America in the Shadow of Empires by David Coates (auth.)

By David Coates (auth.)

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This is Louw’s second American Empire. It is true that the political class in Washington, DC, did quickly shed its Philippine ambitions, though only after fighting a bloody and repressive campaign against local liberation forces and before losing the islands to the invading Japanese. It is also true that Puerto Rico now enjoys high levels of political autonomy and the prospect of future statehood. But the often-trumpeted claim that the United States chose not to have colonies belies this colonial moment.

It is the impact of their presence in global labor markets that has pulled (and is pulling) US manufacturing wages down. General Motors is a good example of how outsourcing, global labor markets, and weakening trade unions in the United States currently interact to undermine the capacity of American workers to match their rising productivity to any rising pay. The linkage of pay and productivity fuelled the great expansion of American middle-class living standards in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a link that was then broken in the Reagan The Nature of Our Contemporary Condition 27 and post-Reagan years, so that American workers even in core manufacturing industries maintained a rising standard of living after 1980 (if they maintained it at all) only by combining longer working hours and more family members going out to paid work with rising levels of personal consumer debt.

The economic image of America abroad remains one of affluence and splendor, but in the back streets of American cities these days, as well as in small towns and suburbs all over America, that image rings increasingly hollow. Is America in Decline, on the Cusp, or Simply Resting? Pessimism can be carried too far, of course, and a glass described as half empty can also be described as half full. And so for that reason (and no doubt for other reasons too), it is possible to point to many commentators who, poring over the same data we have just surveyed here, remain adamant that it contains no signs of American decline.

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