Declinist Pundits

America may not actually be declining, but those predicting it are ascending.

See J.M. Berger on how extremists won the recession.

There is a simple three-step secret to success in political punditry: Identify a trend that is already happening, predict it will continue, and then, as the trend progresses, proclaim success. Of course, you have to make sure that you identify a real trend, not a cyclical change following which things will revert to the norm. If you make that mistake, you wind up with egg on your face and have to hope that people forget. So it is with "declinists," one of America's great renewable resources.

Recessions are cyclical. Some are deeper and last longer than others, but eventually the cycle turns. Elementary logic, however, did not prevent many from proclaiming that the Great Recession was evidence of the decline of the United States. For example, in 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the crisis showed that U.S. global leadership was ending, proclaiming that "the times when one economy and one country dominated are gone for good." Germany's finance minister made a similar pronouncement, as did many Chinese leaders. A Harvard University historian even wrote in 2010 that America was like Greece and the dollar was at risk of imminent collapse. Writers from both the political right and left have inundated the remainder bins with tomes predicting the sad collapse of American power.

As James Mann describes in his recent book, The Obamians, "In those few countries where the financial crisis did not hit so hard, such as China and Germany, there was a newly acquired sense of superiority to the American economic system." Today, with the precarious state of the euro and a slowing of Chinese growth rates on the eve of a political transition, that superiority is less clear. Rather than collapse, the dollar has strengthened lately, reflecting the market's view that, dysfunctional as America's politics may be, the United States is still a relative haven. In the meantime, China's hubristic foreign policy has worsened its relations with nearly all its neighbors and reinforced the U.S. position in the Asian balance of power.

Why do so many pundits get it so wrong? Decline is a misleading metaphor that assumes there is an organic life cycle for countries as there is for individuals. We know little about the life cycle of states. It took three centuries for the Western Roman Empire to decline from its apogee to collapse. After Britain lost its American colonies in the 18th century, writer Horace Walpole lamented that Britain was reduced to the insignificance of Sardinia. He missed the fact that the Industrial Revolution was about to produce Britain's greatest century. Put simply, we do not know where the United States is in its supposed life cycle.

Moreover, the term "decline" confuses two quite different processes: absolute and relative decline. Absolute decline is what happened to ancient Rome: An agrarian economy with little productivity eventually succumbed to internecine warfare and hordes of barbarians rather than to the rise of a competing empire. While the United States has very real problems, its economy remains highly productive. America remains first in the world in total research and development spending, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, and first on indices of entrepreneurship. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is the world's seventh-most competitive economy, following Switzerland, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. China ranks 29th. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.

Relative decline refers to the gap between the leading country and others. The narrowing of the gap does not necessarily mean that others will surpass the leader, and it could more accurately be described, as journalist Fareed Zakaria once put it, as simply "the rise of the rest." When it comes to the future of American power relative to China, much will depend on the often underestimated uncertainties of China's political system and whether and how it will change. Given the size of China's population and its impressive rate of economic growth, it will almost certainly pass the United States in total GDP within a decade. But size is only one indicator of economic power; the composition of an economy is also important, and that is better measured by per capita income. On that measure, China will not equal the United States for decades, if ever. Projections of U.S. decline relative to China also ignore America's enduring military and soft-power advantages, as well as China's geopolitical disadvantages. As India, Japan, and others try to balance Chinese power, they will increasingly welcome an American presence.

Is the United States in decline? The honest answer is that no one knows. At my age, I can only bet with near certainty that I am in decline. As to whether the United States has reached the apogee of some life cycle, I would bet not. And despite the American mistakes that contributed to the Great Recession, I would certainly not use the cyclical events of the last decade to set the odds.

See Tyler Cowen on how cheapskates, pessimists, and food trucks won the recession. 



Higher Ed

Universities have been forced to innovate – and may emerge stronger than ever.

See Kate Sheppard on how climate deniers won the recession. 

The predicament facing higher education during the economic downturn is in some ways reminiscent of a scene from a 1994 episode of The Simpsons. After Homer Simpson is banned from his favorite bar, Moe's Tavern, he slouches on his couch despondent. In an effort to cheer him up, his daughter Lisa offers a lesson in Chinese philosophy: "Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for 'crisis' as they do for 'opportunity'?" she asks him. Homer brightens up instantly, responding, "Yes! Crisitunity!"

Homer's Chinese wasn't quite right, but the lesson is a good one: Opportunities come out of crisis. Confirming the conventional wisdom that higher education expands when jobs are scarce, U.S. college enrollment grew faster than usual during the recession, particularly at community colleges. Total undergraduate numbers jumped 4.9 percent in 2008 and 7.3 percent in 2009, reaching 18.1 million in 2010. At the same time, however, the recession and its aftermath have led to significant financial strain for many American colleges and universities. Endowment returns shrank dramatically and are still not recovering quickly enough to cover most institutions' costs, while financially beleaguered states have dramatically reduced the subsidies that make possible continued enrollment growth, as well as many university activities. State support for higher education fell 7.6 percent in fiscal 2012, the biggest drop in half a century.

But therein lies the opportunity. Already, the savviest institutions are making a virtue of necessity as American higher education figures out how to do more with less. They're seeking new, improved, and less expensive solutions to everything from increasing access to improving how efficiently students learn, and they may emerge from the recession in a stronger position to adapt to the economic and technological challenges they had previously been slow to recognize.

Some early-adopting U.S. universities have used the crisis to go global, on a scale never previously imagined. MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- have spread quickly in the past year. These ventures, from the Harvard-MIT collaboration edX to West Coast-based rivals Coursera and Udacity, feature free classes taught by professors from a range of top universities and open to all comers. Udacity's inaugural class on artificial intelligence, taught by a star Stanford University professor and Google's similarly renowned director of research, attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Students pay nothing for the classes, but are charged a modest fee if they wish to take proctored exams at one of 4,500 testing centers around the world.

At this scale, of course, personal attention is minimal, grading is automated, and conventional accreditation is likely to be slow (though Udacity just announced that Colorado State University's Global Campus will award transfer credits for one of its computer science classes). But MOOCs have taken the spotlight at a time when spiraling tuition and state cutbacks mean that the huge national and global demand for postsecondary education must inevitably be satisfied in innovative, unconventional ways. In the United States, undergraduate enrollment is projected to rise 14 percent, to 20.6 million, by 2021. And worldwide growth will be much, much larger. Already, global postsecondary enrollment jumped from 100 million to 150 million from 2000 to 2009; it is projected to reach 250 million students by 2025.

Little wonder, then, that the appetite for such classes outside the United States is enormous. In many cash-strapped countries, demand for high-quality courses far outstrips supply. The number of students from Lithuania who signed up for Udacity's first class exceeded the entire student body of Stanford. Groups of Udacity students have organized "meet-ups" in nearly 450 cities around the world; among the 10 most popular sites are Coimbatore, India; Barcelona; Beijing; and Singapore. For all the frequently expressed worries about the U.S. education system, there is clearly demand for American-style higher ed around the world.

It is probably no accident that budget woes have coincided with a period of tremendous ferment in higher education, both in the United States and globally. There is the inexorable rise of technology, of course, but also a broader push to rethink how to advance quality, access, and accountability on campus in an age of limited resources. Rather than threatening colleges and universities, the hard times may, in the logic of Lisa Simpson, make them better.

See J.M. Berger on how extremists won the recession. 

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