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- Published on Amazon.com
People living in robust democracies are used to being bombarded by their academic and political elite about how their societies are often dysfunctional and are falling behind its rivals, friends and enemies. There is a predictable pattern to this negativism. In India, where I come from, it happens every ten years and at times even in five years. It has to do with the National election cycle. A political dispensation rules for five years after winning an election. If the economy does well during those five years, then there is optimism amongst the people and so the opposition does not get far by painting a 'declinist' picture about the future. In such a case, often the same party returns to power. Then, even if it performs reasonably well in the next five years, the public generally gets fatigued by the lack of 'change' over ten years and so the situation is often ripe for negativism and polemics. The opposition seizes on this mood and paints a gloomy picture of the economy and the polity and manages to come to power. This starts the same cycle all over again. This book's thesis on the frequent talk about America's decline has echoes of this phenomena. The author says that such talk often follows downturns in the American economy. Unlike India, the US is a global power and so, the talk is not confined just to the economy but also encompasses the 'shortcomings' in military parity with its rivals, decline in Math skills among its young and the rapidly advancing capabilities of its rivals.
Prof. Joffe takes us historically through this 'Declinism', starting from the angst created by the USSR's Sputnik launch in 1957, followed by the despondency created by the defeat in the Vietnam War and the associated anti-war movements amongst the young, then the oil shocks of the 1970s, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the challenge of Japan in the 1980s and finally, the rise of China during the past two decades. Each of these events in history resulted in conclusions about the US losing ground and going into decline and its rivals like Japan or China eventually taking over a leadership role in the world. With solid quantitative data, the author debunks all these fears and shows how well-placed the US is in continuing its dominant position in the world, be it the economy or the military or in Science, Engineering and Technology or in innovation. He goes so far as to say that he doesn't see any rival overtaking the US. As one interested in history, he does say that empires do rise and fall, but believes that in the case of the US, it is only the US which can bring itself down.
Though I do not have any major disagreement with the author on his arguments regarding the US' superiority over its rivals in research and development, science and engineering, military prowess and dynamism of the economy, I feel that the book focusses only on these advantages and not in the many other issues that keep cropping up in our social discourse. Globalization has certainly increased the prosperity of Americans but it has rewarded skilled technology workers disproportionately more than the less-skilled working class. As a result, we see the gap widening between the top 20% of income earners and the bottom 20%. The top 20% now earn 8 times the income of the bottom 20% and it is one of the extremes in disparity amongst advanced induatrialized nations. Then, there is the ever-increasing national debt and the resultant dysfunction in Congress to deal with it. We hear about the crisis in maintaining social security payments and support of Medicare in future while we see the politicians simply kicking the can down the road without dealing with these problems effectively. We see that the low-end jobs are gradually vanishing from the US, making it necessary for our young to get higher education in order to be employable in this country. But then, higher education has become expensive and the bottom 20% is not able to afford it easily, thereby making it difficult for their children to reap the fruits of Globalization. Nor do the young people receive much support from the Corporations or the govt to afford higher education. Instead, the Corporations want to fill the gap through immigration and push the Govt for reform in this sphere. If you add issues like climate change, snooping of the NSA on law-abiding citizens and the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians by drones in allied nations to this mix, we would conclude that though the US is dominant, it also has pressing problems to address in order to maintain this dominance. Unfortunately, the book mostly takes a neo-conservative approach of talking about military, economic and scientific advantages while paying less attention to social issues.
The book is certainly a good medicine for Americans who feel despondent about our future but would like to be convinced otherwise. However, I would think that the majority of Americans do feel optimistic about the country's future without diluting the many problems that the country needs to work on in order to keep its promise to its own citizens. Though the book has substantial quantitative information to bolster its arguments, it does not do much for people who never doubted America's future prospects. While talking about the Asian economies like Japan, China and India, the author seems to rely mostly on the sanguine ideas of academics like Kishore Mahbubhani, Robert Fogel, Fareed Zakaria, Parag Khanna and so on. My own impression of the ordinary citizens in Asian countries is that they are quite critical of the dysfunction in their own govts, lack of transparency in their economies and the lack of importance to creative thinking in their education systems. Viewed from Asia, America looks hardly in decline to the average citizen.