The Reasons for America's Potential Decline


In today's Wash Times, Tech Central Station grand conductor (and occasional Reason contributor) James K. Glassman looks through a crystal ball, darkly, and names some looming problems for the U.S. After noting that standards of living have gone up consistently over the past couple of hundred years, he throws out three possible trip wires: a "science gap" that may shift innovation off our shores, a stifling of what Keynes called the "animal spirits" that drive growth and change in an economy, and Social Security's worker-retiree ratio shift, which will almost certainly mean cutting benefits or raising taxes under the current plan.

What's frightening about these three dangers is that they may ultimately shock the stock and bond markets. For example, if investors believed the United States would have to borrow heavily and depreciate its currency in order to meet the needs of Baby Boomer retirees, then interest rates on 30-year bonds would today be sky-high; instead, they're just 4.8 percent.

Markets seem to believe that the United States will come out fine in the end, and maybe they're right. Productive immigrants hold the key to solving all three problems, and at least one threat is being addressed with Mr. Bush's intention to replace part of Social Security with private accounts, so that Americans own more of their own retirement assets, rather than counting on younger workers who may never show up.

The other two dangers, however, are mainly cultural and social—the result of a decline in striving, a lack of striving, a softness that has afflicted every other great nation in history. Call it American decadence—our own version of what happened to the Roman Empire.

Whole thing here.

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  1. And on that last point, it’s absolutely right that immigration is the solution. I heard once that Eskimos tie up they’re female sled dogs out on the ice when they’re in heat, so wolves will mate with them and keep the blood from becoming degenerate. Something similar happens with immigration: an infusion of new blood.

  2. Boy, a comparison between the United States and the decline of the Roman Empire, I’ve never heard that one before.


    on the animal spirits. i wouldnt’ characterize it as some sort of posteralian dynamism, either. so with that as a beginning, i’d disagree with JG’s first point.

    then, about the scientists, what are solutions? sealing our borders? setting up intellectual controls? people are really damn worried about evolution in schools, but high schoolers can’t point out their own damn country on a map, and can’t perform basic integration or differentiation, let alone basic matrix manipulations.

    and we’ve been hearing about our imminent demise for a while now. an anthro prof in undergrad days mentioned how the “need-achievemnent” of americans had decreased and that europe was passing us by.

    now it’s asia. whatever. what we need is LESS government here. we need FEWER social policies. we shouldn’t dick around with steel tariffs and bite the bullet and transform our economy. more trade is the answer. we were terrified about the yellow hoards taking our manufacturing jobs about 25 years ago. then it was electronics. now this? pppuuuhhhllleeeeezzzzz. chill out and read some hayek, JG.

    plus, love the pathetic fallacy: “Markets seem to believe that the United States will come out fine in the end, and maybe they’re right”. i guess these “markets” aren’t being created, driven, and changed by people with animal instincts, that he seems to think are so important?

    when the hell will we finally get rid of keynes? argh!

    merry christmas,

  4. Is this not the same asshole that wrote, DOW 36000:The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market?

  5. Bastard, I thought Generation X was supposed to be the first one to be worse off than its parents.

    I certainly did my part.

  6. Don’t need no fancy edumacation. I’ve got Jesus.

  7. DM:
    no no no no no. Gen X was supposed to be worse than the Stooges or the New York Dolls or the Clash. actually in “promises promises” they slam the pistols. not bad.

    pretty good band. although i still, sorry laura, think that “king rocker” is a great song.

    and brian, we have you.

    and the goard. and the shoe.

  8. Todd Fletcher,
    You wouldn’t have to tie me down to get me to mate with a foreigner. Woof woof!
    As Larry Flynt says, “Relax. It’s only sex.”
    The future of the US hinges on its citizens relaxing about a number of things:
    borders (They don’t need protecting or sealing. Besides the fact they can’t be, anyway.)
    etc., etc.

  9. Ruthless – amen, brother! Pretty much all the “problems” that people wring their hands over in this country (and a lot of others, I suppose) could all be solved if people just chilled the fuck out and minded their own damn business.

    And if that doesn’t work and we instead end up blowing ourselves up or some other such catastrophe (which I highly doubt), then that’s just how the bones roll. At least we can say we allowed ourselves the chance at a life of living free from coersion.

  10. One more reason to invest in gold, before the markets get wise…

  11. Paging gaius marius! Paging gaius marius!

  12. Crimethink;
    What is the gold investment in reference to?

    Amen on all the above mentioned.

  13. kwais,
    I think the gold reference was ironic seeing as how “wise” markets have already given gold a giant boost.

  14. Paging gaius marius! Paging gaius marius!

    what can i say? glassman is a thieving hack. 🙂

    his optimism on social security reform is a bit laughable — or extremely sad — and he misses the greater picture: the WEST is decadent, and america’s problems are only some manifestations of that. but the broad conclusion is, i think, hard to avoid on a survey of the development of western civ and a comparison to other cultures’ histories.

  15. The “science-gap”, if it is really coming about, is due to “a lack of striving”, & also due to “cultural & social softness”, eh ?
    Very convenient. Let me suggest a few proximate causes that don’t rely on culture-war ontology.

