Is America on the Decline? Can it Rise Again? — Insight and counsel from James Fallows of The Atlantic

We are in the midst of a lot of soul searching right now.  As a nation, we are worried that we have lost our way.

It turns out that this practice is a very American one, so it is no surprise that it is happening again.

The book that I have presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis that deals most directly with this issue is The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria.  I have blogged a number of times about this book.  (For example, here).

James Fallows

In the latest issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows has a substantial, substantive, terrific article entitled: How America Can Rise Again. An award-winning author, Fallows also has lived abroad more than once, most recently in China.  So, he has an international perspective to bring to this question, and he begins the article with this:

Since coming back to the United States after three years away in China, I have been asking experts around the country whether America is finally going to hell. The question is partly a joke. One look at the comforts and abundance of American life—even during a recession, even with all the people who are suffering or left out—can make it seem silly to ask about anything except the secrets of the country’s success. Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town—yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.

He echoes a number of the concerns raised in Zakaria’s book, and provides a well-documented list of examples of the American acceptance of the validity of the Jeremiad“the bracing “jeremiad” tradition of harsh warnings that reveal a faith that America can be better than it is.”

One point made by Zakaria that Fallows reinforces is this:  the Post-American World is not a signal that America is in decline, but that the rest of the world is rising.  Here’s an excerpt from Fallows:

One kind of “decline” is inevitable and therefore not worth worrying about. China has about four times as many people as America does. Someday its economy will be larger than ours. Fine! A generation ago, its people produced, on average, about one-sixteenth as much as Americans did; now they produce about onesixth. That change is a huge achievement for China—and a plus rather than a minus for everyone else, because a business-minded China is more benign than a miserable or rebellious one. When the Chinese produce one-quarter as much as Americans per capita, as will happen barring catastrophe, their economy will become the world’s largest. This will be good for them but will not mean “falling behind” for us. We know that for more than a century, the consciousness of decline has been a blight on British politics, though it has inspired some memorable, melancholy literature. There is no reason for America to feel depressed about the natural emergence of China, India, and others as world powers.

I read this on the same day that we learned that the automobile market in China has now surpassed that in the United States.  The growth of the economies of some of the world’s most populous countries is simply inevitable in a modern era.

Though the article points out a lot of problems (among them, our infrastructure is truly crumbling…), the Fallows article is actually encouraging, emphasizing a great belief in our future, because America is a place where the future can be built, changed, rebuilt, re-envisioned, over and over again.

But he does have a hefty warning of just what could be deeply wrong that can threaten our future.  I’ll let you read the article.  It provides quite a question to ponder.

This is one of the best essays I have read in quite some time!

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