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Works and Days

OK, Let’s Decline

May 1st, 2011 - 6:53 am

We do not have the strikes of Europe, the violence of the Middle East, the state oppression of China. India has religious, social, and caste tensions unknown in the U.S. American farmland is the most productive in the world, its farmers the most gifted and innovative. We inherited a vast, developed infrastructure; out duty is to improve and expand it, not, as our ancestors had to, start from scratch building a Hoover Dam, intercontinental railroad, or port facilities in Oakland.

I remember growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the sheer amount of wealth creation since then staggers the imagination. I recall my parents taking me in 1962 to a dinner at a judge’s “mansion”: it was a 2000 sq. ft. ranch house in north Fresno — with three, repeat three, bathrooms — an unheard of thing at that time — and a 15-foot kidney shaped swimming pool to boot! The sort of elite home that is solidly now middle class.

iPhones, Facebook, and Microsoft are culturally U.S. to the core; construction, computers, oil drilling, and refining are still American premier sciences. For all the talk of China, it would take the Chinese thirty years to acquire the expertise to launch and employ 10 effective carrier groups. To the degree an India or China is successful, it is because of emulation of the West, and the United States in particular. When I have my solo lunches in the new courtyard at the Stanford Business School, I stare at the number of foreigners networking in this global training station, where the world’s elites flock to shell out tens of thousands for the expertise and signature degree.

We see in the misadventure in Libya what the Europeans do without the U.S. military. Japan’s dense population and centralized mode of transportation, housing, and industry make it serially vulnerable to natural disasters in a way a dispersed, decentralized, and huge America is not. Our poor suffer far more from obesity than malnutrition; diabetes and clogged arteries, not scurvy and rickets, are the plagues of the underclass. Is driving a Kia that much less comfortable than a Mercedes, is hot water in Trump Towers hotter than a mile from my house in federally subsidized apartments? Does a middle seat on a 737 mean you are tortured and exploited while the “rich” zoom by in a Gulfstream? My local Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday in Selma — poorest section of one of the poorest counties in the most bankrupt state in America — had 3 BMWs, 3 Mercedes, 1 Jaguar, 2 Metros, 16 Camrys, 13 Accords, 21 newer double-cab pickups, and lots of late-model Civics, Nissans, and Kias among 82 cars. I counted them for this article; my statistically “poor” town did not look like Dickensian London. Wealth has been distributed to millions in a way once thought impossible. When did driving a Civic make you poor because someone else was driving a BMW, or why was living in a downtown Fresno condo unfair if someone else had one about the same size and with the same accoutrements in Santa Monica with a view of the ocean?

I could go on, so why does Mr. Obama see us in decline? Is it a wish rather than a descriptive assessment?

1) Debt. In 1999 we worried about the specter of paying off the debt and transmogrifying to creditor status. There are trillions of dollars produced annually in this country; it is a matter of redirecting the economy from consumption to savings, and to wealth creation from redistribution. The years 2004-5 seemed to me pretty fat when the federal budget was $2.3 trillion. Go back to those spending levels and we would more or less balance the budget. California is in extremis with a $25 billion annual budget shortage; read the state’s newspapers and they are full of stories about notable state employees accused of retirement spiking, hefty profits at Google, record water levels in our reservoirs, and tiny houses in Santa Monica or Mountain View selling for over $1 million. There is money in the country, and money in California. If we had a leader that was willing to cut and ignore the furor, we could pile up surpluses rather quickly. The present fiscal policy is a choice to embrace redistribution and decline.

2) Energy. Known reserves of natural gas just keep getting larger. The amount of oil in the Dakotas, in Alaska, and offshore climbs too, even as cars are getting more efficient and new hybrids are getting better. There is enough natural gas and its derivatives to power quite easily a quarter of our fleet. Should we have a president who wished to drill, press natural gas as a transportation fuel, and shut up about “millions of green jobs” that so far means a subsidized 1-2% of energy production, we could do wonders on the energy front. Each barrel produced here rather than imported from Saudi Arabia means more money, more jobs, and enhanced national security. By asking other governments to pump more oil, as we insist that drilling and supply have no effect on prices, we want to become more indebted and dependent. Again, a choice, not a fate.

3) National security. For all the talk of Al Qaeda, the Bush anti-terrorism protocols — derided and then embraced and expanded by Obama — coupled with the terrible toll we took on Islamists in Anbar, and in Afghanistan, have meant that radical Islam is far weaker than it was in 2001, we far stronger. We are still spending less than 5% of GDP on defense. If we were to develop a strategic, consistent policy of bestowing our alliances and friendship on those who shared either our values or our notion of security, we could easily regain our strategic preeminence. “Leading from behind”? Does the president think Japan will rush to stop the North Koreans when they cross the 38th Parallel; does he believe France is going to air-lift spare parts to Tel Aviv when the Arabs again attack Israel? Leading from behind is like a person choosing to stay home from work – occasionally calling in to do a bit of business and usually being ignored. That too is a decision, not destiny.

4) Immigration. Close the border, institutionalize employer fines, finish the fence — and predicate legal entry into the U.S. not on race, nearness to the border, or the number of relatives in America, but on skills and capital. We would experience a renaissance. If were to end 500,000 illegal entries and replace them with 250,000 legal entries based on education and expertise, not national origin, proximity, or family connection, immigration would be one of our greatest strengths, rather than a continual effort to bolster political constituencies. Apparently, self-supporting, highly educated, confident immigrants from all regions of the globe are not one’s constituents, and therefore of no value politically. What would we do without “getting in their face” to “punish” the proper “enemies”?

5) Entitlements. Whether we adopt the Simpson-Bowles commission’s analyses, or just raise the retirement age, or follow Paul Ryan’s recommendations, there is a little discussed truth: we can make Social Security solvent and still support retired citizens in finer fashion than was true ten years ago. Borrowing to spend is a mood, a state of mind, not a death sentence. It can be reversed almost instantaneously — if it is recognized as a pathology, a sort of degeneration of the spirit.

We may well decline, and pass on a weaker, more divided, more insolvent and at-risk America to our children. But that is again, entirely a choice, not a fate. It is a decision that many prosperous, but tired and squabbling societies — 4th-century Athens, 5th-century A.D. Rome, 1950s Britain, 1970s America — chose willingly when they redistributed rather than created wealth, embraced envy rather than emulation as their collective creed, whined about not being liked rather than unapologetically assumed unpopularity is always the price of leadership and jealousy its constant twin, and talked of rationing, lectured on what they could not, rather than could, do, and made bickering between the generations, the sexes, the races, the classes, and tribes a national sport, rather than collectively and confidently looked forward to expanding, creating, and uniting in national purpose.

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