Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent | By Edward Luce | Atlantic Monthly Press | 291 pages, $26.00
Is America in decline? Almost since America established its hegemony over the rest of the world in the aftermath of World War II we’ve been worried about this question. The recent proliferation of books about the diminution of the American empire—Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? (2007), Morris Berman’s Why America Failed (2011), Daniel Gross’s Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline (2012), Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (2008), for example—indicate that the question is starting to become more intense. But, then, we were worried about falling to Japan in the 1980s. We worried about falling to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Are things any different this time around?
In Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, Edward Luce argues that, this time, the decline is real. Luce, the British-born Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times and former speechwriter to former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, musters extensive evidence and anecdotes to show the reader what real decline looks like. Using recent trends in economics, education, innovation, and politics, Luce argues that, politically and economically, America is indeed deteriorating—and that we ignore the evidence at our own peril. Luce makes a solid argument that America is in decline, but ultimately he’s written a pretty shallow book, one that fails to capture what that decline might really mean.
Luce explains that the declining power and wealth of the American middle class saps the country’s influence. The low test schools of America’s students demonstrate the poor quality of our schools, despite spending more per pupil than our European competitors. We’re no longer leading in innovation and business creation. The large size of our bureaucracy, coupled with increasingly bitter, partisan politics, prevents Washington from effectively governing the country.
The evidence is pretty convincing, and Luce presents it well. At one point he explains the decline of American entrepreneurship through a single story about storage units. The storage business has grown ten-fold in the last decade, and now generates almost $25 billion a year. These storage units are almost entirely filled with the possessions of formerly middle class people who’ve been kicked out of their houses after defaulting on their mortgages. They put their possessions into storage so they can retrieve them once they “get back on their feet.” What often happens, though, is that they simply stop making payments and the storage company auctions the contents off.
Stories like this make the book stand out. The way Luce tells it, the decline is real, and Americans can see examples of it everywhere. (Note also the various reality TV shows about storage-unit pickers; we’re seeing an economic and cultural decline.)
Luce offers lots of Tom Friedmanish interviews with CEOs and other masters of the universe—normally a tedious exercise. But here it seems to work, in part because Luce has found business leaders and statesmen, like Sen. Don Riegle, Bill Gates, Michael Mullen, and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, who provide more than just buzzwords; they demonstrate a real grasp of how the world is changing.
Even so, it’s unclear if Luce’s ultimate point is that the statistics he cites represent a simple series of downward trends that can be corrected and addressed through prudent (if difficult to implement) government policies, or if this decline is an inevitable historical trend we are powerless to correct.
The current U.S. government, he writes, is huge, overly bureaucratic, and increasingly impotent. But there’s a difference between a cause and symptom. If we could only fix this, he suggests, the country might maintain its power. “America has no lack of ‘starter pack’ ideas,” he writes, about the country’s attempt to address its “growing crisis.” The trouble, he explains, is that
It mostly lacks the will to implement them. In areas where Washington does find the will, such as education, its ideas have not had the desired effect. Most important, though, America’s economic crisis has grown alongside a mutually reinforcing polarization in police that has badly disable the federal government’s ability to offer solutions. Just when intelligent government is most needed, it seems to have been put beyond reach.
What he seems not to understand, when he demonstrates the stasis of our current government—particularly partisan wrangling over uncontroversial policy proposals and meaningless struggles over the federal budget—is that dysfunctional politics are itself a symptom of national decline. Cato the younger, for instance, used the filibuster in the ancient Roman senate to block new tax policies and oppose land reforms that would give farms to veterans. Caesar, sensibly, responded by dragging Cato out of the Senate and taking the land vote directly to the people. We’ve been here before.