The Optimist

Three Cheers for Decline

Look on the bright side, America: Downgrading your global ambitions could make you a healthier and happier nation.

As the U.S. bond rating falls and the stock market plunges, the American Century looks to be well and truly over. While this has provoked no small amount of hand-wringing, Americans may soon come to enjoy no longer bearing the responsibility for running the world's indispensable nation.

The signs of decline are everywhere. Illegal immigrants are heading back home in search of a better life. China already leads the world in green technology and is about to become the world's biggest economy in terms of purchasing power. Two U.S.-led wars are dragging toward an end charitably described as: mission not completely failed. The United States was able to avoid default only by stopping pretty much all other government business for several weeks. And it's not only U.S. political and economic preeminence that is deteriorating, but its cultural hegemony: India's Bollywood and Nigeria's Nollywood are each producing more films a year than Hollywood (to say nothing of their superior artistic quality).

Of course, the United States still possesses greater military strength than any other country in the world. But what good has being the world's policeman done for Americans? Wielding that might meant the United States saw more combat deaths overseas last year than any other country, according to data from Uppsala University. Beyond the blood is the treasure: U.S. military spending increased 81 percent between 2001 and 2010 and now accounts for 43 percent of the global total -- six times its nearest rival, China. The U.S. military burden is equivalent to 4.8 percent of GDP, the largest economic burden of any OECD country.

It is no coincidence that the man who coined the term "imperial overstretch," Yale University historian Paul Kennedy, is British. Britain was the last country to get knocked off the top spot, after all -- and the United States could learn a lot from its experience.

Britain spent much of the 1950s pretending it was still a global power, which resulted in one of the country's grimmest decades -- food was still rationed until 1954. This exercise in delusion culminated in Britain's attempt to occupy the Suez Canal in 1957, an effort that was scuttled by the world's new ascendant power, the United States.

But it was only a year after the Suez crisis signaled the end of Britain's global reach that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared his compatriots "never had it so good." He was right: Average incomes, health indicators, and levels of education were all far better than in the glory days when Britannia ruled the seas. Then, after Britain gave up on empire -- decolonizing across Africa and Asia in the early 1960s -- they got the Beatles, the Mini, and free love.

Britain may still go on about "punching above its weight" in international affairs, and it has kept some of the trappings of great-power status, such as a seat on the U.N. Security Council and a small flotilla of nuclear submarines, but its burdens are significantly less momentous. Freed from the distractions of colonial oversight and global leadership, it could retire its planet-spanning chain of military bases, shrink the Royal Navy, and devalue the pound without fears that the world would come to an end. And the country learned to collaborate without feeling equal status was a slight to its dignity -- joining the European Union, for example, and signing the Kyoto Protocol.

Could the United States go down the same track toward contented (well, most of the time), pretty-good-power status? The British experience suggests that the first step is to accept you have a problem. The simple fact that Britain couldn't afford to keep its empire together after World War II helped forge that acceptance -- and it might resonate in the United States at the moment.

Perhaps Washington could take a baby step or two toward scaling back its global commitments by returning the defense budget to its Reagan-era average, a move that would save about $250 billion a year. Surely what was good enough for a world riven by the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact had 249 combat divisions and we lived in constant threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon, is also good enough for the United States today -- at a time when al Qaeda apparently has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. And it really would be a baby step: Even with a $250 billion cut, the United States would still outspend China about four times over.

Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans' minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care. After all, of the large economies that enjoyed a AAA rating from Standard & Poor's last week, the United States ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of life expectancy, and it was the only country without universal health care. Perhaps America could also spend a little more on basic education; the United States was at the tail end of the AAA club when it came to believing basic scientific truths like evolution, and it scored lowest out of all those countries on international tests of students' math skills.

The end of Britain's imperial ambitions allowed the country to abandon national service and just relax a little. Similarly, with less need to flag the martial spirit through adrenaline-pumping threat alerts and wars on terror, the United States could find a moment to reform its criminal justice system; another international indicator where the United States remains in the lead, after all, is in percentage of its population behind bars. And once America accepts it doesn't need to work every waking hour to keep up with the Soviets, Japanese, or Chinese, perhaps it could take time for a vacation. At the moment, there is no statutory minimum for paid leave in the United States. Even Singapore provides seven days, and the rest of the AAA club gives employees minimums ranging from 18 to 30 days.

As to foreign relations, the United States couldn't -- and wouldn't -- follow Britain's example and join the European Union, but here too, there could be scope for baby steps. What about signing up for the International Criminal Court or taking a less obstructive line during climate negotiations? In fact, a decline from hyperpower status will doubtless help prolong the upward trend in international opinion of the United States. It's even possible that the U.S. government could get more done in the world by playing nice than barging around on its own.

Whatever happens to the United States in the global economic rankings, it will remain a great country. Accepting -- even embracing -- decline will serve as a reminder that American exceptionalism is built on a set of values, not stock indices. If the S&P downgrade helps the United States foster a shift toward prioritizing the good life over great-power status, perhaps it will be seen as a blessing in disguise. What's more, the United States starts out its decline with many advantages over 1950s Britain. Not least, in large parts of the country, it is already possible to find a good restaurant -- something that took the Brits 30-plus years of not-so-bad power status to achieve.

