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The Retreat of Western Liberalism Hardcover – June 6, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of June 2017: Why does it feel like things are coming apart in the world? As the U.S. commentator for the Financial Times, Edward Luce is in a good position to observe global trends and answer this question. In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, he points to the rise in populism across nations and the relative economic growth of a few developing countries like China and India as key contributing factors. Of course it’s much more complicated than that, and Luce’s taut and satisfying book goes a long way in helping us to wrap our heads around what’s happening. Think of this as a global Hillbilly Elegy. You may not find every answer you’re looking for, but you’ll make serious, welcome progress in understanding the questions. --Chris Schluep, The Amazon Book Review
One of the Washington Post’s 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2017, an Amazon Top 100 book of the year, and a Financial Times and Economist best book of the year
“Timely and informed, providing an important overview of the dynamics in an increasingly interconnected and fragmented planet . . . In his prescient 2012 book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, Luce uncannily anticipated the politics of resentment and the bitter fights over immigration that would fuel ‘Brexit’ and last year’s American election. And in this new book, he lucidly expounds on the erosion of the West’s middle classes, the dysfunction among its political and economic elites and the consequences for America and the world.”―Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Many around the globe sense a systemic crisis. To understand the nature of this crisis, we could not find a better guide than Edward Luce's The Retreat of Western Liberalism . . . Luce writes in fluid prose, moving from a telling statistic to a striking quotation. Throughout, one is struck by his command of the material and the activity of his prose―he is unsparing in his condemnation of the elites who didn't see this coming.”―Fareed Zakaria, New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Luce offers a useful wake-up call to elites, urging them to focus on the very real struggles of America’s besieged middle class before we all lose the freedom and democracy we cherish . . . [A] concise, accessible and valuable work.”―Lawrence J. Haas, Wall Street Journal
“What the book offers is . . . a panorama of the unravelling world order as riveting as any beach read. Luce’s project is to explain what the recent dark turn in Western politics―the rise of ultranationalism, populist demagoguery, cultural insularity, and social unrest―has to do with global economics. It’s a story of trade balances and technological disruption, but also a withering dismantling of Western liberalism’s faith in progress.”―Elias Muhanna, New Yorker, “What we’re reading this summer”
“A brisk, timely survey . . . Mr. Luce is a shrewd observer . . . At rapid pace and with telling statistics, Mr. Luce . . . gives a knowledgeable tour through the unmapped terrain in which Western politicians and governments must now operate.”―Economist
“Edward Luce provides a terrifying view of the challenges facing the West. We have to hope that his prophecies are self denying―something that is more likely if his penetrating analysis gets the wide attention it richly deserves.”―Lawrence Summers
“Read this book: In the three hours it takes you will get a new, bracing, and brilliant understanding of the dangers we in the democratic West now face. Luce is one of the smartest journalists working today, and his perceptions are priceless.”―Jane Mayer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Dark Money
“The challenges to the West are outlined in detail―and they mainly come from within . . . For Luce, the combination of rising income inequality, vanishing economic mobility and distant technocracy has led to our moment’s populist resurgence.”―Carlos Lozada, Washington Post
“A head-clearing attempt to explore the underlying disorder and distemper in liberal democracy, in America and throughout the West . . . As this author states repeatedly, Trump is merely a symptom, not a cause, of this disorder. For readers looking for context, this primer is a good start.”―Carla Seaquist, Huffington Post
“An informative look at the current state of world politics and economics . . . It’s also a thought-provoking warning that history is not guaranteed.”―Chris Schluep, Omnivoracious
“Important . . . Through his deep reporting and clear-headed analysis, Luce explains popular frustration with liberalism, and the resurgence of nationalism.”―National Book Review, “5 hot books”
“No one was more prescient about the economic malaise and popular resentment that has hit the United States than Edward Luce in his previous book, Time to Start Thinking. His new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, broadens that picture to cover the Western world. It is a must read for anyone trying to make sense of the waves of populism and nationalism we face today.”―Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lords of Finance
“What is the future of Western liberal democracy? How did it get into its current mess, and how will those origins shape its forthcoming evolution? This volume is the very best guide for starting to grapple with those questions.”―Tyler Cowen, Founder of Marginal Revolution University
“In just 200 pages, [Luce] surveys economics, history, electoral politics, and international relations to paint a vision of the planet that’s as worrying as it is realistic.”―VICE
“Luce’s well-crafted book locates the origin of the crisis in declining economic opportunities available to Western middle classes.”―G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs
