Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Real Mexico

I was sitting in the back of Santa Lucia church, in Mérida, Mexico, waiting for the mass to finish so I could meet my wife and head to a nice brunch at La Chaya Maya.  The priest, vested in green, wandered down the aisle, came up to great me, and asked where I was from. After a few pleasantries he asked “so what about this Trump?”  I expressed my dismay and embarrassment about this president who has spoken so crudely and rudely about Mexicans.  “But it is the interaction of ordinary people that is most important,” responded the padre, and he gave me a reassuring pat on the arm.

We were in Mérida for the month of January, missing the grey chill of Indiana’s winter but also the inauguration, the women’s march, and the steady stream of stupefying comments and actions by the new American president. Not surprisingly, all of this attracted much attention in Mexico, both in the mass media and in the streets.  This was particularly the case with Trump’s very undiplomatic phone call with the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto (when he threatened—or joked?—that the U.S. might have to send troops to Mexico to deal with the “bad hombres” there); the President’s continuing demands that Mexico should pay for the wall; his threat to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement; and his ban on refugees.

Of course, none of this went down well with Mexicans.  The press was full of articles dismissing or ridiculing the President and his policies.  Peña Nieto, who’s own approval ratings in Mexico are only at about twenty percent, saw a surge in his popularity after he cancelled his visit to Washington and spoke up for Mexico’s “dignity” and “sovereignty.” In Mérida, where we had seen weekly protest marches against the recent increase in gasoline prices, now the marches often included anti-Trump banners and speeches as well.

My wife and I worried a bit that some of this anti-U.S. sentiment would spill over onto us, but it did not in the least.  Mexicans always treated us with kindness and respect and, with the exception of the priest, did not even raise the issue of Trump unless we did first.  Even then, they were uniformly restrained in their criticism, at least with us, reflecting a kind of politeness and civility that has been entirely missing in the rhetoric of our new president.  At one point, when I was waiting in a bus station, and Trump appeared on the television there, bombastic as usual, I rolled my eyes in embarrassment.  A Mexican man sitting nearby exchanged glances; I said “lo siento” (I’m sorry).  “No se preocupe,” he responded—don’t worry. I wonder how Americans would have responded to Mexicans if their president were publicly insulting and threatening the U.S.

During the campaign, candidate Trump castigated Mexicans for being “rapists” and criminals, though he conceded that “some” might be good people.  Indeed, in the hateful and fearful climate of the U.S. this year, more than one person expressed concern about our safety in travelling to Mexico.  But our experience in Mérida (with over one million residents) was a city that was peaceful and “tranquil” (a word often used by locals) and even joyful.  On Sunday mornings, the city center is closed off to traffic, so people can bicycle and skate in a circular route.  Whole families rent bikes and pedal around for hours.  In the evening, with the main streets still closed, restaurants move their tables out into the streets, street musicians play, and bands play in the public squares and parks while people (including a lot of old folks) dance on stages set up for the purpose.  People interact with each other, in community, in ways that seem to have disappeared in most of the U.S. 

As to the violence:  there was not a single homicide in Mérida during January, while in our hometown of Indianapolis, every few days there was a report of yet another murder.  We both felt safer in Mérida at night than we would in Indianapolis. Statistical comparisons (e.g. the web site Numbeo), bear this out: overall crime rates in Indianapolis are “high” and those in Mérida “very low.”

Mexico is our neighbor, and one of this country’s oldest and closest friends.  After China and Canada, it is our largest trade partner.  Over 30 million Hispanics of Mexican origin live in the U.S.  Some 25 million Americans visit Mexico each year and about a million live there.  Mexican immigrants to the U.S. have contributed enormously to our economy and our culture.  The U.S. should embrace this relationship and foster it.  At the moment, Washington, and especially our President, is poisoning it.

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Hidden Figures, Blind Bias

After seeing the film “Hidden Figures,” my 9-year-old granddaughter Katie sent me an enthusiastic voice message, and then asked me a question that took me aback: “Did you ever see a Colored water fountain?”

