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Bearish on America: Are pessimists missing a turnaround?

IS America fading? That always titillating question has been receiving more than usual attention in recent weeks. Partly because of election-year rhetoric. Partly because of a sober article on declining American standards by Barbara Tuchman and two influential books: Prof. Paul Kennedy's ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers'' and Prof. Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind.'' Both books have been runaway best sellers by any but Sidney Sheldon and Barbara Cartland standards.

Like the findings from any long-running laboratory experiment, the ultimate answer to the fading-America question awaits the actions of American citizens, educators, political and business leaders, and workers over the next several generations.

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But shorter-term estimates are possible. To seek them, we need to divide the ``fading'' question into at least two components:

1.What part of the alleged decline is the inevitable descent from the Everest status the United States enjoyed following the end of World War II?

2.What part is merely cyclical?

From the answers to these two sub-questions, we can begin to determine whether it may even make sense to take the contrarian view that a new period of growth and innovation may be starting to occur in America at the tag end of the 20th century.

Now let's examine the two questions.

The first is relatively easy to answer. The postwar decade was an aberration that placed the US at a historic pinnacle of economic, military, and inventive power. The altitude was increased because the base of much of the rest of global society was unnaturally lowered. Europe, Japan, the USSR, China, and most of East Asia were industrially destroyed. Large parts of Africa and the rest of Asia were in uneasy transition from colonialism to independence. American productivity and investment were bursting forth from the double delay of depression and world war.

Even without the Marshall Plan for Europe, the rebuilding of Japan, military aid to South Korea and Taiwan, and economic aid to what became the third world, America's relative share of world gross national product would have declined. But it should be remembered that the whole pie grew briskly as the percentage size of the American slice shrank.

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Such shrinkage is likely to continue as more countries become subcontractors for parts production and assembly plants for worldwide industries.

But American growth rates and job-creation rates should mean that the size of the American slice will continue to grow in quantitative terms, even while shrinking as a percentage of the world pie.

The second question - What part of the decline is cyclical? - is more difficult to answer. It is a moral and ethical, as well as an economic, question.

Lonely stock market contrarians become bullish when the indicators are darkest and the predominant sentiment is bearish. Something similar may be at work among the more complex variables that determine the value of American stock in the world.

Take three important yardsticks of the health of American civilization: (1) deficits/debt, (2) education, and (3) drugs.

The debt situation has indeed reached a critical stage. Personal, corporate, and government debt are simultaneously growing - a situation unprecedented in the postwar period.

But there is some evidence of a personal debt and savings turnaround.

Tax-shielded retirement savings by individuals are expected to grow sharply in the next quarter century, totaling perhaps as much as $10 trillion.

Manufacturing productivity is at last rising again as the working population matures and computerized factory systems are widely installed.

The falling dollar (with perhaps a 10 percent further decline in sight) seems likely to ensure increasing exports and decreasing imports - therefore slowly reducing the sizable trade gap.

Public concern over the federal budget deficit may at last press an evasive Congress to put teeth into programs which will cut the deficit.

The failure of repeated alarms to cause improvement in grade and high school education is probably the single most important factor creating concern about decline. Many critics rank military expenditure higher on the list. But education is more central - particularly science/math/engineering education.

Here, too, there is hope that at last a turnaround is in the making. Reason: the Japanese-Pacific Rim goad to action is more pervasive and more lasting than the earlier shock resulting from the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957.

That USSR stimulus brought on New Math and a revised physics curriculum. But it was a short-lived goad, erased by the success of the American moon program. Now Moscow's new space progress joins Japan's engineering/manufacturing/banking success to increase the pressure for US educational reform.

Drugs are the obverse side of the education problem.

They represent escapism vs. learning and discipline. In this area, also, there are signs that an outside scare may at last be causing a turnaround. In this case, the Andean-Caribbean drug channel appears finally to have grabbed national attention.

The drug cycle may be starting to wane just when headlines about it are blackest - as the late 19th-century drug culture in America waned when it was widely recognized as a public menace.

It may strike you as interesting that defense expenditures, US troops in Europe, missile treaties, and Japan's military budget are missing from this analysis. They will be discussed in a future column. They must be part of any assessment of American decline. But I would argue that they are the cart, not the horse in any discussion of the rise, decline, and re-rise of civilizations.

The military share of American GNP shifts a few percentage points up or down over the decades. Willingness to project power to local conflicts waxes and wanes.

But nuclear missile sufficiency remains strong. The limits on conventional power projection have been widely recognized for at least 25 years.

In that context, moral and educational questions, productivity, and savings and investment matters are the keys to preventing decline.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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