America's Perfect Storm

The Statue of Liberty before the start of a ceremonies on Liberty Island in New York on October 28, 2011 to commemorate the 1
The Statue of Liberty before the start of a ceremonies on Liberty Island in New York on October 28, 2011 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Toss a frog in a pan of boiling water and it will jump right out. Put the same frog in cool water, then slowly turn up the flame and it may not notice that it is gradually boiling to death.

The frog, according to Edward Luce, the chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times, is America. It just sits there oblivious, he says in his book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (Atlantic Monthly Press) as its political and economic institutions deteriorate and its standing in the world plummets. Nothing new here, one may say. But rarely has the case for our national decline been made more chillingly and in more persuasive detail by a journalist with Luce's establishment credentials-- he served as a speechwriter for Obama's former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers.

A Brit transplanted to U.S, shores, Luce is compared in a blurb by Francis Fukuyama to Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Luce quotes in an epigraph to the book as saying, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than other nations, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." Luce's competent journalistic prose does not soar like de Tocqueville's into literary flourish, and he offers few of the French observer of post-colonial America's insights into our national character. He also does not appear to share de Tocqueville's optimism about America's future, despite the uncharacteristically upbeat quote about its capacity to repair its faults.

On the contrary, Luce portrays a people frozen like a deer in the headlights of its own collective narcissism and nostalgia for a mythologized past -- a people unable to grasp how far things have already slipped.

If de Tocqueville's approach is rambling and discursive, Luce's tone is clinical. Like a doctor examining the patient organ by organ, he diagnoses America's ills in a wide variety of fields. His prognosis: The middle class is not just vanishing, but the aspirational energy which led to our meteoric rise in the last century is running down like a cellphone battery; health care costs are metastasizing, driving small businesses into the red; U.S. innovative muscle is atrophying as the government spends less on the kind of publicly-funded scientific research and development which fueled our economic growth in the past; America's job-sustaining infrastructure is crumbling; and our educational system is failing to train the workers we need to keep pace with the rest of the world. Worst of all, according to Luce, political gridlock has made it all but impossible to take the necessary steps to move beyond our malaise.

Again a familiar litany. Yet one senses that what the author is really writing about here is not a political failure, or even economic decline so much as moral collapse. What we desperately need, he argues, is not just a better government and a more robust economy, but a resurgence of the very qualities that de Tocqueville so admired: America's egalitarian spirit, its can-do optimism and predilection for teamwork, its pragmatic (rather than ideological) spirit, and, yes, its readiness to swallow its pride and repudiate its mistakes and get on with the work at hand.

Luce portrays a nation in midlife crisis. It is as if America woke up one morning to find that its arteries were sclerotic, its limbs stiff, its appetites and drives waning. Can we rouse ourselves and recover the suppleness of youth?

Luce thinks not altogether. He quotes the political economist Mancus Olson: "Stable nations tend to wind down over time." Which is not to say that we cannot enjoy a level of prosperity in the years ahead. To do so, however, we'll need Washington to aggressively support American industry rather than sit on the sidelines, as we are doing today, and letting an uncritical embrace of "free trade" drag us wherever it will.

Our leaders will need to go to battle as fiercely for American interests, as the Chinese, for example, are already doing for their own. We can begin to stem the loss of American jobs overseas with strategic tax credits for industries that stay at home rather than farming out their jobs overseas, better education, more effective job training, government sponsored research programs and tough-minded trade deals with other countries for starters.

What is stopping us? Just as the needle of a compass, however much you spin it, always points north, so too the problem for Luce invariably lies in the direction of our broken politics.

"Given America's separation of powers," he writes, "the Tea Party needs only a majority of the majority of one half of one branch of government to have a pretty good shot at ensuring nothing significant happens in Washington... in light of such a low bar, and given its organizational prowess, it is hard to see a neat end to the Tea Party's 'tyranny of the minority' in the near future."

But the problem with politics is not just polarization -- what Barney Frank once called "the dialogue of the deaf with the deaf" -- it is also money. Not only are politicians beholden to their corporate and Wall Street benefactors and unable to act impartially on behalf of the nation as a whole, but the never-ending need to raise campaign funds leaves our elected officials with little time or energy left over to actually attend to the business of governing.

What is to be done? Luce wisely offers no magic bullet. Instead, he does what journalists are good at -- he listens. And he lets us overhear what Americans are telling him. This is what rescues the book from the high-minded preaching of other books that address our national malaise -- the author's instincts for people and their stories.

Luce introduces us to the Oregon governor who worries that the state's outdated infrastructure and flagging education system may condemn it to "a race to the bottom," when it comes to its real economic adversaries -- the rising nations of the Pacific rim. We meet the "fire-breathing" steel company chief executive who urges America to renounce its free trade absolutism and become once more "a nation which builds things." We hear from the inventor of the Internet (no, it was not Al Gore) who laments that the death of public science, which provided the impetus for the nation's great technological breakthroughs of the past. We are introduced to the medaled briefing officer at the National Defense University who argues that the U.S. needs to sharply cut the Pentagon budget, reduce its global military footprint and attend to its true national security work -- which is restoring its economic vitality.

And finally we meet the Minneapolis couple, the Freemans, who in the best American tradition "shovel your snow, stick their hands up to volunteer for school events, do neighborhood crime watch, and coach the Little League."

The Freemans are members of the vanishing middle class with a huge mortgage still to pay off and a highly autistic son to support, who worry if they will have enough to make ends meet after their impending retirement. Luce says that he thinks of them a lot, not because their economic plight is unusual, but because it is the new normal. "Can America really do no better?" he wonders at the end of the book.

Edward Luce does not answer his own question. But he does quote the political scientist Samuel Huntington: "Critics say America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie, it is a disappointment. But it can only be a disappointment, because it is also a hope."