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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Der Spiegel on "A Superpower in Decline"

Sometimes the most clear-eyed analysis of the United States comes from outside the country, and this may be especially true in these times when so many Americans are frightened and angry about the way things are going. Germany's weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel has published a long and thoughtful piece about the United States, entitled "A Superpower in Decline: Is the American Dream Over?" which reflects and updates many of the themes I raised in The End of the American Century.

For those who would dismiss Spiegel's analysis as biased, left-wing, or "socialist," I should point out that the magazine is generally considered to have a conservative (and capitalist!) slant. It is enlightening, and a little sobering, to read an intelligent analysis of our problems from outside the cauldron of contemporary U.S. politics.

Below are a few excerpts from the Spiegel article, though I would encourage everyone to read the whole thing.

• America has long been a country of limitless possibility. But the dream has now become a nightmare for many. The US is now realizing just how fragile its success has become -- and how bitter its reality. Should the superpower not find a way out of crisis, it could spell trouble ahead for the global economy.

• Americans have lived beyond their means for decades. It was a culture long defined by a mantra of entitlement, one that promised opportunities for all while ignoring the risks.

• The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance -- it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past.

• The rich keep getting richer, with the top 0.1 percent of income earners making more money than the 120 million people at the bottom of the income scale.

• Since the beginning of the millennium, no new jobs are being created on balance, because the US economy has undergone structural change. Companies are dominated by investors interested only in the kinds of quick and large profits that can be achieved by reducing the workforce.

• In 1978, the average income for men in the United States was $45,879. In 2007, it was $45,113, adjusted for inflation.

• How strong is the cement holding together a society that manically declares any social thinking to be socialist?

• The United States of 2010 is a country that has become paralyzed and inhibited by allowing itself to be distracted by things that are, in reality, not a threat: homosexuality, Mexicans, Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, health care reform and Obama.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Can US Education Be Fixed?

The following is an email I received from Lloyd Eskildson, about the failures of US education, especially in comparison with other wealthy countries.
Your book is 'spot on' as the British would say, except for one aspect - needing more money for education. What is needed instead is much greater respect for education and increased parental/pupil motivation. Unfortunately, the resulting potential job attractiveness (also a motivator) would largely be negated by the much lower wage rates in Asia; at least this would cure the functional illiteracy issue. Though I have never taken an 'education course' nor do I have an education degree, I have had a strong interest in education for 30+ years, and have served as consultant to and Chief Deputy at the Maricopa County School Supt. Office. Following are some comments I made regarding a January, 2010 "U.S. News/World Report" that was trying to be optimistic.
The bulk of this issue focuses on efforts to improve U.S. education. Contents include part of President Obama's plan (encouraging a longer school day and school year), D.C. schools' efforts to abandon teacher tenure and implement merit pay, New Orleans becoming the only major city with a majority of pupils in charter schools, and a major 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB) mistake (allowing states to choose their own standards, invariably low). The issue also highlights the provocative question, "Will School Reform Fail?" on its front cover.

The answer, unfortunately, is "Yes - just like all the prior school reform efforts." But first, some background, starting with good news. 1)The "U.S. News and World Report" does not mention increased funding as a need. This follows decades of an emphasis on steadily increased inflation-adjusted funding/pupil (up about 250% in 30 years), with very little if anything to show in the way of improved pupil outcomes - especially at the high-school graduate level. Unfortunately, we have wasted trillions of dollars getting to this point, and continue doing so. 2)President Obama's efforts to extend the school day and year are on the right track. The late Professor Harold Stevenson (Univ. of Michigan) spent years researching differences between U.S. schools and those in China, Japan, and Taiwan. Each of the three nations spends a much smaller proportion of GDP on education, while their upper-level pupils consistently outscore ours. Stevenson found that Asian pupils spent almost 50% more time/week in class and had a school year about one-third longer. (Many Asian pupils also enroll in additional week-end and evening private schooling.) Similarly, years ago I found that the highest-scoring Arizona 3rd-grade readers were consistently located in the same small, farming community - the 'secret' was their teacher spent much more time on reading than others; unfortunately, this effort was not sustained in higher grades and the higher achievement faded as the pupils aged. Regardless, when Professor Stevenson presented his findings at a symposium that I helped organize, educators in attendance downplayed, belittled, and ignored his findings. 3)Studies have repeatedly found that high goals lead to higher achievement - in all areas of life. Hopefully, the NCLB mistake of allowing educators to assign themselves self-defeating low-goals (avoid accountability), will be quickly corrected now that it has been recognized.