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The Optimist

The Cultural Evolution

The baggage we carry from our ethnic and national backgrounds can keep people poor -- but it can also change, and faster than you'd think.

As hundreds of same-sex couples swapped vows two weeks ago on the day that their weddings became legally recognized in New York, commentators took the opportunity to marvel once more at the dramatic change in U.S. public attitudes toward gay marriage over the past decade, with support climbing from less than one-third to more than half of the public in just seven years. It is usually thought that such rapid shifts in cultural values are very rare -- which can be a problem when the cultural shift you're talking about is a much-needed evolution in attitudes toward class or race, the sort of thing that can bring entire populations out of a discriminatory economic sinkhole. But actually, rapid cultural change isn't nearly as unusual as people think.

Culture is intimately connected with development outcomes, affecting everything from the way people do business to the way they interact with disenfranchised groups. For example, groups that enjoyed high literacy rates and good political institutions in the 19th century are more likely to enjoy higher incomes in the 21st. The social and political traits of pre-colonial ethnic groups that dominated particular areas of Africa may matter more to current income levels in those areas than which modern country they are found in. That's in part because culture can upset efforts to reform economic systems. When states try to impose institutions like land titling, for instance, in areas where there are strong traditional rules about how such things work, New York University economist William Easterly suggests the traditional rules often win out. And culture's deep roots can have more pernicious effects as well: Economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth observe that if your ancestors persecuted Jews in the 14th century, you were more likely to be a Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there's India's caste system, one of the world's most powerful and oft-cited examples of culturally imposed inequality. The Dalit caste, traditionally known as "untouchables" and historically relegated to "unclean" work such as leatherwork and handling feces, makes up a little under one-sixth of India's population. Discrimination on the grounds of caste was banned by the country's 1950 post-independence constitution, and the government has created numerous programs since then to ensure low-caste political representation and improve Dalit social and economic status. But despite all best intentions, Dalits still remain less well-off across a range of measures.

Indians still overwhelmingly choose to marry within caste. Teachers given performance incentives based on student test scores spend less time trying to teach low caste students. Even low-caste teachers in India mark student tests lower when they know the students are low-caste, and Dalit students themselves perform worse on tests when reminded of their status beforehand. After they leave school, low-caste graduates with the same qualifications earn less money. And Dalits are disproportionately poor and in bad health.

The good news is that even cultures with 1,000-year roots can alter dramatically under the right circumstances. Research by development economists Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett, Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Shyam Babu suggests that discrimination against the low caste, while still potent, is considerably on the wane. A survey designed and led by members of the Dalit community in two areas of Uttar Pradesh found that attitudes and behaviors related to the low status of Dalits had been widely tempered or abandoned over the last 20 years. Dalit respondents report that since 1990, they are far more likely to sit next to high-caste guests at weddings rather than being seated separately, they are no longer expected to handle the dead animals of other castes, and non-Dalit midwives will attend births in Dalit households. They have moved in large numbers into nontraditional professions like tailoring and driving, and almost none still work as indentured servants for high-caste patrons, as was once common.

The changes are huge. In Bulandshahr district, less than 4 percent of Dalits said that non-Dalits would eat in their households in 1990, but nearly half said that they would today. In 1990, 73 percent of respondents suggested that only Dalits handled dead animals; that fraction in 2007 was one in 20. The proportion of the surveyed Dalit population that said most or all girls in the household went to school in 1990 was 7 percent. In 2007 it had climbed to 57 percent.

Economically, while Dalits are still worse off than other castes, they are considerably less so than they were in 1990. The proportion with a television in Bulandshahr climbed from seven in 1,000 to nearly one-half, and bicycle ownership leaped from around one-third to over four-fifths. Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that the transformation is far too dramatic to be accounted for by income changes alone -- the shift is a cultural one, too. "This is not to suggest," they caution, "that caste has disappeared as a social construct. It is very much alive." Nonetheless, Dalits today are experiencing not just far greater prosperity, but also greater social acceptance.

It isn't just castes in India, of course. You can't explain the increase in female secondary enrollment in low- and middle-income countries from 42 to 50 percent over the past decade, or the halving in the average number of kids a woman has in the developing world from 5.4 to 2.7 between 1970 and today, without talking about rapidly, dramatically shifting values.

For all that culture might have a role in determining relative attitudes and perhaps even relative levels of development, then, it isn't a dead hand blocking all progress. In fact, cultural change appears to be part of a global and historically unprecedented virtuous cycle of improving quality of life that encompasses growing incomes but spreads far beyond to things like lower crime and violence, more widespread education, improved health, and the increasing ubiquity of democratic values and respect for civil rights.

Indeed, to return to the 21st century phenomenon of same-sex marriage, discrimination against homosexuals is yet one more area where we are seeing signs of progress. Even while a married lesbian couple in India had to flee threats of honor killings in India last month, World Values Survey results find that the proportion of Indians saying homosexuality is "never justifiable" has halved in less than 20 years, from 89 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2008.

That discriminatory culture appears on the wane suggests two things. First, quality of life is heading in the right direction for minority groups worldwide. And, second, this change will be to the world's great benefit in terms of improved development outcomes. It is not just Dalits and gays who should be happy about the way things are headed -- it is all of us.

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