The fate of the nation

Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, by Edward Luce, Little, Brown, RRP£20, 320 pages

Woe, woe, all is woe. America is on the skids, the Chinese are not so much coming as have arrived, and time is running out. Edward Luce’s pessimistic assessment of the state of the nation ranges far and wide. The known targets are lined up and knocked flat – a gridlocked political system, a rancorous political culture, the distortions caused by Wall Street’s remuneration deals, the inadequacy of so much primary and secondary education, the rotting infrastructure (“Michigan’s highways remind me of Venezuela”), an anti-science ideology, the fabulously expensive healthcare system with its relatively poor outcomes – and much more besides.

But Luce is too good and too provocative to settle his case at this point. What really upsets him in Time to Start Thinking is that so many Americans who should know better don’t seem to realise how serious the challenges are. Worse, such fundamental virtues as the nation’s genius for innovation, creativity and pragmatism have themselves been so corroded that, unlike in previous crises, America may this time not find enough of the solutions.

I found myself from the outset wanting to quarrel with Luce, a former Washington bureau chief and now chief US commentator of this paper. After all, an apparently declining US has given us the wonders of Google and Facebook, outstanding medical research, brilliant satellite technology. The Nobel Prizes are still coming and the top universities dominate any world league table. American soft power, although enfeebled by aspects of its foreign policy, has not vanished either. Hollywood, HBO, Coca-Cola, the New York Yankees (look at who wears the caps) and Bruce Springsteen all add to Brand USA.

But Luce does far more than collect and display American contemporary discontents, and by the end of the book this fan of America was a great deal more anxious about the health of the republic. His statistics include telling ones about the decline in median income for the American middle class – in contrast to the rich pickings enjoyed by those at the top – and healthcare ($2.38 an hour for every American employee’s healthcare coverage – 98 cents in the remainder of the rich world). But there are some sideways ones that make their point. Try this: the average salary for a high school sports coach in Texas is $73,000, over $30,000 more than for a teacher in any other field at the same grade.

Nor does America’s brightest spot, Silicon Valley, emerge unscathed. It may still be the “likeliest parent of disruptive technologies” (good) but annual fundraising has plummeted to less than a sixth of its peak (bad). And the Valley’s venture capitalists are attracted to the talent in Mumbai and Tel Aviv rather than opening more offices in the US – where the system is churning out too few science and engineering PhDs, and far too many MBAs.

Luce is analytically at his most interesting about the role of government in developing industry. He is not a protectionist – though as he mourns the collapse of American manufacturing employment, looks at the privileges of American agriculture and genuflects on Lincoln’s civil war tariff walls, he concludes that a little bit of roughing up of the Chinese is in order. He is a big fan of Alexander Hamilton – the founding father who believed in nurturing American infant industries. And he repeatedly attacks the anti-government rhetoric spouted by so many American business types and conservative politicians that ignores the massive role played by government in both funding and organising research and development. In a book largely more critical of the contemporary right than the left (though all share the blame), the Reagan administration is praised for helping the US computer chip industry beat off the threat of Japanese dumping, and that of Dwight Eisenhower for boosting public education. Eisenhower it was who warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but it had its uses – IBM’s research budget for one.

But despite these forays into economic philosophy, this is a reporter’s work and Luce is a very good reporter. He has spoken to a terrific array of characters – including eccentric entrepreneurs, bankers, captains of old industries, new technology evangelists, senior politicians, an admiral, academics, a community college head, a recruitment agency boss, brilliant immigrant students who are “going back” (ie away from the US). Best of all are his vivid portraits of Americans struggling to get by, assailed by what he calls “the hollowing out” of America’s middle class. There is the former worker at Goodyear who retrained as a jobbing lawyer and can just pay the medical bills, the male nurse who started as an electrician at General Motors, and the Minneapolis couple trying to support an autistic son while doing 20 hours of voluntary work a week. These passages are poignant – a homage to decency – and there is still a lot of that left in the US.

Of course, predicting America’s demise is not new. In 1979 Ezra Vogel, a brilliant Harvard scholar of Asia, wrote the much-vaunted Japan as Number One. Now it serves as a reminder of the dangers of the prophecy business and of writing off America. Luce would agree that this is fraught with risk but, still, it’s getting late – and the election campaign has hardly helped.

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

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