Brad DeLong & Om Malik: Is America in Decline?
Pairagraph: Is America in Decline? https://www.pairagraph.com/dialogue/fc2f8d46f10040d080d551c945e7a363/4
I confess I think that this came out very well as an intellectual exercise. I am, however, as I say in it, depressed that Om Malik—for whom I have enormous respect, and whose judgment is very, very good—does not have stronger arguments on his side that America is not "in decline". I had very much hoped to end this debate at least half-convinced to his side. But I am not. Sigh.
I see in my twitter feed right now—the morning of 2020-12-22—that more than 40% of Americans surveyed still "approve" of the job that Donald Trump is doing as president. With the U.S. having had 330,000 coronavirus plague deaths—1 in a thousand people—while Australia has had 908 total—one thirtieth the death rate—with a thousand children kidnapped and permanently separated from their parents, with him and his family trying to steal everything that isn't nailed down, what is to approve? Yet 40%. And 74 million people voted for him.
Om wants to say things like "The sheer number of Americans who participated in our November election should be a source of national pride and renewed optimism" and "it is about taking the steps necessary for moving forward, which we will never do if we insist on dragging our feet while a cloud of gloom swirls above us" and "America has always managed to invent a better tomorrow, even on its most difficult days" and "this is not about pretending".
I say: Yes, America has vast strengths. But we also have 73 million fascists, grifters, asshole racists, assholes, and easily-grifted morons whom the rest of us must carry on our backs as we try to make things better. It would be one thing if they just sat on their hands. But they are trying, actively, to break stuff that we must then fix.
Sisyphus just had to role the rock uphill. He did not have a raving violent madman on his back whom he had to carry while doing so:
Brad DeLong & Om Malik: Pairagraph: Is America in Decline? https://www.pairagraph.com/dialogue/fc2f8d46f10040d080d551c945e7a363/4: Brad DeLong 2020-09-10: Life expectancy at birth in the United States today is 78.6 years. Life expectancy at birth in Japan today is 84.5; in Singapore, 85.1; in Switzerland, 84.3; France, 83.1; in Germany, 80.9. U.S. life expectancy is on a par with Poland, Tunisia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Albania; below Peru, Colombia, Chile, Jordan, and Sri Lanka; and only a year greater than China...
...The United States currently has ~300 deaths per hundred million people per day from the coronavirus plague. The United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Germany, and Canada each have less than 10.
The United States has the amazing spectacle not just of Donald Trump as president, but of a huge number of American worthies—from Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Kevin McCarthy in the House, from Paul Ryan to Chris Christie, from Dean Baquet and Maureen Dowd and James Bennet to James Comey, all of them deciding that rather than do their proper jobs they would work to raise the odds that Trump would obtain and maintain power and increase the likelihood that he would do major damage in order to boost their personal positions in various ways.
As one of my friends from a not-rich part of East Asia says: "Students from my country come to the U.S. these days. They see dirty cities, lousy infrastructure, and the political clown show on TV, and an insular people clinging to their guns and their gods who boast about how they are the greatest people in the world without knowing anything about what is going on outside. They come back and tell me: 'We have nothing to learn from those people! Why did you send me there?’"
This is a very different vibe from what we had twenty years ago, at the end of the Clinton-Gore years, when the U.S. was victorious in the Cold War, trying to build a freer, more integrated, more peaceful, and more prosperous world; riding the wave of the great internet boom; and had—for the first time in a generation—seen eight years in which typical Americans' wages and salaries were rising rapidly. And now it has been another generation since we have seen typical Americans' wages and salaries rise rapidly.
This is a very different vibe from 70 years ago, when we had the U.S. of the great post-WWII boom and the Marshall Plan that was also, finally, turning its attention to advancing Civil Rights.
This is a very different vibe from 100 years ago, when Leon Trotsky would talk about how he regretted leaving New York for Petrograd, for he was "leaving the furnace where the future was being forged.”
This is a very different vibe from 180 yeas ago, when Alexis de Tocqueville was preaching to one and all that everyone needed to closely examine America, for understanding it was the key to understanding the world's democratic future.
