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American Decline

Is it Avoidable or Inevitable?

“We’re not going to bail our way out of this crisis, we’re not going to stimulate our way out of this crisis, we are only going to educate, ultimately, and imagine and invent our way out of this crisis.”
—Thomas L. Friedman, Meet the Press

 

“By 2020, the U.S. will be spending $1 trillion a year just to pay the interest on the national debt.
Sometime between now and then the catastrophe will come. It will come with amazing swiftness.”
—David Brooks, The New York Times

On the same week[i] the White House released its prediction that unemployment will get even worse every year in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Friedman and Mandlebaum’s book entitled That Used to Be Us focused the national dialogue on the deepening decline of the United States.

Fortunately, Freidman and Mandlebaum also outline a plan for how America can come back soon.

Harry S. Dent’s newest book, The Great Crash Ahead, further elaborates on this topic.

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s argument goes something like this: the United States is in serious trouble because of four great trends that are bringing massive change.

Our decline didn’t start with the housing crisis in 2008, but back in the late 1980s at the end of the Cold War.

 

Four Trends

First, according to Freidman,[ii]

“We made the worst mistake a country or species can make, at the end of the Cold War, when we misread our environment. We interpreted the end of the Cold War as victory…not understanding that it was actually the onset of one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a country.

“We had…unleashed two billion people just like us. But the nineties turned out to be quite a party thanks to the peace dividend, thanks to the massive productivity boost of the Internet and thanks, most importantly in many ways, to the collapse in oil prices, which was like a huge tax cut.”

Second,

“9/11 set us on a really bad course. We spent the last decade—in many ways necessarily, in many ways excessively—chasing the losers from globalization rather than the winners.

“And we made up for a lot of the fall behind…by basically injecting ourselves with steroids. Just as baseball players did it to hit home runs, we injected ourselves with credit steroids, creating a huge housing boom and construction boom to create jobs.”

Third,

“The number of people who can compete, connect and collaborate exploded in the last decade. You know,”

Freidman continued,

“I wrote a book in 2004 called The World is Flat, which was about this connecting of the world. We’ve gone from connected to hyper-connected…. When we sat down to write this book, I actually went back to The World is Flat, I looked in the index, and I realized that Facebook wasn’t in it.

“When I said ‘the world is flat,’ Facebook didn’t exist, or for most people it didn’t exist, Twitter was a sound, the Cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking place, Linked In was a prison, Applications were what you sent to college, and for most people Skype was a typo…

“That all happened in just the last seven years. And what it’s done is taken the world from connected to hyper-connected. And that’s been a huge opportunity, and a huge challenge.”

Fourth, we’ve witnessed a huge generational shift.

“We went from the Greatest Generation, whose philosophy was basically to save and invest, and we are still living off their saving and investing, to basically the Baby Boomer generation, whose philosophy turned out to be ‘borrow and spend.’

“And we’ve really shifted from a generation born in the Depression, World War II and the Cold War—these were serious people, they wouldn’t think of shutting down the government for a minute—to a generation…that is much less serious.

“We’ve gone from basically the values of the Greatest Generation…to a Baby Boomer generation whose values are situational….

“You put them all together, and I think you really account for a lot of the hole we’re in right now…”[iii]

The book goes in more depth on each of these themes. More importantly, the book outlines some well-considered solutions.

For example, major employers, according to Friedman, are “all looking for the same kind of employee now: Someone who can do critical reasoning and thinking…who can adapt, invent, and reinvent the job, because in this hyper-connected world change is happening so fast. You know, there are companies now in Silicon Valley that do quarterly employer reviews…because their product cycle is changing so fast. You can’t wait until the end of the year to find out you have a bad team manager.”[iv]

Clearly, Freidman argues, education has got to change—it’s been too rote, and now it needs to prepare thinkers, leaders and innovators.

This is a hard job for an industry made up of mostly non-entrepreneurial, deeply security-minded types.

“What we argue in the book…going forward there really are just going to be two kinds of countries in the world: HIEs and LIEs: High-Imagination-Enabling countries and Low-Imagination-Enabling countries.

“Forget Developed and Developing….

“We’re not going to bail our way out of this crisis, we’re not going to stimulate our way out of this crisis, we are only going to educate, ultimately, and imagine and invent our way out of this crisis.”[v]

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s analysis is much needed in our current nation.

We train our youth not to take risks, and to get the “right” answer rather than the wise answer.

These two big problems are a serious challenge.

Without wise risk, prosperity and leadership are impossible.

 

Friedman’s 5 Pillars

The authors of That Used To Be Us note that the United States won at every major historical turn because we followed what Friedman called “the 5 Pillars”:

1-“Educate our people up to and beyond whatever the level of technology is…

2-“Immigration. Attract the world’s most talented and energetic people…

3-“Have the world’s best infrastructure…

4-“Have the right rules for incenting, capital formation and risk taking…

5-“Government-funded research.”[vi]

Note that these five form a powerful private society where the government maintains the right rules and incentivizes free enterprise.

