Review of The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics and a Half Century of False Prophecies, by Josef Joffe (Liveright 2013), 352 pages, ISBN- 978-0871404497
Josef Joffe’s The Myth of America’s Decline is the most brilliant discourse on world economics and its history I have ever read. If you have ever worried about China taking over the United States in the foreseeable future, Joffe’s book will eliminate those sleep-depriving thoughts. Joffe presents strong evidence of America’s strength and China’s many economic challenges.
Doomsaying Is Nothing New
A sound knowledge of history and economics is helpful—but not necessary—for readers to fully appreciate the abundant supporting information Joffe presents. Those without such knowledge will discover a bounce in their step when the journey through the book’s pages is complete.
The myth of our national decline is mainly homemade by our resident doomsayers. Post-World War II pessimism dates as far back as the 1950s, when the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite made Russia look preeminent. The doomsayers latch onto new and different storylines every decade, but America’s preeminence remains intact.
Joffe succinctly summarizes the historic ups and downs of the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan years. Doomsayers throughout the decades tell us we are losing the battle for global preeminence to what have in all cases been inferior competitors. Doomsayers have continually beaten the drum of America’s imminent decline, yet it never happens.
Even our national leaders sometimes fall into the trap of believing this myth. The most poignant example is Jimmy Carter and his famous “malaise” speech of 1979. Carter’s speech led Newsweek to print a cover story titled “Has the U.S. Lost its Clout?” On the opposite side of the coin, Reagan countered these misguided and unsettling feelings to propel himself into office with his “Morning Again in America” theme.
Japan’s Recent Example
Back in the Carter-Reagan era, when the Japanese economy grew from one-third to one-half the size of the U.S. economy, doomsayers predicted Japan’s economy would soon overtake our own. Shift to the present, and the Japanese economy is again one-third the size of our own. So much for linear projections, Joffe reminds us.
Joffe summarizes the Japanese comparison:
“Japan’s bureaucratically guided capitalism … demonstrated an increasing propensity to corruption. The banking system that once gushed forth limitless capital was mired in bad debt and cover-up. The school system? An inhuman pressure cooker that was good for rote learning, but flunks on fresh thinking.” Now, he tells us, China is following that same scenario.
We were told that the United States was devolving into a nation of hamburger flippers, pizza makers, and clerks at Big Box stores. In fact, the opposite was true. The primary indicator of national success is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per worker. For all of the past 50 years, we have outranked our nearest competitor by a wide margin.
“The nice thing about prophecy,” Joffe tells us, “is that doom never comes with a date.”
Joffe explains how the United States laps the competition in industrial competitiveness and can look forward to bringing back jobs from the rest of the world. Our breathtaking increase in energy development from horizontal drilling in shale will increase our GDP a full percentage point within five years, he says.
Declinism Empowers Doomsayers
Joffe compellingly traces the history and strategy of declinism. Its first intent is to scare people. After scaring people, it offers to lead then out of the fictitious crisis. The prophets of doom and gloom gain power while steering us through the fictitious crisis and then greater power and accolades when the nonexistent crisis never materializes.
China, Others Fall Short
Joffe points out how Brazil, Russia, India, and China have at one time or another been designated the planet’s economic heirs apparent. Yet each of these nations today finds itself mired in economic turmoil. For example, Joffe points out the difficulty China will have in catching and surpassing the United States when income per-person in the United States is 10 times that of China.
“A nation becomes neither rich nor powerful by adding 1.3 billion very poor people,” Joffe explains.
Joffe examines the economic miracles of Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China, explaining that none will ever last long enough to catch up with the United States, at least not in our lifetimes. Some of these nations may experience short-term bursts of rapid economic growth, but none can be sustained long enough to catch and surpass America.
“Whether it is balloons, airplanes or economies, what goes up must come down,” Joffe writes.
Joffe’s detailed analysis of China’s economic challenges, including corruption and the wealth accrued by its leaders, is a fascinating read. He leaves no question unanswered about China’s present and future. The nation is in a double bind that will stifle future economic growth regardless of the political direction the nation chooses.
This book is difficult to put down. The strength of its argument and the joy it brings are equally compelling. More importantly, you will never again buy into prophecies of America’s imminent doom. Trust me when I say a review such as this cannot convey the greatness of this book. Read my review and you will smile for a day, read the book and smile for a decade.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.