America Is In Decline
The United States of America emerged from the carnage of World War II as the world’s one undisputed super-power. The Soviet Union had been devastated by the war, and despite decades of brute-force effort to mount a convincing argument for the communist model, it collapsed in shambles by 1991. At that point, if anyone still doubted America’s supremacy, the proof was in. In both economic and military terms, we were Number One. No one else came close.
And, for a time, that supremacy extended to quality of life at home. Americans were the envy of pretty nearly everyone else. We had more cool stuff, more kinds of cool stuff, more coolness in general, than any other nation on earth. We led the world in innovation, in food production, in consumer goods, in feel-good perks. We could do anything — we even went to the moon. Collectively, we were richer, more powerful, more successful than any other nation in the history of the world. We Americans had it all.
That was then. Amazingly, a great many of us seemingly did not recognize how good we had it. We turned “having it all” into a perpetual struggle to have more, which devolved into an exhausting, all-consuming effort just to keep up with our own expectations. Little by little, the myth of The American Dream began to tatter at the edges. We got fat. Our collective health began to deteriorate. We became the most stressed-out nation in the Western world, consuming truckloads of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and alcohol just to keep going. The bravado of American Exceptionalism began to ring a bit hollow.
Fast forward to today.
In purely economic terms, the United States of America is still number one, but only barely. China is nipping at our heals, and the day will come — sober economists predict around the year 2030 — when the Chinese economy will eclipse ours. “But not in per capita terms” is the quick, defensive rejoinder; and that is true, at least in the short term. But keep in mind that China has roughly three times as many people as the U.S.; and while we Americans struggle to maintain our current standing, China is coming on like a bullet train on steroids.
But that’s hardly the worst of it. Lots of great nations aren’t Number One economically, yet do very well for their people. Think Canada, for example, or Australia, or several Western European nations. What we’re talking about here is quality of life. And by that measure, the United States is falling seriously behind.
Consider the matter of life expectancy. During the years 2014 to 2018, life expectancy in the United States actually dropped year on year. In 2019 and 2020 it ticked up again, a bit; but compared to other developed countries, that’s nothing to brag about. In 2020, U.S. life expectancy stands at 78.93 years. But in Japan, it’s 84.67 years. In Spain, 83.61 years. In Australia, 83.5 years. In France, 82.73 years. And in Canada, 82.52 years. By this measure, we’re not doing too well.
Every year, a consortium of economic analysts from US News and World Report, the Wharton School of Business and the BAV Group, a marketing communications firm, issue their Best Countries report, ranking quality of life as self-assessed by citizens of 73 nations, based on 75 different metrics.
Here are a few quick takeaways from their 2020 report:
For the fifth year in a row, the nation boasting the world’s highest overall quality of life is: Canada. That’s right. Canada, our neighbor to the north.
Scandinavian countries come in next: Denmark at #2, Sweden at #3, Norway at #4. Australia comes in at #5. The rest of the top ten are all Western European nations, except for New Zealand at #8.
Where is the vaunted United States? We’re Number Fifteen. Just after Japan, just before France. Okay, considering we’re mediocre, we’re in semi-good company. But that’s not much consolation. We’ve slipped — and slipped badly. Worse than that, we probably don’t have a path to gain much ground any time soon.
The “why” of our poor showing is complicated, but here’s just one metric that says a lot. In the category of “affordability” — how much it costs to live in the U.S., relative to personal earnings — we’re really in the tank. Our ranking is — wait for it — number 58.
No wonder most Americans feel that life today seems harder than it used to be. It actually is.
This inarguable, measurable decline in U.S. quality of life is felt at gut level in the lives of many Americans as a kind of foreboding, a premonition of hard times to come, of danger at the door. Just keeping up gets harder every year, let alone getting ahead. The economic prospects for the children of the Millennial generation (Gen Z) are unpromising at best. For many, the American Dream is fading into the past.
This sorry state of affairs has many consequences and implications, and more than a few socio-economic thinkers are trying to address them. One such pundit who has impressed me lately is Umair Haque. To sample some of his sobering work, go here and here.
One consequence I want to focus on here is how a frightened, agitated, disillusioned U.S. electorate is responding to such portents of decline. Needless to say, that population is far from uniform in its views or reactions, but one thing that stands out to me is the trend toward authoritarianism.
Think about it. Presidential historians are pretty unanimous in saying that Donald Trump is not “normal” in political terms. We’ve seen bad presidents before, it’s true; but we’ve never seen anyone else who is quite so impervious to the norms of American democracy, quite so comfortable with outright dictators, quite so open about criminal intent, quite so energetic in his abuse of power, quite so transparent about fleecing the nation for his own enrichment. Donald Trump is a thug, a thief, and a constant liar; but worse still, he’s an unapologetic, self-serving autocrat.
And he didn’t even try to hide it when he ran for president. His disreputable features were on public display from the beginning. Anyone paying the slightest attention could see.
And yet, he was elected president. Now, in fairness, one could argue that he had help from the Russians, among other illicit actors — Putin, after all, was bound to be happy with an autocrat like himself in the White House. But that’s old news. Trump got away with it. He won.
And though he has never commanded a majority of support among the U.S. electorate — in polling terms, his approval numbers have never once topped his disapproval — he still stands a fairly good chance of winning re-election.
How is this possible? What dark magic is afoot here?
Put simply, Donald Trump lies constantly, and the lies he tells give comfort to a sizable population of voters who are desperately, blindingly afraid of the presumed alternative.
