Joe Nye is one of the smartest people I know. He is also a mentor, from my graduate school days at Harvard. So I was worried when I saw that he disagreed with my Time cover. But then I read his article in Foreign Policy today and discovered that we don’t really disagree that much at all.
We both recognize that there is data that suggests that the United States is on top and other data that shows it’s slipping. The future remains one of multiple possibilities and my hope, with the article, was to push us in the right direction. He agrees with me that worrying about decline actually helps prevent it.
That said, I think the problems we face are big and simply saying we’ve come through difficulties before is not enough.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. has faced a significant set of challenges. We avoided them largely by taking on debt – individuals, local and state governments, and the federal government took on huge debt. We expanded credit and consumption and got a few booms out of it, the last one being housing-related (2000-2007). But this is not sustainable. We have to create the conditions for long-term growth and productivity.
Joe and I probably disagree most clearly on politics. I really think that American government has become totally dysfunctional. I don’t pine for Chinese-style authoritarianism. I pine for the politics that made it possible to build the interstate highway system, fund science, create great state universities, build NASA, create the internet, open the borders to talented immigrants, and do it all while maintaining fiscal balance.
On every one of these issues, the political system is now paralyzed or moving in the wrong direction. Happy talk about the genius of the founding fathers is not going to get us out of this jam.
(Joe Nye is taking your questions online here. )