The Edmond Sun

Opinion

December 31, 2012

Will 2013 mark the beginning of American decline?

"A modest man," Winston Churchill supposedly quipped about Clement Attlee, his successor as prime minister, "but then he has so much to be modest about." We should say the same about economists, particularly their ability to forecast anything in a useful and timely manner.

Those predicting an imminent American economic decline have usually been no exception. This time, though, they may be on to something.

Prevailing arguments about when the era of U.S. dominance would end, and which country would supplant it, have been wildly and consistently wrong for half a century. In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was taken seriously when he told Western ambassadors "We will bury you." Today, his country no longer exists. In the 1980s, Japan was supposedly going to be No. 1; now the question is whether the precipitous decline in its working-age population will generate a fiscal crisis.

The Germans - or Europeans more broadly - were thought to be on the brink of elbowing aside the United States several times, including in the run-up to the global financial crisis in 2008, when the euro seemed to threaten the dollar's role as the pre- eminent reserve currency. Remember when Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen was quoted as saying she preferred to be paid in euros? Now the euro-area economy looks very sick indeed, and Bundchen is apparently long American icons (she married football player Tom Brady).

Becoming the world's top economic dog isn't easy. That's because any contender - China or anyone else - needs to answer three tough questions.

First, do they have secure property rights for individuals? Who would trust their rainy-day funds or their most innovative ideas in a country where, when the going gets tough, the state gets your stuff? China has a big current-account surplus and lots of foreign-exchange reserves. They also have a 2,000-year tradition of putting the government before the individual. Think about all the ways this went wrong for the Soviet Union.

Second, is the financial system viable in its current form? Japan had a great economic-transformation story - and an even greater debt-fueled asset-price bubble when its banks went mad in the mid-1980s. How confident are you that China, Brazil or other emerging markets aren't headed down the same road?

Third, is debt - both public and private - on an unsustainable path? Mismanaged debt has brought Europe to its current low point, both in the form of direct public borrowing (see Greece) and in the equally painful form of private-sector borrowing that goes bad, with nasty implications for the government's balance sheet (ask the Irish and Spanish about this).

Even so, the U.S. has serious economic, social and political problems. Just look at the current budget debacle. Democrats and Republicans are at each other's throats, struggling theatrically, rather like Holmes and Moriarty above Reichenbach Falls. If they get a fiscal deal done in the next few weeks, do you really think it will result in a sensible tax system, or bring long-term health-care spending under control? Are we going to invest more in education? Will we really have a frank discussion about what kind of social-insurance programs we want, and how to pay for them?

I'm also well aware that incentives to take excessive risk remain at the heart of Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms contain some useful measures but do too little to significantly alter the balance of power between global megabanks and the rest of us. The Federal Reserve seems to be edging in the right direction on regulation but it is moving too slowly to make any difference for the next cycle.

And the U.S. is now entering perhaps the most dangerous phase of its long-standing tax revolt, in which Republicans insist on holding down federal revenue while the population is aging, but they won't propose specific cuts in social programs, precisely because they know that Medicare and Social Security remain immensely popular.

As a result, the political logic of the moment leads to continued increases in U.S. government borrowing, about half of which is financed, for now, by international savings at low interest rates. Our post-crisis monetary policy is contriving to keep those rates very low for a long time, presumably setting the table for a further round of mismanaged risk taking in the financial sector (just as it did after 2001).

 So while no country will rise up to take America's place as the world's leading economy, its global position is indeed threatened - by its own reluctance to have an honest conversation about the federal budget and by the unwillingness of its political leadership to confront powerful interests on Wall Street.

Sooner or later, it will be America's turn to fall out of favor with investors and to see its own interest rates rise. It is hard to know when that day will come, or precisely what pressures the country will face.

Let me only venture one forecast: We will not be ready.

             

Simon Johnson is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He is co-author of "White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You."

 

1
Text Only
Opinion
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Why poverty across the world matters to Americans

    A child starving in South Sudan should matter to Americans. That was the message delivered last week by Nancy Lindborg, whose job at the U.S. Agency for International Development is to lead a federal bureau spreading democracy and humanitarian assistance across the world.
    That world has reached a critical danger zone, with three high-level crises combining military conflict with humanitarian catastrophes affecting millions of innocents in Syria, the South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
    But back to that child.