Now, the relatively bad news. 1)U.S. educators are not likely to extend the school day and school year to come close to matching the efforts of pupils in the Far East - despite President Obama's imprimatur. 2)Education vouchers, school choice, and charter schools are major components of current reform efforts. All are based on the belief that schools competing for pupils will outperform those that do not. Makes sense, and there is some encouraging evidence. However, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reported (6/15/09) that, 'in the aggregate, students in charter schools (are) not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.' Readers might be tempted to dismiss this finding as economic heresy; however, it is actually an invaluable piece of evidence. 2)The late Professor James Coleman (Univ. of Chicago) conducted one of the largest education studies in history, involving over 150,000 pupils, and intended to demonstrate that minority pupils were short-changed. Instead, Coleman found there was more variation in pupil achievement within schools than between schools - ergo, differences between U.S. schools were not the main key to success! Coleman's findings were derived from sophisticated statistical analysis. However, this major finding has been obvious for decades -sizable and sustained differences in pupil achievement exist between various ethnic and socio-economic groups. Instead of recognizing, celebrating (where appropriate), and acting upon those differences, we pretend they don't exist. When I went to school it was no secret that pupils of Asian and Jewish heritage performed, on average, much better than the rest of us. The rest of us survived a lack of special attention and got over it. Similarly, it's obvious today that minorities, in general, do much worse than most - in both dropout rates and academic achievement. How is this caused by, or to be cured by, the schools?

Coleman's finding is consistent with CREDOs. What's more, both findings are consistent with another of Stevenson's - that Asian parents (and pupils) were much more concerned about and involved with their children's' schooling than their American counterparts. Seemingly, American educators have been inadvertently functioning as education's worst enemies - constantly emphasizing the need for more money and new programs has implicitly downplayed the key role of parental and pupil motivation. Asian societies maximize those motivations through high-stakes college entrance examinations; conversely, the U.S. further reduces these motivations by trying to make it easier for graduates to attend college (already 67%, though about one-half drop out - up from one-fifth in the 1960s) through greater funding for aid and scholarships.

Finally, the really bad news. Education reform has been tried and failed for more decades than even I can recall. We've lurched back and forth from group instruction to individualized instruction, team-teaching to individual teacher teaching, bilingual instruction to English immersion, large schools to small schools, special education to mainstreaming, norm-referenced to criterion-referenced testing, New Math to higher-order thinking to rote drills, ability grouping to not, raising standards to building self-esteem through lower standards, more homework to less, reading instruction via phonics vs. whole language, cultural literacy to multiculturalism to values-free education, peer tutoring to teaching assistants, teacher-directed vs. child-centered, site-based management vs. leadership accountability, public school assignments by residence to open enrollment, vouchers, and charter schools, basic schools vs. 'regular' schools, etc. En route, we've also added kindergarten and pre-school (some areas), teacher professionalization, computers and the Internet, rebuilt and upgraded facilities, reduced class size, added specialists and supervisors, driven out competitive games in P.E., increased time-on-task (until we forgot about it), added compensatory education (Title I), Head Start, and gifted education, increased teacher pay to where it exceeds that of most private school teachers, raised additional monies through special tax programs, bake sales, book sales, and carnivals, and even mentioned parental involvement from time to time.

