by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”
– News anchor Will MacAvoy, a character in “The Newsroom”, HBO
There are actually two questions implied in the title of this blog. First, is America still the greatest country in the world? And then, if it is, can it remain so – or even, how long can it remain so?
That America was the greatest country in the world following World War II, and through the second half of the 20th Century is beyond dispute. In economic power, military might, cultural influence, and just about every other way, America bestrode the world like a colossus, with only the Soviet Union and its empire providing anything like serious competition.
But just as the sun finally set on the British Empire, is America’s day over?
The quote at the top of this blog comes from Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant TV drama, “The Newsroom,” as best I can interpret the words from the clip, and sets out a compelling case for why America is no longer on top. I’ve tried fact-checking some of these claims, and most of them are true in essence, even if I can’t match the precise rankings for things like literacy, math, life expectancy, and so on. The two facts that stick out as clearly incorrect are infant mortality, and American military spending. According to Wikipedia, America currently ranks 34th out of 194 in infant mortality, and, based on figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, America only spends as much as the next 16 nations combined, not 26, and three of those 16 are not allies (counting India as nonaligned, and China and Russia as the definite non-allies).
But regardless of whether these rankings are precisely right or approximately right is less important than that they are fundamentally right; America no longer leads as much as it used to, and is slipping in many areas, such as education.
Indeed, there is a sense among many Americans, plus many others elsewhere, that America is not what it was, that it has, in a sense, lost its way, and is on the decline. This is true of commentators on the right, who attribute this decline to a rising tide of entitlements that is sapping the resources of government and the economy through rising taxation, and parasites who, through government, feed off those who work hard to create wealth, while allowing mushy-headed thinking to interfere with the assertion of American influence abroad and the creation of a level playing field in trade. It’s also true of commentators on the left, who feel that government has become predatory, usurping powers to which it is not entitled and violating civil rights to do so, spending too much on arms and not enough on education or the welfare of its people, and acting as if might makes right in geopolitics, in contrast to its shining ideology following WWII, as exhibited through the Nuremberg trials. Moreover, both sides are consumed with culture wars over issues like abortion, gay marriage, privacy versus security, and the desire to teach creationism versus evolution. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Does this describe contemporary America?
It’s almost enough just to ask the question. America seems clearly to be a house divided, between the rich on one side, and the less-affluent 95% of the population on the other; between liberals and conservatives, and between angry, white males, and multicultural, multi-ethnic Americans of all sexes.
If not America, then who?
However, whether American is the greatest country is a comparative question, and leads to the next question: If America is no longer the greatest country in the world, who is?
The immediate, almost knee-jerk answer is China. And it’s clear that China is on the rise. It has the world’s fastest growing large economy, it has the world’s largest population, it has the world’s fastest growing middle class, it’s the world’s largest (single) exporter, it’s people are generally well-educated, culturally they prize education and fight for higher education for their children, their military is expanding rapidly, and the country is generally starting to throw its weight around geopolitically. Clearly this is a country going places.
But my view is somewhat different from conventional wisdom on China. All of the points made in the paragraph above are true, but there’s more to the picture. By far the most important aspect of China’s future that is not generally mentioned is its demographics. Because China’s infamous One Child Rule has been in place for over 30 years, China is one of the fastest-aging countries in the world, and, based on present trends, its population should peak, and actually begin declining, sometime after 2020. Indeed, the number of 20-24 year-olds is already declining, and China’s fertility rate, which is the average number of children born per woman, is 1.4, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Moreover, even if China were to suddenly reverse the One Child Rule (and there’s no indication that it will), it is highly unlikely that its fertility rate would approach replacement.
The result, as one commentator put it, is that China will grow old before it grows rich. A rapidly aging population will consume much of the growing wealth in the country. And GDP growth will slow in line with the declining size of the labor force. China is by no means a spent force, but it is not going to be the unstoppably dominant country of the 21st Century that many believe. It has many things going for it that give it a great deal of momentum, and China will be a big player in this century, but its momentum is already waning.
