“The Decline of America” Revisited

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WASHINGTON – Remember Yale historian Paul Kennedy and his 1987 tome on “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”? At that time there was a lot of interest in this fairly comprehensive narrative focusing on how all major western powers, primarily because of the huge cost of maintaining their Empires, suffered progressive economic decline and eventual decay. Thus Spain –in Kennedy’s argument– thus Great Britain and thus – inevitably– the US. The book sparked a spirited debate about the future of the US as the leading power of the century. The combination of a sputtering economy, strong Japanese competition and raising security expenditures necessary to maintain the American Empire would lead to bankruptcy and thus to the inevitable –if sad—retreat from global ambitions. Kennedy’s work contributed to a new self-reflective atmosphere that gave rise, among other things, to efforts aimed at investigating the soundness of the main pillars that sustain the edifice of America’s might. Think tanks, the Congress, and the Federal Government launched studies, initiatives and task forces on “US Competitiveness” –or lack thereof. The newly formed bipartisan Concord Coalition started warning Americans as to the structural damage caused by runaway deficits due in large part to the unstoppable growth of spending on entitlement programs.

So, according to the conventional wisdom of the late 1980s, we were overstretched militarily because of the Cold War security commitments highlighted by the 300,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe, as our most visible contribution to NATO and by the questionable idea of spending billions of dollars on the Star Wars program, that is space based ballistic missile defenses. We had lost our edge in economic innovation. We were assaulted by the Japanese bulldozer from the East. This was the time, we should remember, in which the trade deficit was about Japan; while Japanese concerns had started a buying spree in America that, according to many, even serious, observers, had all the markings of a progressive take over of our economy. Meanwhile the “Europe 1992” agenda, the solemn commitment on the part of the then European Community to pull down residual internal barriers and create a brand new, vibrant market, seemed to foretell a new era of economic primacy for the Old Continent, engineered behind the walls of a “Fortress Europe” that –it was feared– would exclude Americans. Here at home, because of misguided fiscal policies and unhealthy personal spending habits, we –the Government and the individual citizens– were slowly but surely drowning in debt. That was the picture then. It was the widely shared notion that the economy was on the verge of collapse, especially after the mild recession of 1991 that propelled technocratic Bill Clinton and his panoply of new, original economic ideas (never really implemented, by the way) to the White House.

But, in the meantime, the unexpected happened –on many fronts. 1989 did not give us just the promise of German reunification. It was the first shock wave that signaled the collapse of the Soviet Empire and thus the end of the major threat to US security. The final demise of the biggest existential threat was the justification to significantly cut defense spending and international commitments in the 1990s. This dramatic change, combined with a resurgent faith in small government, especially after the republican revolution of 1994 masterminded by Newt Ginrich, meant that runaway federal spending could be contained.

At the same time, without the support of any particular blueprint devised in Washington, the information revolution was unfolding. Rather than creating a new economy, the massive adoption of IT by all businesses meant a massive leap forward in the competitiveness of the US economy. We had spectacular growth year after year, record low unemployment and high tax receipts that gave us for the first time in decades a federal budget surplus. At the same time, without the US lifting a finger, Japan, because of its internal social, rather than economic, contradictions, fizzled, while the predictions of the rise of a robust, innovative and economically powerful Europe proved to be quite wrong. And so, we had the roaring ‘90s: a prolonged period of American unchallenged economic primacy. The US was first in everything: innovation in high tech, creation of new employment, record productivity increases.

But it all seemed to have ended somewhat ignominiously with the beginning of the new millennium. We have had the dot.com bust, accompanied by the Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and other well known corporate scandals which ushered the Wall Street contraction and the ensuing long bear market. The 9/11 attacks, occurring during this downward spiral certainly did not help.

And now, where are we now? There are disturbing signs that would indicate that Paul Kennedy and other were after all right in predicting decline. Only they were incorrect as to how close it was and what would cause it. The root cause is not “Imperial Overstretch”, but the erosion of US competitiveness due to lack of investments in both human capital and needed infrastructure, accompanied by the unstoppable growth of entitlement programs. Sure enough, at this time we also have a war. The prolonged Iraqi campaign has become stupendously expensive. But, regardless as to one’s own political opinion about the war, this commitment, in an as of itself, is economically affordable.

While a war and an increased Pentagon budget are a drain on public finances at the expense of productive investments, the real problems are in the same factors that were identified 20 years ago, at the time of the “competitiveness debate”, by most sensible analysts: a more and more expensive welfare state that cannot sustain itself financially, and the progressive erosion of the education advantage that made America the principal player in the knowledge economy. If we continue to follow the notion that large segments of the American society, mostly the elderly and the retirees, have an inherent right to subsidized benefits that represent an excessive drainage of national resources, the federal government, even assuming the ability to finance these obligations, will have nothing left for productive investments. The secondary public education system, in turn, provides mediocre graduates, while minorities, on balance, do a lot worse than the already low average. It is impossible to sustain this increasingly complex economy without a dramatic improvement in the quality of the labor force.

