, abroad a new “reset” foreign policy seeks to “lead from behind”—outsourcing military and diplomatic leadership to allies, while predicating U.S. intervention in Libya not on authorization from the U.S. Congress, but on a vote from the United Nations. Old enemies now seem to be neutrals—and so do our old allies as well. Sloganeering from the Obama administration—“multilateralism,” “reset,” and the “international community” —often seems aimed at conditioning now “soft” and “lazy” Americans who have lost “their competitive edge” to a new subservient role overseas.

Yet throughout history, national decline is rarely a result of uncontrollable external factors. It is usually a choice, not a fate. But if America’s future is well within our hands, should we be optimistic that we can still shape our own destiny to ensure continual American preeminence?

The building blocks of any civilization—demography, political cohesion and transparency, natural resources, social stability, military power, technological innovation, and scientific advancement—still weigh heavily in America’s favor. America is the third most populous country in the world; its fertility rate, with immigration, is about 2.1 children per woman far ahead of Russia (1.5), China (1.4), and the aggregate European Union (1.6). America is aging like all post-industrial nations, but at a far slower rate than its competitors.

The old misery index is at an all-time high.

Throughout 2008–2011, the world was plagued by costly riots, demonstrations, and strikes, from the so-called Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa, to the furor in Southern Europe over austerity measures, to little reported disturbances in China over everything from censorship and government confiscation of property to shoddy construction and government indifference to natural catastrophe. In contrast, the Occupy Wall Street protests were minuscule in numbers and, in many instances, peaceful. The Tea Party protests were likewise orderly and almost immediately led to peaceful political change in the 2010 midterm election.

In truth, the unique American Constitution and the two-party system grant America a degree of political stability simply unknown abroad. We lack the chaos of dozens of small parties and shaky political coalitions found in Europe, the brutality of Middle East dictatorship, and the authoritarianism of Russia and China. A multi-racial, multi-ethnic America suffers little of the religious strife found from the Middle East to the Balkans. There is little of the ethnic factionalism in America that is so common in Arab and African countries. And the aristocratic and class impediments to upward mobility that plague India and still bother the European Union are largely absent in the United States. American stability reminds investors that their money is safer in the United States, and translates into fewer economic losses due to social unrest.

The United States still possesses vast timber, agriculture, and mineral resources. In the last five years, its known fossil fuel reserves—petroleum, natural gas, coal, tar sands, and shale—and the ability to exploit them seem to have expanded twofold. Some forecasts suggest that should the United States develop all of its new known sources of energy in the American West, Alaska, the Dakotas, and offshore, it might have the ability to produce two-thirds of its daily carbon-based requirements within five years—a stunning and largely unforeseen development that will create millions of new jobs and cut drastically the current half-trillion-dollar cost of importing petroleum.

The recent nine-month-long Libyan War illustrated that NATO’s two most significant military powers—France and Great Britain—remain light-years behind the United States armed forces. True, China is developing an aircraft carrier, but it lacks the expertise and wartime experience of American carrier forces. We currently deploy 11 carrier battle groups, each one far more powerful than all the commensurate carrier groups of all the nations in the world put together.

It was common to suggest that the American military was “broken” in Iraq; in fact, enlistments are currently at record numbers, as all four branches of the military in 2010 met or exceeded their recruitment goals. The American military has trained an entire generation of officers in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose knowledge of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism is unmatched elsewhere in the world. In every category of military technology—armor, artillery, aircraft, ships, missiles, drones, robotics, small arms, and space—America remains far ahead of both its allies and rivals.

National decline is rarely the result of uncontrollable factors.

Recent surveys of higher education place American universities overwhelmingly in the top twenty internationally. In many surveys, California alone—Cal Tech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCLA—has more of the twenty top-ranked universities than any other nation in the world. Even during the supposed American downturn, most of the world’s largest corporations—Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobile, Chevron—remain American. It is unlikely that an Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google could have originated in Germany, Russia, China, or Japan, given their more highly regulated economies, less vibrant popular cultures, and less impressive universities.

All of this good news is not to deny that America does not have serious problems of an aging population, unsustainable entitlements, a clumsy tax system, growing regulations and impediments to business, disturbing ethnic and racial tribalism, and uncompetitive K-12 public schools. But we must interpret our current crises in two contexts: the manner in which the American political and social system can identify and address such challenges and the degree to which these same problems challenge our competitors.

By those standards, our recent history suggests that Americans can react quickly to serious threats. Bipartisan efforts piled up three consecutive budget surpluses from 1998 to 2000. Federal protocols prevented another massive terrorist attack in the decade following 9/11. High-tech corridors and idiosyncratic entrepreneurs have provided the world with innovative products like the iPhone, Google searches,  and discount shopping, whether of the Wal-Mart, EBay, or Amazon sort. Surging in 2008 saved a lost war in Iraq. America’s new drone forces can kill terrorists almost anywhere in the world. American engineering developed petroleum fracking that can vastly expand recoverable oil and gas. And the U.S. government helped save the financial system after the 2008 meltdown in a way that the European Union seems still incapable of doing.

This characteristic ability of the United States to respond to challenges, reinvent itself, and rebound is not to suggest that American preeminence is guaranteed in the coming decades. Rather, it means only that our destiny is in our own hands, should we have leadership that is intent on ensuring American predominance. The current rise of world hegemons like India and China recall similar warnings of a Nazi Germany in the 1930s, a postwar Soviet colossus of the 1950s and 1960s, a supposedly dominant Japan, Inc. during the 1970s, and a purportedly more moral and vibrant E.U. of the 1990s and 2000s. In every instance, the new ascendant rival eventually proved wanting in comparison to the United States. In other words, it is our decision whether China becomes our master or recedes, as did former twentieth-century competitors to the United States such as Germany, Russia, Japan, and the European Union.

In 2012, the public should ask the presidential candidates whether they believe America should accept a new role as merely one of many, or will they take the necessary steps to ensure our country’s traditional preeminence—as our perennially rebounding nation has done so often in the last seventy years.

Innovation and American Exceptionalism

One of the underlying cultural characteristics that supports our ability to remain exceptional, from the boardroom to the battlefield, is that Americans still have a healthy respect for the exercise of personal initiative.

It is the basis of our innovative strength. Central Planning didn't tell the two Steves to build the Apple 1 and its descendants. It wasn't a policy statement from a bureaucrat that led Herb Kelleher and his associates to make Southwestern lemonade out of Wright Amendment lemons and show the big birds how to make an airline profitable. It wasn't a majority vote that initiated the actions of men and women who changed the landscape of commerce in my lifetime, from Sam Walton to Jeff Bezos.

While we still respect personal initiative, today there are powerful forces arrayed against it in America. These forces threaten the golden goose of American personal initiative. Still, they have not choked it off (yet). As long as we maintain our respect for such initiative, we will remain exceptional.

--Rich Casebolt