Defying the ‘declinism’ that grips us today

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“The Good Old Days: They were terrible.”

That’s the contradictory title of symposium scheduled for April 24th in Bethel, examining the period between the end of the Civil war and the early years of the 20th century.

While there are very few people alive today who have actual memories of that period — either good or bad — the point is well taken: The past looks better and better the older we get, sometimes unrealistically so.

Just as predictably, it seems, with age our perceptions of the future seem to turn increasingly gloomy.

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Today, of course, we are going through a period of agonizing turmoil and uncertainty, and there is a natural tendency to fear the worst. Newspaper columnists and TV talk show opinionators are constantly predicting the end of the American era.

In fact, that book — “The End of the American Era” — was written by a college professor, Andrew Hacker. In it, he convincingly predicted the collapse of U.S. supremacy — in 1971.

The next 30 years were a period of unprecedented growth for the U.S., rudely destroying his premise.

So, even in troubled times, it’s good to take pessimistic predictions with a grain of salt. 

Yes, we face a lot of problems at the moment — unemployment, foreclosure, public debt, expensive health care, terrorism — but we’ve also been around long enough to see this country show remarkable resiliency over the long haul.

That’s why we were excited to find someone to put logical arguments behind our vague sense of optimism.

Joel Kotkin is a college professor and demographer who published a book in February, “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.”

Kotkin uses demographic and economic data to predict that by the middle of this century, the U.S. will be the most affluent, dynamic and successfully nation on Earth.

It’s in the numbers, and it’s in the structure of our society, he says. He predicts the U.S. will add another 100 million citizens by 2050, many of them young, energetic immigrants from around the world.

Meanwhile, our economic rivals — particularly Europe and China — will slowly grow older, while failing to assimilate and harness new people, ideas and energy.

Immigrants, the statistics show, are more likely to get advanced technical degrees and to start new businesses, and the U.S. gives them that opportunity.

In a recent Forbes magazine column, Kotkin compares the current awe for China with common perception in the 1990s that Japan would rule the economic roost.  That dominance failed to materialize.

What explains the “declinism” that grips us today?

We tend to view history as  a “straight line project,” says Kotkin. Meaning, we think because things are going badly today, they will continue to go badly.

In fact, he says, America has gone through continual phases of expansion and decline.

He’s betting on a “more youthful, resource-rich and democratic America” to again surprise the world.

We think he’s right.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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