America is rife with predictions of impending economic, moral, social and ecological apocalypse. It’s not for the first time: Virtually every generation of Americans has concocted its own scenario for the Republic’s final meltdown. Most of the time, declinists and doomsayers have ranged from tiny to significant minorities. On this particular go-round, however, Americans in far larger numbers have turned negative about the direction of the country—barely a quarter of the population now thinks we’re headed in the right direction. To an extent not seen since the early 1990s, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about almost everything. According to a July 27 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly two thirds, for example, don’t think life will be better for their children.To be sure, the current mood does have some basis in reality. We’re confronted with a seemingly clueless and inarticulate Administration, a looming energy crisis, a spate of unseemly corporate and political scandals, massive budget and current account deficits, and several festering foreign policy problems. Even so, today’s trendy Chicken Littles—with the loudest squawks coming from Washington and the Northeast Corridor—base their hysteria more on sentiment than reality. For all its problems, the United States retains enormous dynamism and excellent long-term prospects. As Yogi Berra once put it, “They say ya can’t do it, but sometimes that ain’t always true.” Indeed, the United States has done it, and can do it. How, then, to account for all the doomsaying? Perhaps the best way to begin answering this question is to take the measure of the declinist case. Pessimists Great and Small
Although polls show large-scale disaffection, there’s no denying that the current tide of negativism also extends to the highest perches of business and government, including those who have benefited most from our national fecundity. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have both declared us to be a nation in “decline”, as they justify their own shift of assets to China, India and other rising countries. Last year at the 2006 Davos Forum, Gates expressed his enthusiasm about China’s “brand new form of capitalism”, which is basically state-directed, market-oriented authoritarianism. His assessment was shared by his friend Buffett, who helped talk the dollar down back in 2004 and 2005.11.
Quoted in “Betting on China”, USA Today, February 17, 2005.
Wallerstein, “The Eagle Has Crash Landed”, Foreign Policy (July/August 2002).
Perhaps nothing has invigorated today’s declinists as much as the current energy crisis and concerns over global warming. Energy and environmental crises do constitute serious challenges, but our national track record over the past two decades suggests that as a society we have the ability to adapt without stepping off a cliff. In the 1970s American environmentalists widely predicted that our economy would be fatally slowed by rising energy prices and disappearing natural resources of all kinds. Instead, starting in the mid-1980s, the nation enjoyed two significant booms; energy and commodities prices have fluctuated up and down, but they certainly have not stopped the U.S. economy, or American society, in its tracks. None of this, however, is interfering with the current bull market for books melding decline with impending ecological disaster. Best-sellers like the scholarly Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2004), the late Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead (2004) and Al Gore’s multimedia eco-barrage focus on the ecological roots of our imminent journey downwards. The even more inflammatory James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005), warns of an impending energy shortage that will result in “a crack-up of the nation.” His scenario goes beyond mere relative decline: He sees us hurtling back toward agricultural subsistence. Like many of the Left’s declinists, he is almost giddy at the prospect of the downfall of America’s suburbanized, car-oriented culture. “Let the gloating begin”, he writes. As the Bush era unravels, many conservatives also seem to be falling into an increasingly foul, pessimistic temper. Paul Craig Roberts, Kevin Phillips, Samuel Huntington and Pat Buchanan have all expressed concerns about an erosion of republican virtue, entrepreneurial ingenuity and our supposed Anglo-Saxon national ethnic identity. Like conservatives through history, they mourn what they perceive as a glorious but fading past, and they fear for the future. The most widespread form of right-wing declinism, however, comes from religious fundamentalists, with far more numerous adherents than either classic conservatives or newly greened environmentalists. Books like Hal Lindsey’s 1970 The Late Great Planet Earth and the more recent Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins—arguably the most popular novels ever published in America—follow a script even grimmer than Kunstler’s, with much of humanity facing starvation, rampant disease and ecological ruin, not to mention a highly unpleasant confrontation with the Antichrist himself. A Short History of American Declinism
