By Robert McCartney
Sunday, July 4, 2010; C01
This most patriotic of holidays prompts me to ask a decidedly unpatriotic question: Is America in decline?
I'm not alone in wondering. It'd take a week to read all the books and articles on the subject in recent years.
Many compare our society today to that of the Roman Empire as the barbarians closed in. One book title posed the issue concisely as, "Are We Rome?"
It's an unusual situation for Americans. The nation's history has generally been one of extraordinary expansion and ascent. First we spread across the continent. When World War II ended, we were a superpower. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we became the only superpower.
Three developments explain the worry that we're slipping. One is the rise of China, seen as a realistic contender to replace us at the top. Another is the 2008 financial crisis, which undermined confidence in America's free-market economic model. Third is the perception that the nation is incapable of dealing effectively with obvious major challenges -- the budget deficit, unemployment, oil addiction, illegal immigration, deteriorating infrastructure.
To answer the question, it's necessary to break it into two parts. Are we in decline relative to other countries? And are we in decline in some absolute sense?
When comparing the United States with other countries, the answer depends on the area of competition.
In military strength, for instance, the United States is still unquestionably on top. Our defense spending exceeds the combined total of the next 10 highest-spending countries, and our technology is unmatched.
We're striking our most despised enemy, the al-Qaeda leadership, with drones piloted by operators sitting comfortably far from the scene. Generals fret that "combat" has become so safe for some that it's hard to justify medals honoring the traditional military virtues of valor and personal sacrifice.
Think about that. It's the kind of problem you want to have.
The picture is mixed when it comes to the "soft power" combination of diplomatic clout and all-around international influence.
George W. Bush's presidency cost us goodwill abroad. I was overseas for nearly three years of it and saw the damage caused by his rest-of-the-world-be-damned approach. It also hurt when an American institution, Wall Street, was the main culprit in the worst global business slump in seven decades.
On the upside, President Obama is well liked overseas. American democracy and freedoms still inspire many foreigners. U.S. popular culture, from Hollywood to Facebook, remains dominant.
One field where we've definitely lost ground is the global economy. That's partly because the rest of the world, especially in Asia, is catching up.
Shortly after World War II, the United States accounted for nearly half of total world output. For several decades now, our share has been about a fifth.
In 1950, China made up less than 5 percent of the world economy. Now its share is more than 10 percent and rising.
That's not necessarily bad. China's growth has exploded because it adopted free-market policies that we've been recommending for decades.
America's problem is that the global economy is seriously unbalanced, and we're on the red ink side of the ledger. Globalization, which we championed, led to the export of millions of good-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs. That means we're now running large trade deficits. In our foreign accounts, as in the gaping shortfall in the federal budget, we are living beyond our means.
This can't continue indefinitely, and the fix is eventually going to hurt our standard of living somehow.
Right now, America is sharply divided over painful choices. Should we spend more to fight joblessness? Or should we move now to contain the government deficit?
That uncertainty points to the other half of the broader question: Are we in decline in some absolute way? In particular, is our political culture so gridlocked that we're unable to address long-standing problems that we know need solving?
I'm sad to say the evidence right now suggests that the answer is yes. Consider three domestic issues:
1. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has reminded everyone of the environmental hazards of our dependence on petroleum. But there's no movement toward a meaningful policy to significantly change our energy habits.
2. Virtually everyone regrets the massive violation of immigration laws represented by the presence of 12 million or so illegal residents. But our leaders can't agree on the only available compromise, which would provide for a mix of gradual amnesty, strict employer sanctions and a guest-worker program.
3. The nation's infrastructure is deteriorating, from roads to subway lines to water mains. But the public doesn't want to pay higher taxes and fees to fix the problem.
How did this happen? At the root of the deadlock is a fundamental disagreement between liberals and conservatives about the size and role of government.
To end it, a grand compromise is desirable. It would take another column to describe such a deal, but here's the basic trade-off. As a condition of raising public funds to address the nation's problems, liberals need to show that they can use tax money wisely and keep government from quashing entrepreneurial energy. Conservatives need to show that they care as much about the common good -- such as preserving a social safety net and protecting the environment -- as they do about private interests.
So, to answer my own unpatriotic question: Yes, America has begun a decline, mainly because we've let the economy and our political culture deteriorate. But we can still reverse it. We're still the wealthiest nation in all of world history. Our politics have shown tremendous resilience and adaptability over more than two centuries. The elections of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama showed how quickly our system can deliver dramatic change at the top, even if structural problems remain.
We need to summon again the vision and political courage of the Continental Congress whose work we celebrate today. With that, America could resume the ascent that it has enjoyed -- overall, despite a few setbacks -- since 1776.