LONDON, U.K. — The default mode for the American media is usually pessimism: America is in terminal decline. Its banking system is broken. Its politics are dysfunctional. The American empire is about to go the way of Rome and Britain. The future is China.
Gloom and doom sell books. Bad news sells newspapers and grabs television viewers. Especially bad news about America and dire predictions about where the country is heading.
That's not new.
In the 1950s when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the gloom mongers predicted the end of American power. The Russians were winning the space race. Nikita Krushchev crowed that the Soviet Union would bury America. We all know what really happened. President John F. Kennedy took up the challenge. The United States leap-frogged the Russians and landed a man on the moon. And the Soviet Union is history.
Time and time again, the pundits have drawn the wrong conclusions from the news of the day.
In the 1980s, they thought Japan was burying America. Instead, Japan's bubble burst and it became the poster child for a mismanaged country, an example of mistakes to be avoided when the economy overheats.
When the worldwide financial crisis exploded in 2008 — if you believe the media hype — it was all America's fault. Our system of capitalism is broken. We are hopelessly indebted and depend on the Chinese and rich Arabs to bail us out, etc. etc.
The latest fear being propagated by the commentariat is that our political system is broken . With the Tea Party movement pushing Republican politicians into the outer reaches of unreason and compromise almost impossible in Congress, our government seems dysfunctional. The pundits forget that America lived through the fuss over the John Birch Society a half century ago. Anti-government extremism is a recurrent American phenomenon.
Sometimes America's columnists and instant historians make the opposite mistake. When the news is especially positive, they predict the good times will roll forever. That was the error after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Americans were led to believe they ruled over a unipolar world and the rest of humanity would have to follow them or get out of the way.
Jumping to conclusions, extrapolating from current events and making long-term predictions based on today's headlines is not just foolish. It can also produce bad government policy.
That's the message of Joseph Nye, former Carter administration official and distinguished Harvard professor of government, who is currently writing a book on the distribution of power in the 21st century. Joe Nye is a voice of reason in a world of hype.
Speaking to an audience of foreign policy experts in London, he addressed the question of whether America is in decline. His answer is no, at least not yet.
Nye points out that American public opinion tends to swing between extremes of anxiety and hubris. It was hubris that led the Bush administration to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Now anxiety is rattling nerves on the stock markets.
One of the current fads is that this is the Chinese century. Goldman Sachs predicts that the gross domestic product of China will pass that of the U.S. in 2030. Nye concedes that may be so, although straight line projections about China's economy are risky. But he points out that just because the two economies would be equal in size, they would not be equal in composition. “China would still have a vast underdeveloped countryside and it will begin to face demographic problems from the delayed effects of its one-child policy.”
While headlines focus on America's economic problems, Nye looks at the real economy that underlies the American system. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #2 in a list of the world's most competitive economies (Switzerland is #1). China ranks #29.
America has a highly flexible labor force. It spends more than other countries on research and development and twice as much as Europe on higher education. It leads in cutting edge technology and thanks to immigration, America's share of the world's population will remain stable for the next half century while other advanced countries will shrink.
The point he makes is take the long-term view. And when judging whether America is in decline or still has a bright future, look at the fundamentals.
And I would add, stop reading the columnists and listening to the talk show hosts who tell us how to think. Or if you can't resist, try listening to a variety of points of view. One of them might be accurate.