The volume and diversity of the current literature is enough to suggest that the whole country would be wise to get hooked on Prozac. Yet there’s another, less pharmaceutical remedy: Look at the past. After all, the United States has been often in trouble, yet somehow we’ve managed to get out of each mess and end up stronger for having made the effort.This assessment is not an assertion of faith, blind or otherwise, in either party in Congress, the Bush Administration or the brilliance of America’s business leaders. It is born instead from an understanding of America’s fundamental strengths, which include assets no other country in the world possesses: A deep-seated spirit of ingenuity and robust demographics, including a resourceful stream of ever-assimilating immigrants, combined with the world’s largest, most productive expanse of arable land. (The United States, for example, has not only more arable land than any country but has nearly six times as much per capita as China and four times as much as India or Germany.) Together, these strengths give America what one Japanese scholar, Fuji Kamiya of Keio University, has described as sokojikara, a reserve of strength that allows it to overcome both the inadequacies of its leaders and the foibles of its citizens. In its first decades, of course, the Republic didn’t know its own strength. During the chaotic era of the Articles of Confederation, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and other Founders feared that the republican experiment was quickly foundering, as the nation seemed about to self-destruct from its inability to form a bond of common interest. Only with the creation of the Constitution, Franklin wrote in 1787, could he feel assured that the new Republic was “a rising and not a setting Sun.” The Constitution was only one example—of political provenance—of the ingenuity that has been the key to American adaptation to challenges. On the political front, too, the United States quickly emerged stronger from the Civil War, and thrived through the Progressive era, the New Deal, the war against fascism and the successful forty-year struggle against communism. Of economic provenance, this ingenuity was manifest in the building of the canals, railroads, highways and other infrastructure that knit a huge country together. Yet all the while, there has been a deep vein of opinion, particularly among the intelligentsia, dubious about the nation’s future. Consistently, the hotbed of this sentiment has rested in New England, the region that, as much as any other and more than most, gave birth to the Republic. In some ways this is understandable. By the early 1800s, economic and political power was shifting from Massachusetts and other New England states to mercantile centers like New York and, more particularly, the rough western frontier. As early as the Jefferson Administration, American Brahmins such as George Cabot of Massachusetts suggested that the Republic was doomed to decline because of the rise of “levelers of public authority, war, order and law.” A decade later, some New Englanders were so fed up with the increasingly populist Republic that they considered bowing out of the Union itself. Their conditions, spelled out in the 1814 Hartford Convention, involved restrictions on the power of the agrarian masses in favor of higher-minded, better-educated and propertied members of the population—in other words, people such as themselves. As the century wore on, pessimism about the American experiment spread to the nation’s other old aristocracy, the slave-owning patricians of the South. Like the New Englanders, the Southern upper classes saw their vision of America eclipsed by the inexorable political and economic power flow to the industrializing North and the expanding West. The South, as South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun put it shortly before his death in 1850, was left without “adequate means of protecting itself” and tried, unsuccessfully, to detach itself from the Union before it was too late. But perhaps the best historic parallel to today’s crisis of confidence lies in the period around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Then as now wrenching changes threatened the stability of the Republic. The period was marked by a massive shift from a predominately agricultural society to an industrial one, dominated by finance capital. This, many felt, was turning a relatively egalitarian society into an increasingly class-bound one. At the same time, the nation was absorbing, as it is today, a massive wave of immigration, much of it coming from countries with seemingly incompatible cultures. In 1891, for example, Francis A. Walker, a former Superintendent of the Census, questioned why the nation was scooping up “every stagnant pool of European population, representing the utmost failures of civilization, the worst defeats in the struggle of existence, the lowest degradation of human nature.”33.
Walker, “Immigration and Degradation”, Forum (August 1891).
Another prominent critic of immigration, Madison Grant, warned that these diverse multitudes augured the “passing of the great race”—his own—and would no doubt bring the country to a ruinous end. A founder of both the New York Zoological Society and the Save the Redwoods League, Grant was a respectable product of his times and expressed widely held convictions. He believed American institutions would never be able to “obliterate immemorial hereditary tendencies” of the new immigrants. “These immigrants”, he warned, “adopt the language of native Americans; they wear his clothes, they steal his name; and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals.”44.
Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916). This unease about ethnic change paralleled growing concern about other economic and social trends. Many intellectuals portrayed the emerging new society as unjust and banal. Edward Bellamy’s highly influential Looking Backward (1888), set primarily in a socialist utopia in the year 2000, looked back at late 19th-century Boston as “this horrible babel of shameless self-assertion and mutual depreciation” resting upon a “stupendous system of brazen beggary.” Such concerns were felt far beyond the chattering classes. The yeoman farmer, the supposed bedrock of republican values, was finding himself increasingly marginalized by railroad combines, grain speculators and global markets. The rapid consolidation of many industries led to growing fears about the survival of small enterprises and the character of the communities that hosted them. In both city and country, corporate scandals, growing concentrations of wealth, and the gradual erosion of the middle class emerged as major issues that were seen as undermining American democracy. Writing in 1907, Theodore Roosevelt suggested that “trickery and dishonesty in high places” had led to “a spasm of lack of confidence” among Americans. Roosevelt and others struggled to control these excesses of capitalism. Reformers like Jane Addams, as well as religious institutions and political parties, worked to integrate an ever more heterogeneous population. And although the process was rarely smooth, the nation ultimately rose to the challenge. Between 1900 and 1950 successive waves of reform—first under the Progressives, then under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman—helped restore confidence in the political and economic system. Institutions like public schools and government programs like the G.I. Bill helped to open up opportunities for the children of immigrants. By the end of World War II the supposedly “unassimilable” newcomers had integrated into America in a way unimaginable to the likes of Francis Walker, Madison Grant and so many others. And American capitalism, reformed but also emboldened, proceeded to create both enormous wealth and a pattern of upward mobility unprecedented in world history. Foreign Demons
For much of the 20th century, foreign threats to America outweighed the challenges faced on the domestic front. Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union all loomed as intimidating and, to some, more aligned with the future, particularly during the Depression years of the 1930s. Some, such as Pennsylvania Senator David Reed, suggested that “if the country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.” Charles Lindbergh and other conservatives saw Hitler as the true face of human progress. Many others, particularly among the intelligentsia, viewed the Soviet Union as the model to embrace. Yet over the course of the 20th century the United States not only defeated Germany and Japan, but then successfully challenged and defeated the Soviet Union in a protracted Cold War. The sources of American strength were manifest: entrepreneurial ingenuity; a large, diverse and energetic population; and an enormous resource base.Not everyone assumed the United States would win these struggles. By the mid-1950s, for example, surveys revealed that a majority was convinced we were losing the Cold War. Indeed, even as late as the 1980s, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith was among those who thought the Soviet model successful enough that we would enjoy an eventual “convergence” between our systems. Oddly enough, throughout the final decade of the Cold War, particularly in policy, academic and media circles, few believed that the United States was getting the upper hand almost until the moment the Berlin Wall fell. When victory came, it caught much of academia, the press and the intelligence community by surprise. This lack of faith in the American prospect was based less on an assumption of Soviet superiority than on a belief—particularly after the Vietnam disaster—that the United States had entered a period of sustained secular decline. The 1970s were a peculiarly pessimistic decade. It is not surprising, as the journalist Nicholas Lemann noted in the New Yorker, that Jimmy Carter, the culminating president of that era, was our most dour and negative chief executive. The era was one of seemingly all bad social trends—more crime, more children born out of wedlock (three times the percentage in 1978 as in 1960), more illegal drug use and abuse, too. No wonder it was Carter who gave the famed “malaise” speech on July 15, 1979, speaking of “a crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will.” Many economists, intellectuals and pundits interpreted this fall from preeminence as the harbinger of inevitably continuing decline. In his widely praised The End of the American Era (1970), Andrew Hacker proclaimed that “America’s terminal hour had arrived.” War, racial conflict, declining economic prowess and the nation’s perverse “egotism” guaranteed that the nation “will never again experience the stature it has so recently known.” Yet if moral decay, political stasis and crime in the streets were signs of decline in 1970, much of the declinist analysis reflected a reaction to the erosion of America’s unusual, and unsustainable, economic supremacy just after World War II. Over the next twenty years, this line of thinking gained ever more adherents. As in the 1930s, many also now turned to foreign models. New England luminaries such as Lester Thurow, Robert Reich and George Lodge played a critical role. In book after book they issued jeremiads attacking American ways of doing business, urging us to adopt superior Japanese or European models. Their conclusions about how the country should be run rested on the assumption that, as Reich wrote in The Next American Frontier (1983), the recent progress achieved by Japan and several European countries, and America’s relative decline, require no convoluted explanations. For largely historical reasons these countries are organized for economic adaptation. For largely historical reasons, America is not.
