Philippa Thomas Online

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Is it really so bad to be American? On “Time to Start Thinking”.

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Is it really so bad to be American? 

“Faith in America’s promise is at the heart of America’s story”. 

There’s not much evidence of that faith in Edward Luce’s epic analysis of “America and the Spectre of Decline”.  But as the title has it, “Time to Start Thinking”.  Right now, Obama and the Republicans aren’t thinking, but fighting over the looming fiscal cliff.  Luce urges them to the long view. By 2020, China might overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy.  

It’s an excellent read: clear, crisp, packed full of original interviews.  It matters, because as Luce quotes Samuel Huntingdon, America “can only be a disappointment because it is also a hope”.

The book focusses on three key disappointments –  in manufacturing, innovation, and education. 

Luce is especially scathing about America’s disregard of its manufacturing base.  He gives us colourful insights. I like his account of a National Defence University brainstorming session where Pentagon high-flyers conclude to his surprise that military spending must be sharply cut, and the money reassigned to rebuilding America.  He eats hotdogs with Admiral Mike Mullen who despairs that “we are borrowing money from China to build weapons to face down China. That’s a broken strategy”. He gets a rare interview with Jeff Immelt of General Electric who comments bitterly, “if you even whisper the phrase ‘industrial policy’ in Washington DC, today, then within 24 hours you’ll be stoned to death”. 

He empathises with a middle class that’s hollowing out. As the chief executive of temping agency Kelly Services puts it, “the era of secure employment is over. Welcome to the age of mass casualization.”  And he’s right to draw attention to a key reason that US firms like General Electric take their production offshore: at home, they have to pay for healthcare.  As one of the BBC’s U.S. correspondents, I was shocked to realise what America’s employer-funded system means in practice. You can pass your exams, pay your way through college, build a career, work all hours… and if you lose your job, you lose health care for your entire family. A severely ill child may mean a new mortgage. A battle with cancer can bankrupt. It makes a mockery of the national wisdom that The American Way rewards the strivers and the smart. 

How about the happy belief in America as a land of innovation? That doesn’t happen in a vacuum, says Luce. “The goose that lays the golden eggs is not oblivious to what happens around her”. And many of today’s golden geese are Chinese and Indian, forced by increasingly restrictive visa rules to go home. If you only have time to dip into this book, I’d say go straight to chapter three for stories about what’s really happening in Silicon Valley, and why the rest of the nation should take notice. 

What chance then of a system overhaul? President Obama has proclaimed that the US should aim to “outeducate and outinnovate the rest of the world”. But there’s little cheer here, as Luce investigates the increasing polarization of US politics, and the increasing absorption of politicians by fundraising. More than ever, Washington diaries are written around the need to feed the machine. Obama himself – the great proclaimer of change – is now fundraiser in chief.

Will the politics change as America changes? There’s an illuminating quote by Ron Brownstein of the “National Journal” on the demographics of ‘the gray and the brown’. “The struggle is likely to be between an ageing population that appears increasingly resistant to taxes and dubious of public spending, and a minority population that overwhelmingly views government.. as the best ladder of opportunity for its children.” But for now, this author’s canvas of the American scene leaves us with the despair of W.B.Yeats, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. 

By the end, this reader is really in need of reasons to be cheerful. But Luce doesn’t offer prescriptions. He points to “America’s rich tradition of pragmatism” as her best source of hope. But with all his research, the travel and the talk and the thought behind this book, I wanted him to offer more examples of best practice. I wanted to hear more about the imagination of entrepreneurs like Dean Kamen who’s running a project to address the middle class skill shortage – a robot design contest that attracts 60,000 students a year. 

Blame Tea Party intransigence, blame lacklustre political leadership, blame the short attention span of all our TV networks, but Obama’s fine phrase about “the fierce urgency of now” appears as just that – just talk.  

“Time to Start Thinking” left me better informed but saddened.
It’s a book that boils down to a general “shame on you”.

Luce argues that it’s time Americans stopped simultaneously trashing DC and looking to it for answers. “Blaming politicians has turned into a lazy perennial of American political life”. 

He’s deeply pessimistic about the character of America’s economy, and the readiness of Americans to do what’s needed to get back out in front. 

I’d love to find a convincing antidote but I fear there may not be one.  

Suggestions welcome. 

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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