Annapolis Institute Overview


It’s official: America back in the big time

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 29, 1997

Hellooo. After 15 years of hand-wringing about America’s economic and competitive decline, The New York Timesfinally came to its senses last Sunday — with a lead story on the front page it its “Week in Review” section called “Worldbeaters: Puffed Up by Prosperity, U.S. Struts Its Stuff.”

The rest of the American establishment is now on notice: It’s OK to talk about our high-performing economy, where “profits are strong, unemployment low, jobs multiplying, inflation inconsequential, the stock market booming, product quality much improved.”

Of course, every one of these statements was true in 1989 when the Times and most newsweeklies — from Business Week to Newsweek — were running cover stories about how America’s workers can’t cut it, American industry couldn’t compete and the country itself was headed for the trash heap of history.

There were other views out there, but they were voices in the wilderness. In 1981, futurist Herman Kahn wrote The Coming Global Boom. It was met with a snicker by America’s mandarins, but if you read it today, it reads like history.

In 1984, columnist Ben Wattenberg wrote The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong,trying, in the words of Irving Kristol, to “deliver us from the bondage to half-truths and non-truths.”

But facts and data Wattenberg amassed to support the message — that, by most measures, things are getting better in America — hardly made a dent with media mavens and intellectuals.

In 1991, Wattenberg launched a second assault on the conventional wisdom of America’s decline and decay in The First Universal Nation, but mandarins and media mavens used words like “provocative,” “opinionated” and “infuriating” in otherwise “respectful” reviews.

In fact, in the “bad news” media, Wattenberg’s books were frequently called “iconoclastic” — another way of describing an irreverent and impious author’s failure to conform to the prevailing conventional wisdom about an America adrift and unwilling to get government a little more involved in “guiding” the economy the way they do in the “new” Europe and in Japan.

Early in this period of angst about the nation and the “planet,” Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1981), challenging the (still) prevailing idea that things are going to hell in a handbasket.

Like Wattenberg, Simon amassed facts and data to show that almost every trend in material human welfare has been improving and promises to do so indefinitely — including pollution abatement, world food supplies, caloric intake per capita, etc.

Simon also showed why human ingenuity and the price system in a market economy combine to ensure that we will never run out of anything. Reason: As prices go up, more supplies are “discovered” (e.g., oil supplies after the first oil price shock in 1973) or smart people, looking for a profit, invent substitutes. Simon’s new and expanded book, The Ultimate Resource 2, published by Princeton University Press late last year, cuts a wider swath with new facts and data that support the same message: The idea that America or the world is on the road to perdition is poppycock.

Unfortunately, the mandarins’ strong and unrelenting message of decline gave new life to the old saw: “If it is not true, it might as well be.”

Now that The New York Times has told us the economy is OK, look for the mandarins to set their sights on society — families, communities, volunteerism, civility and our lack of tolerance for gay and lesbian people. Those who want to run our lives are never without an agenda.

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