Particularly popular was the notion, promoted by analysts such as former U.S. Trade Representative Clyde Prestowitz, that Japan was about to become the leading superpower. America was not enjoying a Reaganite “morning”, Prestowitz wrote in his 1988 Trading Places, but was now entering something more like “dusk.” The country, he pronounced, “had traded places with its former protégé—Japan.” Even as the country enjoyed the long Reagan boom, the gravediggers of the American dream were now everywhere. “Japan is replacing America as the world’s strongest economic power”, Lawrence Krause, a scholar at Brookings, told the Joint Economic Committee in 1986. “It is in everyone’s interest that the transition go smoothly.”Krause, Reich, Lodge and Thurow, unlike Hacker, were not marginal academics of the fringe Left. They were all important thinkers with influence at the highest levels of the Democratic Party. Krause served on the senior staff at the Council of Economic Advisers from 1967 to 1969 under Lyndon B. Johnson and spent more than twenty years as a fellow with the liberal establishment bastion, the Brookings Institution. Reich was a major influence in liberal circles and on Bill Clinton, who would later appoint him secretary of labor. Thurow, former head of the MIT Sloan School of Management and for a time a member of the New York Times editorial board, has long been a major player in elite policy circles. They were also patriots, hoping to prevent the demise they feared was imminent. Many others, however, echoing Hacker’s 1970 diagnosis, held out no such hope. The great nonfiction bestseller of the era—Yale history professor Paul Kennedy’s 1987 tome The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—predicted that America would soon follow the trajectory of the late, great British Empire toward a “relative decline.” The boom times of the mid-1980s and the ebullient leadership of Ronald Reagan seemed to counter these notions, which had taken root mainly among Democrats. But by the end of the decade events were moving more in the declinists’ direction. The stock market crash of mid-October 1987 and the continuing Iran-Contra saga contributed to a fouler mood, such that Edward Mortimer, then a Financial Times foreign correspondent, saw a clear shift away from what he derided as “the bombastic self-confidence and self-righteousness of the middle Reagan years.”55.
Mortimer, “Reaping the Grim Harvest of Power”, Financial Times, October 27, 1987. By the end of the 1980s, this gloom had spread beyond the policy community and the intelligentsia to the broader public. Four in ten Americans, according to the pollsters, saw things getting worse in the next five years, twice as many as during Reagan’s high point in 1984. Three-fifths of Americans in George H.W. Bush’s term saw the country in “a state of decline.” The mood was ugly. America, wrote Henry Allen of the Washington Post, was “like a barroom drunk. One minute it brags about its money and muscle, and then for the next hour bleats into its beer about failure and hopelessness—from Mr. Big to a pitiful helpless giant . . . a huge, lumbering manic depressive.” The precipitous decline so widely predicted between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s did take place, only not where the doomsayers expected. By the end of the 1990s, not only was the Soviet Union gone, but Japan, Germany and much of the rest of Europe were clearly losing ground to America. Europe’s portion of world GDP between 1913 and 1998 dropped from 34 percent to 20 percent, while the U.S. share remained remarkably stable—except for the exceptional blip after World War II—with roughly 22 percent of global GDP. Similarly, America’s widely predicted demise in high-technology industries also failed to materialize. Reading the Reichs, Thurows et al. in the 1980s, one would have thought the next wave of technical advance was bound to occur in Tokyo, Frankfurt or Paris. Instead, the cascading high-tech revolutions of the late 20th century—semiconductors, personal computers, the Internet—found their heartland in California’s Silicon Valley, in suburban north Dallas and scores of other very American places. Even the Europeans have acknowledged that they are falling still further behind. This year, according to a European Commission survey, at the current rate of innovation