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A Wonderfully Depressing "Time to Start Thinking"
May 28, 2012 - 9:00pm

Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent by Edward Luce
Published April, 2012.

If you read The Economist then Time to Start Thinking is your kind of book. There is something almost soothing about a book that is simultaneously well-written and depressing. Somehow learning about the decline of the U.S. from a Brit -- Luce is the Washington Bureau Chief of London's Financial Times -- feels more palatable than similar arguments made by an American.

Luce is a long time observer of the U.S. political and economic scene, and has basically decided after years of living in the States that we are pretty much hopeless. Time to Start Thinking is a passionate indictment of the U.S.'s political classes, both left and right, and the inability of our elected officials to seriously address our fundamental economic problems.  

Included in the tour of American shortcomings are our crumbling infrastructure, our wildly unequal primary schools, and our ever more costly postsecondary education and health care systems. Luce is particularly elegant in describing the loss of middle-income jobs, and the inability of more of and more Americans (particularly young people and non-post graduated educated older adults) to achieve economic stability. The U.S. is not headed for imminent economic collapse, but rather a slow erosion of productivity and standards of living for the middle class, and global economic realignment around Asia.

This is not a book that is big on policy recommendations. Luce is fond of quoting H.L. Mencken dictum that, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

The solutions that Luce does recommend, such as reducing military spending and pulling back on overseas military commitments, are unlikely to free up enough dollars to make possible the large scale investments in  infrastructure and education necessary in a competitive global economy. Growing health care costs and an aging population will continue to limit the ability of government to fund investments, and health insurance costs will continue push business to limit hiring and invest instead in automation over people (as worker health care costs put U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage with non-U.S. producers).

Time to Start Thinking is a good companion book to read with Diamandis' Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think  (review 4/9/12). Where Luce sees U.S. economic problems as structural, and our politics way too polarized to offer cogent solutions, Diamandis believes that rapid technological advancements (when applied to health care, education, and other sectors) will lead to rapid advances in productivity and standards of living. Technological utopianism vs. cleared eyed rationalism. Wouldn't it be awesome to see a debate between these two authors?

Are we living in an age of descent?

What are you reading?


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