I say “blindingly” because fear can blind an otherwise reasonable person to facts that seem too terrible to bear. Donald Trump traffics in such fear. It’s his primary weapon. Fear of “the other” is his stock in trade. The other can be any convenient target: refugees trying to storm our borders, liberals trying to turn us all into communists, scientists trying to foist upon us horrible lies about so-called climate change. In Donald Trump’s private universe, there is no objective truth at all, only the truth that works for him at the moment. He can spout absolute horse manure with impunity, knowing that his core of followers will agree without question. If they did not, they fear that their whole world could be ripped away by the enemy, “the others.”
This twisted logic works because the world as we know it — our American way of life — really is under attack. Not by liberals or communists or refugees or scientists, but by economic reality. By the brute fact that our standard of living is in decline; that China is on the rise; that life really is getting harder, not easier.
To all of that harsh reality, Donald Trump says, in effect, “Not while I’m President!” Instead, in the face of impending catastrophe, he offers two lines of reassurance: either (1) it’s not really there, such as climate change; or (2) I can fix it, such as the tanking economy. In either case, he’s lying through his teeth. But his lies offer comfort to legions of terrorized followers, who gladly attend Covid-infested rallies, literally risking their lives, to feast on the buzz of bogus consolation. If not for Donald’s torrent of lies, they would have nothing left to believe in.
The sobering fact is, we have no magic elixir that can cure this pervasive fear. Change really is upon us, and for many, it will seem like disaster, especially with Covid-19 continuing to rage through the land. Literally millions of families have lost their accustomed livelihoods. Millions of people have become sick; hundreds of thousands have already died, and as many more will likely die before the pandemic comes under control. The long-term carnage is hard to estimate.
Even setting Covid aside, there are other fearsome trends looming, especially for the legions of lower-income white voters who comprise Donald Trump’s base. Demographics in America are shifting inexorably toward a “browner,” less white-dominated populace. This is why Trump has insisted on trying to close our southern border — but that’s just bloviated posturing. The shift is coming; it can’t be stopped.
America is also aging. Within 15 years, demographers say, seniors will outnumber young adults for the first time in U.S. history, and that trend will continue. Consequently, the demands on our healthcare system will multiply, as seniors require proportionally more care than young people. Seniors are also less productive than young people, putting additional strain on an already stressed economy.
In sum, the America that once stood as the undisputed economic top dog of the world is soon coming to an end. This does not mean, of course, that the United States itself is ending. But, like other empire-builders of old — in recent times, think of Britain — America’s supremacy must inevitably give way as other powers rise. As things currently stand, it seems China is next in line; and a world with China at the top will be a different world indeed. Later, at some point, India might rival China; but that is for another day.
As Americans, we are challenged to look reality squarely in the face and ponder how we might adjust our goals and expectations in order to optimize our prospects for the future. Remember, at this time there are fourteen nations on earth — every one of them less powerful economically and politically than we are — that can boast a more desirable quality of life than ours. It’s not unreasonable to think we have room for improvement.
So, where to begin?
As the old adage says: If you want to change the world, start with yourself. In this regard, let me offer two modest suggestions.
First, we could consume less. Americans as a group are the most recklessly profligate consumers the world has ever known. We eat so much that we’ve become, collectively, the most obese nation in the developed world; and that obesity contributes to other ills, such as diabetes and heart disease. We burn so much energy that natural resources are running low before we fully understand either how to come up with more or get along with less. We create so much waste — garbage, emissions, etc. — that we’ve literally trashed the world, meaning that our litter is found floating throughout the oceans, and air pollutants can be detected even at Antarctica (granted, we’re not the only ones doing this, but we do way more than our share). The fact is, the reality of resource depletion alone will force us to rethink our rampant consumption. In the short term, this will feel painful, even unfair, to many of us. But in the longer term, the whole world will be the better for it.
Second, we could seek healthier ways to address our quality of life. For example, we might start with the near-universal problem of stress, and start right at home. After all, stress is implicated in a host of common maladies, including heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, among others. Based on this list alone, think how much better most of us might feel if we were simply less stressed. Think how much that might improve our quality of life.
What can we do, right away, to feel less stressed? It turns out that some effective remedies are really easy, free, and available now. For example:
- Stop where you are and just take a couple of long, deep breaths. Don’t hold your breath (that can be stressful), just breath slowly and deeply for a minute or two. See what happens.
- Take a bit of time to sit and listen to relaxing music. Any kind of music will do, as long as it feels relaxing to you.
- Smell the flowers. Literally. Smelling a fragrant flower can be very relaxing.
- Look at something you find beautiful. A sunset, a garden, a child, a pet, a loved one, even a pretty picture. Just look at it, let it fill you for a moment. Feeling better?
- Try meditating. Don’t worry about “doing it right” — just sit comfortably and let your mind quiet down and stop thinking for a bit. Deep breathing can help. Staring at something that inspires you can help. The idea is to let the busy mind become still and focus on “now.” Just now, with no specific content. Some people find this to be a particularly good remedy for stress.
This list could be extended, but the foregoing is a good start. You’ll notice, by the way, that there’s no mention here of medication, nor booze. Sadly, a huge number of our fellow citizens resort to anti-depressants, or alcohol, or other drugs, to treat their chronic stress. Maybe they find some temporary relief; but wouldn’t it be better if they could de-stress in a healthier, more natural way?
Of course, treating our individual and collective stress is hardly a complete answer to the problem of American decline. But if, as I’ve argued above, the “decline” we’re talking about has mainly to do with our quality of life and how we feel about it, then we might consider that feeling genuinely less stressed represents an immediate, direct improvement in our quality of life. From there, perhaps, any number of other good things might become possible.