it would take fifty years for the EU to catch up to the United States. Taken together, it’s clear that a generation of prominent pundits has been more wrong than right about the American economy. One indication has been the turnaround in productivity. Virtually every declinist tract spoke about declining U.S. output per hour, particularly compared to Europe and Japan. But since the 1980s, and particularly the 1990s, that equation has largely reversed, with the United States enjoying a considerable edge on virtually all its major economic rivals, including Japan. The gap is even widening. In 2005 the United States enjoyed productivity gains of 3.3 percent, according to Eurostat, the statistical agency of the European Union. That’s almost twice the rate of France and Germany and well above the British rate (yes, even dynamic Britain is struggling in this area). Europe now has an hourly output per worker some 20 percent below American levels, largely because of the much faster employment of information technology throughout the U.S. economy. Overall, Europe’s competitive position has weakened considerably. Since the 1970s America has created some 57 million new jobs compared to just four million in the EU, most of those in government. Since the 1980s, the United States has enjoyed consistently higher rates of economic growth and has enjoyed a preeminence in many critical global industries, particularly finance, technology and entertainment. According to the European Central Bank, today the Eurozone’s overall growth potential is roughly half that of the United States. Nor has this equation changed markedly since the beginning of the new millennium, despite 9/11 and the dispiriting Iraq war. Between 2002 and 2005 the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of nearly 3.7 percent, roughly twice that of Japan and France and five times that of Germany. To be sure, emerging China and India may pose greater challenges in the longer term, but history suggests no reason to believe that we will not be able to adapt to them, as well. Out of Gas?
Increasingly, the dominant factor in contemporary declinism lies not so much in comparative economic performance, but rather in doubts about our ability to respond to a shift in the price of energy. In this case, it is instructive to look back at the oil crises of the 1970s. Back then a big jump in oil prices twice ushered in a massive surge of pessimism, first in 1974 and again in 1979.The experts, then as now, were deeply glum. This was the era in which books published a short time before, like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth (1972), became prophetic gospel to many in the academic, media and policy worlds. Their claims about mass starvation, as well the imminent depletion of all gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum and gas resources, went largely unchallenged. The impact on America, which was widely seen as the primary culprit for these environmental disasters, was profound and felt at the highest levels. The Carter White House spoke openly of “an erosion of confidence in our future.” Conventional wisdom saw persistently high energy prices as foreshadowing decades of declining wealth and growing impotence. What really happened, however, was something quite different. Once chastened, Americans innovated their way out from under. After a few tough years, largely market-driven conservation measures, particularly a marked shift toward more fuel-efficient cars, appliances and manufacturing techniques, lessened U.S. dependence on energy for economic growth. During the thirty years since the first oil crisis, U.S. energy consumption grew by 25 percent while GDP expanded by some 150 percent. American industry was able to cut energy use dramatically through innovation. Steelmakers, for example, have managed to cut energy use per pound of product by 23 percent since 1990, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. Chemical and other industries recorded similar reductions in response to high energy prices since the 1970s. Higher prices—and the prospects of even higher future prices—will stimulate future reductions in consumption. Indeed, led by business-equipment makers, U.S. manufacturing production, despite the losses at the big three automakers, has been rebounding even as energy prices have surged.
