The Establishment's Chicken Little Consensus

The Establishment's Chicken Little Consensus

By David Paul Kuhn - July 9, 2010

American decline was fashionable in the late 1980s. As one 1990 Washington Post article put it: "Over the last five years the production of books and articles about the 'decline' of the United States has become a true growth industry."

Decades later, America is once again teeming with Cassandras – particularly among the country's elite. A Chicken Little consensus appears to have taken hold of the American establishment.

"We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression," wrote Paul Krugman in late June.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Ben Stein lamented on Wednesday that the country is "helpless" before its myriad crises. "We have slid a long, long way," he wrote, concluding that these are "sad times" for America.

David Brooks has been gloomy for months. "I refuse to leave the abyss," Brooks wrote in March, during an exchange with fellow New York Times columnist Gail Collins. "I make Kierkegaard look like Kelly Ripa these days. I'm so morose. I'm going to have my Howard Beale moment."

Brooks is not prone to Beale moments. New York Magazine headlined its recent profile of him, "A Reasonable Man." Yet tucked away in the profile was an alarm more common to mercurial and ideological analysts.

Said the reasonable man, "I think we're gonna be Greece."

Wall Street feels no sunnier. Double-dip predictions infuse CNBC daily. Its website recently floated the doomsday prediction of Dow 3,000. Common advice: sell on any rally. The profits are thought to be with the pessimists.

"It's psychology, stupid. Not since World War II has an economic recovery been so hobbled by poor confidence," wrote Robert Samuelson in mid June.

Foreign observers are also dark of late. "This really is starting to feel like 1932," wrote Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. "The Great Republic is in a parlous state – politically and economically," ran a headline in The Globe and Mail.

Establishment pessimism is on display as well at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of power brokers. "We are, without question, in a decline at this stage of the game in the business world," said media mogul Mort Zuckerman.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson was on the same panel as Zuckerman. Both men noted a "way out," at the moderator's request, only to return to their commonly dark prognostications. Ferguson discussed how "most empires collapse fast." The American collapse, he later explained, is on track to "go live really soon ... within the next two years."

Today's public doesn't share this nihilism. A large majority of Americans are displeased with the current direction of the country. But Americans remain hopeful about their own lives and even relatively positive about their nation's long-term prospects, despite these hard times.

Fifty-six percent say the U.S. economy will be stronger than it is today. More than six in 10 Americans say they are optimistic about life for themselves, their family and their country over the next 40 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

The public's optimism has bounds. In some respects, Americans view the present worse than it is. The United States still has a fifth of the world's GDP, by far the largest of any nation. Yet 58 percent of Americans believe their nation does not have the strongest economy in the world, according to a recent survey by pollsters Mark Mellman and Whit Ayres. However, among that majority, 85 percent said the nation could be that leading power again.

It's easy to make depressing statistics the story. About two-thirds of Americans said in March that they think it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to reach the American dream than it was for them, according to a Xavier University poll. But the same share expressed confidence that they have reached, or will reach, the American dream in their lifetime.

Americans have long been more down on the country than themselves. At the close of the '80s, about six in 10 Americans saw the nation on the right track but nine in 10 said things were going well in their personal affairs.

Similar to today, late '80s Americans shared a measure of elite pessimism. It was not China then, but Japan. Like Soviet anxiety before it, angst over Japan threaded films from "Gung Ho" (1986) to "Rising Sun" (1993). Polls showed that more than six in 10 Americans, at the close of the '80s, viewed Japan as the new premier economic power. Instead, Japan entered a lost decade and the United States became the sole super power.

Through it all, Americans have proven resolutely positive about their own lives. And taken together, those personal views constitute an American view. At the bottom of this recession, in May 2009, Pew notably found that more Americans still saw themselves as "haves" than "have-nots."

Elites exaggerate American anxiety. They often turn cyclical trends into cataclysmic ends. Someday, the pessimists might be right. But, it's worth recalling, they've been wrong about America's decline so far.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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