The vast majority of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and, according to a 2011 Pew Survey, close to a majority feel that China has already surpassed the U.S. as an economic power.
These views echo those of the punditry, right and left, who see the U.S. on the road to inevitable decline. Yet the reality is quite different. A confluence of largely unnoticed economic, demographic and political trends has put the U.S. in a far more favorable position than its rivals. Rather than the end of preeminence, America may well be entering a renaissance.
Just survey the globe. The European Union’s prolonged crisis will likely end in further decline. Aging Japan has long passed its prime, its market share receding in everything from autos to high tech. China’s impressive economic juggernaut has slowed down, and the Middle Kingdom faces increased social instability, environmental degradation and a creaky one-party dictatorship.
While the U.S. has its challenges, it is positioned to achieve a more solid long-term trajectory than its European and Asian rivals. What it lacks, however, is a strong political leadership capable of seizing this opportunity.
Energy constitutes the biggest ace in the hole for the U.S. For almost half a century, an enormous fossil fuel bill that still accounts for 40% of the nation’s trade deficit has hampered economic growth. Now that situation is changing rapidly.
Due to vast new finds and improved technology to exploit them, the U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas and could emerge as the leading oil producer by 2017. Reserves of natural gas — a clean-burning fuel — are estimated at 100 years supply and could generate more than 1.5 million new jobs over the next two decades.
The U.S. agricultural sector is also booming, with exports reaching a record $135.5 billion in 2011. With global demand increasing, sustained growth will continue across America’s fertile agricultural regions.
The other big game changer is manufacturing. As President Barack Obama recently acknowledged, this is America’s “moment” to seize the industrial initiative. U.S. manufacturers have expanded their payrolls for two straight years, and they have increased production while Japan, Germany, China and Brazil have scaled back.
A recent survey of manufacturing CEOs revealed that 85% believed production could shift soon from overseas. Both foreign and domestic manufacturers are alarmed about rising wages and labor unrest in China. Some important Japanese, German and Korean companies also have concerns about China’s policies that favor local firms and abscond with investor’s technology.
Rising foreign investment reflects the new American competitiveness. Since 2008 foreign direct investment to Germany, France, Japan and Korea has stagnated; in 2009 overall investment in the E.U. dropped 36%.
In contrast, in 2010 foreign investment in the U.S. rose 49%, mostly coming from Canada, Europe, and Japan. Industrial investment rose $30 billion just between 2009 and 2010, while investment in the energy sector more than tripled to $20 billion.
The Information Sector
In the information sector, American domination continues to mount, contrary to predictions of decline over the past two decades. Although high-tech manufacturing has shifted largely to Asia, Americans rule the increasingly strategic software sector. American-based companies, who constitute more than two-thirds of the world’s 500 largest software companies, including nine of the top ten.
Outside the U.S., there are no significant equivalents of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Hollywood, for its part, rules the entertainment world, producing 40% of world’s audiovisual exports, a dominion that troubles China’s President Hu Jintao, who recently complained that the “cultural fields” represent “the focal area” for Western “infiltration”.
The Great Recessionhas slowed population growth everywhere, but the U.S. maintains the youngest and most vibrant demographic profile of any advanced country. Between 1980 and 2010, the U.S population expanded by 75 million to over 300 million. In contrast many European countries, including Germany, have suffered stagnant growth, while in Russia and Japan populations have already started declining.
The disastrous fiscal implications of slow or negative population growth are evident in Greece, Spain and Italy, all of which suffer among the world’s lowest fertility rates. Rapid aging also will soon catch up with Germany. By 2030, Germany will have 48 retirees for every 100 workers — that’s barely two workers per retiree. The numbers are even worse in Japan: 53 retirees for every 100 workers by 2030.
Given the ineptitude of the last two administrations, enthusiasm about America’s political system is hard to justify. But our constitutional systems of laws and checks on central power remain a critical advantage. Immigration has declined with the recession, but the U.S. can expect to welcome religious and political exiles — such as Middle Eastern Christians displaced by the “Arab Spring” — as well as Greeks and Irish fleeing Europe’s economic decline.
Many from Russia and China are seeking to immigrate to the United States, Canada or Australia in order to protect property or just live a freer life. Indeed, among the 20,000 Chinese with incomes over 100 million Yuan ($15 million), 27% have already emigrated and another 47% have said they were considering it, according to a report by China Merchants Bank and U.S. consultants Bain & Co. published in April.
Needed from Washington: A New American Strategy
Sadly no leading politician or political party seems ready to embrace the country’s new strategic advantages. Many on the left may find the very notion distasteful, having swallowed declinism with their academic mother’s milk. The president himself dislikes the notion of American “exceptionalism.” Many key Obama backers like SEIU boss Andy Stern and former auto czar Steven Rattner, embrace the superiority of China’s authoritarian system. Others embrace Europe and even Japan as models for an aging superpower.
Worse still: Some Obama policies work against the well springs of national resurgence. Threats to raise income taxes on families making over $250,000 directly threatens the aspiring entrepreneurial class more than the real “rich” whose fortunes are protected by low capital gains taxes and family trusts. Most critical: The administration’s hostility to fossil fuel represents a direct threat to the country’s greatest new source of advantage and threatens to strangle America’s recovery in its infancy.
Not that the Republicans are any less clueless. Many reject the infrastructure needed by an expanding economy — ports, roads, bridges as well as worker training and support for basic research — as mere “pork.” Budget restraint and fiscal discipline are important, but preparing the country for more rapid economic growth requires an active, supportive government.
Republicans also tend to view immigration as something akin to a hostile invasion. Yet many key industries — notably manufacturing and high tech — rely heavily on immigrant entrepreneurship, intelligence and work values. Running against immigration constitutes an assault on the nation’s increasingly diverse demographics.
So this is where we now sit. With all the essential elements for a strong, sustained recovery place, the big question is whether we will find political leaders capable of tapping this country’s phenomenal potential.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
Photo from BigStockPhoto.com.