To paraphrase the great polemicist Thomas Paine, these are times that try the souls of optimists. The country is shuffling through a very weak recovery, and public opinion remains distinctly negative, with nearly half of Americans saying China has already leapfrogged us and nearly 60 percent convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction. Belief in the political leadership of both parties stands at record lows, not surprisingly, since we are experiencing what may be remembered as the worst period of presidential leadership, under both parties, since the pre-Civil War days of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.
Yet, despite the many challenges facing the United States, this country remains, by far, the best-favored part of the world, and is likely to become more so in the decade ahead. The reasons lie in the fundamentals: natural resources, technological excellence, a budding manufacturing recovery and, most important, healthier demographics. The rest of the world is not likely to cheer us on, since they now have a generally lower opinion of us than in 2009; apparently the "bounce" we got from electing our articulate, handsome, biracial Nobel laureate president is clearly, as Pew suggests, "a thing of the past."
But as the Romans used to say, don't let the bastards get you down. After all, it's not like our competitors are stealing the march on us. Start with Europe. Just a few years ago, writers like Jeremy Rifkin and Steven Hill were telling us that Europe was the "model" for the world. Expand the welfare state, curtail capitalist excess, provide a comfortable partner to the rising nations of the world, and, well, enjoy a long and comfortable early retirement.
Now, that early retirement is quickly turning into a kind of senility. Not only is Europe continuing to age – particularly along its Southern rim – but the fiscal pressures of ultrahigh unemployment, approaching 30 percent or above, among the young and the costs of maintaining a strong welfare state could create what urban analyst Aaron Renn has labeled "a demographic Lehman Brothers."
At the same time the near-collapse of the Southern-rim countries threatens the viability of Europe's banks, including those in Germany. Increasingly, Germany lives largely so the rest of Europe can die more quickly. Like a prototypical science-fiction villain, Germany – with fewer children than it had in 1900 – relies increasingly on the blood taken from the decaying Southern rim countries. By 2025, Germany's economy will need 6 million additional workers, likely from such countries as Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal, to keep its economic engine humming, according to government estimates.
What about our prime Asian competitors? Japan has been the sick man of Asia for more than two decades. It's now desperate enough to unleash Bernanke-like money-printing policies to supply some desperately needed economic Viagra. With a weaker currency, and more money from the Tokyo exchange, there could be a temporary recovery, but Japan's long term prognosis is not good.
What Japan really needs is more animal spirits – particularly the kind that produce offspring. By 2050, according to UN estimates, Japan will have 3.7 times as many people at least age 65 than 15 and younger. By then, there will be 10 percent more Japanese over 80 than under 15. Without an unlikely embrace of immigration, Japan is destined to become the nation in wheelchairs.
China poses a more serious challenge, but the Middle Kingdom appears headed toward what one analyst calls "the end" of its amazing and profound economic miracle. Growth, once projecting Chinese global preeminence, is slowing precipitously. The country now faces a growing rank of competitors from lower-wage countries poised to take market share from the Middle Kingdom.
China faces growing political instability at the grass-roots level, a mountain of state-issued bad debt and a festering environmental crisis, which threatens long-term food supplies and could create massive health problems. China is rapidly aging. It will have 60 million fewer people under age 15 by 2050, while gaining nearly 190 million people at least 65, approximately the population of Pakistan, the world's fourth-most populous country.
The so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), once the darlings of the investment banking set, all are facing slowing growth and rising political instability. It doesn't help that most are either total or partial kleptocracies, dependent on commodity exports or cheap labor. This is not a solid foundation for ascendency as newer emerging nations – Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam – ramp up.
On all these accounts, North America, including our Canadian and Mexican neighbors, looks best-positioned. The first, and, arguably, most important game-changer is the energy revolution that could realign the economic stars for decades to come. The shale oil and natural gas boom, as the Economist recently noted, is as illustrative of America's future, and genius at reinvention, "as the algorithms being generated in Silicon Valley."
The energy boom's best aspect, besides the emergence of relatively cleaner natural gas, is making global tyrants, such as those ruling Saudi Arabia and Russia, nervous about their future place in the world. These worries alone should send a three-word message to our leaders: Go for it.
But North America is not, like Russia, a one-trick pony. The U.S. remains the world's leading food producer and exporter, sending out more of such critical commodities as soybeans, corn and wheat than any other country. After decades of decline, the U.S. industrial base is growing again, and, although job growth is likely to be limited, our manufacturing sector is already the most productive in the world. With the advantages of a decent legal order, a huge domestic market and available workforce, the U.S. has remained the largest recipient of foreign investment on the planet, roughly five times that so far accumulated in China.
Technology can be a fickle industry, but at this point of the game, it's fair to say the U.S. is winning that race. As potentially dangerous as the tech giants may become over time, the U.S. dominance in everything from software code (Microsoft) and design (Apple), search (Google), e-retailing (Amazon), and social networking (Facebook) is nothing short of astounding. We even lead in the coffee business (Starbucks) that keeps all those nerds typing code late into the night.
Then there's the matter of culture. For years, Asian, Third World and European cultural warriors have plotted to knock the U.S. off its pre-eminent perch. But the European film industry is a shadow of its once-glorious efflorescence; much the same can be said about the once-splendid Japanese cinema. To be sure, Chinese films, Korean pop stars and Bollywood are rising forces, but U.S. exports more than $14 billion annually in film and television. On a global level, no one can compete with Hollywood as a packager of images and dreams – and Silicon Valley's control of new distribution technology could further boost this advantage.
Finally, there's the matter of demographics. The United States, like its competitors, is aging, but not as quickly as our prime rivals. The birth rate has slowed with the recession, but it's likely to come back toward replacement levels in the years ahead as millennials enter their thirties en masse, and immigrants continue coming to the country. America should be the only one of the top five economies with a growing workforce over the next few decades.
So, if things are so good, why do they seem so bad? Sixteen years of lackluster leadership has not helped – a succession of two spendthrift presidents, one a too-happy warrior with a weak sense of the limits of even an imperial power, and the other, a posturing and arrogant academic oddly disconnected from the fundamental grass-roots drive that moves his country's economy. Yet I prefer to see it in a more positive light: If we can do better than our major competitors under such leadership, how great a country is this?
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
USA map image by BigStockPhoto.