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Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent MP3 CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
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About the Author
Edward Luce was a speech writer for the Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers and now works as the chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times. He is the author of the national best seller In Spite of the Gods, and lives in Washington, D.C.
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I was involved in buying a German company in the late 1990s. This allowed employees to retire in their early fifties on 60% of final salary. The company had employee representatives on the board of directors. It was impossible to slash costs and fire people in the same way that could in the US and the UK. In Germany they had economic chaos in the 1920s, with high unemployment and hyper-inflation. In 1933 they elected a man called Adolf Hitler who promised jobs and to restore national honor. The Germans have long memories and try and keep their middle class sweet and prosperous. During the Eisenhower era it was the same here. Ike supported trade unions. There is a lot learn from Germany.
Since the 1980s, the US has returned to laissez faire capitalism and it is questionable whether a career in the corporate world still makes sense. There is little job security and no loyalty. It is also expensive to attend a four year college, at the moment the only jobs on offer after graduation pay $8 an hour. If you are well qualified and have talent you have options. Somebody needs to rethink the model for the average American. However Luce doesn't believe the current generation of politicians are up to the task. This book did make me think about the country's future.
Indeed <Time To Start Thinking> (TTST) did interest me. First, the writing is clear. And though the author is a Brit who was a columnist for the (London) Financial Times (FT) when he wrote this book, I see his writing as closer to 'American.' I deemed FT style 'wordy' when I subscribed to it many years ago.
It took me a while but eventually I found that Mr. Luce's intent when writing was pretty close to what is stated in the dust jacket blurb, which I'll paraphrase as follows:
The USA has serious problems in the areas of economics, social decline and politics. Those problems continue to burden the U.S. They show no signs of improvement. Britain began to face comparable problems more than a century ago. Instead of solving them they temporized. In doing so they entered a state of decline from which they did not recover. Therefore, Luce's theme matches the title of his book: <Time To Start Thinking> (America in the Age of Descent). If America only temporizes, it will follow the path of Britain.
Mr. Luce determined the above after having interviewed numbers of Americans of varying social classes and positions. The body of his book is largely taken from or based on his interviews.
Mr. Luce has since written another book, <The Retreat of Western Liberalism> I have ordered it. I am betting that it is just as interesting.
The book starts with one of the most important concepts in the book. It begins by discussing the shrinking middle class. Economic gains for the last several decades have largely accrued to the highest income bracket and this chapter discusses the aspects of the decline of the middle class in the US which was a driver of the economy. Consumption had remained strong over the last decade mainly due to credit rather than labour gains. The chapter discusses the offshoring of jobs and the idea that manufacturing is where innovation happens and the offshoring of manufacturing despite taking advantage of labour cost comparative advantage, cripples the longer term intellectual capital of the US.
Luce continues on to discuss education- another gigantic topic. The US education system is seen as failing with dropout rates @ 25% in high school and education standards stalling domestically and as a result falling behind globally. Education solutions are notoriously difficult to construct as the Gates foundation has invested billions in the space it is clear there are no clear paths easy solutions. Educators are underpaid and over protected. Students are unprepared and teachers are asked to solve economic problems in the classroom. What is clear though is unless the US can improve its education the population will steadily be less prepared to face the real world with real skills.
The book continues on to discuss innovation in the US. One of the cornerstones of the US economic growth has been its ability to innovate and turn innovation into commercial success. It is argued that the advantage of the US in innovation is starting to erode- innovations and citations are increasing in China and are expected to succeed the US by 2020 by some accounts. The chapter goes on to argue that innovation is a product of the landscape and that the deteriorating landscape will impact innovation. As the PhDs of the US return to their native lands their innovative potential returns with them. Whereas in the past most people completing their graduate work stayed, they are increasingly finding their skills needed more obviously back home. This brain drain should be a concern for future innovation.
The next subject is the US bureacracy. It is impeding the economy as politicians have started to dismiss expert science and focus on money raising. Its dedication to R&D is a fraction of the past in percentage of GDP and continues to shrink. Great public goods require public funding which is in short supply. The example of the difficulty in finding someone to head NASA is an example of the lack of appeal of public scientific office. The increasing web of bureacracy in the government has made agencies convoluted with unclear mandates- the overlap between FDA, USDA EPA, department of agriculture for fish are all discussed as an example of how convoluted the government can be.
Luce continues to discuss the increasing difficulty in governing as politics has polarized. As compromise has become non-existent politics has focused on taking 1 step forward 1 step back as parties turnover and try to undo what those before them achieved. He describes this as parliamentary with the intention of describing the party in power focusing solely on their agenda versus consensus. In addition the 24 hour news cycle and the general level of discourse of the population has been degrading is all touched upon. Associate with education, the US population is less informed now than through much of its history.
Lastly the author discusses the lobbies and the money politics of the US. Since the Supreme Court decided that corporations have the same rights as individuals, the use of corporate balance sheets for commercial ends has started to infect the integrity of politics and of political outcomes being a representation of the populations desires. This results from the fact that diffuse marginal benefits dont organize as well as concentrated strong vested interest (something that has been articulated even in Machiavelli's Prince). The power and money in lobbying is discussed- as is Obama's navigation of the problem and how his politics morphed from trying to dissolve to accepting as institutional.
Time to Start thinking- like the title suggests, should force the reader to think about many developments and issues. There is much that will be disputed and inevitably many will disagree or claim that the US is relatively better etc... But nonetheless there is much real substance within the text and the accounts of the problems come from many voices and should be listened to. The account is sobering and can be quite worrisome but to face the future we must at least think about the problems and work towards fixing what we think is wrong. I definitely think one should read this and read it with an open mind.