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.

Friday, September 26, 2008

This Sucker Could Go Down

"This sucker could go down,” declared President Bush, after the White House leadership summit failed to reach agreement on a bailout plan for the financial services sector. The President is one of the last to recognize how bad the economic situation really is. But the U.S. economy has been tiptoeing on quicksand for years, and the current problems will not be solved quickly, even with an infusion of $700 billion, as the President proposes.

The root of the problem is this: the U.S. has been living on borrowed money for an entire generation; this debt has been serviced internally by a mushrooming but shaky financial services sector, and externally by foreign governments (especially the Chinese); and now both of these sources are evaporating. Whether or not the bailout package is approved, the U.S. economy and American consumers are going to take a bit hit.

First--the borrowed money. Both government and consumers have been spending beyond their means, almost continuously, for two decades. The federal government has had huge budget deficits every year since 1980, except for a few years during the Clinton presidency. The deficits have built the federal debt up to some $10 trillion, accounting for two-thirds of GDP, compared to only one-third in the 1970s. Next year’s budget deficit will add almost $500 billion to that debt. The bailout package will probably add another trillion dollars. Just the interest on the federal debt is one of the largest items in the federal budget, draining over $400 billion annually.

Government profligacy is matched by consumers: the household savings rate in the U.S. has been declining for two decades, is the lowest among all developed countries, and in 2005 fell below zero for the first time ever. Credit card and mortgage debt are both at record levels, as are bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures. Most Americans, even those near retirement age, have almost no retirement savings. The Social Security and Medicare “trust funds” are actually unfunded, to the tune of some $41 trillion. The government is unlikely to find resources to meet these liabilities, which will put further strains on seniors.

Consumer spending now accounts for two-thirds of all economic activity in the U.S. This growth in spending has been possible only by borrowing. The consumer spending and borrowing binge has been fueled by the growth of the financial services industry, which has increasingly replaced manufacturing as the mainstay of the U.S. economy. Banks, mortgage companies, loan agencies and credit card companies make their money by making loans, and they are constantly seeking new customers and encouraging existing ones to borrow more. It is this symbiotic relationship between binging consumers and profit seeking financial companies that has created the piles of consumer debt and subprime mortgages.

All of this is starting to unravel now. People borrowed more than they could afford; the mortgage crisis undercut their ability to repay loans and mortgages; the banks and loan agencies faced mounting defaults and declining profits and stock prices. Banks are increasingly unable or unwilling to extend loans to businesses or individuals, which will crimp both consumer spending and economic growth, accelerating the economic downturn.

The U.S. government is not really in a position to rescue bankrupt companies, because it is itself bankrupt. And just as the financial industry has been an enabler of consumer deficit spending, foreign governments have enabled the U.S. government to spend more than it brings in, by buying up U.S. debt. Over half of U.S. debt is now owned by foreigners—compared to just 5 percent that was owned by foreigners twenty years ago. The biggest outside holder of U.S. debt is the government of China. Holding such debt only makes sense if you are sure you can redeem the funds when you need to. As you can imagine, foreign governments and banks are increasingly worried about this, and have already started shifting such investments to other countries, and other currencies, especially the euro. This is one of the reasons for the sharp drop in the value of the dollar, to record low levels against the euro and other currencies.

So this $700 billion bailout, as large as it is, will only scratch the surface of these multiple dimensions of debt and economic weakness. We cannot continue to grow, based on borrowing against the future. The domestic financial pot is empty, and our foreign enablers are wising up. The economy will contract, our standard of living will decline, and more people will join the ranks of the poor and unemployed. This sucker could go down. The U.S. is in for tough times.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

CEO Pay and the Bailout

Even in Congress, a lot of people are concerned that President Bush’s proposed $700 billion bailout for the financial sector will unduly benefit the superrich CEOs who contributed so much to this mess in the first place. Most Americans are appalled by the bloated CEO compensations that we occasionally hear about.

But maybe you didn’t hear about the CEO pay for the very firms that are most in the news these days.Last year, for example, AIG’s Martin Sullivan received compensation of $13.9 million, including a performance based bonus of $5.6 million. And this was after a 50% cut in his compensation from 2006! Who topped the list of CEO compensation in 2007? John Thain of Merrill Lynch, another failed enterprise. His compensation in 2007 was $83.1 million.

