I have been preparing Lament for America: Decline of the Superpower, Plan for Renewal for several years. I am a Californian who attended public school in the San Francisco Bay Area when these schools were considered among the best in the world. Today, California, with 37 million people and the world’s 8th largest “national” economy, has some of the worst-performing public schools in the country and the lowest state government bond rating in the U.S., even lower than the bond ratings of Kazakhstan and Lebanon.
An adage asserts that “as California goes, so goes the nation.” If this is true, the United States will face some difficult headwinds in the foreseeable future.
Lament for America pinpoints three critical headwinds facing the United States: (1) the rise of competitor nations or groups of nations such as China and the European Union; (2) the potent combination of globalization, rapid technology change, and creative destruction; and (3) 15 major “fault lines” within the U.S. itself.
In abbreviated form, the 15 fault lines include: (1) Beltway follies; (2) a corrosive campaign financing system; (3) massive government debt; (4) a burgeoning external debt and the dwindling importance of the U.S. dollar; (5) an unsustainable entitlement explosion; (6) unaffordable health care; (7) a faltering educational system; (8) the plight of the American household; (9) a new Gilded Age and Wall Street’s debacle; (10) infrastructure deterioration; (11) intergenerational strife and festering cleavages; (12) a dysfunctional immigration system and failure to attract the best and brightest; (13) haphazard federalism; (14) general apathy and paucity of civic engagement; and (15) an overextended U.S. foreign policy.
Tom Brokaw referred to those who fought in World War II and constructed the post-war international system as the “greatest generation.” In no way can similar praise be heaped on those who directed U.S. affairs over the past generation. In the words of Linus van Pelt from the Peanuts’ comic strip, “there’s no problem so big you can’t run away from it.” A whole generation of leaders situated in Washington and in many state capitals has wholeheartedly embraced this advice.
Americans and many others around the world are likely to experience more dramatic change in their lives over the next few decades than at any other time in human history. Some experts estimate that the human information base is doubling every six years, with a group of IBM scientists even predicting that the base will soon double every 11 hours. In 2050, what will be the standing of the United States in a vastly changed world, and how will national governments, peoples, businesses, and civil society interact with one another?
Lament predicts that the United States as a superpower will decline in relative terms between now and mid-century. The big question will be the severity of the decline. For example, a mild relative decline globally which still leaves Americans with a much better quality of life at home would not be catastrophic at all. A more precipitous decline, however, would result in shockwaves reverberating around North America and the world in general.
The book also includes a chapter highlighting the many positive features of America and then provides specific policy recommendations on how to surmount the fault lines – recommendations which will be extremely painful in the short term.
The fate of the United States still resides primarily in the hands of the American people. Throughout history, those who settled the United States have tended to be a resilient and resourceful people, able to adapt creatively to a plethora of challenges. Can they do so again, or is their nation, arguably considered as the most powerful superpower in history, on the same downward trajectory as Great Britain early in the 20th century or Rome in the 3rd century?
Earl H. Fry, Professor of Political Science and Endowed Professor of Canadian Studies, BYU