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Almost All Decline is Relative

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Almost All Decline is Relative"

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I can’t recommend James Fallows’ article on declinism in America highly enough. It’s a multifaceted piece that I won’t attempt to reduce into a pat summary. But what thing he notes, as people talking about the prospect of decline often do, is that there have been many predictions of decline in the past and they’ve never really come true. An important extra wrinkle to this which I think it’s important to add is that developed countries never decline. It’s not just that America is resilient in the face of perceived pitfalls, but so are Switzerland and the Netherlands and everyplace else. The countries that were rich 100 years ago are basically all still the rich countries today. This isn’t an absolute law of nature since there is the case of Argentina, but the point is that it would be really bizarre for the United States to enter a sustained period of decline. It’s not just that “people have said this before and it didn’t happen” it’s that nothing like that has ever happened. To think about it another way, it’s true that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, but in 1946 Germany’s entire infrastructure had been pulverized by explosives and a huge proportion of its surviving machinery literally picked up and relocated to the Soviet Union. But they just built new stuff. And dysfunctional though our politics may be, they built new stuff and saw rising living standards even in East Germany and I’m fairly confident we can maintain a “better than the GDR” standard of governance.

Crumbling infrastructure, Dresden-style (wikimedia)

Crumbling infrastructure, Dresden-style (wikimedia)

It’s true that pre-industrial societies did (and do) suffer periods of sustained decline in living standards that are based in changes in the availability of land or commodity prices. But there’s a real difference between an economy organized like that and a modern developed economy.

Dresden after losing two world wars, plus 45 years of Communism (my photo, available under cc license)

Dresden after losing two world wars, plus 45 years of Communism (my photo, available under cc license)

Which is just to say that relative decline, which Fallows rightly observes it isn’t all that rational to worry about, is really the only kind of decline that it’s realistic to envision. The plausible range of future outcomes for the United States is between average living standards being a little bit higher twenty years from now, and average living standards being a lot higher twenty years from now. There’s an important difference between those outcomes and it’s worth thinking hard about getting things right. But absent some kind of really profound geopolitical calamity involving nuclear weapons, we can be pretty confident about the future.

Update

Major typo in my initial draft said I can’t recommend the article, when I ment to say I couldn’t recommend it highly enough! Shame on me.

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