The only argument that America is not in decline is that other countries have worse problems. That may well be true. But that strikes me as too low a bar.
Om Malik 2020-10-07: It has been a strange year for the planet, and a particularly challenging one for America. It is as if the universe held up a giant mirror to the country and made us look directly at our most severe and festering troubles. A virus has undone our broken healthcare system, made our upside-down economy even more fragile, and exacerbated our political and social divisions. Recognizing all that, readers might assume I am pessimistic about the prospects of our great country.
But humans, unlike mirrors, can see beyond the surface. Even the most beautiful glimpse the ugliness in themselves. And the imperfect can recognize their own potential.
Let me tell you my own story. Over a decade ago, I was an overworked reporter with a three-packs-a-day smoking habit. I didn’t work out and practiced atrocious eating habits. Not surprisingly, I ended up in the hospital fighting for my life. Forced to take a hard look at myself, I didn’t like what I saw. I made a commitment to turn things around — and I followed through.
Our country and its citizens are at a similar point of reckoning. Given the historical arc of a nation’s life, we should not rush to judge a nation’s prospects based on a single (and so far, single-term) administration — or even a bungled response to one specific crisis. America is an ongoing project. As a society, we are fighting tooth and nail to protect our democratic traditions from attacks both internal and external. Is our performance perfect? No. But we are a long way from Belarus.
In college, I read about the American industry’s decline and the offshoring of jobs to other countries. In the twilight of the last century, it seemed the end was near. And yet, we saw the birth of companies such as Amazon, Google, and Netflix. About a dozen of these large American companies have since become part of the global society and economy.
As other American industries have in the past, the modern tech industry provides an ecosystem in which people throughout the world desire to participate and thrive. Even China, our country’s greatest economic rival, takes its technology cues (and intellectual property) from America. What was a little search engine now employs hundreds of thousands. This is also where Elon Musk, whether you like him or not, willed a commercial electric vehicle industry into existence through a combination of chutzpah, capital, and yes, government support. Tesla may sell fewer cars than its German rivals, but it has convinced the world to adopt this new approach to transportation. It is true that Tesla, Google, and Amazon are not perfect. Capitalism never is.
Our planet is facing an arduous future due to our changing climate. The answers to the myriad problems this creates will emanate from American minds and in the same freethinking, entrepreneurial tradition that allowed Google to be born here. Though we certainly don’t have a monopoly on innovation, we have a track record of doing it better and more frequently than anywhere else. While it is fashionable to be bemused by America, nobody overseas should forget that this is where the necessary ingredients for global prosperity are most likely to be found.
There is no shame in admitting that we are in need of self-improvement. We must begin by addressing the horror of this year, which has exposed a range of problems. I am confident that long-term and even permanent solutions to many of these problems exist. We can and will be better. Maybe it is my day job, or perhaps it is the delusion of an immigrant’s mind, but I believe the tradition of dreaming up something from nothing is still alive in this country. And that is what keeps me betting on America.
Brad DeLong 2020-10-07: When this was pitched to me, I jumped at the chance: It seemed to me that ranting about American decadence might get it off my chest and improve morale, which was low. And then when I learned that Om Malik was on the other side I was really excited. I have long thought that Om was great. That he was willing to take the non-decline side made me confident there were much stronger arguments for it than I had recognized. I looked forward to ending this debate heartened, encouraged, and much more than half-convinced.
But after reading Om's response, I find myself worried that his heart is not in it. My précis of it would be: We must imagine that America is not in decline. Why? Because if we recognize that it is in decline we will lose all hope of being able to turn things around.
It is an argument along the lines of Camus's "we must imagine Sisyphus happy". Why must we imagine Sisyphus happy? Because we are in his situation, and if we cannot imagine—i.e., "imagine" in the sense of "pretend", not in the sense of entering into his thought-processes—Sisyphus happy, we despair and cannot do our own work, pointless and futile as that own work may be. It is an argument along the lines of Antonio Gramsci, dying of mistreatment in Mussolini's jails, recognizing that the intellect told him to be pessimistic, but that he needed to overcome that with "optimism of the will”.