All five have significantly decreased since the year 2000, really since 1989, and today the Right is strongly against 2 and 5 while the Left is adamantly against 4.

Both are caught in the trap of trying to accomplish 1 and 3 using the same old methods that haven’t worked for over two decades.

No wonder we’re in decline.

We’ve stopped doing the most important things that brought America’s original and lasting successes.

The Left pushes too strongly for government-only solutions while the Right rejects any government role.

As journalist Paul Gigot noted,

“The irony is, of the past thirty, forty years, that the prestige of government has collapsed most rapidly when government has tried to do…far more than it is capable of doing.

“Government prestige increased under Ronald Reagan, the great supposed enemy of government, because he showed when you focused on a couple of things and did it well, and got the economy growing, that people said, ‘You know what, they’re competent there. It’s working.’”[vii]

We need government.

We need it to protect equal rights for everyone and maintain a system where all are treated equally before the law.

This encourages free enterprise, economic growth and improved prosperity.

Societies without such governments have little freedom.

Of course, the danger is that good government can become overbearing and put a damper on economic growth and success.

Today we have government that has clearly over-reached in a number of ways, and a backlash from the Right that wants little or no government.

We need to adopt a middle approach, good government that is, in a phrase used in the American founding, “strong and limited.”

Actually, in The Federalist Papers the term was frequently “vigorous and limited.”

We want a strong government, and at the same time we want a limited government. That is what good constitutional government is all about.

Many from the Right may consider the Friedman/Mandlebaum book a push for too much government just as many from the Left will wonder that it doesn’t push for more government solutions.

American citizens should take a step back and consider the proposals on their merits, however.

I don’t agree with every suggestion in this book, but I find a number of them to be well considered.

On the big topic, the broad concept that both government and the private sector must work together in their proper roles in order to get our nation back on track, I think the book is right on.

On the subject of education, this book is especially valuable. In truth, as the authors affirm, bailouts and stimulus packages—as necessary as they may be in certain crisis situations—will not solve America’s problems.

Real solutions depend on wise policy from government and mostly from innovation and leadership in the private sector.

Indeed, the best government can do is remove the current regulatory pressure on small business and allow the entrepreneurial American spirit to get our economy growing again.

Another recent book addresses these same issues from a different perspective.

 

Doom-and-Gloomers

I have long been a fan of the work of Harry S. Dent because his predictions, like those of John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler, have been strikingly accurate even though they have been more specific, and therefore more likely to fall short, than those from most other forecasters.

Dent argues in his latest book, The Great Crash Ahead, that “the great economic crisis of 2008 will likely return in 2012, or 2013 at the latest, and will be even worse.”

His analysis is alarming, but interesting. Note that Dent is not a doom-and-gloomer.

Remember, when multiple authors in the mid-1990s were predicting a major crash ahead, Dent published The Roaring 2000s, which forecast that the stock market would boom for the next decade.

He also said that the boom would increase until a shock and downturn in 2008.

For most of his career, Dent has taken on the doomsayers and offered a counter-intuitive forecast of economic boom ahead.

The fact that he said the cycles would turn in the other direction in 2008, and that now he says they’ll get even worse, should concern every American.

Dent wrote:

    • “Debt and stimulus is like any drug: it takes more to create less effect.”
    • “Deflation is the only possible scenario in the decade ahead.”
    • “The U.S. Dollar will appreciate and be the safe haven—not gold, silver, the Euro or the Swiss Franc.”
    • “Home prices will fall by 55% to 65% from the top before this crisis is over.”
    • “Stock [will] crash to between 3,300 and 5,600 on the Dow by the end of 2013, or 2014 at the latest.”
    • “Also, the crash will be worldwide, not just in the United States and Europe, as the dramatic China bubble comes to an end.”
    • “The trends for the coming decade are crystal clear: we are going to experience a deeper downturn and deflation in prices, not inflation. We call this the Winter season; it comes predictably once in a lifetime, currently every 80 years, which means that very few people will understand what is happening.”[viii]

Whether we face massive inflation ahead, as Ken Kurson has argued,[ix] or the deflation Dent predicts, the economic future promises to be challenging.

As Dent notes, from 1775 to the year 2000 Americans accumulated $20 trillion in private debt.

From the year 2000 to 2008 (latest numbers), we accumulated $22 trillion more—for a total of $42 trillion.[x]

No doubt this trajectory has increased since 2008.

Since the economic difficulties ahead follow patterns that we haven’t witnessed since the 1930s, most of the current common wisdom on economics is lacking or just plain wrong.