 I grew up in Virginia in the 1950s, so intellectually I know there were segregated water fountains in those days.  But I could not actually remember seeing one.  How could this be?  I think the answer is that such things were such a normal part of the environment in the segregated south that they weren’t considered anything special.  Segregation, racism, bigotry and bias were the norm, and one doesn’t take much notice of things that are normal and routine.

            About 10 years ago, another film sparked a similar epiphany in me. “Remember the Titans” (2000) recounts the true story of an African-American football coach trying to integrate the team at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia in 1971.  Watching this film, I was stunned and incredulous.  I graduated from McLean High School, just a few miles from Alexandria, in 1965.  Wasn’t McLean High School integrated by then, I asked myself? 

 After all, I started high school seven years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that required the desegregation of public schools in the United States.  I knew all this intellectually.  As a professor of political science, I knew my constitutional history.

            While watching “Remember the Titans,” I racked my brain trying to think of African-Americans who must have been my high school classmates.  I couldn’t think of one.  I called my sister, who graduated from the same high school four years later.  She thought there might have been one or two African-Americans when she was there.  We finally resorted to our accumulated high school yearbooks, scanning for darker faces.  I didn’t find a single one in any of my four yearbooks.  My sister finally found one, a girl, in hers. 

            It finally occurred to me, 35 years after the fact, that I had attended an all-white, segregated high school.  But I had not realized it at the time.  White was normal, so what was there to notice?  Segregation and racism was the norm, and therefore unexceptional and unmemorable.

            In the aftermath of this stunning revelation, I began to read about the history of school desegregation, and learned about the campaign of “massive resistance” to the Brown vs. Board decision that was led by U.S. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia.  The state, and most of the schools in the state, simply refused to implement federal law, and this went on in some school districts for more than a decade after the Brown decision.  This controversy had apparently been swirling around me when I was in high school, but I was oblivious to it.  Too many other things going on in the world and my life:  the Vietnam war, pimples, the Kennedy assassination, all-state marching band, the Cuban Missile Crisis, junior prom.

            The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in a 1963 book about Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator of the Nazi death camps.  The phrase captures how easy it is for evil to become routine, even banal.  The Holocaust may have been one of the most extreme and horrific examples of this, but we have seen it in this country too with the massacres of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the Jim Crow laws and segregation in the south; and with continuing manifestations of bigotry, racism, and intolerance, even coming from our top political leaders.

 Perhaps the teenage me could be forgiven for not noticing the evil of segregation, and the underlying racism and prejudice, in my own environment.  As adults, we have no such excuse.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Good Riddance to the American Century

My book “The End of the American Century” appeared in 2009.  There I argued that the combination of domestic decline and global change had put an end to the era of U.S. global dominance, and that American citizens would have to come to terms with a flattening standard of living and reduced global influence.  This was not necessarily a bad thing, either for the United States or for the rest of the world.
     I finished writing the book during 2008, just as Barack Obama was mounting his stunning rise to the presidency.  For the paperbound edition of the book, which appeared just after the election, I added an epilogue called “Reality and Hope in the Obama Era,” where I offered some hope that the new president could temper some of the problems I had raised.  But I also cautioned that America’s problems (for example with education, violence, debt, inequality) were so deep-seated, and the global changes so persistent (e.g. globalization of production, rise of new powers, climate change) that his options would be limited. 

     President Obama, I believe, recognized all of these problems, and tried his best to redress or adapt to them. He rescued an economy in freefall; got us moving on climate change; passed milestone legislation on health care; and restored America’s battered international reputation, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process.  He was on track in adapting to the end of the American Century. 

Now we have a President who is intent on returning to that era of American superiority and dominance.  Indeed, Trump rode to power by demagoguing many of the issues of U.S. decline that I had documented in my book: the stagnating incomes of the middle class; the decline of manufacturing; the continuing prevalence of violence; declining trust and confidence in government; the high cost of medical care; and infrastructure decay.   

     Trump knew which buttons to push, but he had no idea how to deal with any of these problems.  He promised to “make America great again” without having any notion of what that might entail.  His vision was to go backwards, not forward.  In a world so rapidly changing, this is no solution at all.  America needs to adapt to change—embrace it, even—and not reject it, as Trump seems to want to do.  His presidency is a dead end. 

