It’s a nice place to visit, but Rome is not America

The oversimplified analogy of America to Rome at its moment of imperial overstretch — paralyzed by its own corruptions and indecision and on the verge of implosion — is at least as old as the mid-70s, when the twinned horrors of Vietnam and Watergate slid into stagflation and malaise. Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan allows his readers to retail the idea that the barbarians began climbing the gate during the Clinton administration, which seems to me a real confusion of appearance and reality. Yes, media coverage of the Clinton administration certainly gave the impression of decadence and inability to take decisive action. But there’s a problem here: The Clinton presidency was on the whole, by any objective measure, the most successful of my now-fairly-long life. The economy soared; average Americans made more money; federal finances were repaired; government was indeed reinvented; and so on and so forth, in a long litany of accomplishments that any Clintonista can recite off the top of his or her head. The notion that the presidency and government as a whole were corrupt and ineffective, because the president allowed an intern to fellate him, is plain wrong. I suspect that in another couple of years, the Rome metaphor will drop from favor, perhaps for decades. There is a transformation underway, from a world economy of manufacturing run by fossil fuels to a global system based on information and alternative energy. The nation that leads the transformation will be the nation that leads in its ability to innovate. As soon as the fiscal overhang from the genuinely corrupt administration of George W. Bush is cleared — and it will be, in one way or another — the enormous advantage in innovation contained in Silicon Valley and other elements of the U.S. research and development complex, from Austin to Raleigh-Durham to Massachusetts and beyond, will show, slowly at first and then increasingly and dramatically. The new century will be solar, computational and American.

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