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On American Decline

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It’s not really hyperbole to say that America has been obsessed with its own decline for almost the entirety of my life. Reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge (which covers the late Nixon and Ford administrations) helped confirm to me that conversations about American decline were in the air from when I was but a wee lad (ED- Maybe some connection between Farley’s birth and American decline; someone should investigate this). The sun dappled faux optimism of the Reagan years changed the form but not the nature of the conversation, which managed to survive as background noise even while the chief rivals of the United States (the USSR and to a lesser extent Japan) either collapsed completely or retrenched significantly. It’s such a part of our modern political conversation that the GOP candidate in 2016 premised his campaign on Making America Great Again, and everyone was aghast when the Democrat replied “Well actually America is pretty great already.”

All of this is strange given that the United States is a spectacularly wealthy country that isn’t in notable relative economic decline AT ALL:

The US economy is now considerably richer and more dynamic than the EU or Britain — and the gap is growing. That will have an impact well beyond relative living standards. Europe’s dependence on the US for technology, energy, capital and military protection is steadily undermining any aspirations the EU might have for “strategic autonomy”. In 2008, the EU and the US economies were roughly the same size. But since the global financial crisis, their economic fortunes have dramatically diverged. As Jeremy Shapiro and Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations point out: “In 2008 the EU’s economy was somewhat larger than America’s: $16.2tn versus $14.7tn. By 2022, the US economy had grown to $25tn, whereas the EU and the UK together had only reached $19.8tn. America’s economy is now nearly one-third bigger. It is more than 50 per cent larger than the EU without the UK.”

I don’t want to try to change anyone’s mind about the general trajectory of America; there are obviously severe problems with the political system, the US does quite poorly on a number of quality of life issues compared to Europe (although a lot of these comparisons are cherry picked with particular regions of Europe rather than the EU as a whole), the shrinking of the military and economic gap between the US and China is real (even if the Chinese economy faces some very severe obstacles)… but off the top of your collective head would you have guessed that the US has, in the past fifteen years, opened such a colossal economic gap with Europe? America’s biggest problem remains its own internal politics, although I must confess that reading Perlstein’s accounts of the 1960s and 1970s really makes you wonder about whether our current political situation compares unfavorably with that of fifty years ago.

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