For what? Dropout rates, and achievement levels for those graduating are about where they were years ago. Its been like Lucie, Charlie Brown, and the football - over and over. The really good news is that Stevenson also found that U.S. children began school with higher achievement levels than their Far East competitors. We've had great educators - Jaime Escalante (Los Angeles), Marva Collins (Chicago), Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin (KIPP), Seymour Fliegel (Harlem), almost all those who taught at my high school (Wheaton High - '59), as well as innumerable successors today. But they can't do it on their own. We just need to forget about education fads, face reality, and demand more - starting with ourselves.

My (DSM) response to this was as follows:

Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. I agree with most of what you say, and especially your focus on the problem of parental involvement (or lack thereof) and student motivation. In my mind, though, the main reason for this in the US, compared to the other countries you mention, is simply the much higher incidence of poverty in this country. Poverty creates so many obstacles to effective education that no "fix" of the educational system is likely to work--as you point out.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Without Reform, Health Care Costs Will Skyrocket

Rising health care costs will overwhelm the American economy and the American consumer, without an overhaul of the system. This is the conclusion of most health policy analysts, as well as a new study by the Commonwealth Fund, as reported in "The Cost of Doing Nothing" in the New York Times last Sunday.

"Health policy analysts and economists of nearly every ideological persuasion" agree that "the unrelenting rise in medical costs is likely to wreak havoc within the system and beyond it, and pretty much everyone will be affected, directly or indirectly," says the Times.

Karen Davis of the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit health care research group, contends that things will hardly stay the same if we do nothing: "in fact, what we will have is a substantial deterioration of what we have."

The Fund analyzed the potential cost savings of past proposals on health care reform, and concluded that all of them would have resulted in a much lighter burden on the economy than we now pay. Health care now absorbs about 18% of GDP in the US--far higher than any other country in the world. (The figure is about half that in other industrialized countries). If the Clinton health care reform had been implemented, according the Fund's analysis, health care would absorb only 14% of GDP. If earlier plans by Carter and Nixon had been, the figure would be about 11%. (See the chart at the NYT site, and above).

The Fund study also estimated that the typical price of health insurance for a family is likely to double in the next decade, from about $13,000 a year, to $24,000. Health insurance premiums as a percentage of median family incomes grew from 11% in 1999 to 18% in 2007, and are expected to grow to 24% by 2020.

These kinds of costs will further erode economic growth in the United States; they will impede U.S. global competitiveness; and they will bankrupt American families and the U.S. government.

The perilous state of the American health care system is one of the key components of the decline of the U.S., both domestically and internationally, and urgently needs correction. One only wishes the members of Congress could put aside narrow self-interest and petty politics, and seriously confront the issue.

For more on the U.S. health care system, see my earlier post "U.S. Health Care Compares Badly to Others" or click on the "Health Care" label on the right side of the page.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Student Debt: A Growing Crisis

Caleb Hamman

Lately, with health care reform taking Washington’s center stage and Supreme Court cases and special elections filling the remainder, efforts to combat what is too often perceived as a “smaller issue” have gone widely overlooked. I am referring to the issue of student debt—one that, if left unchecked, will prove to be a potent driver of US decline.

The most recent action to address the issue is H.R. 3221, or the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The legislation would attempt to mitigate student’s exploding debt levels by reducing the role of private companies in servicing government loans. This would allow the government to cut back on subsidies to private firms and to give the resulting funds back to students, primarily in the form of Pell Grants to those from low income households.

The House passed H.R. 3221 last September, and the Senate is expected to take up companion legislation soon. Considering the current state of student borrowing, they should avoid delay.

According to the Project on Student Debt, nearly two-thirds of American students graduating from four-year colleges are indebted. For those who owe, the average amount exceeds $23,000. To put things in perspective, only 58 percent of American students were indebted upon graduation in 1996, and, on average, they owed only $13,200. (Note that all figures in this post are in current dollars.)