These amounts are breathtaking, but most people don’t realize, I think, how much this has changed over the last twenty years, and how out of line US CEO salaries are with those in other countries. I raise this in my book, in Chapter 2 on “The End of Affluence and Equality,” which I excerpt here:

In the 1950s, big-company CEOs in the U.S. 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 in comparison to average salaries. By 1990, average CEO pay was about 100 times the average worker’s salary, and by 2000, it was more than 500 times that of the average worker.

These benefit packages are far out of line with those in other wealthy countries.

In 2004, the New York Times reported comparative ratios of CEO pay to employee averages. In Japan, CEOs earned about ten times that of the average employee. In Germany, the ratio was 11 to 1, in the UK 25 to 1, and in the United States, 531 to 1! It is difficult to see how American companies can justify these huge executive compensations when these other countries, which much smaller CEO pay, have generally managed faster economic growth, greater productivity increases, and greater gains in their stock markets.

CEO pay is another glaring example of how far out of kilter the U.S. economy is, how eroded is the sense of fairness in this country, and how out of sync the U.S. is with the rest of the world. It is yet another example of The End of the American Century.

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Are We Smart Enough to Manage These Problems? An Engineer's Perspective

My friend Charlie Yokomoto, a Professor Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a savvy observer of the political scene, has read this blog and offered the following thoughts on the difficulties of managing complex systems. Maybe we human beings aren't smart enough to deal with these devilishly complicated systems (think financial markets!) that we have created!

Here are some thoughts in engineering terms about the difficulty of decision making in modern society. One of the things that engineers do is to model a system with mathematics so that they can predict behavior to different inputs and find ways to control the system. The system can be a rocket to the moon, a car's transmission, a car's engine, etc. These are fairly basic systems to model because they can be treated as systems whose parameters don't change, or if they change, they change in easily describable ways.

When the system is more complex, like the stock market, the human mind, the atmosphere, a tornado, etc, the modeling becomes far more complicated. When society was much simpler (all white, mostly all middle class, mostly traditional families, mostly church going, low crime, low poverty), then the modeling becomes simpler, and making rules to control the society was simpler than today.

Now for complex systems. A semi-trailer truck sliding on an icy road can also be modeled, but it is more difficult. Mathematics profs are now modeling economic systems, where parameters are always changing. Probabilistic methods have to be used, and time varying dynamic equations have to be used. The atmosphere has been modeled with time varying parameters for years. These equations are more difficult to solve, making it more difficult to use them to predict things, and to control it.

OK, now about controls. Then a system can be accurately modeled, then mathematical methods can be used to determine if the system is observable from the outside (can you observe all of the changes, or will some changes be hidden from the observer?). Methods can be used to determine if the system is controllable (are there ways to push the system in a direction you want it to go?) Sometimes, you find out that you can't--the system will go where it wants to go.

As systems become more complex, you then find out that your mathematics is not equal to the task of modeling it--you need more complexity. Example. If you have a groups of points on a graph, and they all line up in a straight line, you can easily model it with a straight line. If there is a slight curvature, you can try modeling it with a second order equation. But if it is fluctuating wildly, then you need a very high order equation to model it.

I believe that society is getting to the point where it is getting so complex that the human brain cannot intuitively, through experience, fully understand develop a heuristic model of society--how creation of jobs, curbing crime, helping the needy, paying for roads and schools, keeping the food supply safe, etc.--can be done using the same decision making processes that were used successfully when the system was much simpler (fewer parameters, slower changing, and more homogeneous). If the system become more highly complex at rates faster than the human mind becomes smarter (not necessarily in IQ, but in terms of ability, tools, and know-how), how can they solve problems in a system whose complexity if more that their brains can handle?

Take crime. If you have 100 cops and 1 person breaking the law, they can handle it. If you have two people breaking the law, they can handle it. What if there are 10 people breaking the law? Twenty? At what point, will the system of people breaking the law become too complex for 100 cops to handle? Some say that you can't have a perfect law enforcement system and that you have to tolerate a certain level of crime going on at any time. Well, people in charge were ok with that as long as the crime was kept in particular neighborhoods.

