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Rise and fall of the American empire

Fleshing out the doomsday theses about the United States without offering a journalistic way out

books Updated: Jun 01, 2012 17:41 IST

Time To Start Thinking: America And The Spectre of Decline

Edward Luce

Hachette India

Rs 699 pp 292

America’s eventual decline as the world’s 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 it’s 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. Luce’s 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 Obama’s fading charms. It is a forthright commentary by an outsider with pretty deep access to America’s 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 America’s current and future generations of workers the skills they need in a predominantly service economy? What are the chances of the US remaining the world’s 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 America’s eclipse, is reconstructed from the US perspective. Luce’s nationality and his successive stints in the Financial Times’s 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. “America’s 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 they’ve tried everything else.