I agree that there is no reason to expect the rate of growth of per capita income in the United States to decline in the foreseeable future. Of course it may decline; the future is uncertain; a particular uncertainty concerns the ever-present possibility of catastrophe (see my book Catastrophe: Risk and Response ). Abrupt global warming, nuclear terrorism, a pandemic, an asteroid strike‚Äîall are possible events that could have cataclysmic effects on economic growth. Also, it is important to distinguish between monetary income and economic welfare. Increases in leisure and in the quality and variety of products and services can increase welfare without increasing per capita income; conversely, expenditures on security, while they may be cost-justified because of the risk of terrorist or other attacks, reduce consumption; and service deteriorations, for example due to congestion, can reduce welfare; but in neither case would the welfare loss show up in lower per capita incomes. A related example is wasteful expenditures on health care, all of which show up as income to providers, though it is possible that as much as a third of all expenditures on health care in the United States either yield no benefits in greater longevity or better health or exceed what it would cost to achieve the same benefits more cheaply (for example, by exercise and healthy eating).
I do not share Becker's pessimism about the rise of regulation. The deregulation and privatization movements have, since their beginning in the late 1970s, freed large parts of the economy from government control; income tax rates have fallen; unions have continued to decline; and the courts have become more conservative with respect to economic issues. (The Supreme Court's "liberal" Justices are liberal mainly concerning issues, such as abortion, capital punishment, and homosexual rights, that have little economic significance.) There will now be some re-regulation, but I would be surprised if it went far, given the political power of business.
Environmental regulation has increased, but it deals with real externalities. The increased regulation of labor markets, however, mainly as a result of antidiscrimination laws, is difficult to justify on economic grounds, though its economic effects may be largely offset by the decline of unions. Even after the recent increase in the federal minimum wage, that wage in real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) terms is no higher than it was in 1960.
Social conservatives believe that the nation is in free fall because of the decline of traditional social values, a decline reflected in low marriage and high divorce rates, a high rate of births out of wedlock, increases in pornography and vulgarity, the flaunting of homosexual relations, and abortion on demand. Becker does not cite any of these factors as inimical to economic growth; nor would I.
But there is a crucial ambiguity in the word "decline" when applied to a nation, and I will devote the rest of my comment to that. To begin with, the word might denote not a reduction in the rate of growth of per capita income but a reduction in that rate relative to the rate in other countries. Small differences in growth rates cumulate over time, like compound interest. Some nations will grow faster than the United States, but I do not see the growth rate of the United States dropping below the world average.
The idea of national decline might even refer to a decline in a nation's share of world income. The U.S. share peaked in 1951 at 28 percent, fell to 21 percent by 1975, and is about 20 percent today. The percentage will continue to fall as incomes in China, India, Brazil, and other rapidly developing countries rise. This almost certain "decline" has, however, no significance for the welfare of Americans--except insofar as a nation's share of world income is correlated with the nation‚Äôs political (and ultimately military) power--"geopolitical power." And when one speaks of a nation in "decline," it usually is to the nation's geopolitical power that one is referring.
Although China's military expenditures are far smaller than those of the United States, they are increasing more rapidly and eventually may surpass ours; and their increase is driving Japan to become once again a major world military power. Russia's military expenditures are increasing as well. India's too. And these are all countries that have potential enemies and so take military preparedness seriously (unlike Western Europe). What is more, the power of large countries such as the United States (and before that, notably, Great Britain) to coerce small ones has declined. When early in World War II Iraq and Iran began leaning toward the Axis powers, Britain (aided in Iran by the Soviet Union) quickly intervened and, more or less effortlessly, changed the governments in those countries. Britain of course for centuries controlled a vast empire with slight military forces. Tiny Holland ruled what is now Indonesia. France ruled what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Japan ruled Korea and Taiwan. The Western nations, including the United States, are vastly less powerful than they were half a century ago. The U.S., despite a military budget roughly equal to that of all other nations combined, has its hands full trying to control two militarily third-rate countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is incapable of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
From a political rather than an economic standpoint, the United States today may be in a position comparable to that of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. or the British Empire in the 1930s: the world's leading "empire" (in the sense not of having colonies, but of having the most influence over other countries), but, as an empire, in decline.