Apostles of Decline Denial: America Cannot be in Decline Because we Haven’t Declined Before

Downtown Tokyo
If there is a cottage industry in America saying that America is in decline, there’s a booming Fortune 500 business denying denial

Case in point: the two book reviews on the front page of this Sunday’s the New York Times. Jonathan Rauch reviews Ed Luce’s new book “Time to Start Thinking” which Rauch quips should be called “Time to Start Drinking.” I have not yet read Ed’s book, but have it on order from Amazon. But from talking to Ed when he was writing and from reading Rauch’s review, it’s clear that Ed is painting a tough portrait of America’s declining economic competitiveness. But all one has to do it seems in response to any warning issued today is simply say “Japan” and smile in how clever one has been. The notion is that we raised the alarm about Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s and it all worked out fine. In reviewing Robert Kagan’s book, the reviewer cites Kagan showing that “declinism is as old as America itself.” (Interesting that both Kagan and Rauch are at the Brookings Institution, where, other than the folks in the Metropolitan Studies program, it seems that Brookings is committed to denying decline).

But by this logic, if we have not declined before and it was always been a “boy crying wolf phenomenon” than we can be assured we will never decline in the future. So sit back and don’t worry. We simply can’t decline. We’re America.

There’s another deeply flawed part of the denialists of decline logic. It’s that we didn’t decline in the past because of some inherent superiority of the American system. We didn’t do anything. In fact, in response to the challenge from Japan (and Germany) in the 1980s and 1990s, we were anything but lax: Congress and 3 presidential administrations took unprecedented steps to put in place policies to boost U.S. competitiveness. These included expanding NSF funding, passing legislation like Bayh-Dole, the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, the Collaborative R&D Act, the Stephenson Wydler Act; instituting the R&D tax credit; changes to the “prudent man” rule for pension funds that spurred venture capital expansion; pressing the Japanese on unfair trade practices in a range of industries and a host of other steps.

But don’t worry, no need to do any of this kind of stuff now. Remember and repeat after me, “America is the greatest and can’t decline, America is the greatest and can’t decline; America is the greatest and can’t decline.” Now don’t you feel better? And Ed Luce, stop writing this kind of stuff, it just depresses us.

Image from Flickr user Danny Choo

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.