The fantastic explosion of the trade deficit is the manifestation of eroded competitiveness. The 40 billion dollar deficits that scared us about Japan in the 1980s are pocket change compared to the 220 plus billion that we have nowadays with China alone, (not to mention the increased cost of our energy habits: at 300 billion in 2006, higher than the cost of imports from China). 

Unfortunately, the argument on how to best rebalance our trade accounts has been successfully framed by a strange medley of simplistic romantics and demagogues who point the finger at the combined perils of free trade and outsourcing. By opening ourselves to foreign producers –so the refrain goes– we allow cheaper goods to come in. This means that US companies that have much higher costs go out of business or move overseas. Good American jobs go abroad because greedy corporations want to save money by having cheaper foreigners perform jobs previously held by higher paid Americans. The solutions advocated? Essentially close our borders, so that the jobs stay in and the foreign goods out. In this new era of global and irreversible interdependencies, the notion that this way we shall be able to regain, maintain and for ever keep our supposedly God given infinite prosperity is bizarre; but, nonetheless, it has strong emotional appeal.

However, if it is clearly futile to try and close our borders to keep cheap goods out or to prevent businesses from outsourcing, we still have a huge problem which is indeed caused by globalization. But not the globalization demonized by the protectionists. It is caused by the global spreading of the knowledge economy model developed first in America whose successful exploitation gave the US the edge for a number of years.

We have to come to terms with the fact that the genie of IT innovation has been out of the Silicon Valley bottle for a long, long time. We cannot restrict inventiveness and entrepreneurship –the key components of the American success story– to the American soil. The main ingredients of a knowledge based economy are transferable and so (despite copy cat failures and other clumsy attempts) they are transferred elsewhere today and more so in the intervening years.

True, the 1990s triumph of America’s reacquired competitiveness was due to a complex mix of factors that cannot all be easily reproduced. The lively, free wheeling, chaotic mixture of entrepreneurs, academics, venture capitalists and their interactions with established corporate entities that buy, absorb, invest in new ventures, as yet, has no equivalent elsewhere around the world, in terms of depth and scope.But some of its elements can be replicated. No doubt, by trial and error in time others will manage to produce adequately funded innovative clusters that will be able to quickly direct new discoveries to a hungry global marketplace.

The celebrated Bangalore example in India is illustrative. Leaving aside all other considerations, the Indians have managed to create and aggregate in productive clusters world class human capital (scientists, engineers, software programmers) and to harness it effectively in competitive IT enterprises. To keep things in perspective, we should remind ourselves that Bangalore is still mostly about outsourcing and not about innovation. Moreover, the whole Indian high tech phenomenon is only a small speck within a still primitive Indian economy which is constrained by inefficient administration and crumbling infrastructures. India has an enormous population that is still largely poor or very poor. So, the days of Indian supremacy are still in the distant future.

But Bangalore and other such examples around the world will multiply, as more and more people gain access to higher education, IT literacy and mundane computer and business skills that cannot be kept within the West and America. The very information revolution unleashed by the American genius becomes the vessel that greatly expedites the transfer of knowledge that will create new centers of excellence where none existed before. Furthermore, the Indian example proves that we do not need an economy that is overall highly developed to create islands of modernity that can compete on practically any level with counterparts in advanced economies. Indeed, centers of competitive high tech can be established even without the fertile ground of an already developed economy that has already successfully dealt with  macroeconomic issues.

These new enterprises, especially those established in business friendly developing countries where the cost of professional for many years to come will continue to be much lower than America’s, are bound to gain world market share, inevitably at our expense. If even a small fraction (as a percentage of the total population) of Indians and Chinese become good scientists, their absolute numbers will be sufficient to tip the balance. Our only hope to stay competitive is in continuing to invest in new technologies and new ideas so that superior innovative products and services will continue to be created in America.

But here we have a serious problem. Americans are so used to primacy that they do not believe that the ingredients that make this primacy possible need to be nurtured, refined and upgraded, especially now that we are confronted with new, capable competitors that have the added edge of a lower cost structure. (For instance, it has taken 20 years to the slow moving, no pun intended, automobile industry to have just recently what appears to be a collective awakening, with the active participation of the unions representing its thousands of workers. But it seems that only the specter of demise convinced the main players that dramatic cost cutting–be it salaries or health care benefits– is imperative in order to have a chance to compete. But, even if successfully implemented, these strategies are clearly not enough to get Detroit out of the woods. In the next few years we shall see whether the bitter cost cutting medicine will be accompanied by a new wave of creativity that is the real hope for recreating a competitive edge for this ailing sector). 

