Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Decline and Fall

There is a feeling among a small number of intellectual types in the US that the country as a whole is in a state of decline. The arguments advanced are on these lines: the country is no longer a producer of goods, its economy is a wreck (this one is hard to dispute!), its deficit is gigantic, its people have become apathetic and lack a minimum awareness, and it is over-reaching itself by fighting numerous pointless or at least "end-less" wars around the planet. This article by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd makes explicit the comparison to ancient Rome. I should warn you, though, that part of the article is in Latin (well, a sort of Latin!).

A lot of people around the world might see a kind of justice in this downfall, but before rejoicing breaks out, I would like to sound a cautionary note. The USA that will decline, if it does decline, is not only the USA of global oil (and other) wars, of non-cooperation with the United Nations, and of awesome levels of consumption and consequent environmental damage. It is also the USA with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic makeup where foreigners could settle down and participate (think of Indians in Silicon Valley) at levels unheard of in the rest of the world. It is the USA that harnessed phenomenal levels of creativity through the twentieth century and conceived most of the gadgets that make up our lives today. Just about everything we recognise as modern, from the light bulb to the laptop computer, was first made there (it's a different matter that the inventor of the laptop, Adam Osborne, actually spent his childhood in Tiruvannamalai and died in Kodaikanal!). Even when innovations originated in different countries like Japan, France and UK, the mass-marketed version would be realised in the USA and this is perhaps the reason why the laptop computer today costs not 20,000 dollars but 500 dollars.

Considering also the great American painters, writers, scientists and musicians that we all know and love, such a decline and fall would be a huge wrench for any cultured person around the world.

But, as I'm sure people will point out, the results may not be altogether tragic. In the event of such a decline and fall (IF it happens), the "centre of the world" will merely migrate elsewhere. There are already jokes about young Americans learning Mandarin Chinese so they can seek jobs in one of the rising economies! And there is some sort of precedent - it was after World War II that many Europeans migrated to the US, some because of persecution but many more simply because their countries were wrecked. At that time the leading language of science, for example, switched from German to English. And science did very well after the change - the great European discoveries of the early twentieth century were built upon to make up the great American discoveries of the late twentieth century. So the moral would be: countries come and go, but humanity - and creativity - survive.

And yet there is something that makes me uneasy. According to the critics, the fundamental reasons for the USA's possible decline are: ignorance, apathy, greed and an overreaching sense of self-importance stemming from being the world's only superpower. This is certainly what happened to ancient Rome. So if and when China and India become superpowers, will we also go through the same cycle? Will it start out with exuberance, abundance, a rise in the standard of living, and then end within a century in greed and unbridled aggression? If so, is there something we can do to change this prophesy of doom? The answer, it seems to me, is to make everyone study history - for as the philosopher Santayana put it, "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".

So I think that, at least in India, everyone who is cheering for us to become a superpower has the solemn patriotic duty to inculcate the study of history in every single citizen.

Throughout this article I've left it open whether I personally think the US is declining. Maybe it isn't, and then this article would be pointless. But then if you watch this video on You Tube, I promise you will really really start to worry!


Ludwig said...

A nicely balanced and well argued post. In particular, the point about the "centre of the world" moving elsewhere and the people of the "elsewhere" starting to behave exactly in the way Americans behave and purportedly caused their own downfall is well taken.

All said and done, the US is still a country that has got many things right and those are worth remembering and cherishing. This is not to wholeheartedly endorse everything it does, of course.

Shanth said...

Bee at backreaction, had a similar post about the German media's take on this. In the long run a shift of power towards Asia is inevitable considering more than half the world lives here. The current economic crisis fueled by bad debts, at most hastened that shift, though I don't really think it's as apocalyptic as it's being made out to be.

Thanks for the link to the NYT article. Thoroughly amusing!

Shriya said...

interesting post. The moment the asian values (family, tradition) etc fall by the wayside with development and economic growth, we will go the American way
Best regards

Sunil Mukhi said...


Not sure why you claim "family" and "tradition" as specifically Asian values. These are precisely the values endorsed by Republicans in the US too!

Also, given what a tragically deprived life at least half of all Indians lead (in terms of access to food, shelter, education and health care) I think that our "going the American way" in the sense of material wealth would be a good thing.

It's the next step after that which worries me -- when we get drunk with power. But India being a superpower is a long way off, so this is really a theoretical worry at this stage.

Shriya said...

Well to be honest I am no economic theory guy. So my comments are in line with my views which are not backed by hard facts or proper knowledge of the US system. Another clarification needed. How long can a society lead life as a consumer on credit? anything and everything is costly. Especially services.
Best regards

CowboySnoopy said...

I can see some reasons why there will be a downfall to the US. I don't think it is likely to happen. Even with all the problems that we face, there are many answers to the problems on how to fix it. That youtube video is rather funny. I got the answers right. How could you not know that a Buddhist Monk is a Buddhist? That chick that said a Russian walked on the moon first, really made me laugh. They were first in space in the 50's while the US was first to land on the moon in the sixties. Perhaps the reporter should have asked what Paris Hilton had for breakfast that day. It does seem that Americans are more worried about what celebrities are doing then if their children are doing their homework. I hope to see a better America but I can't see it if we are always looking at everyone else's problems and not our own. There has been a war in the middle east for hundreds of years. It just changes names ever so often to make it seem like a new one. I would hope for a world peace but the day that happens is probably the day we finally blow each other up.