How about India? It’s a big country, has the world’s second largest population which is growing faster than replacement value, rapidly expanding middle class, western-influenced laws and respect for property, prizes education, and churns out a large number of highly-educated young people every year. Why not India?
And it seems quite certain that India will become a major player in this century – but it is unlikely to become the world’s dominant power, at least in the first half of the century, for India, too, has weaknesses.
It is notionally a free enterprise economy, but it is riddled with red tape, and government restrictions that make it hard for large companies to introduce economies of scale, and for small entrepreneurs to succeed. It is rife with corruption, which means that elected governments are unstable, and don’t always act for the benefit of their voters or constituents. And it has a huge population of poor people, who are not educated, and are not, generally, participating in India’s growth. All of these factors act as dead weights, dragging an otherwise dynamic country and economy down.
Once you get past China and India, the list of who could surpass America thins very quickly. I’ve had discussions with friends and colleagues on this point, and the conversation becomes very confused.
One person proposed Sweden as the greatest country in the world. My first reaction was to laugh: Sweden? Then I accepted, for argument’s sake, the idea of Sweden being the greatest. It has a stable, prosperous democracy with an interesting blend of a market economy coupled with a famously robust safety net. It has a distinct set of values that it promotes internationally, and punches above its weight diplomatically.
But I can’t buy it. There is no question that Sweden is a great country, and has a lot going for it, including many things that we could learn from. But being the greatest means something more than being great.
What constitutes greatness?
Which raises an interesting question: What constitutes greatness? Is it just the size of the economy or of the military? Is size all that matters? Is it moral standing, or the ability to act with enlightened self-interest, with the long-term interests of all humanity in mind? What constitutes greatness?
The concept of leadership comes to mind. The greatest country would have to be the greatest leader among nations. That was clearly America following World War II. It raised the rest of the world from the ashes of global conflict – allies and enemies alike – partly out of enlightened self-interest, but also through a sense of mission and righteousness. It acted with moral authority, and behaved with ethical responsibility – not invariably, but most of the time.
The concept of power is also a part of it. Power comes in many forms, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, but still, as Napoleon remarked, “God fights on the side with the best artillery.” Military power counts, too, as does economic clout.
Yet, clearly there is no one thing that is definitive. And, much as many people say about great art, we may not know how to define it, but we know it when we see it.
So, without being able to perfectly define it, it seems to me that the greatest country on Earth would have all of these things: military and economic power, the ability to lead through combined moral authority and ethical responsibility, and a sense of purpose that goes beyond narrow self-interest. I think, then, that there is no country greater than America; it is still the greatest country in the world.
But will it remain so? And has it, indeed, declined from 1991, when the Cold War ended and America stood as the world’s only superpower, and when its market economy had out-fought, out-maneuvered, and out-competed all other economic systems?
Needless to say this is a huge topic, and one I am wrestling with in the much-delayed book I’m working on. Moreover, to do a proper job of dealing with this requires evidence and argument that would be far beyond the scope of this blog. What I’m going to do instead is arm-waving, to state my conclusion, point to the things I would say to support that conclusion, and leave it at that. A more complete argument will have to wait for another day.
Yes, America has declined, and to quote Abraham Lincoln again, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Here are the factors that I think have led to American decline:
• Too many promises to too many people. American governments at all levels have bought labor peace for decades by promising big retirement payouts, both in pensions, and in health insurance. Many of those promises are too rich, and cannot be paid, even though the governments involved are legally obligated to pay them. Many of these governments will go bankrupt if they try to do so. (See an earlier blog for more, “Revolting Civil Servants”.)
Likewise, the Social Security system is in deep trouble, as is Medicare. These two federal obligations alone have the potential to bankrupt the U.S. federal government, but slashing them to sustainable levels will create an enormous political backlash, and put a huge hole in consumer spending that will send the economy into a tailspin.
