According to the US industrialist and world-class bigot Henry Ford, “History is bunk.” Edward Luce, who cites Ford’s assertion, tells the reader that Oliver Wendell Holmes was closer to the mark when he said: “An ounce of history is worth a pound of logic.” But what emerges from Luce’s carefully balanced and often startlingly evocative analysis and reportage is the denial of history by the current crop of American leaders. Every one of the gallery of grotesques that have tried to challenge US President Barack Obama for the presidency interprets the US slide from preeminence as the result of Democrat policies, while Obama himself dismisses all talk of decline. The assumption underlying practically all US discussion is that any slippage in the country’s global standing is the result of misguided policies that can be reversed by an act of will.
It is true that there have been serious errors in policy. Luce, formerly the Financial Times’ south Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi and now the paper’s chief Washington correspondent, spells out these exercises in self-damage in painful and illuminating detail. He shows how the US has choked off the flow of talented scientists and entrepreneurs by making immigration more difficult, while major companies have been encouraged to move offshore so that IBM and General Electric now employ more people overseas than they do in the US. He examines the factors that have de-skilled much of the US workforce, not least failures in public education, and tells some poignant stories of the economic squeeze that is laying waste to the lives of so many. Rightly, he sees the collapse of social mobility as a turning point. What hope have the former middle classes if their children are also trapped in debt and dead-end jobs?
Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline
By Edward Luce
Surprisingly, Luce says little about the foreign policy disasters that have speeded the US’ fall from grace. Though the Iraq war achieved little aside from increasing the influence of Iran, occupying the country has been ruinously expensive. Trillions of US dollars have also been spent in Afghanistan, the principal result being to entrench the position of the Taliban. Yet despite these debacles there is fierce resistance to Obama’s relatively modest proposals for spending cuts in the military-industrial complex. A similar paralysis exists in many areas of domestic policy. America’s debt burden would be less crippling if the US did not have the least cost-effective system of medical care of any advanced country. But as Obama has demonstrated, radical reform is politically impossible. Again, it is mainly the US’ absurdly punitive drug laws that have led to a higher proportion of its citizens being incarcerated than anywhere else in the world. Here too, though, the likelihood of reform must be close to zero.
Those who argue that the US’ decline has been the result of policies that can be changed pass over the chronic dysfunction of the American political system. “Given America’s separation of powers,” Luce writes, “the Tea Party needs only a majority of the majority of one half of one branch of government to have a pretty good shot at ensuring nothing significant happens in Washington ... in light of such a low bar, and given its organizational prowess, it is hard to see a neat end to the Tea Party’s ‘tyranny of the minority’ in the near future.” As Luce implies, deadlock in Washington is a by-product of America’s sacrosanct constitution. One might wonder how a system of government that was framed in pre-industrial times could possibly be suitable at the start of the 21st century. But while the Constitution is often ignored in practice, there is no prospect of the structures of government being reformed. As the Tea Party has shown, a mythic story of the US’ constitutional origins still has powerful resonance.