    1. The integration of asian economies into the global system, which is not so much opening a gap as playing catch up. I think Glassman kinda-sorta gets this.
    2. Glassman says that “U.S.-educated scientists” are going back home due to stock-options etc. Possibly. Try outsourcing -I know it is for the macro-economic good of all etc, but that’s as strong a reason for the reverse brain-drain as any. And it also has the virtue of being a verifiable fact.
    3. Since Glassman blames the gubmint, let’s not forget the current administrations smart policies discouraging stem cell research. Now there’s a guaranteed “science-gap”.
    4. In the same vein, if a good % of the population believes in creationism, ID (or whatever the cover-story is), & all other manner of gobble-D-gook, isn’t that a sympton of the “softness” he deponds over ?
    5. Glassman suggests that a “science-gap” could be opening up with Japan. Fine – but doesn’t Japan suffer from cultural exhaustion and every other ill in his list ?
    6. Fantastic tuitions.

    And on & on. Lack of striving, my donkey !

  16. agreed, mr sm. glassman’s piece — from divining an internal failing that would be fixed by more misguided nietzschean militarism to overinflating america’s role in the decline of western civ (we’re johnnie-come-latelys, folks) — demonstrates how much of a myopic hero-cult narcissist he is.

    people so quickly forget what hitler’s cultural appeal to the german masses was — a reactionary brace against civilizational decline. the neocons haven’t forgotten that, i might note.

  17. One does have to say this for Glassman: not very many people could have written as wrong-headed a book as *Dow 36,000* (he has been trying, unconvincingly, to explain it away for years), and then not merely survive but flourish. For how he did it, see

  18. The real decline has a much simpler reason. More and more merchandise today is being packed in plastic which must be hacked open to use the purchase. And all of our independent school district boards prohibit high school students from carrying knives, pointy scissors, or anything else sharp enough to do the job.

  19. gaius,

    Nice article on Ledeen – i’ve no idea who he is, but he seems typical of a certain genus of neo-con ie the typists who assert that war builds moral fibre. Sigh … IMHO, Ian Buruma has written much to counter this BS.

  20. Larry A — if we don’t pass some *laws* against that plastic packaging crap, the japs’ll run past us while we’re trying to get supper opened. Or, we must evolve to graze on plastics.

    Ruthless: “The future of the US hinges on its citizens relaxing about a number of things:” and Lowdog, amen.

    All told, I say we’re suffering some decadence. How come it happens? As an ametuer historian (who can’t spell), I see two big root causes:

    1) beauracratic growth — it’s like fungus man, it mutates so fast that Top Job and Mr Clean just can’t keep it down

    2) an aristocracy gets entrenched, and they don’t want no stinking competition

    If you can’t keep the doors open for talent & ambition to rise to the top, sooner or later you stagnate.

    Somebody tell me how to fix these problems. Nobody in history has permanently beat it yet. Look at the big powers around the world — China, Rome, the Ottomans, etc, etc. Most of them got 200, maybe 300 years max, of things going well. Then the fungus and entrenchment of the rich take their toll.

    Wasn’t it Jefferson who said there’s nothing like a good revolution every 20 years or so. What’s amazing about the Romans is, that’s kind of what they did. And unlike everybody else on the stage of world history, for a long time they managed to do it without tearing themselves totally apart. Of course they were lucky too, most of the time they had no serious rivals to take advantage of them during their internal squabbles.

  21. Comments for pragmatist:
    I wouldn’t call it decadence. I’d call it having (or not having) the courage and energy to face the truth. And, as long as there are a few folks with the courage and the energy, and as long as they are able to stay in touch such as here on H&R, then I’m optimistic.
    Also, as you can learn by delving into the Santa Fe Institute’s studies on complexity: big, big change can happen suddenly and seemingly out of the blue. Phase transition they call it.

  22. “Call it American decadence — our own version of what happened to the Roman Empire.”

    Hmmm, Gibbon blamed that on barbarism and

  23. Yes, many ill-educated people (often Catholics, for some not-so-mysterious reason) love to pretend America bears great similarity to the Roman Empire.
    The Roman Empire, sadly, is the only powerful state such folks have ever even heard of, besides the U.S.
    And their beloved Roman Empire collapsed in misery. (Drat the luck!)
    So they hope the U.S. will as well.
    Unfortunately for the over-enthusiastic fans of this analogy, America is NOTHING LIKE the Roman Empire.
    In particular: America democratically elects new leaders every 4 years.
    The Roman Empire, by contrast, was wracked by Coups-d’Etat every time an emperor died.
    But, hey…it’s better for me in the long run if all y’all papists continue to ‘mis-underestimate’ my country.
    By all means, then, let me encourage you in your delusions….
    “Yes, yes indeed…the U.S. of A. is JUST LIKE the Roman Empire. But of course, we will surely meet with a similarly deplorable fate….”

  24. America is NOTHING LIKE the Roman Empire.

    if you’re one of those who thinks nothing in history recurs, mr mcclain, then good luck to you.

    but i would say after years of consideration that not only is america similar to rome — and i submit that neither did the romans spasm with perpetual violence until quite late on — but classical civilization is similar to western. the arc of civilizational development is a pattern which can be followed and revives philosophies and mindsets. and it’s far more complex than you’re apparently supposing.

  25. Well, guess I won’t dispute the point with an actual Roman, ‘Gaius Marius!’

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