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Sunday 4 August 2013

Review: Edward Luce, Time to Start Thinking. America and the Spectre of Decline

My UK edition of this book does not have Library of Congress Cataloguing In classifications, but I guess they are "1 America 2 Doomed". There are already quite a lot of books on that shelf, and many of the claims advanced in this book are familiar. However, the claims are often expressed directly by American movers and shakers who Luce (a Financial Times journalist) has interviewed, and this makes the book both readable and credible.

The principal claims are quite straightforward. America will lose its position as unchallenged super power in the very near future (by 2020). It has lost its industrial base and with it both its skilled labour force and the purchasing power skilled workers deployed. Its population is increasingly polarised into those who are getting by on debt  and those who are getting richer all the time. It does not get value for its tax money: notably, its state and federal governments fail to deliver adequate public education or public health care. Its society is broken with a prison system of Gulag proportions and cruelty. (For other social indicators of decline, see Luce page 280). Its constitution effectively gives veto powers to organised special interest minorities, making reform almost impossible. Its citizenry is appallingly ignorant: we already knew that they could not locate Afghanistan or Iraq on maps of the world; Luce throws in that nearly half of them believe that the sun orbits the earth. For many questions, Americans would know more if they picked their beliefs by tossing coins. Only in relation to sport and guns can we be sure they know what they are talking about.

"America's ignorance about the outside world is so great as to constitute a threat to national security" said a report by the Strategic Task Force on Education in 2003 (quoted by Luce page 184). It's also a threat to the rest of the world. Ignorance is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. 

We impose sanctions on countries to clean up their acts and we routinely impose reforms on countries as conditions of financial bail outs. Maybe someone should suggest to China that they make it a condition of continued funding of America's deficits that the US embarks on a sustained program of citizen education. 

Luce does not propose remedies though he hesitates to endorse the real reason: there are none. America is doomed. We just have to hope that it does not take the rest of us down with it (and here only China can help us). And that is what is different about America. Luce could write a very similar book about the UK,especially as it now tumbles down the Conservative path of "learning" from America. But though the UK is doomed, fortunately it does not have the capacity to take anyone down with it.