Edward Luce charts America’s decline

Is the United States past its prime?

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.

But Luce never mentions this. Part of the trouble with his presentation seems to stem from his essentially shallow take on world history. While he laments, at one point, the fact that no one in Washington seems to know anything about Washington before the last election cycle, he only bothers to go back a few more pages himself. When he delves into history it is virtually always British history. Like Great Britain in the late nineteenth century, he argues, we’re now at the point where we suspect something is amiss, but our government just can’t seem to correct it effectively. Like Lord Balfour and William Gladstone, President Obama just isn’t implementing the right policies. Well, why not?

It’s understandable that his perspective on decline doesn’t extend much beyond the political economy of the last 250 years. There’s a reason for this—he’s a British journalist who worked at the US Treasury Department—and there are specific measures used to compare economies. But by focusing only on the free-trade-based economies of nineteenth century Britain and twenty-first century America, he seems to miss larger historical patterns. These two examples might have a lot in common, but ultimately their economic strength and military prowess are no more distinct that of hundreds of other cultures throughout history. One country can’t rule forever. Powerful civilizations go through cycles. They all start to look kind of the same.

Luce makes much of income inequity, but the existence of a small group of mega-rich oligarchs, however disturbing their existence may be, is not simply a function of the politics of, say, President Ronald Reagan—it’s a feature of all declining civilizations. As Francis Fukuyama explained in The Origins of Political Order (2011), the rich in powerful empires have long tried to avoid taxation, no matter how much their states may need the funds. China’s Han dynasty fell in the third century AD in part due to aristocratic families’ success at keeping their land from taxation. Sixteenth-century Spanish kings sold state offices to the rich as a way to raise funds and keep the aristocrats occupied. This naturally had the effect of both not raising enough money and putting incompetent people in positions of power. Ancien regime France exempted the aristocracy from taxes and shifted the whole tax burden, used to pay for continuous wars, to the peasants.

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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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly. Tags: , , , , ,