February 9, 2009


Declining Declinism: Don't believe the historians and economists who say America's best days are behind us. (Daniel Gross, Feb. 7, 2009, Slate)

[H]aven't we heard some of this before? Twenty years ago, another young, Oxford-educated, Ivy League-employed historian (Yale) argued that America's best days were behind it, thanks to imperial overreach, excessive debt, and an epic financial bust. Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a best-seller when it was published in 1987—and went into paperback just as the Unites States was beginning to emerge from the Cold War as the world's only superpower and the hub of a globally integrated trading system.

The cry of creeping socialism has likewise echoed (falsely) through the decades. In 1935, the day after Franklin Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat about the need for Social Security and other regulations, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official accused Roosevelt of trying to "Sovietize America." The medical profession—and Ronald Regan—swore up and down that the passage of Medicare and Medicaid would transform the United States into an English-speaking version of the USSR. Those who fret about an era of slow socialism presume that our government is incapable of learning from mistakes and crafting intelligent policies. The prospect of an enhanced safety net wasn't incompatible with growth in the 1930s and 1960s, and it isn't now. And today, state ownership and control of private enterprise is a temporary last resort, not an enduring governing strategy. In Europe's social democracies, CEOs frequently welcomed government involvement because it protected them from competition. By contrast, U.S. managers can't wait to get out from under the government yoke. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have already started talking about how they plan to pay back the bailout money before the end of this year—so they can pay out humongous bonuses next January.

Things have been going downhill in America since the very beginning: Imagine the economic forecasts made in Plymouth in the bitter winter of 1619. In the early 1990s, a recession lengthened, executives took huge paychecks while firing thousands of workers, and Americans began to lose faith in the capitalist systems. No economist or historian stood up and predicted that globalization, intelligent fiscal and monetary policy, and this thing called the Internet would launch the United States into an unprecedented era of growth, prosperity, and rising asset prices.

If your own life is empty, the prospect that it is at least occurring at the end of time is a powerful lure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2009 1:22 PM
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