It’s not that Luce’s argument isn’t convincing. Many things in ths country, from the stock market to public education to scientific discovery, seem to be getting worse. But in citing only very recent trends, Luce implies that if only we as a nation could address issues like education and business creation, then we all could be rich again. He acknowledges that this is unlikely—“one nagging concern,” he writes, “is that America’s obsession with what Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor, calls ‘the politics of now’ will continue to divert Washington’s policymakers from domestic problems.” But Luce seems unwilling to take the next step and ask why are these things happening, and whether we can really correct them.
While Luce never comes to this point, he seems to demonstrate, by accident, that civilizational decline is more than just a matter of contemporary political dysfunction. A country’s downfall, like its rise, is apolitical. There’s something very risky about pointing to decline by citing only fleeting economic trends. So many pundits shout, write, and blog that “if the Obama administration would take the following few steps” we could fix this. As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic in 2010:
The United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong. And a longer-term perspective would mean doing all we can to address the “75-year threats”—the issues for which we’ll be thanked or blamed two or three generations from now.
The country should, Fallows explained fix, its infrastructure, invest more money in research, and get serious about environmental degradation. Good ideas, but isn’t the real problem the fact that US policymakers can’t (or won’t) do these things?
Were there 75-year threats Gladstone could have addressed in the 1880s that would have kept Britain on top? Does it matter? Were there 75-year threats the Emperor Diocletian,, who split the Roman empire in two in order to try to preserve the institution’s power, could have addressed in the 290s?
Sure it’s time to “start thinking,” but, frankly, the time to reverse the decline trend might be over. Politicians have proven themselves, for thousands of years, unable to stop decline; they can only manage it.
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