Sisyphus happy, we despair and cannot do our own work, pointless and futile as that own work may be. It is an argument along the lines of Antonio Gramsci, dying of mistreatment in Mussolini's jails, recognizing that the intellect told him to be pessimistic, but that he needed to overcome that with "optimism of the will”.
Om's message is that America is not in decline because we might still "take a hard look at [our]sel[ves]... not like what [we] saw... ma[ke] a commitment to turn things around—and... follow... through". Perhaps we will.
This is not helping my morale.
The facts that America has astonishing land, abundant natural resources, and a long history of welcoming immigrants who feel cramped and constrained and unappreciated elsewhere—all these should make America's greatness a slam-dunk and America's future bright. But right now, in the world in which we live, I read my friend Dan Wang writing "I’ve spent the past month in Shanghai, which I think is the best place in the world right now: It’s always been the most fun and livable city in China; and there has been no transmission of the virus since April, with restaurants, bars, and museums all open for months..." I think that America has 150,000 new coronavirus cases and 1,000 deaths a day, that that amount of virus risk puts a serious crimp in day-to-day activities, that there is no plan for dealing with it, and that at this caseload we are still... three years from likely herd immunity, which we will reach after 1,000,000 more deaths.
It is certainly true we have a long way to fall. Things can still be very comfortable on the way down for a long time. "There is", Adam Smith said in 1776, "much ruin in a nation”.
But I had hoped Om would change my mind.
Om Malik 2020-12-22: I have had a long time to noodle on Professor Delong’s response to my continued optimism in America. He certainly didn’t share that hopefulness, and he may have missed the nuance of my argument. So, I will reiterate: If we recognize our problems, we can fix them.
This is not about pretending. It is about taking the steps necessary for moving forward, which we will never do if we insist on dragging our feet while a cloud of gloom swirls above us. I’m happy to report that the forecast calls for better conditions ahead.
In a matter of months, if not sooner, Professor Delong will (I hope) be administered a vaccine that will prevent infection from a novel coronavirus. It may come from a company called Moderna, a venture-backed, American biotech company that is redefining the next frontier of medicine.
Our handling of COVID-19 is emblematic of what makes America a very unique place. Though we absolutely botched our response to the pandemic, this country has also produced one of the vaccines to fight it. Our country has many problems, and we are uniquely capable of solving them.
In his response, the good professor points to a friend’s comments about Shanghai and how livable it feels. If that friend were a Uighur or a Mongolian, they might think differently. It’s a futuristic place, sure, but one with little room for intellectual freedom and debate. For example, Alibaba founder and CEO Jack Ma paid the price when he spoke bluntly about certain things the ruling party didn’t care to have discussed. The initial public offering of his extremely successful company, Ant Financial, was canceled. It’s also worth noting, as ProPublica recently pointed out, that China’s government-controlled Internet was behind the censorship of coronavirus-related information.
Here at home, we currently have politicians making wild and embarrassing claims about our elections. I suppose in places like Shanghai, where voting for the country’s leader isn’t an option, people are spared such unpleasantness — but that hardly seems preferable. The sheer number of Americans who participated in our November election should be a source of national pride and renewed optimism.
Soon, we will transition to a new administration. Vaccines will be administered. We will move forward. But we must not forget the failures of 2020 or ignore our many other issues. America needs to rebuild its infrastructure, prepare for a changed climate, address its healthcare crisis, and take a hard look at its education system.
Neither self-flagellation nor looking enviously at other countries will solve these problems. Many entrepreneurs I get to interact with are working on solutions. They acknowledge our many shortcomings, rather than wallowing in them, and then they move on to designing and implementing better policies.
America has always managed to invent a better tomorrow, even on its most difficult days. Reality is complex. Where there is struggle, there can also be transcendence. In order to experience the latter, we must first convince ourselves that it is possible.
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