Of course, this process has not been painless, for some parts of the country more than others. Companies slow to take advantage of the challenge, including much of the American auto industry, have suffered grievously. The 1970s also saw a drastic redeployment of wealth from old industrial centers like Detroit and Cleveland to Denver, Salt Lake City and other energy-producing regions. Virtually all 36 “rust belt” cities lost population during the 1970s. Between 1960 and 1990, for example, Detroit lost more than a third of its population and 300,000 jobs. In the same period, Houston replaced New York and London as the world’s energy business capital.To be fair, one can argue that the dire warnings about looming energy shortages, however overblown, did help push both industry and American society as a whole toward necessary changes. Certainly, the conservation ethic promoted by the environmental movement played a positive role, and could do so again. Yet what is equally important about the current energy challenge is its role in producing opportunities for American entrepreneurs and companies. Americans are, as history shows, a responsive, adaptive and ingenious people. And America is still a resource-rich country. U.S. territory, for example, still retains enormous energy resources, including coal and other fossil fuels. Hardly noted by the mainstream coastal media, business is booming in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, the great Permian Basin of west Texas, and offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, where wildcatters and energy entrepreneurs are finding ways to tap what many had thought of as exhausted fields. The Bakken shale oil field in the Great Plains alone has reserves estimated at 200 to 300 billion barrels, more than ten times the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, fields. Not all this oil may prove recoverable at an economically or environmentally feasible cost, but there are clearly massive reserves out in the country, including in traditional energy-producing areas. After a long period of slow domestic exploration, notes Houston-based Federal Reserve economist Bill Gilmer, the Texas rig count is surging—from 480 to 672 in just one year—and with it energy-related employment. Also critical, alternatives to fossil fuels are being developed. The country’s croplands are well suited for the development of biomass and ethanol production. Wind, solar and other technologies are gaining new interest from both companies and governments. As Washington and Wall Street slowly wake up to reality, entrepreneurs in Midland, Fargo, Houston and a host of other places are already moving toward solutions. Today, for example, there are scores of ethanol plants being built across the country, particularly in the Great Plains. An April 2005 USDA and Department of Energy report, Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry, concluded that the United States has enough land base to produce over 1.3 billion dry tons of biomass a year—enough to displace 30 percent or more of the current national demand for transportation fuels. This amount could be produced now, with only modest changes in land use and agricultural and forest management practices, and without harming U.S. production of food and fiber. We know this kind of shift is possible. Brazil’s renewable energy industry generates 43.8 percent of its power from renewable energy sources. Its ethanol program has displaced $120 billion worth of imported oil, comparable to a savings of almost $2 trillion for a U.S.-sized economy. Brazil also intends to substitute biodiesel for 20 percent of its conventional diesel within 15 years. To be sure, the rise in energy prices will again force some tough adjustments. But we seem far better prepared to succeed today than we were thirty years ago, in part due to cutbacks in driving made possible by telecommuting, a more advanced state of alternative fuel technologies, and far more efficient cars and appliances. Government policy can make a difference, too. First, it can stop doing net harm, as it has been for years by producing perverse incentives for change with bogus CAFÉ standards (corporate average fuel economy) and other forms of political malarkey. Given that any future administration will likely be wiser on energy issues than the present one, the outlook could greatly improve in the years ahead. We know this in California, where conservation programs dating back to the Jerry Brown era have kept demand of kilowatt-hours per person at the same level over the past thirty years, even as the rest of the country boosted its usage by 50 percent. California may not have succeeded in its goal of moving away from fossil fuels, as Brown intended, but it did manage to find policies such as incentivizing utilities, imposing energy-conserving construction methods, and requiring energy-efficient standards for appliances. Of course, this kind of sustained, positive response will receive little but scorn from environmentally oriented declinists. Like dispensationalists forced to keep pushing back the date of the Rapture, environmental activists like Kunstler and former oil analyst-turned-environmental zealot Jan Lundberg keep insisting that this crisis is the terminal one. Lundberg predicts a “Final Energy Crisis that rivals the most chilling denouements since the Book of Revelations.” She predicts “End time for U.S.A. . . . [in what] may be the swiftest empire collapse in history.”66.
