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American Decline

People have been trying, for decades, to convince us that our country is in relative decline from an exceptional peak, that we must be on the road to ruin.
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House in Salinas, California, under foreclosure, following the popping of the U.S. real estate bubble. (PHOTO: BRENDEL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

House in Salinas, California, under foreclosure, following the popping of the U.S. real estate bubble. (PHOTO: BRENDEL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

In 1993, I sat down in Macky Auditorium for one of the Conference on World Affairs plenary sessions held at the University of Colorado campus. Michael Elliott, the Washington bureau chief for The Economist, was speaking about the decline of the United States. His talk would become a book, The Day Before Yesterday: Reconsidering America's Past, Rediscovering the Present. On that spring day, he tried in vain to convince his American audience that their country was in relative decline from an exceptional peak. Everyone was sure we were on the road to ruin. Japan was eating our lunch. We didn't make things anymore, Rust Belt nation. Two decades later, I'm reading the same ejaculations in the Wall Street Journal:

The decline in risk-taking is reflected in U.S. migration: Americans move less often, with rates of interstate migration falling for at least 20 years, according to census data. They also have less workplace wanderlust: 53 percent of adults last year held the same job for at least five years, up from 46 percent in 1996, according to the Labor Department. The share of workers who voluntarily left their jobs in a given year plummeted to 16.1 percent in 2009 from 25.2 percent in 2006 and remains well below pre-recession levels, Labor Department data show.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors found the falling rate of interstate migration over the long-term correlated strongly with the decline in job changes. In other words, Fed researchers said, people are moving less because they are changing jobs less.

Recent declines in moving may be tied to the collapse of the housing market, which left millions of homeowners owing more than their homes were worth, making it harder to relocate. But the longer trend predated the latest housing bust. Researchers have proposed such explanations as changing demographics and two-income households, which could make it harder for families to move.

The decline in risk-taking is indicative of a general malaise gripping the country. We've lost our mojo. China is eating our lunch. We don't invent things anymore, Sunburn Belt nation.

Elliot tried to frame our struggles in a historical context. I'll do the same. We live in interesting times. Today isn't 1945 or 1993. The shifting economic geography:

"We absolutely see geographic divergence," he said. "We've got these hotbeds of start-ups, but you just don't see the same level of activity in other areas of the country."

That is a problem for regions left behind. Cities with high levels of entrepreneurial activity had significantly better job growth than those that relied more heavily on existing businesses, according to findings by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and two colleagues that were published last year.

The risk-averse don't leave. Migration is an entrepreneurial act. Being a newcomer in a strange place requires constant innovation. These days, only the global elite relocate.

Huck Finn lighting out for the territory defines American exceptionalism. The move to improve used to be the province of the lower classes. That was then. If Huck doesn't receive enough schoolin', then he'll stay in town and paint fences with his buddy Tom. He won't migrate out west. He won't go anywhere.