While discussions about the international economy abound, for the time being, we have not framed the debate in a way that will foster real progress. Unfortunately, to the extent that the general public has been brought into the conversation, it is fed gross distortions and oversimplifications pointing at the consequences of lost competitiveness, such as job losses. The conversation is mostly on allegedly bad trade policies and greedy corporations. If we could only change Washington’s direction on trade, all will be well. Indeed, the debate is mostly about identifying culprits and quick fixes. So, according to these critics, beyond the international trade policy incompetence (close to treasonous behavior), the enemies are the Asians, (yesterday Japan, today China) who do not play by the rules and the illegal immigrants who steal domestic jobs while depressing wages. This sort of populism may work with many constituencies in uncertain economic times; but it explains nothing about the causes of our ailments and its remedies would cure nothing.

The reality is that we have structural, systemic problems that need to be addressed now, so that we can begin to change course and hopefully improve our conditions for the long term. While the misbehavior of others is real (think of Chinese disregard for intellectual property rights and the ensuing flood of pirated software and counterfeit goods; think of the Mexican government actively encouraging the emigration to America of the country’s surplus labor), there are inherently domestic structural deficiences that slow down America and that have eroded its ability to compete. To name a few critical ones: a deteriorating education system, the unsustainable cost of the welfare state and the lack of a serious energy strategy.

Clearly the soft underbelly of America is a mediocre to bad education system right at the time when new, world class centers of higher learning are sprouting around the world. America for a long time nurtured domestic talent while, by design or by default, (think about the intellectual migration to America from Nazi occupied Europe), it was able to attract first class minds from around the world. After all, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller were not Americans. But they were welcomed in America and the American intellectual and scientific environment was able to absorb this talent and greatly benefit from it. In more recent years there has been a significant influx of gifted Asians. But now the pull of America is not as compelling as it used to be in the light of the fact that good opportunities exist elsewhere.

At the same time, it is now apparent that the American public education system, the incubator that should nurture the future scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs is at best mediocre, deeply flawed in its worst components and certainly inadequate to create the world class work force that will have to compete on quality, as costs already work against us. The existence of several world class universities is not sufficient to guarantee that the broader US workforce will be able to compete with increasingly more sophisticated foreigners. A sub par worke force will make it difficult to compete, let alone strengthen, our positions in high value added strategic areas.

While it is hard to admit it, a huge chunk of the old manufacturing base of America is either gone or going. We lost a lot of steel, machine tools; we lost footwear, apparel; we have disturbing signs that we cannot keep up in automobiles. We have a battle unfolding in aerospace. Still, American success stories in valuable, technologically complex industries (think of GE, 3M, United Technologies, Boeing among many others) show that, despite higher labor cost, superior quality, when it can be reinforced by constant refinement, still counts.

By the same token, we still have an edge in services. But this is entirely dependent on the continuous waves of IT innovation. If we are no longer on the forefront of IT, because we can no longer compete with increasingly more competent but much cheaper Indians and Chinese, we have lost the competitiveness contest.

Much has been said about the increased welfare costs due to the demographic changes that America is experiencing, along with most other developed countries. The question is whether it is smart, in the long run, to have a central government whose main function is to distribute benefits at the cost of everything else. Even now, while immediate solvency is not an issue, the federal government devotes relatively smaller portions of its resources to productive investments, given the weight of the entitlement obligations. As we all know, in the future this is only going to get worse. It is understood that taking something away from people who believe that they have earned a partially subsidized old age is extremely hard. But there is an opportunity cost in spending most of our revenues on welfare and little on competitiveness enhancing investments. Unfortunately few people enumerate the thousand of research projects or new infrastructure that could be financed by the federal government, assuming a reduction in entitlement programs.

The energy picture is dismal. We have excessive consumption, little and declining production and increased dependence on imports that is financially burdensome, while it creates a serious strategic vulnerability. What we need is not just the tinkering provided by this or that pork laden energy bill; but a bold new energy strategy that would set realistic goals regarding alternatives to hydrocarbons, while actively discouraging consumption through revenue neutral gasoline taxes. In doing so, America would free itself from this straightjacket, while possibly becoming the world leader in all new technologies related to alternative energy.

But in all these areas: education, welfare reform and energy, while there is a debate and many have offered sensible solutions, we are far from having reached the deep understanding that is the prelude to decisive action. While many are worried, most believe that things are more or less fine and that we have enough slack to muddle through.

In hindsight, similar historic circumstances characterized by a passive attitude that in effects allows the sliding into decay (and here we go back to Paul Kennedy) are recognized as due to a state of mind of myopic denial and complacency of people who have lost their way. But usually this is the verdict of historians. And when they pronounce it, it is too late to change anything.

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