Anyway, that's how an engineer looks a society, which is just another system--a very complex one at that, that becomes more and more difficult to model and influenced as the complexity increases, possibly to levels that cannot be understood or influence with legislation and rules.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Niall Ferguson Sees American Century Continuing

Niall Ferguson, the British historian and author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2005), has written a column for The Washington Post, "Rough Week, But America's Era Goes On," in which he contends that despite the country's economic weaknesses, "it is much too early to conclude that the American century is over."

As usual with Professor Ferguson's writings, his ideas are well-informed and thought-provoking. (In Colossus, for example, he argued that the U.S. should be an empire, but doesn't have the rights mental stuff for it--we are "an empire in denial.") However, as might be expected from the title of my book, I can't agree with his assessment.

He rightly calls attention to the economic weakness of the United States, and our dependence on others, especially the Chinese, for the underwriting of our huge debts. But he underestimates the broad-based nature of U.S. decline, which stretches far beyond the economic realm. He cites the British journalist who wonders why the U.S. should now be the world's model for economic development, and indeed, polls around the world show that America has already lost that reputation. Furthermore, even the U.S. political system and its very political ideals are being questioned around the world, as revealed in polls by the Pew Center, among others.

The U.S. no longer compares favorably with other developed countries on measures of health care, education, poverty, inequality, violence, corruption, and political participation. We have lost not only lost our ability to dictate global politics, but lost the "soft power" influence that led other countries to admire and emulate us.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Overview and interview about my book

Marc Allan of Butler University's public relations department taped an interview with me about The End of the American Century. An overview of the book, and the transcript of the interview, appear on the Butler website. Click here to see the whole thing.

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Is The U.S. Becoming Third World?

Rosa Brooks, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has a clever but sobering column entitled "Hey, U.S., Welcome to the Third World!":

It's not every day that a superpower makes a bid to transform itself into a Third World nation, and we here at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund want to be among the first to welcome you to the community of states in desperate need of international economic assistance.
She also points out the many aspects of domestic decline in the U.S.:
Now you are facing the consequences. Income inequality has increased, as the rich have gotten windfalls while the middle class has seen incomes stagnate. Fewer and fewer of your citizens have access to affordable housing, healthcare or security in retirement. Even life expectancy has dropped.
Partly tongue-in-cheek, she offers World Bank and IMF assistance to help bail out the U.S. economy.

But this is not so far-fetched after all. In fact, in 2004, the International Monetary Fund issued a report (see p. 17 of my book) raising concern, even then, about the consequences of the U.S. debt for the stability of the world economy. It fretted about the potential insolvency of the U.S., warning that "large U.S. fiscal deficits posed a significant risk for the rest of the world." The IMF economists calculated that closing the deficit gap in the U.S. would require a permanent 60 percent hike in taxes, or a 50 percent cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits.

So while the U.S. is far from Third World status, it's fiscal and economic problems pose serious problems for the whole world.

(Thanks to my Butler colleague Vivian Deno for calling my attention to the column by Rosa Brooks).

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Unraveling of the U.S. Economy

Since I posted “Bankrupt America” here ten days ago, major pillars of America’s financial edifice have come crashing down. First, the federal government had to take control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s two largest mortgage finance companies. Then the prominent securities firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, and the even more venerable Wall Street firm, Merrill Lynch avoided the same by selling itself to Bank of America. Today the Federal Reserve announced that it was taking over the insurance giant, A.I.G., in a bailout that will cost taxpayers $85 billion.

These are all huge companies—mainstays of the U.S. economy. It is difficult to make much sense of Senator John McCain’s assertion that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” These companies were the fundamentals, and they are all bankrupt. Most people, even most financial analysts, I think, do not quite grasp how elemental these developments are. They signal a shift that is as fundamental for the United States as global warming is for the planet.

The collapse of these financial institutions are part of the bigger picture of economic weakness that I describe in The End of the American Century. The United States has been overspending and under saving for a generation or more, and this has led to borrowing, deficit spending, and debt inside and outside the government. As I write near the end of Chapter One of the book, “where the U.S. once drove the world economy through economic growth, invention, and productivity, now it is doing so almost entirely by consumption but at levels it cannot pay for.”

