One block from New York City’s Times Square, among America’s greatest symbols of consumption gone wild, neon and flashy, is a place that few tourists ever visit. It is a comparatively simpler and straightforward sign, but one that perhaps has come to define the US even more in recent days—a series of numbers so quickly on the move that by the time you scribble the 13th digit into a notebook, all the numbers have changed and it’s time to start over.

The national debt.

Earlier this week, on the Manic Monday that the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped a record 777 points and the US Congress failed to approve a $700 billion bailout that would keep an economy built on debt from collapse, I headed to a spot under the sign to begin my quest. I wanted to know if the American dream was dead.

For as long as I can remember, the hypocrisy of America has been the subject of debate, especially in developing nations frustrated by its exertion of muscle (Iraq), its inexertion of muscle (Darfur), its willingness to open trade to some (China) and not others (Iran, Cuba).

Then, the rise of China and India created a new discussion about new superpowers and lands of opportunity being created. For the last few years, many have alluded to the influx of foreigners and returned emigres to India as a sign that the US is losing its pull; a visit to a line outside a US embassy in any developing country pretty much quells that thought.

But in these last few days in the US, something shocking has happened— Americans themselves are talking about their decline. CNN, the cable news channel, ran a feature this week asking if the American century was over. An article in The Wall Street Journal referred to the “humbling" of America. My brother and his friendsin their twenties ask, “Just what is America working towards now?"

And so under that ever changing sign, I sought some answers.

“Hi," I said to a woman on a cigarette break. “I’m a columnist in New Delhi and was just wondering, ‘Do you think America is on the decline?’"

She didn’t even blink. (Although the sign did. When we started talking, it was at $9,536,664,911,884.)

“It’s definitely shifting towards the East," she said in a British accent. “One day, it won’t have as much power as China or India."

I asked where she was from. She said she was Bhavna Sadarangani, the daughter of Indian immigrants in Africa, was educated in Mumbai and now lived in London but was in New York on business. But once I probed for an estimate of when that world dominance will shift, she grew silent.

“Asia’s not fully equipped yet," she concluded. “Like take education. I can’t tell you what I learned in India. You take it in, you take it out. There’s no room for debate. But I had a British education in high school and I remember so much."

I moved on. A woman nursing her baby gave me a blank stare when I asked the question. Getting a better look at her face, I switched to Spanish and she immediately grew warm. “Oh but I am not American," Claudia Suru said. “And I think I will go home."

Suru cleans houses for a living, one of those professions that became a necessity versus a luxury in boom times as families grew busier yet more comfortable against a surge of immigration and cheaper labour options. She says work has definitely slowed but she wanted to stay until she gave birth to her son on US soil so he could be a citizen. She plans to go back to Guatemala in the next few months.

“He," she said, gesturing at three-month-old Miguel, “can come back. I still have a dream for him in this country."

I approached a blonde woman, thinking she would be my “American" respondent. “I’m an Australian," she laughed. But then, Nicole Brittain, a travel agent, answered my question. “I love New York. I want to move here."

Finally, on another end of the marble slab that served as a bench, I found a white-haired, bearded man who only identified himself as Bill. Of course, he said, he was an American. A proud one. And 85 years old.

It’s not, he corrected, about a decline. It’s that the idea of America has been replaced by a new commitment.

“Money," he pronounced. “This whole country is all about money. Even baseball used to just be a sport. Now it’s all about money."

Bill’s really worried about food inflation and about losing senior citizen discounts at restaurants that just want more of his money. He retired as a machinist and is appalled that new guys in the job make about what he used to make—$10 an hour to start.

“Wages haven’t gone up at all for most people," he said. “We have become a country of the haves and the have-nots."

“Sounds familiar," I told him. “I hope India gets it right before we’re in the same mess."

When I left, Bill was sitting under this number: $9,536,566,088,99.

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