The historical trend is less than comforting. In 2008, The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE) found that the price of college tuition had increased by 439 percent since the 1980s, tripling the rise of family income over the same period and even surpassing the much maligned growth of health care expenses.

This explosion of student debt bodes ill for the United States, obviously because it jeopardizes American accessibility to higher education.

Students can only borrow so much—there will inevitably be a breaking point. Indeed, the NCPPHE’s study finds that “the continuation of trends of the last quarter century would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll.”

If large numbers of Americans become excluded from higher education, a multitude of problems are sure to follow.

From the callous perspective of economics, exclusion promises a poorly trained workforce, a risk for American competitiveness abroad.

From the perspective of politics, uneducated citizens threaten to summon the plagues of the Bush administration: susceptibleness to propaganda, disregard for global warming—all of the problems outlined by Dr. Mason in chapter four of The End of the American Century.

And, not least in importance, from the human perspective, an inaccessible system of higher education constitutes a certain path to lives of lessened potential for finding fulfillment and beauty.

Tragically, these are merely problems faced by those who are excluded from higher education.

Those actually able to attend colleges and universities face another set of obstacles. Not the least of these is the increasing likelihood of graduating with a mountain of debt, thus aggravating the already considerably problem of a heavily indebted citizenry, a topic discussed by Dr. Mason in his analysis of economic decline.

Stepping back, the growing necessity for student borrowing in the United States can be viewed as part of larger inequality trends. As shown in The End of the American Century, the United States has become exceptional among wealthy states in its high levels of economic inequality and in its relative failure to implement policies that would rectify the situation. If college continues to become increasingly unaffordable, education threatens to become a privilege afforded only to the wealthy. Not only will this provide a tragic demarcation of class along lines of knowledge (similar to an equally tragic demarcation of class along lines of health); rather, an exclusive system of education will also assist in keeping poor people poor and in keeping wealthy people wealthy. In other words, higher education will not simply distinguish class structures—it will help solidify them.

These are just a few of many reasons demanding student debt be brought under control.

Current proposals for reform should be passed and signed as soon as possible. And if we are serious about fixing this mess, we cannot stop there.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Has the Supreme Court Legitimized Armed Insurrection?

The scary idea of insurrectionism may have been given a boost by the Supreme Court, according to a new and disturbing book by Joshua Horwitz and Casey Anderson, entitled Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, published by the University of Michigan Press. They argue that in the landmark Heller v. D.C. case of 2008, the majority ruling went far beyond the individual gun rights argument and opened the door to the (previously radical fringe) “insurrectionist” argument that citizens have a right to arm themselves to counter government tyranny. The authors make a strong case that this has potential to undermine Constitutional government, the rule of law, and democracy itself.

I raised similar concerns in chapter 3 of The End of the American Century, on the “Torn Social Fabric,” one important component of which was the huge number of violent crimes in the U.S., and the concomitant prevalence of some 200 million privately owned firearms. There, I raised particular concern about the minority of gun owners who believe that gun ownership provides an extra check on the government itself. As I wrote there ( p. 58):

“They see the Second Amendment to the Constitution as an implicit right of armed Americans to forcibly overthrow the federal government if they view it as tyrannical. It is hard to imagine any constitutional document, especially one with so many democratic checks and balances built into it, providing for its own violent overthrow. But many Americans seem to believe this—yet another reason why the United States is increasingly seen around the world as swimming against the tide of modern civilization.”

Horwitz and Anderson note that when they began writing their book several years ago, this insurrectionist idea was considered marginal, radical, and probably even treasonous. (Article III of the Constitution, in fact, considers levying war against the United States to be treason.) But the Supreme Court’s ruling in the D.C. case has given the insurrectionist idea more stature and respectability, and brought it into the mainstream. Horwitz and Anderson believe that this is a very dangerous precedent, potentially giving cover to those who would forcefully overthrow the U.S. government.