“[The Retreat of Western Liberalism] is really, really important . . . We strongly encourage you to buy it.”―David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy’s The E.R. podcast
“Luce does a masterful job of describing the contours of the rise of illiberal democracy in the west.”―Benjamin Knoll, New York Journal of Books
“Beautifully written.”―Times (UK)
“The great merit of Luce’s brisk, pointed and fascinating book . . . is that it is far more than a disappointed liberal’s angry tirade. His achievement it to put the rise of antiestablishment populism in a broader global economic context . . . In particular, he is memorably and rightly scathing about the self-regard of the Davos elite.”―Literary Review (UK)
“Timely . . . [Luce’s] writing has a vigour and sweep all too absent in the deadly prose of social scientists.”―Financial Times (UK)
“A succinct and powerful accounting of the global failure of the political left and the subsequent revolt of the people against a system that they see, not without reason, as having failed and abandoned them.”―Toronto Star
“Incisive . . . Luce combines some hard, and unsettling, facts about the ‘stagnant’ state of Western economies and societies, with perceptive, even provocative insights into their implications.”―Vikas Datta, Business Standard
“Timely and thoughtful . . . A clear-eyed lament of liberalism’s decline, and America stepping back and turning inward.”―American Conservative
“Fantastic. I recommend that everyone buys it.”―James Pethokoukis, American Enterprise Institute
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And I'll be damned if I can come up with any sort of argument to refute his reasoning. It's a good reminder that good people of conscience must remain vigilant and prepared to take peaceful action to both resist the creep of autocracy, but also to rebuild the social compact that binds a nation together. It is our responsibility to be brave, to be strong, and to foster the trust that is the foundation of a free society.
In the first part of the book he covers a lot of familiar ground. China and India are on the rise. The West is in relative decline. The American model has been successful in that more people are being lifted out of poverty than at a faster rate than at any time in human history. However, the American world order is starting to unravel. Most countries see the benefits of capitalism but they don’t necessarily want democracy. Many countries appear happy with their authoritarian leaders. Trump seems to have acknowledged that this is the reality. Luce believes that the “reckless” foreign wars of George Bush have damaged America’s influence abroad, and its ability to promote democracy. China is not democratic yet it has the world’s largest economy in PPP terms. China is unlikely to want to inherit America’s global role. Luce predicts that the result is likely to be chaos. Luce provides a long rant about Donald Trump and he suggests that a war with China may come about because Trump is an idiot.
Mark Mazower, a professor at Columbia University, wrote “Dark Continent” in 1999. He argued that the 20th century in Europe was a battle between three rival ideologies: communism, fascism, and liberal democracy. He concluded that most of Europe did not have much experience with democracy prior to 1945, so it was not inevitable that liberal democracy would win out. It was a consequence of who won WW2. He believed that Europeans could have lived happily under authoritarian leaders and that it was democracy which was an aberration. He seems to have be proved right in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland. Luce suggests that authoritarianism may be about to become the global norm. However, we have been here before. In 1980, half of Europe and much of Asia was communist.
Luce writes about the decline of the Western middle class. Sending jobs overseas has benefited China, Mexico and Poland but it has reduced the standard of living of ordinary people in the West. The wages of Americans have stagnated since the 1970s and they have less job security. In an interview, Luce claimed that in 2000, 30% of Americans categorized themselves as lower class, but by 2016 that had reached 49%. Social mobility is now lower in the U.S. than it is in the UK. He suggests that when people don’t share in economic growth or are excluded from the affluence around them, this can become dangerous for societies and usually produces instability.
Luce recognizes that globalization has created problems for ordinary people, but he also maintains that globalization is inevitable and resistance is futile. He discusses Brexit and accepts that the EU is undemocratic. Some of what it proposes, like the European Arrest Warrant, is at odds with ancient British liberties. However, most Europeans don't seem to mind. He also observes that poorer people often value democracy more than the rich and the elite. The main objective of the EU is to create a federal super state, a United States of Europe, without the democratic checks and balances. Some of its proposals have proved disastrous, like the single currency. The EU currently has a population of 508 million and it wants to expand to include Ukraine, the Balkans and perhaps Turkey. EU citizens can live and work anywhere in Europe and that became an issue in Britain. Britons eventually discovered that they were supposed to regard national sovereignty as a thing of the past. Many Britons began to object and Brexit became an attractive option for the growing number who did not like what the EU was becoming. Leaving became the only option because Britain could not find allies who shared its concerns. Luce works for an editor at the Financial Times who is a well known EU supporter, so he probably has to be careful what he says, but he does point out some of the EU's flaws.
