Ever since the eruption of the financial crisis in 2008, western historians, economists, journalists − in short, the chattering classes − have asked themselves whether America is on the decline, and if so, why? Financial Times columnist Ed Luce now adds his voice to the debate in a powerful new book, entitled Time to Start Thinking.
“The old model died in the rubble of Lehman Brothers”, he writes. “The new has yet to be born. Many still believe that the corpse can be revived.” Luce writes that, for Americans, it is time to start thinking pragmatically about the country’s huge challenges. Not surprisingly, the book starts with a journey into the heartland of America’s shrinking and shaken middle class. Luce’s economic analysis echoes that of Nobel Prize winning economist Michael Spence, who has argued that America is mired in a deep structural crisis. Spence’s argument rests on a number of core points, one of which is that America’s job growth in the past few decades has mainly come from the non-tradable service sector, such as health care. Journalist Ed Luce adds that despite Obama’s timid health care reform, its cost curve will not be bent. In fact, exorbitant health care costs will continue to be a drag on the wider economy.
Luce also blames the public opinion’s obsessive finger pointing at the political class in Washington for distorting the debate the country should be having. “Blaming politicians has turned into a lazy perennial of modern American life,” writes Luce. “Even the politicians blame the politicians — bashing Washington is one of America’s few bipartisan talking points.” According to Luce, Washington has become an easy excuse for inaction. In his view, political gridlock is a symptom, rather than the root cause for America’s ills.
At the other end of the spectrum, historian Robert Kagan is trying to push back. Self- flagellation has never been his forte, and he urges Americans not to indulge in it. Believing in traditional American self-confidence, his message for U.S. citizens is to stop whining, get up, dust off and face their challenges. Decline is a possibility, he reminds his audience, but certainly not unavoidable. Tellingly, and as a patriotic reminder for his readers, he chose “The World America Made” as the title for his new book. Wary of being labeled as soft, U.S. politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have embraced Kagan’s view. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Barack Obama stated: “Anybody who tells that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they are talking about.” The line predictably drew applause from both sides of the isle.
This attitude has a built in risk. If the gap between high flying rhetoric and the rough reality is too wide, words will sound hollow. European politicians and corporate leaders visiting the U.S. often express a mixture of surprise, concern, and sometimes irritation, when faced with the usual round of verbal Europe bashing. Not surprisingly, while grudgingly admitting that Europe is not in a good place, they feel compelled to remind Americans of their own shortcomings. Many ask themselves if U.S. representatives are just trying to deflect attention from their own problems, or whether they are genuinely convinced that the U.S. is better equipped to face today’s challenges. Whatever the case, Europeans often fly back home convinced that there is enough to be worried about.
The talk of decline is not new. In fact, it is a cyclical event. In the more recent American history, it flared up every time the economy was weak for a prolonged period of time. This particular time is no different. Five years into the financial crisis and despite some encouraging data as of late, growth remains anemic, unemployment and underemployment are high, the painful process of household deleveraging has slowed down, the housing market is still weak, and the government is far from reducing its growing mountain of debt. Even the stock market, one of the few bright spots at the beginning of this year, hastily retreated once it became clear that the Federal Reserve (FED) is not about to further artificially stimulate the economy. It is quite clear that the recent bull market is more the result of massive injections of liquidity by central banks rather than the reflection of a robust and self-sustaining economic recovery. In economists’ parlance, there are still “significant headwinds,” which could grind the recovery to a screeching halt.
Lawrence Lindsey, who once lead the economic team in George W. Bush’s White House, admits that, like many predecessors, he too made mistakes when in office. “We have to start telling our own respective people [Republicans and Democrats], the truth,” he said at a recent conference in Washington, DC. “This country is on a Greek trajectory.” According to the Republican Lindsey, the government needs to spend less and to raise more taxes. He even accepted the deeply unpopular suggestion of introducing a Value Added Tax. Both Republicans and Democrats, he urged, , need to think outside the box.
Former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers only partially shares these dark views. According to Summers, all the talk of decline is premature. Yes, the economy is not out of the woods yet, he concedes, “but if I look around the world, I don’t see many Steve Jobses, or Zuckerbergs out there.” Summers believes that innovation will eventually pull the U.S. out of the slump and back on track, as it has so often done in the past.
Ed Luce begs to differ. In his book, he reminds us that “America’s key advantage has been its superiority at turning invention into commercial application,” not its ability to invent things − Apple and Facebook are good examples of this. Luce argues that the U.S. system is no longer “quite as unique as it once was.” Asia, and particularly China, is catching up quickly, and America’s immigration policies are making it harder to attract the talent that is needed to keep America’s innovative spirit alive and thriving.
I suspect that the debate about America’s decline will not fade away anytime soon. Unless, of course, the economic recovery gains traction and Americans are lulled back into a sense of complacency, having grown tired of asking if there is anything wrong with their country. Such an outcome would be a missed opportunity.