David Frum

01.31.12

In Defense of Cassandra (Updated)

There are reasons to be worried about America's relative decline.

Robert Kagan's "The Myth of American Decline" has received the kind of endorsement policy writers dream of.

Just hours before the State of the Union address:

[In] an off-the-record meeting with leading news anchors, including ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Brian Williams, Obama drove home that argument using an article written in The New Republic by Kagan entitled "The Myth of American Decline."

Obama liked Kagan's article so much that he spent more than 10 minutes talking about it in the meeting, going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will also discuss Kagan's essay and Obama's love of it Thursday night with Charlie Rose on PBS.

I caught up with Kagan's article myself on a recent plane ride, and I can see why the president was pleased.

The article offers valuable perspective:

Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, that “that used to be us.”

Kagan urges a tighter analysis, based on harder data.

Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system—all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic.

He sifts through statistics on GDP and military budgets to reach the conclusion: the sense of decline is mostly an illusion produced by recent bad economic news. The current gloom is no more realistic than late 1990s euphoria and will fade with the turn of the business cycle.

Yes, China's and India's shares of world GDP are growing. But it is Europe's and Japan's shares that are shrinking to accommodate them, not (very much) America's. Besides—China remained the world's largest economy as late as the early 1800s without exerting much political power. Yes, China presents strategic challenges to the US. But not as severe as those presented by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, the military budget is burdensome, but not burdensome beyond American means and (relative to those means) much less burdensome than during the 1950s and 1960s. 

So Americans can be reassured:

In the end, the decision is in the hands of Americans. Decline, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, is a choice.

You can see why an incumbent president would relish such a message. I relish it too. I sure hope it's right, and it may well be right. But here's my caution:

Kagan argues that those who foresee decline actually promote the end they fear.

Unfortunately, the present world order—with its widespread freedoms, its general prosperity, and its absence of great power conflict—is as fragile as it is unique. Preserving it has been a struggle in every decade, and will remain a struggle in the decades to come. Preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment.

There is truth there. But there is truth in the opposite reading too, that it is the message of reassurance that is the dangerous message.

The pillars of America's global power do look shaky today. True, they have looked shaky before. But before, Americans took action to restore those pillars. Today, not only is corrective action lacking—but many political actors are adding their own weight to shake the pillars even more.

My own question about Kagan's article is this: do the indicators by which he sets store —aggregate measures of US share of world output—tell us about the future? Or about the past?

The wealth of nations is based on the productivity of their populations. It is here that Americans have reason to worry—and a need to act.

An important counterpoint to Kagan's article is provided by another conservative writer, Heather Mac Donald, in the current City Journal. (article not yet online): "California's Demographic Revolution."

As we all know, California is leading a demographic transition that will remake all of America within the next three or four decades. The immigration policies of the recent past have substantially lowered the skill levels of the California population.

Mac Donald:

—"Hispanic underperformance contributes to California's dismal education statistics. Only Mississippi had as large a percentage of its eighth-grade students reading at the 'below basic' level in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); in eighth-grade math, California came in third, after Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage of students scoring 'below basic.' Only 56% of ninth-graders graduate in four years in Los Angeles; statewide, only two-thirds do."

—"[Al]though Hispanics will make up 40 percent of the state's working-age population by 2020, just 12 percent of them are projected to have bachelor's degrees by then, up from 10 percent in 2006. Moreover, their fields of academic concentration are not where the most economically fertile growth will probably occur. At California State University in 2008, just 1.7 percent of master's degree students in computer science were Mexican-Americans, as were just 3.6% of students in engineering master's programs. The largest percentage of Mexican-American enrollment in M.A. programs was in education—40 percent—despite (or perhaps because of) Mexican-Americans' low test scores."

Americans have tended to assume that these imported skill deficits will be corrected within a generation, or at most two. Increasingly, the challenge is looking much more intractable and more lasting - persisting into the fourth generation after immigration.

While more Latino households joined the California middle class in the 2000s, that appearance of upward mobility may have been misleading.

Mac Donald again:

"A 1996 study for Pepperdine University found that Latinos in Southern California achieved middle-class status by pooling wages from three or four workers in a single household rather than through an 'education-based meritocratic formula ...' "

I focus on Mac Donald's piece not to make a point about one particular group, but to drive home in a more vivid way that something is changing in the nation whose labor and taxes and military service support the security architecture celebrated in Kagan's essay.

Between 1900 and 1950, the United States rose to global pre-eminence. Maybe completely unrelatedly—but maybe not—over those same 50 years, the US remade itself as a more cohesive society, offering more opportunity to more people than ever before, diffusing education more widely than ever before in human history, spreading affluence to more people, generating astounding resources that could be mobilized for national purposes.

The recent trajectory of US society has been toward a different destination: more concentration of wealth and more restricted opportunities—and over the horizon a possible future of widening class divides and intensifying social resentments. Such a society may continue to generate resources, but it may suffer deteriorating ability to mobilize those resources when necessary.

When Charles Krauthammer says decline is a choice, he may have a point. But not all choices are conscious. We may will the end—non-decline—but if we fail also to will the means—the social basis for non-decline—our willpower may not avail.

— MORE TO COME—