Luce believes that the rich and the left are starting to become disenchanted with democracy. He describes the extraordinary inequality levels and views it as a new Gilded Age. With growing inequality, the rich start to get nervous and begin to fear the mob. One New York billionaire suggested to Luce that there should be competence tests for voters, only well-informed people should have the right to vote. The left has also begun to despise the working classes. If you read the commentators in London’s left of center Guardian, many seem to believe that ordinary people are not qualified to vote on issues like Brexit.
The left in the U.S. and the UK have created rainbow coalitions which have left out the traditional white working classes. The left has been taken over by people from elite universities. They have little in common with the often socially conservative white working classes, whose views on immigration are often regarded as racist by liberals. Politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair chose to abandon poor white people in the 1990s. Obama bailed out Wall Street but not the ordinary people who had their houses foreclosed. The Democrats now receive large donations from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, so their interests have changed.
Luce has fun with Hillary's clueless election campaign. The Democrats believed that they had demographics on their side. They forgot that immigrants become like everybody else once they stay long enough. They can even morph into Republicans. Luce believes that by abandoning the politics of solidarity with the white working classes Democrats have shot themselves in the foot. Poor whites have turned to people like Trump because he is the only person who will listen to them. Luce does not see Trump or populist nationalists in Europe, like Marine Le Pen, as the causes of today’s crisis in democratic liberalism but rather as symptoms. Luce does not believe that Trump and Brexit are one-offs, they represent dissatisfaction with the status quo. He argues that Washington is out of touch, since 91% of D.C. voted for Hillary.
What is to be done? Luce’s solutions are underwhelming. He calls for a Marshall Plan for the middle classes. This mostly involves retraining the people who lose their jobs because of globalization. He uses Denmark (population 6 million) as an example. He wants an increase in investment in education. He argues for a stronger safety net and universal health care. He complains about inequality but does not want to increase wealth distribution because that would be bad for growth. However, the thirty years after WW2 were great for America and its middle class. The top tax rate during the Eisenhower era was 91%, while the economy grew by 37% during the 1950s. If ordinary workers have more money to spend on goods and services that will generate economic growth, the very rich tend to stash their money offshore.
Where the U.S. differs from Denmark is that it is big enough to change the rules of the game. It can make things happen rather than just react, like Denmark. These days, getting agreement on what needs to be done is a serious issue. Luce wants to look at gerrymandering because he argues that House representatives choose their voters. However, not enough people in the major parties seems to care enough about the white working class to resolve their problems. The growth of AI and the rise of the robots are likely to make things worse. He mentions that over 50% of current jobs can soon be done by machines. If we want to avoid becoming a feudal society, we need to first admit we have a problem.
Income inequality is a subject Mr. Luce discusses at length: He cautiously endorses education as a vital element in reducing it, and he sensibly suggests that the trades be encouraged as education goals alongside traditional degrees. There are problems with this prescription.
The political correctness which began to influence higher education back in the 1990s now dominates it. Thought and inquiry are straitjacketed. If evidence is required to substantiate this, one need only page through college course offerings and requirements. Most undergraduates today are obliged to navigate curricula that are orthodox, perverse, and jaundiced. If they dissent, they are in trouble. Largely to blame for this is invertebrate and opportunistic management. When journalist Philip Delves Broughton described American campuses "...as places where young people struggle rather than thrive", he was vastly understating the case. The price paid by students and their families for a degree whose quality wouldn't have passed muster even twenty years ago is crippling and unjust. Drug abuse, prescription and otherwise, binge drinking, sexual assault and homicides have always existed on campus, it's just that now it's gotten a lot worse, especially for women. Much of this is enabled by image-conscious management which keeps most of it secret. This despite legislation requiring full disclosure of crime statistics.
On average, it takes six years for an undergraduate to complete a bachelor's degree. For many students that means six years of living with Mom and Dad, working low-skill jobs, and commuting long distances to campus. During this time, calamitous debt is frequently established while employment, experience, opportunities, and earnings are sacrificed. Is the college campus a supportive learning environment? And can what's taught there help in narrowing income inequality? In the great majority of cases, I think not
With respect to global politics, the near-future scenario Mr. Luce offers his readers strikes me as credible: Vladimir Putin brokering a ceasefire between the US and China might at first glance seem a little far-fetched. But when one considers conditions in the South China Sea, and Mr. Trump's belligerent tirades, it becomes more convincing. Which leads one to consider the merits of democracy. Presidents Erdogan, Trump, Orban and Duterte make for a pretty scary quartet, and that's not the worst of it. Like he says, the future's not what it used to be.
Mr. Luce maintains that President Trump channels anger. Mr. Luce channels despair. It's seldom one reads a book that is so unrelenting in its pessimism. Highly recommended.