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.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The US Economy Will Shrink (A Lot), and It Should

The U.S. economic stimulus plan passed by Congress aims to regenerate economic growth, spending and consumption. But it is almost certainly bound to fail, and not for the reasons given by partisans on both sides of the Congressional aisle. In spite of the stimulus, the economy will continue to contract. This is inevitable; it is necessary; and it is even desirable. The main task of the government should be protecting those who are displaced and impoverished during this contraction and retrenchment.

The U.S. economy must contract because it is way too large, in numerous respects. It is too large given the U.S. levels of production and exports. It is built largely on consumption and debt, not output. And it is too large for the rest of the world, even given the size and wealth of the country.

The U.S. economy is big—about 28% of global GDP. But the U.S. accounts for only about 8% of global exports; 16% of manufacturing value-added output, and 5% of the world’s population.

The main contributor to the outsized US GDP is consumption, where the U.S. is indeed the world’s leader. Consumption accounts for about 72% of US GDP, which is a record for any large economy in modern history. As we are now learning, this consumption has been built on a mountain of consumer and household debt, which now totals some $13 trillion—approximately the size of the entire U.S. economy. This is unsustainable.

Furthermore, much of U.S. debt is owed to other countries. About half of the federal debt and a quarter of corporate bond debt is held by foreigners. As former Senator Hillary Clinton pointed out in 2007, "16% of our entire economy is being loaned to us by the Central Banks of other nations."

These huge levels of consumption are a drain on the planet, its resources and its people. The U.S. has only 1 in 20 of the globe’s people, but we consume a quarter of the world’s fossil fuels; 29% of “materials” (including minerals, metals and synthetics); 19% of forestry products; and 14% of its water. The U.S. is also the world’s biggest contributor to environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions (a quarter of the world’s total) and global warming. At 5% of the globe, we leave a huge carbon footprint.

In the 1970s Yale historian Paul Kennedy, writing in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, suggested that eventually the U.S. would have to decline to its “natural” share of the world’s wealth and power, which he estimated should be in the 16-18% range, rather than the 30-40% held by the U.S. at that time. This would indicate a cutting of the U.S. economy by half.. But so would many of the economic indicators I mention above. Consumption, debt, and borrowing all need to be reduced by about that amount, as should petroleum and energy use.

Given the hugely bloated size of the U.S. economy, and of U.S. consumption, and of consumer and government debt, it is hard to see how the economic stimulus package will make much of a dent in things. The economy is bound to decline, and needs to.

This contraction has already begun. The country’s GDP shrunk last quarter at an annualized rate of 3.8 %. If this continues, it will be the largest yearly decline in the US economy since 1946. But a much larger decline will be necessary to bring the economy back to a more natural, balanced and sustainable level. The contraction of GDP is likely to continue for several years, at the very least. This would be unprecedented for the postwar period, when only once (1974-75) did the economy contract two years in a row.

Such a decline could be on a scale of that of the 1930s. The main problem then, as now, will be the reduction in employment, and the consequent growth in poverty. It is hopeless throwing good money after bad in an effort to revive growth, consumption and debt. Instead, the federal and state governments should focus on alleviating the suffering that this contraction will entail, by increasing funds for unemployment compensation, Medicaid, welfare, job retraining and education.

Many people will suffer in this transition, and they should be helped. For most people, though, this economic retrenchment will simply mean belt-tightening. Our standard of living will decline, in ways most of us have not experienced before. But we are still a highly developed wealthy country, and will remain so. Once the U.S. economy has stabilized at a more natural size, it will grow again. And this time, it can happen in a way that is not so destructive of the planet, other peoples, and our souls.

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