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Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline

Edward Luce

Little Brown

Pages: 304 Rs. 699

Inclined to decline: It’s déjà vu all over again in America

Edward Luce’s latest work is a discursive study that dissects the perils and challenges of the world’s last Occidental superpower in a sympathetic manner, writes Vivek Dehejia

Vivek H. Dehejia  20th May 2012

Luce points out that the Occupy Wall Street movement lacks the political potency of the Tea Party movement

s Yogi Berra is famously said to have quipped, "It's déjà vu all over again." It wasn't that long ago that we were bombarded with books on America's imminent decline and the rise of Japan. Instead, the United State rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes, and Japan went into a two decade economic slump from which it's yet to fully recover. Now, talk of American decline is once again in the air, except that this time the putative beneficiary is China, another Asian power. The prophets of doom are once again circling, rubbing their hands, awaiting the demise of the last Occidental superpower.

But Edward Luce is no conventional anti-American doomsayer: to the contrary. The son of a British peer, with a "PPE" from Oxford and many years of journalistic experience, he's every bit the insider on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, in a sabbatical from journalism, he spent a year as a speechwriter for Larry Summers at the U.S. Treasury Department during the Clinton administration. Currently, he's the well-respected Washington, DC bureau chief of the venerable Financial Times, and very much someone who's comfortable operating "inside the beltway." He's also well-known to us in India, as the author of In Spite of the Gods, which has won many accolades as one of the finest books of its kind on India. For all of these reasons, then, Luce's is definitely a voice worth paying heed to.

Luce brings to the challenge of dissecting the contemporary woes of the United States the perspective of what in America would be called a "liberal" but elsewhere in the world a "social democrat." His delicious skewering of today's leading American conservative ideologue, Charles Murray, in a recent column in the Financial Times, points the way to Luce's ideological and conceptual frameworks, which many of his readers may well share. And his manifest sympathy for the patient whose ills he's diagnosing is never in doubt.

Toward the end of a discursive introductory chapter, Luce sets out his central thesis: "This book will not predict America's collapse. But it will prove skeptical of America's ability to sharply reverse her fortunes." The principal culprit, as he sees it, is the dysfunction in the country's political system. The United States needs a "smart government," he suggests, one which moves beyond its ideologically riven politics and takes a pragmatic approach to solving problems.

The bulk of the book is concerned with elucidating these ideas and documenting the malaise that has befallen America's middle class. In an argument now familiar, even conventional, Luce paints a picture of a middle class whose incomes are stagnating and whose life prospects are being drained away through the triple whammy of technological change, globalisation, and governmental neglect of public goods such as education, health, and infrastructure.

Luce articulates cogently the reasons why America has seen what political scientists call “asymmetric polarisation”

This long book proceeds to its task meticulously, and indeed methodically, through chapters on the "hollowing out" of the middle class; the decline of the public education system; the languishing of scientific and technological innovation; the travails of a cumbersome government bureaucracy; the wider governance deficit; and the outsized influence of money on electoral politics. A final chapter argues why it's going to prove exceptionally difficult to rectify all of these damaging, perhaps debilitating, causes (and symptoms) of American decline.

As it happens, Luce saves his most trenchant and penetrating insights for this last chapter. He's at his most illuminating when he focuses his lens on the intersection of economics and politics, in this instance in looking sharply at the dynamics of the global political economy. As he very rightly observes: "Economics is not supposed to be a zero sum game. Geopolitics almost always is." An analytically equivalent way of saying the same thing is that, while economists study absolute gain and loss, political scientists are concerned with relative quantities. Therein lies the world of difference between more butter and more guns.

o be more concrete, the rise of China, India, and the other emerging economies is, in an absolute sense, good for those economies and for the United States. Commerce is mutually gainful: one economy doesn't gain at the expense of another. But power relationships in the international sphere involve a relative comparison of economic, political, and military mass: for better or worse, being bigger than the other guy is, in fact, better. From this perspective, the decline of the United States is a necessary corollary of the rise of China, India, and the rest. While this idea is standard fare for scholars, Luce exposits it well for the general reader.

There's good insight to be found on domestic politics too in this last chapter. Luce articulates cogently the reasons why America has seen what political scientists call "asymmetric polarisation," whereby the right has lurched much further to the right than the left has toward the left. In simpler terms, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement doesn't have the political – especially electoral – potency of the "Tea Party" movement. Luce, unsurprisingly, foresees more political paralysis ahead, at a time when the United States, in his view, ought instead to be grappling with the impediments to its continued long-term economic ascendency and global political hegemony.

Luce steadfastly refuses to offer his reader a menu of remedial options, or a list of policy recommendations, that might aid in the patient's cure. But he does offer this pearl of wisdom, borrowed from management guru Jeffrey Garten, another Clinton-era official: "America will ultimately stand or fall by the health of its middle class." After another small excursion, to illustrate the plight of the beleaguered middle class in America's Middle West, the book concludes without peroration and in a curiously tentative fashion.

One is left wondering – and perhaps this is the author's intention – where does this train stop next? Is it the end of the line for America, or a new beginning? Luce doesn't tell us, but the somber, hesitant finish gives us a hint of what his answer might be. It's almost as if, after about three hundred pages of gloomy but incisive analysis, Luce doesn't quite have the heart to say goodbye to his reader, or his subject.

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