The consumer spending and borrowing binge has been fueled by the growth of the financial services industry, which has increasingly replaced manufacturing as the mainstay of the U.S. economy. The shrinking manufacturing sector now accounts for only about 10 percent of corporate profits in the U.S., compared to 44% of such profits from the financial sector. Banks, mortgage companies, loan agencies and credit card companies make their money by making loans, and they are constantly seeking new customers and encouraging existing ones to borrow more.

It is this symbiotic relationship between binging consumers and profit seeking financial companies that has created the piles of consumer debt—the largest in U.S. history. All of this is starting to unravel now. People borrowed more than they could afford; the mortgage crisis undercut their ability to repay loans and mortgages; the banks and loan agencies faced mounting defaults and declining profits and stock prices. And as goes the financial sector, so goes the rest of the economy.

This is not some episodic financial downturn. The chickens are coming home to roost, and they have nowhere to land. The U.S. government has record budget deficits and is deeply in debt; Social Security is unfunded; households have zero savings (literally); the dollar is at record lows; energy at record highs; and now the stock market is taking a bashing. Former Fed chief Alan Greenspan told ABC that this is a “once-in-a-century type of event.” And former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson, who I invoke in my “Bankrupt America” post, admitted that “these are the most extraordinary events I’ve ever seen.” (NYT 9/15/08).

In The End of the American Century, first written a year ago, and appearing next month, I wrote this at the conclusion of my Chapter One on “Imperial Overstretch and Economic Decline”:

A serious recession, perhaps even a depression, is the probable outcome. Such a recession will actually be necessary, however, for the long-term viability of the American economy. It will cause unemployment in the short run and declining wages and incomes in the long run, but this is inevitable if balance is to be restored. The U.S. economy will shrink, as will the country’s standard of living. This will simply reflect the actual economic situation in the U.S., which for so many years has been obscured by mortgaging the future with deficits and debt. The U.S. will no longer be the dominant economic power in the world, and with economic decline will come military, diplomatic, and political decline.”

What does all this mean for us? Stay tuned. (And your comments and thoughts are welcomed).

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rising Powers Website

The Stanley Foundation has a useful website on Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, which notes that the global order is changing "and will be marked by many competing sources of global power." It explores the rise of the European Union, China, India, Brazil and others, and the implications for the U.S.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

U.S. Intelligence Predicts Reduced U.S. Dominance

A Washington Post article this week (9/10/08) reports on a forthcoming U.S. intelligence agencies report that “envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades.” Thomas Finger, a top analyst for the U.S. intelligence community, delivered the preview in a speech in which he saw U.S. global leadership rapidly eroding in “political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas.” The one area of continued U.S. dominance—military power—was becoming increasingly irrelevant as an asset in global power and influence.

These are all themes of The End of the American Century, so should not be terribly surprising, except for the source—the U.S. government itself—and the sweep of the conclusions. It is not just U.S. diplomatic influence that is on the wane, but political, economic, cultural and military leadership as well. The multidimensional and interrelated aspects of U.S. decline are the central theme of my book, but it is startling to hear it expressed so bluntly from the top intelligence analysts of the federal government.

The intelligence report, however, misses a key element of the declining global influence of the U.S.: its domestic weakening. Fingar’s speech saw the decline in U.S. dominance coming from exclusively global trends: globalization, climate change, resource shortages. All of these are important, of course, but the root of America’s declining global influence is here at home. Just as at the global level, the domestic decay is multidimensional—it is political, social and (especially) economic; and affects education, health care, infrastructure, and competitiveness.

The United States has become the world’s largest debtor, and the governments of other countries are increasingly worried about the scope and scale of U.S. debt and fiscal weaknesses. Even the International Monetary Fund, normally concerned about debt and insolvency in Third World countries, has warned that the continuing large budget deficits of the U.S pose “a significant threat for the rest of the world.” Other countries are beginning to turn away from the United States, both for investments and for global economic leadership, and are increasingly abandoning the dollar as the favored international currency. This is one reason for the sharp and steady decline of the dollar compared to the euro and other international currencies.