These are problems that should have been solved decades ago. It may be too late to do anything other than making a horrible situation slightly less horrible.
• A broken political system. In large part because of jerrymandering (the deliberate drawing of electoral district boundaries to ensure the largest number of safe seats for incumbents), America’s political parties have been forced to opposite ends of the political spectrum. As a result, they cannot find common ground, and the large majority of people in the center are not being represented. At a time when the federal government desperately needs to function in an effective bipartisan manner, the odds of that happening are vanishing. Both parties are at fault, but the Republicans seem to have run to the farther extreme for the moment.
• The rise of mythology and truthiness at the expense of science, facts, and rationality. A society where political pressure is rising to teach religious mythology, such as creationism, instead of established scientific reality, and where opinions are deemed as valid as facts is one where discussion based on knowledge, thought, and discourse are evaporating and being replaced with dogma, blind faith, and intolerance. Reliable decisions need to be based on reality, not on wishful thinking, and a badly educated electorate is dangerous to itself, and everyone else.
• A failing education system. America’s education system is, in general, failing to educate for the 21st century. School is seen as a troublesome burden, and football and cheerleading seem to be more important than learning. Moreover, the education system is largely stuck in the 19th Century, devoted to rote learning when what students need is critical thinking, creativity, the ability to perform research, and the techniques of learning, and human skills like teamwork, leadership, empathy, and cooperation. (For more on this, see “The Wonder and the Horror of Education’s Future”.)
• The loss of moral leadership. Where was America when the International Criminal Court was formed? Where is America’s leadership on environmental degradation and climate change? What was America’s higher principle in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, both arguably in contravention of the U.N. Charter and international law? Why has the pursuit of wealth come to be the highest good, instead of the creation of a strong society, to the point where financial robber barons can bring the financial markets and the economy to the brink of disaster, without retribution or censure? Where is America’s moral authority today, compared to where it was following World War II?
• The rise of a toxic society, and the corruption of American youth. As a people, we have become so narrowly selfish that we are polluting our own society. We talk on cellphones to the irritation of others. We bring pets and small children to fancy restaurants, uncaring of how it affects others. We cut people off on the highway. And, worst of all, we view children as social adornments, there to showcase our own superiority. This leads to “helicopter parenting” on the one hand, where parents take a teacher’s criticism of our child’s work as a personal insult; and a dangerous laissez-faire attitude on the other, leaving children to amuse themselves with inappropriate and exploitive games and videos on the other.
• Last, and perhaps worst of all, a sense of entitlement. America leads the world because America earned that position. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Argentina and America were roughly equivalent in economic power and influence. America made more of its future than Argentina did through hard work and right choices. Yet, today even asking the question about whether America is the greatest country is thought to be heretical. Americans think American is on top, and will stay on top because it is entitled to, that America will always be best because, well, because it’s America. This is patently and blatantly untrue. If America rests on its laurels, America will continue to decline. America will only prosper through clear thought, a dedication to truth, cooperation at home and abroad, and lots of hard work and hard choices. America is not entitled to anything.
The critical question
Times change. Sometimes the mighty survive and persist, and other times they fall. History is full of greatest countries that had their day and then went into decline. Is it America’s turn?
It doesn’t have to be. America’s population is the third largest in the world, and the fastest growing of any developed country, so it has demographics on its side. It still has the world’s most dynamic economy, and the greatest well-spring of innovation, although that is beginning to dry up. America can solve its problems, but not without an enormous struggle. It must fix its schools and its political system, give up many of its entitlements, displace greed as the ultimate good, and regain the moral high ground. This will involve a lot of pain and sacrifice, and a lot of compromise on the part of all Americans. But the alternatives are all worse, most of them much worse.
There is no one close to America as the greatest nation today. America has the resources, the people, the creativity, the ingenuity, and the ability to regain the high ground and keep it for decades to come.
But the real question is: Does it have the will to do so?