     Any progress this country made during the Obama years is quickly being rolled back and reversed in the first months of the Trump presidency.  The most pressing and damaging problems I discussed—debt, inequality, and climate change—are all likely to worsen under a Trump administration. 

     We can not go back to the American Century (which really lasted only about half a century anyway), nor should we.  That era was bred of specific historical, economic and international circumstances.  We are in a different era now, both domestically and internationally.  The U.S. can not and should not dominate the world as we once did.  To think and act otherwise is to court disaster in a globalized and interdependent world.  We should bid adieu to the American Century, and move forward. 

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Seven Reasons Not To Despair (too much) about a Trump Presidency

1.  The institution shapes the person.  The Presidency is, literally, an awesome institution, as is the White House.  It will shape and temper Trump, as we saw already with his deferential and respectful meeting with the President there.

2.  Governing, unlike running a business, requires compromise.  Truman famously said of Eisenhower winning the presidency: "he'll sit here, and He'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen.  Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army.  He'll find it very frustrating."  The same will be true for Trump, a business executive who, to say the least, is not experienced at compromise.

3.  Bureaucracies, made up mostly of career civil servants, are slow-moving things, and can often stymie chief executives.  Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK complained about how slowly things moved in the State and Defense Departments.  It will be difficult for Trump to do much of anything quickly.

4.  The Presidency is a tough job and a lot of work.  Presidents are presented with thick daily briefing binders every day.  Trump does not like to read.

5.  Besides all of these other annoyances, Trump is likely to be bedeviled by numerous legal issues, unlike any past President.  There are some 75 lawsuits pending against him right now, and he has been involved in some 3500 over the course of his career.

6.  Trump has already achieved his principal goal--which was simply to win.  He has never in his life ever exhibited any interest in helping other people:  indeed, he did not contribute any of his own money even to his own charitable foundation, which was used mostly as a tax dodge.  So what more does he have to prove, now that he has won the biggest prize in the world?

7.  Managing the Presidency will be frustrating for Trump, a man who is impetuous, temperamental, imperious, and self centered.  My guess is that he will not last four years in the White House.  Either he will resign in frustration, turn over the management of the Presidency to Mike Pence, or be impeached.

So take heart, Democrats!  Maybe all is not lost!

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Age of Uncertainty

These are unsettling times.  Lately we have been witness to a continuing carnival of a presidential election, a series of horrific terrorist attacks and massacres both here and abroad, plus the British Brexit vote.  People here, and in other countries, are unsettled and uncertain.  Indeed, the world is unsettled and uncertain.  In this country, the appeal of Donald Trump is baffling in many ways, but it is also understandable, given the wrenching changes underway in people's lives, and in the world, and the fear and uncertainty that this occasions. This kind of disruption, fear and uncertainty often leads people to seek simple solutions, scapegoats and demagogues.

The reasons behind all this uncertainty are the large-scale shifts in the world, and in the U.S. role in the world.  I call these "systemic changes" and I want to focus on the two most important ones:  first, the decline of the United States as the single dominant and determining global power; and second, the rise of transnational forces and threats that diminish the autonomy and power of ALL nation states, including the U.S.  We are no longer in control of events, either in our own back yard, or on the global stage, and this is discomfiting. 

First let me address the issue of the change of the U.S. role in the world.  Eight years ago, I wrote a book called "The End of the American Century" which addressed this phenomenon.  "The American Century," basically the second half of the 20th century was one of unprecedented global dominance by a single country, the United States.  This was evident in almost every sphere: politics, economics, the military, ideology, and culture.   The Soviet Union, our only real rival during that time, was strong militarily but not in any other respect.  Its standard of living by most measures was about a tenth of that in the U.S., something I can attest to from living in that country briefly in the 1970s

Even in the long course of history, it is rare to find countries or empires that so dominated the world: one thinks only of the Roman Empire or, maybe, the British Empire.  But all empires fade eventually.  Italy and Britain may be very pleasant places to live (and visit!) right now, but they are not the dominant powers they once were.  Something similar is happening to the United States.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributes to uncertainty.

