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Twilight in the West Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline
By Edward Luce (Little, Brown 291pp £20)
Fifty years ago, California was the place to be. A laboratory for new ways of living, bathed in glorious sunshine, the state of Berkeley and the Beach Boys offered a glimpse of the future, all suntanned faces, gleaming cars and spanking new universities. But how times have changed. Half a century on, suffocated by smog and mired in debt, the Golden State has become a metaphor for everything that seems wrong with the United States of America. Almost incredibly, notes the Financial Times’s Washington bureau chief Edward Luce, California now spends less than $8,000 annually on each child in the state school system, yet spends $47,000 on every prisoner in its notoriously overcrowded penitentiaries. State politics has become a carnival of perennial plebiscites, while, as Luce sees it, ‘Sacramento’s role is to preside over a slow disintegration of the assets the state built up in the 1950s and 60s, the world-class infrastructure and public education that helped make California the place of the future.’
Sober, clever, measured and deeply depressing, Time to Start Thinking takes a long, hard look at a nation haunted by decline. Of course European visitors often love to announce the impending collapse of American civilisation, but Luce, by and large, lets his American interviewees do the talking. In one particularly telling passage, he sits in on a seminar at the National Defense University, where promising military officers are sent ‘to prepare their minds for leadership’. ‘The window on America’s hegemony is closing,’ says one officer. ‘We are at a point right now where we still have choices. A decade from now we won’t.’ As Luce watches, fascinated and amazed, the young officers agree that the US should cut military spending, roll back its presence abroad and concentrate on economic competitiveness. ‘Our number one goal’, one says, ‘should be to restore American prosperity.’ But as their visitor remarks, ‘the chances of anything like this happening were zero’.
What is so impressive about Luce’s diagnosis of American decline is the quiet, methodical compilation of damning facts – all the more damning because he eschews histrionics and clearly has great affection for his current beat. He is very good, for example, on the miserable fortunes of American manufacturing, which now accounts for less than one in ten private-sector jobs. Even during the Clinton boom, most new jobs were either in healthcare or in government, which tells its own story. The United States now spends twice as much per head on healthcare as France, and a staggering three times as much as Britain – yet ‘Americans continue to die earlier and spend more time disabled than their peers in Europe’. In the meantime, Luce notes, the lights have been going off in the former workshop of the western world. Half a century ago, the United States made half the shoes on the planet. Now there are only two shoe-producing firms left.
At the heart of Luce’s book is the story of a nation that, fattened by affluence, fell for its own propaganda. He meets a California-born Harvard graduate, Amar Goel, who, at a recent reunion, told his old classmates that he was moving to Mumbai. ‘There was a revolution happening in Asia, he said. It was like America in the late nineteenth century.’ Goel’s classmates thought he was mad. ‘America was still number one in everything,’ they said. ‘Everybody in the world wanted to be American.’ But do they? On the same page, Luce recounts a meeting with Oregon’s labour commissioner, Brad Avakian, who had recently been on an official visit to Taiwan. One evening Avakian’s hosts took him out for a drink, and the talk turned to America. ‘These guys were literally laughing at America,’ Avakian recalled. ‘They couldn’t understand the game we were playing. “Please keep sending us all the jobs, everything else will follow”.’
Looming in the background is the giant in the Far East. American economic hegemony has long been based on technological innovation, yet by 2020, Luce writes, the US share of citations in international scientific papers is likely to have been overtaken by China. According to the former IMF economist Arvind Subramanian, even if China undergoes a ‘debt-induced crisis of growth’ in the next ten years, its GDP will still be a quarter higher than the United States’s by 2030, its share of world trade will be twice as high, and the yuan will have become the world’s reserve currency. Yet what frustrates and bewilders Luce is Washington’s complete failure to react. The American school system, he notes, promotes shallow self-esteem over genuine achievement (encouraged by what he calls ‘Good job!’ parenting); and, despite the urging of businessmen and labour leaders, Washington seems allergic to any serious industrial policy. The United States, he thinks, has the worst of all worlds: a freemarket culture that forbids state intervention, yet also an overweening bureaucracy that discourages innovation; a culture of complacency that saps urgency, yet also a neurotic nationalism that has turned presidential politics into a rolling freak show.
The obvious criticism of Luce’s book might be that we have heard it all before. More than thirty years ago, another distinguished British observer of American politics, the peerless Godfrey Hodgson, published a book arguing that the presidency was a dysfunctional and failing institution; in the meantime, however, life has gone merrily on. In the late 1980s, there was a great panic about the supposed rise of Japan; ten years later, the United States was still Top Nation. But none of this means that Luce is wrong. Americans may recoil at the thought, but empires fall as well as rise. In the 1890s, Luce points out, Great Britain was clearly the world’s pre-eminent power, having reached a peak of wealth and influence. At the time, London’s papers were full of gloomy predictions of decline, which many observers dismissed as hysterical doom-mongering. But as we know now, they were right. Edward Luce may well be right, too. Just twenty years from now, he will probably be able to say: ‘I told you so.’ To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9
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