Unlearning is the key to times of change and transition,” Dent wrote. “What worked in a boom does not work in a downturn.”[xi]

Here are some of the things which have changed:[xii]

    • “It is your father’s economy”!
    • Don’t buy a bunch of new stuff—get out of the spending habit.
    • Make do with what you have.
    • Expect lower wages and lower prices.
    • Realize that debt is going to get a lot more expensive than it used to be.
    • Realize that assets and savings will be worth more over time.
    • Start thinking in terms of multiple streams of income.
    • “In the new world, management is the problem, not the solution.”
    • Entrepreneurship is in: “the coming decades and century will be seen as the age of the individual and the entrepreneur.”
    • Keep your business “lean and mean.”

Dent’s charts, arguments and analyses are a great read.

Add to this view the following thoughts from Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book, and we have an important look at the probable future in the years just ahead:

“No one should ever have to say ‘I am moving from America to Singapore because it is more hospitable to innovation and entrepreneurship.’ Just the opposite should be true. ‘You will know you’re successful,’ said PV Kannau, the India outsourcing entrepreneur, ‘if new companies in China and Brazil say, ‘We want to move our headquarters to America because that is the best place in the world to do business.’’

That’s not happening right now, because our regulatory and tax scheme is far from the best in the world….

“Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, a report such as this one would never have been commissioned. The United States was the best country in the world for business of any kind, the one with the largest and most open market, the most transparent legal system with the strongest property rights, the biggest and most efficient financial system, the most modern infrastructure, and the most dynamic ongoing research and development in almost every field. It was a magnet for capital and talent. No company of any size, indeed no company that merely aspired to international growth, could afford not to operate there, and none needed a consultant to tell it that.

“Now, alas, things are different. Over the past decade especially, American has changed, and not for the better.”[xiii]

How many more voices need to say the same thing before Washington listens?

Until we free up the American economy, reduce the red-tape and taxes on small business, and become the most inviting economy on earth, our economic problems will continue.

Many believe they will get worse—much worse.

The real tragedy is that all this is avoidable.

Free enterprise works.

America knows how to incentivize and encourage business growth. It’s time to get serious about restoring our free-enterprise economy—and soon!

The United States has one of the highest business tax rates in the developed world, and one of the most burdensome regulatory schemes.

Of course we can’t compete in such circumstances.

The question every American should ask is simply, why?

Why would the country that stands most for freedom in all world history now turn its back on the principles of freedom that made it great?

Why would we put our trust in bureaucracy, regulation and government rather than the proven dynamism of American enterprise?

 

We Can Only Ask, “Why?”

Whatever the answer, unless we make changes quickly the economic forecast ahead is dismal.

Friedman said America is like a nation turned upside down.

At the bottom is an enterprising people passionately seeking to overcome economic challenges with innovation, ingenuity and tenacity, while at the top is a government consistently blocking the entrepreneurial efforts of its people.[xiv]

Again, we can only ask, “Why?”

When Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers over two decades ago, many scoffed at his prediction that American hubris was leading to our eventual downfall—in the way so many great nations and empires of history have declined.

Even the leading voice of anti-decline, Joseph S. Nye, has suggested that many of Washington’s policies are making it difficult for the U.S. to remain the world’s economic leader.

Hopefully the solution won’t be as drastic as Friedman, Mandelbaum and Dent predict.

“Shock therapy,” they suggest, may now be the only effective way to change our country.

If this is true, we are in for rocky times ahead.

One thing is certain.

Friedman and Mandelbaum rightly argue that the best way out of this is not so much to study the fall of Rome, the Ottoman Empire, or other historical examples of what not to do, but to make a national focus of studying what worked best in our own American history.[xv]

We know the answers, because they are part of our national heritage.

It is time to put aside our modernist sense of superiority and admit that we want what past generations had economically and learn what worked for them.

It will work again, if we are willing to learn and make the needed changes, because the principles of freedom are timeless and powerful.

Decline is not inevitable, but only a wise people well-studied in the principles of historical success can avoid it.

We must become such a people.


[i] September 1-7, 2011

[ii] Meet the Press, September 4, 2011

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] From Harry S. Dent, The Great Crash Ahead.

[ix] See Ken Kurson, “Let Them Eat iPads,” Esquire, May 2011.

[x] Op. Cit., Dent.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us.

[xiv] Op. Cit., Meet the Press.

[xv] Op. Cit., Freidman and Mandelbaum.

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Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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Comments

  1. Lee Sherwood says:

    Mr. De Mille,
    Thank you for sounding the alarm bell and a call to duty. More than ever as Americans we must understand the complexity of problems we face and the serious precarious position we as a nation are in. Thank you for insight and comprehensive approach to helping us to understand the challenge we have before us and the solutions that individually and collectively work together to solve them.

    God bless you and your family and the work your organization is doing.

    Respectfully,
    Lee Sherwood

    Thank you for your leadership and

  2. Rick Fedrick says:

    Thank you Mr. De Mille,

    It is so unfortunate that a lot of Americans will not wait for someone else to do it…

    Your thoughts are well taken, I plan on buying your book.

    Rick Fedrick

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American Decline