    April 18, 2014

  • Government leadership complicit in overfilling prisons

    One of the thorniest problems facing any society is the question of what to do with transgressors. Obviously, the more complicated a culture becomes, the more factors come into play in trying to figure out what to do with those who choose not to “play by the rules.”

    April 18, 2014

  • My best days are ones normal people take for granted

    It is a weekend for working around the house. My fiancee, Erin, and I have the baby’s room to paint and some IKEA furniture to assemble. I roll out of bed early — 10:30 — and get into my wheelchair. Erin is already making coffee in the kitchen.
    “I started the first wall,” she says. “I love that gray.” Erin never bugs me about sleeping late. For a few months after I was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, I often slept 15 hours a day. The doctors said my body needed to heal. It must still be healing because I hardly ever see 8 a.m. anymore.

    April 18, 2014

  • Instead of mothballing Navy ships, give them to our allies

    A bitter debate has raged in the Pentagon for several months about the wisdom of taking the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out of service to save money. The Washington, at 24 years old a relatively young vessel, is due for a costly refit, a routine procedure that all of the 11 large carriers in service undergo regularly.

    April 18, 2014

  • The pessimist’s guide to grizzly bears and Earth Day

    This coming Friday, to “celebrate Earth Day,” the Walt Disney Co. will release one of those cutesy, fun-for-all-ages, nature documentaries. “Bears” is about grizzly bears.
    The trailer says, “From DisneyNature comes a story that all parents share. About the love, the joy, the struggle and the strength it takes to raise a family.”
    Talk about your misguided “Hollywood values.” I previously have acknowledged a morbid, unreasonable fear of grizzly bears, stemming from a youth misspent reading grisly grizzly-attack articles in Readers Digest. This fear is only morbid and unreasonable because I live about 1,500 miles from the nearest wild grizzly bear. Still. ...

    April 16, 2014

  • Digging out of the CIA-Senate quagmire

    Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted to declassify parts of its report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The White House, the CIA and the Senate still have to negotiate which portions of the report will be redacted before it is made public. But this is an important step in resolving the ugly dispute that has erupted between the intelligence committee and the intelligence agency.
    The dispute presents two very serious questions. Was the program consistent with American values and did it produce valuable intelligence? And is effective congressional oversight of secret activities possible in our democracy?

    April 15, 2014

  • Los Angeles Times: Congress extend jobless benefits again

    How’s this for irony: Having allowed federal unemployment benefits to run out in December, some lawmakers are balking at a bill to renew them retroactively because it might be hard to figure out who should receive them. Congress made this task far harder than it should have been, but the technical challenges aren’t insurmountable. Lawmakers should restore the benefits now and leave them in place until the unemployment rate reaches a more reasonable level.

    April 14, 2014

  • Many nations invested in Israel

    Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Yoram Ettinger recently spoke to a gathering at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in Oklahoma City. The event began with a presentation by Rabbi Ovadia Goldman, who told the attendee that the  upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover was an occasion for them to embrace the children of God, which is all of humanity.

    April 14, 2014

  • Coming soon: More ways to get to know your doctor

    Last week, the federal government released a massive database capable of providing patients with much more information about their doctors.
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the government agency that runs Medicare, is posting on its website detailed information about how many visits and procedures individual health professionals billed the program for in 2012, and how much they were paid.
    This new trove of data, which covers 880,000 health professionals, adds to a growing body of information available to patients who don’t want to leave choosing a doctor to chance. But to put that information to good use, consumers need to be aware of what is available, what’s missing and how to interpret it.

    April 14, 2014

  • HEY HINK: Hateful bullies attempt to muffle free speech

    Hopefully we agree it should be a fundamental right to voice criticism of any religion you wish. And you should have the right to sing the praises of any religion you choose. If criticism of religion is unjust, feel free to make your best argument to prove it. If criticism is just, don’t be afraid to acknowledge and embrace it. If songs of praise are merited, feel free to join in. If not, feel free to ignore them. But no American should participate in curbing free speech just because expression of religious views makes someone uncomfortable.

    April 11, 2014

Poll

Do you agree with a state budget proposal that takes some funds away from road and bridge projects to ramp up education funding by $29.85 million per year until schools are receiving $600 million more a year than they are now? In years in which 1 percent revenue growth does not occur in the general fund, the transfer would not take place.

Agree
Disagree
Undecided
     View Results