The U.S.’s decline started with little things that people got used to. Americans drove past empty construction sites and didn’t even think about why the workers weren’t working, then wondered why roads and buildings took so long to finish. They got used to avoiding hospitals because of the unpredictable and enormous bills they’d receive. They paid 6% real-estate commissions, never realizing that Australians were paying 2%. They grumbled about high taxes and high health-insurance premiums and potholed roads, but rarely imagined what it would be like to live in a system that worked better.
When writers speak of American decline, they’re usually talking about international power — the rise of China and the waning of U.S. hegemony and moral authority. To most Americans, those are distant and abstract things that have little or no impact on their daily lives. But the decline in the general effectiveness of U.S. institutions will impose increasing costs and burdens on Americans. And if it eventually leads to a general loss of investor confidence in the country, the damage could be much greater.
The most immediate cost of U.S. decline — and the most vivid demonstration — comes from the country’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic. Leadership failures were pervasive and catastrophic at every level — the president, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, and state and local leaders all fumbled the response to the greatest health threat in a century. As a result, the U.S. is suffering a horrific surge of infections in states such as Arizona, Texas and Florida while states that were battered early on are still struggling. Countries such as Italy that are legendary for government dysfunction and were hit hard by the virus have crushed the curve of infection, while the U.S. just set a daily record for case growth and shows no sign of slowing down.