End of the American century?


David S. Mason, professor of political science at Butler University, feels stung by the messenger's curse. His new book, The End of the American Century, as the title suggests, isn't exactly good news - and Mason fears that could curb its readership.

"One of the outside readers for the press said, 'Reading this makes me want to jump off a cliff,'" Mason ruefully says, recalling an early critique. "'But I say this in a positive way.'"

The book was published by Rowman and Littlefield just prior to last November's election. In less than 250 pages, Mason manages to catalog all the ways in which he sees the United States coming to the end of its era of world dominance. It's a sobering assessment. What makes it particularly cogent, though, is the way Mason marshals independently researched facts and figures to buttress his thesis.

Whether the topic is our country's economic decline, the torn social fabric, our ailing democracy, abandonment of international law, loss of respect by other nations or the rise of rival states in Europe and Asia, Mason's there with annotated data.

It feels a little like being cornered.

"I see the main contribution of this book [being] that I bring all these things together in a fairly short and understandable way," Mason says. "Most people find it pretty compelling, but also pretty depressing."

Mason is encouraged by the way the election turned out but, he adds, his book was written before the financial services meltdown last fall. "We're going to accumulate more debt in one year than we did in the first 200 years of this country ... The whole economy's contracting. Probably, in the long run, that's a good thing. The U.S. economy is too big and it's artificially big. It's based on all this debt and as it contracts it's going to be painful for people. But, in the end, we'll be at a more natural state in terms of our use of resources and our burden on the planet. And, maybe out of this, will come a rethinking about what's important about American life."

Despite our high levels of indebtedness, Mason sees no alternative but for the government to provide emergency funds. "Either Congress is going to have to allocate huge amounts of money, or we're going to have huge numbers of people who are not only unemployed but have no benefits." He notes, for example, that Indiana has recently asked the federal government for a loan to cover its own unemployment shortfall. It is one of 30 states to do so.

"We've already got the highest level of poverty of any major developed country and I see a huge increase on the horizon."

Mason understands his book is likely to go down like a bitter pill. "I think it's going to be very difficult for Americans to adjust to the notion that our system isn't the best, even in objective terms. And it's certainly not viewed as being the best by most people elsewhere." His book, he says, has received more attention overseas than in the U.S. It is now being translated into Chinese. "I don't think Americans like to hear bad news."

In Mason's view, inequality is the single biggest problem facing our nation. "CEOs and members of boards of directors of companies - they never suffer. Maybe they lose a few million, but it's not as though they're thrown out on the street.

"The poor are the ones without health insurance. The poor are more sick and they die earlier. They're the ones stuck in the bad schools, that don't get a good education. They're the ones in the low paying and risky jobs, which are usually without health care or retirement benefits. And they don't participate in politics very much, so their voices aren't heard. If there is one root cause of all these problems, I'd say it's inequality."

Mason thinks that dealing with inequality means coming to grips with the tension that has historically existed in the relationship in this country between individualism and community.

Fortunately, he also thinks that President Obama has an acute understanding of this tension and may be uniquely equipped to deal with it. "Obama recognizes a lot of the problems that I call attention to. In different ways, he touches on almost all these things."

Mason is heartened by the activism he sees burgeoning on campuses across the country and by the way the recession seems to have caused many Americans to rethink their approach to consumption. "We might be making a virtue out of necessity."


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