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Carson: Rethinking America’s decline

Published: Saturday, May 10, 2014 12:28 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, May 29, 2014 11:24 a.m. CST

We recently learned that China is poised to replace the United States as the No. 1 economic power in the world sometime this year. Our anemic quarterly growth rate of 0.1 percent certainly lends credence to this speculation. We must seriously question those who say our nation is not in decline. They are adopting the ostrich strategy and sticking their heads in the sand.

There is no question that America is the pinnacle nation of the world and is likely to remain in that position for several years, given our military strength and the depth and stability of our financial infrastructure. However, overconfidence is the frequent companion of catastrophic decline, as confirmed by numerous historical writings.

Our ability to print money is already in jeopardy, as other nations have been making noise about altering the international reserve-currency system to emphasize multiple currencies, elevating their status and decreasing the strength of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury securities we have been offering to China and others would no longer hold the same appeal, and the borrowing we have done against the financial well-being of our progeny will come back to plague us and them.

Many who are responsible for putting us in this precarious position would argue that we don’t need to worry about countries such as China replacing us, because they have too many structural problems. China is far behind us in per-capita income, creating many social issues and negatively impacting growth of the middle class, which is the most effective growth engine.

Their paucity of appropriate environmental controls has led to lethal industrial pollution, encouraging intellectually gifted and mobile citizens to leave the country. China also has a weak banking system, with too much government interference.

Even if these problems are rectified, China cannot expect continuation of its recent economic expansion, which is already dissipating. If the U.S. has the good sense to significantly lower its corporate-tax rate, this dissipation will accelerate. When it comes to energy, China has large potential reserves of shale gas, but lacks water in those areas, making extraction difficult. We may be unable to exploit this weakness because of self-imposed, shortsighted overregulation of the energy sector in our country.

It can be seen that a combination of wise moves by China and unwise moves by the U.S. in the next few years could have very troubling implications for the future of our country. If there is a sudden, cataclysmic debt-engendered U.S. financial crisis, China is only one of a number of possible successors to our position. Perhaps our energy should be spent figuring out how to avoid financial collapse and also invigorate the most powerful economic engine the world has ever known.

We should take advantage of the great laboratory of ideas: successful states that have gone from budgetary deficits to surpluses through actions of wise governors and legislative bodies. Let’s look at their tax policies and the business conditions they created that stimulated economic activity.

The economic problems in this country fortunately are induced by our own ineptitude. I say fortunately, because it is within our power to alter our course. We do not have to depend on the goodwill of someone else. When we work together, as was the case with the Simpson-Bowles commission on fiscal responsibility, excellent ideas can be generated that could move us along the path of economic recovery.

As was the case with the Roman Empire, our fate is in our hands.

• Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.

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