|TIME TO START THINKING
America in the Age of Descent
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2012
Edward Luce is the Washington correspondent for the Financial Times. This book, his second, reads like an intervention. The country it describes is one whose elected leaders, intentionally or not, are causing its rank among the nations that are the best-educated, the healthiest, and the most prosperous to drop. Also, perhaps as a consequence, America has lost place1 in the world — which means its once shining moral reputation has grown increasingly tarnished.
"This book will not predict America's collapse. But it will prove skeptical about America's ability to sharply reverse her fortunes. Its title, Time to Start Thinking, implies that America has not yet begun to think seriously about the consequences of where it is headed. Nowhere is this deficit more apparent than in American politics. If America is to restore its competitiveness it will need to do many things, few of which will be possible without a much more effective federal government. In today's world, smart government is a critical ingredient of national competitiveness. Unless America can address government's role in a more pragmatic light, it may doom itself to continued descent."
– Page 21
Times are hard in Flint, Michigan, a city some sixty miles northwest of Detroit. Flint was where General Motors was born in 1908. But now, like the Motor City itself, it is filled with decaying schools and decrepit factories. Many houses that once sheltered workers lie abandoned; their deserted neighborhoods turn into free-fire zones at night.2
Flint was former Senator Don Riegle's home town. The author toured his old neighborhood with him. They passed isolated houses the residents couldn't sell, on streets lined with others that were burned-out hulks.
Most of the trees that had once given these streets their intimacy had been stripped for fuel. At regular intervals residents had nailed wooden makeshift signs to whatever trees were still standing. 'This is a Kid's Zone, not a Hoe's Zone,' says one. 'Prostitutes keep out!' says another. 'One thing we don't want to do is get out of the car,' said Riegle. It was eleven in the morning. Flint has had it bad, but this could have been Cleveland, or Detroit, or any number of economic sink zones in the American Midwest.
– Page 17
This is why they call it the rust belt.
People used to see America's rust belt as a tragic but unavoidable casualty of America's transition into a dynamic service economy. But the rust continued to spread into other corners of America. Since 2000, America has lost another 5 million manufacturing jobs, which is roughly a third of what was left.
– Page 21
Chapter by chapter, Luce presents a litany of anecdotes and statistics that reveal the magnitude of the multifaceted crisis. He begins in the birthplace of America's automobile industry. The cities of this once-thriving area of the heartland now lie largely deserted, neighborhoods peppered by residents holding on in houses they cannot sell amid streets gone to ruin, cash-strapped local governments unable to keep up with repairs or maintain adequate emergency services.
This is what Luce calls "the hollowing out of the middle class." To put it simply, even after the official end of 2007's Great Recession, in August 2009, the middle class did not recover from the massive losses of houses and jobs they'd suffered. Many still have not recovered today. Luce notes that median household income fell by 6.7 percent after the recession — twice as much as it fell during that two-year period. It gets worse. People take a pay cut of 20 percent when they replace the manufacturing job they lost with a service-sector job, which typically lacks health and pension benefits. Even for those who've kept manufacturing jobs, the median income has not risen since 1973, and many of them have seen their benefits drop sharply as well.
The ongoing decline encompasses our education system at all levels. Funding cuts leave fewer pre-school children well prepared to learn; their parents, with stagnant wages and mounting debt, cannot fill the gap. For a variety of reasons, more K-12 students receive education that is deficient both relative to that in other developed nations and in the absolute sense that they fail to learn what they need to succeed as workers and citizens. Many who enter college need remedial training. Meanwhile, faced with shrinking public funding, community colleges must cut services, staff, or enrollment,3 while universities are forced to raise tuition, thus becoming less accessible to all but students from wealthy families. The situation affects teachers in other ways too. Larger class sizes, supply scarcities, and deteriorating facilities all take a toll. So does the way that administrators often side with parents in any dispute.4 Add in the fact that teachers can usually earn more in less stressful jobs,5 and you begin to see why it's so hard to improve educational outcomes in this country.
Luce next looks at America's vaunted ability to innovate. He finds it fading — both in the traditional sense of devising new products or processes that create new markets or improve efficiency, and in the newer sense of reinventing yourself. The former is getting harder as fewer Americans pursue technical educations, foreign students earn advanced degrees in American universities and then go home, and the U.S. patent system increasingly bogs down due to funding cuts and counterproductive rules. The latter often means changing your job and/or location in order to achieve a better life. This is mobility, and it too is getting harder as income inequality widens.
Finally, Luce examines our political system. This should be what solves the other problems that arise in society, like our extreme income inequality or our defective health care. But politics, especially at the federal level, has become dominated by well-heeled corporate special interests and undereducated ideologues. The first priority of many members of Congress is to keep their jobs, and they devote most of their time to this goal, enhancing their security by gerrymandering safe districts back home and choosing staff on the basis of loyalty rather than ability. The inevitable result is gridlock — which many citizens, lulled by too long a period of comfort or bamboozled by too much demagoguery, are ill-equipped to change.
Luce ends the book much as he began it by showing us the Freemans, a formerly middle-class family struggling to survive in the eastern suburbs of Minneapolis.
To sum up: working, schooling, innovating, and governing are the things that make America great, and Luce's book is an indictment of the current condition of every one of them. His assessment is profoundly depressing, and it may be overstated. Yet, given what has been happening in Washington and especially on Capitol Hill in recent years, it rings unpleasantly true. I won't run through the catalog here. Just consider the latest example: a small group (about 35 Republicans in the House of Representatives) blocked passage of a continuing resolution for 16 days. This had the effect of shutting down the federal government6 and holding up its employees' pay.7 They also threatened to block expansion of the debt ceiling, which would have damaged the world's economy, but that was averted at the last minute. And why did the 35, Tea Party members all, do this thing? They wanted to abolish the Affordable Care Act: a measure already passed by the Congress, signed into law by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court.8
Born and raised in England, Luce brought an outsider's perspective to writing this book, and that is useful. He also has put a great deal of effort into it. It is very well researched, and his writing ability as a journalist of long standing makes it easy to read. Its annotations are extensive and useful. However, it also has defects: more than its share of typographical and grammatical errors, and a few errors of fact that a bit more research would have prevented. It also lacks an index. I put these deficiencies down to insufficient time: he says he wrote it in three months. Because of the cogency and currency of its content, I rate it a must-read; but I won't call it a keeper unless in some future edition he adds that index. I hope he will also correct the numerous errors in the text.
Some have criticized Luce for proposing no solutions to the manifold problems he mentions. These critics must not have been paying attention. On page 274, he points out that to do so would have made the book much longer and more complicated. However, he does venture this much:
"Yet to stray momentarily into prescription, there can be little doubt that Garten's goal is right: America will ultimately stand or fall by the health of its middle class. The best thing an aspiring FDR could do is to channel Americans' frustrations into a more constructive and coherent force—not by appealing to old social democratic orthodoxies, or to the mood of injured national superiority that exists in parts of the heartlands, but with a renewed pragmatism that can see the world afresh."
– Page 274