Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline

Edward Luce
Little Brown and Company
ISBN: 1408702754
A Review by Alistair Burnett

Technological innovation and American ingenuity will overcome the environmental and development challenges the world faces: At least that’s what Lisa Jackson, chief administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency told the BBC at the recent Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. It was a characteristically American expression of optimism, but is such a positive outlook on the future justified anymore?

That’s the theme of a recent book by Edward Luce, the Financial Times’ chief Washington correspondent  Time to Start Thinking, and his conclusion is no, not really, with the argument underlined by the book’s subtitle, “America and the Spectre of Decline.”

The fact that the US is in relative economic decline is not in dispute as China’s rapid growth is gradually eroding America’s share of global production, and as long as China continues to grow faster than the US, this decline will continue. But Luce argues that the US is facing absolute decline, too.

As one would expect from such an experienced journalist, Luce writes elegantly and with a human touch. He describes America’s multifaceted problems through the words of memorable characters like former Michigan Senator Don Riegle, who mourns the decline of his hometown, Flint; Bill Lichtenberger who had worked his way up through General Motors from the shop floor to company lawyer, but must keep working at age 70 for Kelly Services to pay his wife’s medical bills; and the Freemans, a couple who work all hours they can to keep their heads above water and provide for an autistic son.

Through these people and others, Luce identifies key problems facing the country, especially the decline of middle class, which he sees as the engine of community and the economy, but which is suffering a long-term fall in living standards. He also highlights the failure of schools and colleges to educate students to a sufficient standard for competition in the global economy; the loss of an edge in innovation; and the decline of the country’s infrastructure. All this is compounded in Luce’s view by the deep polarization between Republicans and Democrats and a political system that has become dysfunctional, preventing effective government action to address these problems. 

Luce has little time for the Tea Party, a movement he characterizes as one of America’s periodic moral convulsions. He reserves particular scorn for former Fox News presenter Glenn Beck, a polarising figure in the US with supporters praising him for standing up for traditional American values, while critics accuse him of promoting political fantasies with inflammatory rhetoric. Beck’s targets have included family planning, the Federal Reserve and government programs in general, and Luce describes one program where Beck appeared not to know how to spell “oligarchy.”

Luce has a way with pithy quotes. Jeff Immelt of GE bemoaning the parochial outlook of US politicians tells him, “If you look at Washington some people don’t even have passports. Do I think Washington gets how fast and far America’s role is shrinking in the world? Doesn’t seem like it to me.”

Inventor and educational philanthropist Dean Kamen tells him America’s young have lost the energy and ambition that distinguished the US saying, “We have become like the latter day Romans. We worship the gladiators and we have forgotten the architects and philosophers.”

The title of Luce’s book comes from a famous quote by New Zealand-born, British Nobel prize–winning chemist Sir Ernest Rutherford: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, it is time to start thinking,” and Luce argues cogently that the level of debt and relative economic decline represent a crisis for the US. He clearly sees parallels with the relative decline of Britain in the aftermath of the First World War. But could the Americans be more successful than the British at preventing eclipse by rival economic powers? After all the British elite did not seem to listen to Rutherford at the time, and adjusting to decline from a global to mid-ranking power has been an uneven, painful process for Britain, with cloth-cutting forced on London by a succession of crises from the humiliation of Suez in 1956 to traumatic currency devaluations in the 1960s; bailout by the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s; and the current deep cuts in government spending, including on defense and diplomacy, to deal with debts accrued from the 2008 financial crisis.

Luce is not optimistic and ends his book accusing American politicians of falling back on the mantra of American exceptionalism to avoid facing up to the reality of decline, and he quotes Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, “Saying so don’t make it so.”

Luce could be overstating the case. The criticisms and complaints he relates in the chapter devoted to the perceived decline of the country’s education system and its failure to equip young Americans to compete in a global market-place can be heard in many other countries. Recently, I’ve encountered the same argument in countries as diverse as Britain and Brazil. America’s top universities still attract many of the world’s brightest, even if fewer potential students  can obtain visas or settle and work after graduation. America still innovates, as the global success of Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter over the past few years shows, and there is more of a market for renewable energy technology inside the US than he implies when describing a visit to a GE plant that exports wind turbines.

Luce’s admiration and affection for the US and its ideals shine through the book, and he explains that once he got used to the differences, he has really enjoyed living there. He wants America to succeed, and I suspect that he is overstating his case deliberately to grab people’s attention. I read Time to Start Thinking as a wakeup call to Americans – especially politicians and business leaders – from a friendly foreign critic.         

Alistair Burnett reviews Edward Luce’s Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, calling it a stern wake-up call from a friend.