For the U.S., it is not so much that we have suffered absolute decline, but rather have declined relative to other forces and countries.  The U.S still has the strongest military, the biggest economy, and the most durable and resilient political system.  But we no longer dominate the world as we did during the American Century.  China, for example, has experienced fabulous economic growth in recent decades, and is increasingly asserting itself on the global stage.  Europe, by combining, sort of, into the European Union has created an economic powerhouse, larger than the American one.  Neither China nor the EU is much of a military power just yet, but increasingly it seems that military power is not as useful and determinate as it once was.  Plus, as I will discuss below,  there are transnational forces that also cut into America's ability to shape the world.  So for Americans used to being #1, this relative decline can be unsettling, and speaks to the appeal of Trump's "America First" slogan.

So the relative decline of the U.S. in the global arena is the first major dimension of systemic change.  The other is the rise of transnationalism.  By transnational, I mean problems, forces, movements or institutions that transcend national boundaries, making them difficult for national governments to deal with.   These are proliferating in the modern world, but I will highlight those that have contributed especially to this age of uncertainty:  globalization of the economy; terrorism; and climate change.

Perhaps none of these merit my attention, since they've been so much in the news, and in the current electoral campaign.  Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders complained about the maverick status of multinational corporations.  As transnational institutions, these can easily shift operations from one country to another in search of cheaper labor or supplies, while remaining relatively immune from the regulations or taxation of government in any particular country.  Of course, a globalized economy does have its benefits, in terms of more efficient production and cheaper and more abundant consumer goods.  But it also hurts those workers who get left behind.  This is particularly true in manufacturing, which has faced a double whammy of automation and globalization, causing jobs in manufacturing to plunge from 28% of all jobs in 1970 to less than 10% today.  The problem is not going to go away.  The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global--not just in the U.S.

Globalization, automation and the decline of manufacturing have contributed to a stagnation of real earnings in the U.S.  For the average American family, household income is $4,000 less than it was 15 years ago.  Meanwhile economic inequality has grown much worse, with the top 1 percent of American households taking in more than half of the recent gains in income growth. Income and wealth inequality in the United States is now the highest it has been since before the Great Depression of the 1930s, as Bernie Sanders kept reminding us during his own run for the presidency. 

This issue is particularly egregious at the very top of the income scale.  In the 1950s, big-company CEOs earned about fifty times the pay of an average worker.  Even then, that ratio was very high compared to other countries.  But since then, CEO pay in the U.S. has skyrocketed compared to average salaries.  By 1990, average CEO pay was 100 times the average worker's salary.  By 2000, it was more than 500 times.  In Germany, that ratio was only 11 to 1; and in the United Kingdom, 25 to 1.

So it is not surprising that so many people are fearful and angry.  Even though the economy is growing, they are being left behind.  The dislocations caused by globalization though, can only be addressed by collective action, and that requires action by government, and cooperation among national governments.  A weak and ineffective government is no match for the power of large multinational corporations.

Terrorism is another transnational force that has frightened and destabilized us.  It often seems that governments are helpless in the face of this enemy, which is not located in any one region, supported by any particular country, or subject to any conventional norms of morality.   Social media, another transnational force, facilitates the organization, recruitment and concealment of terrorist groups.  Against transnational terrorists, particularly the fundamentalist brand, deterrence and threats are useless, and even conventional military force is only haphazardly effective.  America's vaunted military, the most awesome in the history of the world, is not by itself able to eliminate transnational terrorism.  This too causes fear and uncertainty, and a sense of powerlessness.  But, like the forces of globalization, the solution requires global action and cooperation.

Climate change, another transnational phenomenon, is even more threatening and dangerous than globalization and terrorism, though more baffling because of its inherent invisibility.  Even though the evidence for climate change is overwhelming and irrefutable, most people don't actually see it or experience it.  So they are open to the blandishments of politicians and the fossil fuel industry who prey on their ignorance and fears in claiming it does not exist.  And this contributes to our national sense of unease and uncertainty, since we are not sure what to believe and whom to trust.  Climate change, however, is literally a life-and-death issue that requires strong government action, national sacrifice and global cooperation.  All of these are difficult to imagine in the current political climate in the United States.