I share their concerns, and believe these concerns have become even more germane in the polarized and radicalized atmosphere of the last few years. Fox News stirs up hatred of the government, and calls into question its very legitimacy. The election of Barack Obama, ironically, has emboldened racists and bigots of all stripes, and led to a huge spike in the number of threats of violence against the President and the government itself.

In their conclusion, Horwitz and Anderson urge that “the Insurrectionist idea should be vigorously challenged by citizens in the court of public opinion and now, after Heller, in courts of law as well.” Among their recommendations for action is “occupying the common ground” with the majority of gun owners who are not Insurrectionists. In my mind, this solution is part of a broader need in the United States—for Americans to find the middle ground, and to isolate and marginalize those who preach hate, violence and intolerance.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jon Stewart Gives John Yoo a Free Pass

Jon Stewart hosted John Yoo on "The Daily Show" this week, and essentially gave the guy a free pass.

As Deputy Assistant Attorney General in 2003, John Yoo was the author of the infamous "torture memo" which argued that torture was allowable if the physical pain was anything less than "death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function." This memo, signed by Yoo, is available at the website of the ACLU at this link. In a debate in 2006 with Notre Dame professor Doug Cassell, Yoo apparently justified even the torture of children, in this exchange:

Cassel: If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?
Yoo: No treaty.
Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.
Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

Torture is explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions; the 1984 Convention Against Torture; the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights; and the American Convention on Human Rights. Most scholars also believe torture violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Jon didn't raise any of these issues with Yoo.

Last spring week, a Spanish court opened a criminal investigation against Bush administration officials, including John Yoo,for violating international law in providing the legal framework for the U.S. government’s use of torture. (See my previous post on this).

By almost any measure, the decisions of Yoo and his superiors were legally incompetent. At the very least, their recommendations, and the decisions taken by President Bush, were violations of international law. They come close to crimes against humanity. They should be brought to account in this country, under American law. But Yoo, far from facing indictments in the U.S. continues to teach at one of the most prestigious law schools in the U.S., and continues to find a hearing for his views in the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.


And we expect more from Jon Stewart!

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Cutting Education Budgets Further Weakens the U.S.

Indiana, like most states, is facing a budget crisis, and Governor Mitch Daniels (President Bush’s former Budget Director) recently proposed cutting $300 million from K-12 education budgets—3.5% of the total. This came on the heels of some searing stories in the Indianapolis Star about the dismal state of public schools in the city.

The Governor argued that he “had no choice.” But I am always wary when someone makes that assertion. We always have choices. The issue is priorities, not a lack of choice. Indiana had no difficulty, for example, raising $720 million to build a new professional football stadium.

Money alone will not solve the problems of public education in Indiana, or in the U.S. But inadequate funding is one of the problems, and budget cuts will simply exacerbate those problems. One reason that the U.S. is falling behind globally in education, and why Indiana is lagging nationally, is because of low levels of funding for education. According to U.N. figures, the U.S. ranks 45th among the countries of the world in public spending on education, as a proportion of the economy. Among the 50 states Indiana ranks #33 in per capita expenses for K-12 education (U.S. Census Bureau data).

It should be no wonder, then, that our schools perform so poorly compared to others, both globally and nationally. The high school graduation rate in Indiana is 73%, placing us in the bottom half of the 50 states. Even worse, Indianapolis ranks dead last among the nation’s 50 largest cities in high school graduation rates

Our spending on education is low, in large part because our state revenues are low. While there has been a big hullabaloo about property taxes in the state, they are overall low compared to other states. As a proportion of household income, they rank 34th among the 50 states. Indiana’s income tax rate is also low, especially given the “flat” rate of 3.4%. Most states have “bracketed” tax rates (as for federal income taxes), which require wealthy people to pay a higher rate than poor people. Almost all such states have top brackets above 5% of income.

So we are getting what we pay for. We have low taxes, low funding for public education, and poor schools. One choice—a necessary one in my view—is to raise taxes, especially on those who can most afford it, and begin providing funding that the schools deserve. We have choices.

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