The mirage – are the United States really decaying?

One of the hottest subjects currently in International Relations is the “game of catch–up” as the Economist characterized it, between the East and the West or as some see it, the Southern versus the Northern hemisphere. Looking at the economic figures they deduce that China will surpass USA as the economic leader of the modern world by 2022. Understandably, this prediction comes with concerns about the capacity of the US to maintain its material and political leadership over the world. The economic crisis of 2008 worsened the situation. There is increasing distrust internationally. US “sunk” to 46th in global press freedom rankings for 2013, behind countries such as Jamaica, the Czech Republic and Ghana. The political situation inside the US is no better with president Barack Obama trying to balance between the super-power status of the country and his more “pro-social” vision, creating more enemies with each new initiative. But getting away from the economy and the political struggles of president Obama, what’s the status of the American society itself? According to a survey published on December 2013 by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans think that the US is less respected internationally now than in the past, and 52 percent of them think that the US should “mind its own business”. Furthermore, 53 percent feel that the role and power of the US internationally is diminishing compared with a decade ago. These are the worst stats of public opinion regarding the power of the country since 1974. So, how are the Americans doing?

The poverty rate in the US has increased from 11.3 percent in 2000 to between 15 percent and 16 percent in 2012 according to various sources, with about 47 million Americans living in poverty. The most important problem though, is considered to be the 8.3 percent fall in median household income since 2007, a reduction that was absorbed unequally. The middle and lower classes were affected much more than the rich, a fact that amplified already existing inequalities between the rich and the poor. As professor Robert Reich of the University of California put it, “right now…the 400 richest people in the US have more wealth than the bottom 115 million Americans put together”. This is important because many believe that these inequalities can lead to social and economic problems, such as weakened demand, that will not allow the economy to recover to its pre-crisis levels and to an increasing distrust in the political process that may create social instability. The possibility of social unrest can become more transparent if we take into account that the income disparity is particularly evident between racial groups. As Hispanic and African Americans earn (median household income) little more than half of what European and Asian Americans earn.

Other indicators that worry analysts are that 42 percent of the children born in poverty never get out of it and that the US educational system, a justified source of pride for the American nation, is showing signs of decline. In the age group of 55 to 64, 41 percent of Americans hold college degrees, which makes them world leaders in this aspect, while in the age group of 25 to 34, the US now ranks 15th in the world behind countries such as Denmark and South Korea. This is due to the high cost of education in American universities that have become more accessible to foreigners than to Americans, who can no longer invest and indebt themselves in order to send their children to college. Another indicator closely related to both the issues of poverty and potential education is the 63 percent poverty rate of single mothers, while if we include social benefits like allowances and support from the state, this number only falls to 51 percent. That is despite 87 percent of them working more than 30 hours a week. How can a single mother raise a child and send it to college while working full time and earning just enough money to remain poor? Social problems, economic problems, low morale, welfare issues…….now, wait a minute! Is it really that bad for the society in the US?

USA still has an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent (October 2013) which is fairly low compared to an average 12 percent in the EU (January 2014). Crime has decreased over 30 percent since 2008. In the Human Development Index of the UNDP, which measures various indicators of wellbeing, such as life expectancy or home ownership, USA still ranks 3rd worldwide while China is 101st. American universities are still the best around the world and the educational system is trying to correct its shortcomings. The situation for poor people could be much worse, but the state is trying to intervene with varying levels of success. Without social security payments for the elderly, disabled people or single mothers, the poverty rate would be 25 percent and not 15 percent. The government’s initiatives, especially for elderly people and children, seem to have been successful in limiting the damage during the crisis. Large reforms are moving forward like the famous Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, trying to address the problem of 48 million people without insurance in 2012. Are those the signs of a crumbling country?

The truth is that the global system is created around U.S. principles, with U.S. based organizations, around U.S. currency and the ‘’American dream […] national ethos of the United States’’. Even China’s economic bloom, is largely dependent on exports to the U.S. and to the countries inside the U.S. system. Globalization and interdependence truly play a huge role today. There can’t be such a thing as ‘’the king is dead, long live the king’’, because if the king dies it is bad news for everybody and the world will have to take a step backwards. But he seems very much alive. Despite the crisis of 2007-08, U.S.A.’s GDP (PPP) was estimated to $15.66 trillion in 2012 and the per capita GDP (PPP) to $49.800. China actually seems to be slowing down due to the crisis, and for the first time since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Economically the system is interdependent but in the field of values and ideas, it is still all American, and there isn’t an alternative ‘’Chinese dream’’ or ‘’European dream’’ in sight. I don’t think that China or the EU or anyone until now has come up with a real sociopolitical alternative to US dominance. Every country has problems. China itself is dealing with huge issues of income inequality, an aging population, environmental and political issues and more. A “game of catch – up” is occurring but the US has a huge head start and I think that the signs of American decay are just temporary and more like a mirage.

An American colleague of mine described the American mentality in a nutshell, “we are the greatest”. It is that exact mentality that was understandably shaken up after the traumatic 9/11 events. Too big and costly, in American lives and money. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Great Recession that begun in 2007 is still felt worldwide. Despite all these blows, the US are far from weakened. It still holds its throne domestically as the “land of the free and the home of the brave” and internationally as an “indispensable nation” as Robert J. Lieber, a professor at the Georgetown University argued. I believe that you either hate or love the USA. You have to acknowledge that it is really a remarkably stable, unique and admirable nation. During the last decade the American society has been going through some rough times and is now going through a recovering process. The society will recover and then it will remember that it consists of an extremely wide amalgam of nations that share a common belief. That they reside in, and are citizens of the greatest country in the world, right now. That has been the American mentality for the last 70 years and I don’t see a reason for it to fundamentally change.

Further reading:

Text: Alexandros Kostoulas
alexandros.kostoulas [at]
Photo: Chalmers & Wolf/Wikimedia Commons/Cemil Arikan

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