These transnational phenomena--globalization, terrorism and climate change-- all threaten the American way of life, and they are devilishly resistant to resolution in the way we have solved problems in the past.  Throwing money at them won't work.  Military power is either irrelevant or ineffectual.  Things have changed since The American Century when our country was, it seemed, both dominant and in control of our fate.  In both the domestic sphere and the international one, things are not like they used to be.  Thus appear opportunistic politicians who promise to roll back the clock, or to "make America great again."

However, America's greatness was never achieved by going back to the past, but rather by finding solutions to new problems, while holding fast to the values that unite us.  These include industry, innovation and individualism, but also compassion, tolerance, and civility.  The U.S. has survived through civil war, world wars, depressions, civil unrest and terrorism.  And we remain the world's oldest and most successful democracy; even if we do not brandish the power and influence we had during the Cold War years.

But we have created a kind of paradox of political life: at a time when we are in desperate need of effective government to address important domestic and international issues, government is increasingly unable to act. Democratic government is not often consensual, but it does, by its very nature, require compromise.  But in American politics, we have one candidate calling for a "political revolution" and another, a billionaire cloaked as a populist, calling for a return to the past and playing on people's fears, angers, and prejudice.  The polarization of American politics has made compromise almost unattainable, and in the process has practically paralyzed the operations of government.

Of course, this simply adds to people's frustration with politics and government, which accounts for polls showing record low levels of trust in the federal government.  This is not a happy situation for a system of government that is supposed to be based on popular will.  And it contributes to the turmoil, alienation, and uncertainty.

Keeping this democracy alive is, in my mind, the single biggest challenge we face at the moment and the key to addressing the systemic transformations we are facing.   In the current political environment, the bedrock principles of democracy--compromise, tolerance, participation, inclusion--are under threat.  There is a disturbing growth of authoritarianism in American political culture, with 44% of non-college grads (in 2011) approving of "having a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections."

The growing authoritarianism in the U.S. may be disturbing, but it is not terribly surprising.  Times of systemic change, fear and uncertainty, especially combined with economic downturn, often foster the emergence of demagogic politicians, and even dictators.  It is also understandable why so many Americans are lashing out at the whole system, given the vast gulf between rich and poor, the continuing pernicious impact of money in politics, and the seeming paralysis of government.

The solution is not to reject the system, but to improve it.  As Winston Churchill famously quipped: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."  And democracy is uniquely suited to dealing with problems that are so complex and disruptive, because it demands participation, inclusion, compromise, respect for minorities, and due process.  The problems we are facing are unprecedented, in my view, and signal a systemic shift in U.S. politics and international relations.  The U.S. will not be "great" in the way we were before, but it remains the most important and admired country in the world, and it's involvement in global politics is indispensible.

(Based on a talk I gave at a Kiwanis Club 8/30/16)

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Economic Inequality Put an End to the American Century

The biggest impediment to U.S recovery is economic inequality. This is the central argument in my article "The U.S. No Longer Makes the Grade: Economic Inequality Put an End to the 'American Century"" in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 92, No. 3.  This article is available at Butler's "Digital Commons" site by clicking here.  The footnotes for the article are temporarily available at the Forum's website at this link.

Correction:  There is an important typo on page 7, column 1, 2nd paragraph.  The sentence there should read as follows:

"A recent global study by the International Monetary Fund, for example, found that countries with strong economic growth tended to have greater income equality than those with weak growth...."

 Comments and (civil!) discourse on this piece are welcome.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Startling Growth of Inequality

In The End of the American Century, first published in 2008, I called attention to the disturbing growth of economic inequality in the U.S., to levels (even then) unprecedented since the Great Depression of the 1920s. But since 2008, in the midst of the "Great Recession," the situation has gotten even worse. A recent (3/25) New York Times op-ed by Steven Rattner, "The Rich Get Even Richer," notes that in 2010 (during the supposed economic recovery), "the top 1 percent took in 93 percent of the additional income" generated that year. A graphic linked to that article on line shows the pattern.

In a forthcoming article I have written which reflects on the themes of The End of the American Century, four years on, I contend that the unprecedented growth of economic inequality in the U.S. is the single biggest issue preventing the recovery of the United States--and in many ways the root cause of the many problems facing the U.S. in these difficult times.

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