Time To Start Thinking: America And The Spectre of Decline
Rs 699 pp 292
Americas eventual decline as the worlds sole economic superpower is pretty well documented. So are the forces behind the slide. Its middle class imploded as China and the chip gobbled up factory jobs. Its schools produce adults who believe man and dinosaur co-existed. Its universities draw the best minds from across the world, and send them back after giving them a sparkling education. US corporate bosses travel the world while politicians bicker incessantly at home. And finally, Wall Street still rules Washington.
Edward Luce teases out each of these strands as a journalist on leave from the Financial Times to claim its time Americans wake up and smell the coffee. Many do. An incredible amount of legwork has gone into interviews to flesh out the doomsday theses. Some of these theories, like the rusting factories and rotting schools, have been around for decades. The globetrotting CEO and elusive green card are of a newer vintage. Luces story-telling skills amply on display in his previous book In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India pull broad strands of American public discourse into his worldview.
Luce reports and analyses the American response to free trade, immigration, foreign policy, military dominance, healthcare and education reforms. Along the way, he touches upon Wall Street avarice, Capitol Hill acrimony, and Barack Obamas fading charms. It is a forthright commentary by an outsider with pretty deep access to Americas business, political and academic cores. Luce spent a year as speechwriter for Larry Summers, treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, in 1995. His reportage is fresh and his analysis insightful.
Principally, Luce tries to answer these questions. What will it take to revive a jobs-rich manufacturing sector in the Midwest? Can education be fixed to give Americas current and future generations of workers the skills they need in a predominantly service economy? What are the chances of the US remaining the worlds innovation leader? Can the federal government, part of the problem, be overhauled?
Tempting as the comparison may be, Tocqueville Luce is not. For one, the issues America is grappling with have been dissected in detail by the most accomplished intellectual elite any country has ever accumulated. Two, China, the other half of the story of Americas eclipse, is reconstructed from the US perspective. Luces nationality and his successive stints in the Financial Timess bureaus in New Delhi and Washington render him sympathetic to both sides, but that does not connect all the dots in the Chimerica story.
Luce wisely refrains from prescribing what America needs to do to get out of the rut. Americas challenges merit something better than a journalistic manifesto, he sums up. They need new ideas, the lack of which Time to Start Thinking hopes to have captured. That in itself is no meagre achievement. A Briton, observing America, must find it difficult to resist quoting Winston Churchill: You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after theyve tried everything else.