Lundberg, “End-Time for U.S.A. Upon Oil Collapse”, Culture Change, June 17, 2005. She’s wrong, and not only because she misreads the energy situation. Perhaps nothing better illustrates that basic vitality of America than its demographics. People do not line up to occupy deck chairs on a sinking ship, and if they find themselves stuck on one, they sure don’t start having children. This has been true of great empires since Rome, which went into a severe demographic decline after the 3rd century C.E. The same observation can be made of other cities past their prime, such as Venice in the 18th century or of much of Europe since the 1970s. One reason for optimism is that Americans still insist on having babies. The U.S. fertility rate today is the highest in the advanced world—50 percent higher than Germany’s or Japan’s, and well above that of China, Italy, and virtually all of eastern and central Europe. In the next forty years, most of these countries will become veritable old-age homes with a third or more of the population over 65, compared with only one-fifth at that mark in America. Consider, for example, the contrast with our former rivals, the Russians. Thirty years ago, Russia constituted the core of a vast Soviet empire with many more people than the United States. Today, only a moron would adopt the Soviet system as a model of development and social progress. Even with its energy riches, Russia’s low birth rates and high mortality rates suggest that its population will drop 30 percent by 2050, to less than a third that of the United States. A similar demographic pattern is surfacing among some of our fastest rising competitors, including China, where the one-child policy sets the stage for a rapidly aging population by the mid-21st century. South Korea, meanwhile, has experienced arguably the fastest drop in fertility in world history, which perhaps explains their extraordinary, if scandal-plagued, interest in human cloning. In contrast, America’s great challenge will be that of accommodating growth, not dealing with demographic decline. By 2050 the United States will have a population of roughly 400 million people who will need to be integrated into a large but more crowded country. It’s not just a question of our growing numbers, but also of how to meld new elements into our national culture, just as occurred in the early decades of the last century. As then, our ethnic demography is shifting dramatically. By 2050 our population may be nearly 50 percent non-white, as opposed to 30 percent now. Many people today, like Madison Grant back then, see these changes as threats to American values. But sentient people who live around immigrant-rich neighborhoods dismiss such notions. Almost all children and grandchildren of immigrants choose to speak English—not Spanish, Chinese or Tagalog—as their everyday language. Sure, we may eat more tortillas and bok choy, but this is no more surprising than our 20th-century embrace of bagels, pizza and frankfurters. Our international rivals seem far less able to make this sort of transition. China, Japan and Korea are unlikely to welcome large-scale immigration, even if much of their labor force has to get to work in wheelchairs. Given Europe’s current massive problems with its immigrants—particularly after the riots last winter in France and violent controversies over Danish cartoons and erudite papal remarks—the Continent also seems ill-disposed to open its doors further. Perhaps worse, many young, talented Europeans may elect to escape the national nursing home by heading to the United States. Indeed, during the 1990s European immigration to the United States grew by some 16 percent, most heavily from the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Romania and, surprisingly, France. Many of these newcomers come from modest working- and middle-class backgrounds, but many of Europe’s best brains are also leaving. Some 400,000 EU science and technology graduates currently reside in the United States. Barely one in seven, according to a 2003 European Commission poll, intends to return. But the largest group of immigrants to the United States comes from Latin America, Africa, China and other developing countries. The UN estimates that two million people will move to developed countries (more than half will come to the United States) annually until 2050. Although U.S. immigrants are slightly less likely to be well educated than those who choose Australia and Canada, the United States remains by far the world’s most popular destination for educated, skilled migrants. The United States is home to more than eight million skilled immigrants, exceeding the total for the EU, Australia and Canada combined. Some of the best educated and most successful immigrants will no doubt go back home, particularly as their countries develop. But many more will stay, and for very mundane reasons, such as the chance to live in a dwelling larger than a shoebox, or perhaps to have more than one child. Others will cherish the chance to live their lives without worrying about the depredations of some party bureaucrat, caudillo or religious fanatic. These immigrants are not seeking to reserve a spot on the Titanic. They realize that, despite its many failings, America remains a country uniquely able to reinvent and re-energize itself—a country with sokojikara. Incompetent political leaders, the detached wealthy and clueless intellectuals will continue to predict gloom, doom and, above all, their own perspicacity. Of course we should listen to them and respect their arguments—and then get back to the work of building an even better America.
Quoted in “Betting on China”, USA Today, February 17, 2005.
Wallerstein, “The Eagle Has Crash Landed”, Foreign Policy (July/August 2002).
Walker, “Immigration and Degradation”, Forum (August 1891).
Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).
Mortimer, “Reaping the Grim Harvest of Power”, Financial Times, October 27, 1987.
Lundberg, “End-Time for U.S.A. Upon Oil Collapse”, Culture Change, June 17, 2005.