David Bell on the Myth of American Decline

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

David Bell crushes a Thomas Friedman column in the New Republic.


14 Responses to David Bell on the Myth of American Decline

  1. Alsadius says:

    That cannot possibly be the right link.

  2. matthewladner says:

    OOOOOOPS! Fixed now.

  3. Patrick says:

    I wouldn’t say he destroyed Friedman. Unless, of course, you consider Texas to have been destroyed by Oklahoma 28-20…

  4. matthewladner says:


  5. Patrick says:

    Matt still won’t talk to me after that game…

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Meh. Color me unimpressed with both Friedman and Bell. Friedman, who longs to live under the Chinese jacknoot, is or course always indefensible and beyond even the reach of parody. But Bell’s argument amounts to “predictions of decline have been historically commonplace, and they have sometimes come true but sometimes they haven’t, so we shouldn’t take it for granted that we’re in decline just because some people say we are, and really all this talk about decline is just a disguised way of working out our fears of sexual inadequacy.”

    To which one can only reply that the first observation is true but not really helpful (it doesn’t even address the question of whether we are in fact in decline) and the second observation is…revealing.

    Oh, and Bell accuses George Will of hypocrisy because he said America was in decline in 1979, “just two years before joining Reagan’s Morning in America chorus.” The Morning in America campaign was in 1984; Reagan’s 1980 campaign was sober, issue oriented (the ads featured Reagan speaking to the camera with stern warnings about the dangers of inflation and lax defense) and perfectly consistent with Will’s earlier doom-mongering.

  7. matthewladner says:


    There have been ups and downs to the economy over the previous decades, but I think that ALL of the decline stories have turned up to be hot air.


    This link does a good job explaining why I am emotionally unable to discuss that game:


  8. Greg Forster says:

    Bell goes back a lot further in history than that, and mentions several cases of decline predictions that turned out to be true. Besides, if you’re only looking at so short a period of time, then you don’t really knor yet that the predictions were false, do you? Hyperpowers don’t decline in a day.

  9. Matthew Ladner says:


    I guess it also depends on the definition of “decline.” The biggest calamity ever faced came in the 1930s, when a huge financial bubble pop was followed by a series of incredibly stupid policy mistakes, including the Fed tightening the money supply during a contraction, the Congressional brain trust starting a global trade war and a series of follies under the New Deal.

    Despite all of that, the book I am reading now (called the Rational Optimist) makes the point that the American per capita income still rose during this period, albeit by far less than it ought to have. The reason why is pretty basic: you despite every effort on the part of our political class to strangle and kick the goose that lays the golden egg, you still had people developing new products and services in a decentralized market economy.

    Turns out the goose dies hard. Yippie kai yay!

  10. Greg Forster says:

    1. The biggest calamity we ever faced was the Civil War.

    2. “Calamity” and “decline” are very different concepts.

    3. The time when you find out whether or not the goose dies hard is when it’s either sick or dying. I think it’s still an open question which of those we’re now seeing, but we’re clearly seeing one of them.

  11. Matthew Ladner says:

    1. True-the 1930s were more of a global calamity, certainly the Civil War outranks it for America.

    2. It seems to me that either the U.S. hasn’t experienced much decline, or alternatively that “decline” isn’t much to worry about.

    3. I’m going with sick-our goose has survived worse than this.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    2. We’re back to haggling over the time window. Sure, nobody’s sent the repo man to take away your iPod. But a real time-discounted debt of something like $140 trillion (the $13 trillion figure doesn’t include entitlements) isn’t painting a pretty picture for those kids whose disposable diapers I celebrated the other day.

  13. Greg Forster says:

    Update: I see that on Friday stocks rose because the bad jobs report raised expectations that the Fed would intervene to fix the economy. Not a headline you read in a nation that’s not in danger of decline.

  14. Matthewladner says:

    I’m not cool enough for an iPOD 😦

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