A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline
Financial Times columnist Edward Luce has written a new book called Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent that has received well-deserved acclaim and recognition not only for its superb reporting of the on-ground reality of America’s current economic crisis but also because it is an unflinchlingly brave book. Luce does not shy away from conclusions that are hard for many Americans to hear, nor does he cop out and offer up the happy ending many in his audience may want to read. Rather, he offers what is most needed now: an objective, profoundly thoughtful look at the underpinnings of America’s economic troubles, what makes the current crisis different from those of the past, and where we are likely headed from here. Luce recently sat down with Foreign Policy CEO and Editor-at-Large David Rothkopf. Here are some of the highlights of their conversation.
Foreign Policy: The debate about whether the U.S. is declining is raging. In fact, it is likely to be central to the upcoming election. Your book takes a strong stance on the subject. Can you summarize your view?
Edward Luce: Well, there are two types of decline. The first is relative economic decline, and I think this should be uncontroversial. Funnily enough, it isn’t yet fully uncontroversial, but it should be: namely, that America’s share of the global economy is diluting. In 2000, America had about 31 percent of the global economy, so just under a third. And by 2010 it was down to 23.5 percent, just under a quarter. That is a remarkable shift. So relative economic decline shouldn’t be something we debate too much because it’s happening and it’s going to continue to happen. And I think the U.S. share would be likely to fall to a little more than a sixth in the next decade or so, unless there are dramatic changes in the pattern and distribution of global growth.
One of the reasons why I emphasize this is because there’s one very accomplished author whom I generally admire, Bob Kagan. His book, The Myth of American Decline, makes the point that America’s share has been unchanged for 40 years and unchanged between the turn of the century and now. The facts are wrong. And I picked that up because the president picked it up and essentially cited the core pieces of Kagan’s argument in the State of the Union [address]. While it’s understandable President Obama wants to refute the idea that he’s America’s declinist-in-chief — and it is a line of attack from Mitt Romney — I do think it means that we’re going to have a 2012 election where on both sides, both candidates will start on a false premise: that relative economic decline is simply to be ignored or dismissed. And I’d describe that as a kind of intellectual ostrich position.
FP: But relative economic decline, while a great subject for political conversation, actually shouldn’t matter to the American people. Because if the pie is getting bigger, your slice of the pie can get bigger and it can still be relatively smaller than everybody else. In other words, everybody can be doing better in a world in which everybody else is also doing better, right?
EL: Absolutely. And, in many ways this should be a cause for celebration. To take the historical context of which you’re very aware, the Industrial Revolution around 1750 onward lifted 15 percent or so of the world’s population — generally the Europeans and the Americans more latterly — into a different stratosphere of economic growth and of human development and of life expectancy, and left the remaining 85 percent behind, many of whom were under colonial rule as the bit-part raw-materials suppliers to this Industrial Revolution.
The fact that that the 85 percent is now catching up in this Great Convergence is something to be expected — it’s going to happen and it should be celebrated. It reduces poverty and expands markets. The question is at what speed it is happening and how we are responding to it.
FP: OK, so relative decline is not necessarily a problem for people. What is the other type of decline?
EL: The other type is the more important one. It is about how America is responding to these challenges, which includes actions and inactions that have exacerbated some of the trends that we associate with this relative decline. These include the impact of globalization on the American economy and the impact of really exponential changes in technology on how Middle America lives and works. Washington’s reaction to date has only deepened America’s problems by turning this into a more pronounced relative decline than it needs to be.