What would the decline of America look like?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

So, Tyler Cowen asks, what would the decline of America look like?

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

Aging and entitlements will force the president, whether Democratic or Republican, to look for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. The spending cuts will diminish the range of the military, and the tax hikes will ensure that economic growth doesn’t pick up. The integrity of Medicare and Social Security will be (mostly) protected, but the U.S. will lose the ability to project power around the globe.

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

One area of major technological advance will be drugs, and I don’t mean beneficial pharmaceuticals. The opioid crisis eventually will subside, but new waves of ever more powerful addictive substances will arise. Easy home lab production will make interdiction at the border fruitless. More than 80,000 Americans already die from alcohol every year, and more than 60,000 from drug overdoses. Total losses from addiction will rise.

Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Driverless cars will be “the next big thing,” but they’ll make roads more crowded. The elderly will insist on their driverless car rights, and defeat economists’ proposals for new congestion charges. Americans will spend another hour a day in their cars, although texting and watching TV, rather than driving.

The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true. But a nagging succession of storms, plus required adjustments along the coasts to accommodate a rise in sea level, will eat up about 0.5 percent worth of economic growth. So when America does occasionally approach 3 percent growth, in terms of living standards it may feel more like 2 percent.

One of his “petty gripes” looks familiar:

Due to the limited selection on Netflix streaming, fewer and fewer people will watch the great movies of the past, thereby neutering the durability of the 20th century’s greatest art form. And live performances of classical music — another of the West’s most significant and beautiful achievements — will cease to be regular in all but a few major U.S. cities.


  1. Felix says:

    Bummer, man. Sounds like a run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick.

  2. Ted says:

    Sounds worse than the dystopian fictional stories. At least in those, the surviving humans become very alive (albeit under great threat). But here, it’s just a world of ennui and lackluster materialism.

  3. Borepatch says:

    Prediction is hard, especially about the future. Not impressed.

  4. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I find the scenario plausible, except that I think technological innovation will continue in more areas. Anything that can be done privately (semiconductors, bio-engineering) will continue to advance. Space stuff is becoming more private as well (SpaceX, Blue Origin). So, it will continue as well.

    Basically, Cowen’s scenario is about what I expected around 2010 or so. These days I am slightly more optimistic about the future than I was around 2010.

  5. J. Bankhead says:

    Isn’t he just describing the present day?

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Seems that Tyler Cowen believes so much in Political Religion that it can change climate…

  7. Kirk says:

    The thing about all these dystopian projections is that they’re almost always wrong.

    Here’s a news flash, bubba: The coming crisis of the 21st Century is probably going to be population-based, but the exact opposite of the projected over-population problem we’ve been harped on and on and on about for decades. What’s going to be the primary crisis is going to be the implosive crash of the world’s productive population, and the hollowing-out of things. The “Marching Morons” problem, shown in “Idiocracy” and a bunch of short stories by Cyril Kornbluth ain’t gonna happen the way they imagined: Instead of internally generated morons, we’re going to see the productive populations of the world swamped by the dregs of cousin-marrying “civilizations” like the Islamics and Africans. Even China is going to have problems, because nobody wants to admit the salient fact that socialism and the social welfare net basically remove any real need to raise kids to take care of you in your old age.

    Europe is about to learn this the hard way. They’re importing all those vibrant foreigners in the hopes that they’ll settle down and become complacent little burghers, contributing to the welfare state. Only thing is, they’re more accurately going to become human cuckoos, parasitizing the body politic. End result? The effective death of European civilization within a generation or two, unless the impending collapse serves to wake up the body politic. Which I doubt it will… Rome probably saw what they had coming, but couldn’t muster the will to do a damn thing about it, either.

    The German defense budget and lack of will to support a real military is the modern equivalent of the equestrian and patrician classes of Rome looking the other way when their members started “thumbing” their sons, so that they’d be unavailable for military service. Germany has lost the will to survive, and while that may be a case of historical karma coming due, the fact remains that the strongest economy in Europe is currently uninterested in defending itself in any real way, at either a macro- or a micro-level. You could tell they were lost, when those pictures of all the pretty girls welcoming their conquering rapists were seen carrying the placards saying that they’d rather welcome rapists than racists…

    When the women lose interest in breeding with their own, your culture is dying. You see the same thing with regards to that syndrome here in the US, with all the middle-class white girls choosing to breed with the minority du jour rather than their own kind. They’ve been so brainwashed by the left that they think they’re doing a good deed, when the reality is that they’re assisting their own ethnic suicide. I defy anyone to show me another example of a civilization where the upper classes have adopted the mores and values of the lower classes with such alacrity and unquestioning fervor. None dare criticize it, either, lest they be termed “racist”, despite the manifest damage these “gangsta rappers” and such have done to their own ghetto culture.

    The disasters to come are going to be entirely unforeseen, by the “conventional wisdom”. That’s just the way of it… Were you to have a time machine, and then use it to go back and interview the average person of intellect back during the 1890s, none of them would have likely seen the sort of carnage coming that WWI represented. A few did foresee, like Bloch, but they were dishonored prophets in their own times.

    What takes us down will likely be something entirely out of left field, a black swan event. Exactly as it is equally likely that the “experts” are going to miss the things that might come along to save us from our folly, like Musk making space accessible enough that we start to see real economic effect from space-based resources in our lifetimes. That, right there, is a game-changer.

    On the other hand, the f**king arrogant ass might well drop an asteroid on us by mistake…

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