In many other respects, as well, the United States is no longer seen as the standard for emulation by other countries. The U.S. has among the highest rates of both poverty and inequality in the developed world. This poverty and inequality contribute to highly uneven access to health care, so the U.S. ranks near the bottom of developed countries in most measures of health and medical care. Even our vaunted democracy, the “beacon on the hill” for centuries, is now so dominated by money and special interests that it is rarely cited by other countries as a model for political development. Global public opinion polls in the past showed foreign populations skeptical and wary of the U.S. government; increasingly now they reveal negativity toward the U.S. population, and even to U.S. ideals. All aspects of American “soft power” are withering away.

The Fingar report, like Fareed Zakaria’s new book The Post-American World, sees this global shift coming because of “the rise of the rest”—global powerhouses like China, India and Brazil that increasingly cut into the U.S. lead on the world stage. Zakaria asserts, indeed, that the shift is not about the decline of America, and writes about the many elements of this country’s continuing strength. Solidly within the U.S. establishment, both of these analyses ignore the sand shifting beneath their own feet. Only by confronting and addressing our own domestic weaknesses and problems can we begin to solve our international ones.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Bankrupt America

On Sunday (9/7/08) the New York Times carried a full two-page advertisement from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an appeal “to the presidential candidates at the American people” to take seriously “America’s $53 trillion hole,” which is the sum total of the country’s current liabilities and unfunded entitlement promises. This translates into $455,000 per U.S. household. The bulk of these unfunded liabilities ($41 trillion) are for Social Security and Medicare. But complicating these enormous debts and obligations, the ad points out, are “out of-control health care costs” an unprecedented trade deficit, and a personal savings rate that is near zero for the first time since the Great Depression. This grim fiscal picture threatens "severe economic hardship for our nation and its citizens, especially the young and future generations."

These were not end-of-times prophesies by some crackpot millionaire or eastern mystic, but a sober economic accounting by Peter Peterson--a former (Republican) Secretary of Commerce, a distinguished economist, and the chairman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a well-respected and mainstream economic think tank on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. The appeal was also signed by three former U.S. Senators, two former U.S. Treasury Secretaries (George Shultz and Paul O’Neill) the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (Paul Volcker) and the former Director of the Congressional Budget Office (Alice Rivlin).

Peterson himself first called attention to the multiple dimensions of U.S. debt and deficits in his 2004 book Running on Empty, which was central to the casting of my own book on the even broader dimensions of U.S. decline, The End of the American Century (appearing next month). In that book, I see the U.S. fading as an economic and political superpower, as a model for other countries, and as the preeminent factor in global politics. The core of this decline is economic and social: the multiple levels and dimensions of U.S. debt; the declining standard of living for most Americans; and the growing levels of poverty and inequality. The U.S. government and American citizens have been living beyond their means for at least two decades, and depending on borrowed money (much of it from abroad) to sustain this binge. This can not continue forever, of course, and the rubber is finally hitting the road.

The United States has had periods of debt and economic decline in the past, of course, and has always managed to pull back into economic growth and solvency. What is different this time is the convergence of so many dimensions of debt, deficit, and decline, all at the same time. The U.S. federal debt, at some $10 trillion, has grown from about a third of GDP in the 1970s to over two-thirds now. Next year’s budget deficit will add almost $500 billion to that debt. The U.S. trade deficit has reached new records in recent years, even as a percentage of GDP. Government profligacy is matched by consumers: the household savings rate in the U.S. has been declining for two decades, is the lowest among all developed countries, and in 2005 fell below zero for the first time ever. Credit card and mortgage debt are both near record levels, as are bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures. The whole financial system is under stress, and not only because of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Meanwhile, the value of the dollar is at a record low against the euro, and the price of oil is a record high.

It is difficult to see how the country can reverse all these trends. As Peterson points out in his New York Times appeal, to “grow out” of this crisis “would require real economic growth in double digits for the next several decades.” Even in the best of times, the U.S. economy grows only about 3% a year. Sustained double digit growth is impossible, especially given the new environment of high energy prices, competition from China, India, and others, and the declining willingness of other countries to let the U.S. set global rules. The United States is in for tough times.

Our leaders, and the mass media, need to address and confront these issues. This will be a difficult task for whomever is elected President, because it will require belt-tightening and reduced expectations from all of us. Both Obama and McCain are promising recovery and prosperity. The reality is likely to be quite different. The new president will have to make many tough decisions. It will require wisdom and patience from both leaders and citizens to navigate these difficult shoals.

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