The book offers an incisive and highly engaging account of the challenges facing America. The book, however, does not predict America’s collapse. But it proves skeptical about America’s ability to sharply reverse her fortunes. Its title, Time to Start Thinking, implies that America has not yet begun to think seriously about the consequences of where it is headed. Nowhere is this deficit more apparent than in American politics. If America is to restore its competitiveness it will need to do many things, few of which will be possible without a much more effective federal government. In today’s world, smart government is a critical ingredient of national competitiveness. Unless America can address government’s role in a more pragmatic light, it may doom itself to continued descent.
The 292-page book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter dwells on the changing structure of the US economy, in which the impact of technology and globalisation has reduced the earnings potential of a large share—and possibly most—of the workforce while catapulting the most productive elites into a different hemisphere. The book asks whether it is possible to revive a jobs-rich American manufacturing sector, as many, perhaps somewhat optimistically, believe it is still possible. And it assesses the growing bewilderment of America’s economic elite, who have been hit by a crisis they were the last to see coming. They have yet to find a new paradigm.
The second chapter looks at America’s steep challenge in overhauling public education. It also asks whether America can refurbish a system of worker training that is shortchanging most of America’s labour force. Chapter three underlines the health of American innovation and takes a neutral stance on America’s chances of remaining the world’s leader. Silicon Valley continues to be the most dynamic place on the planet to start up a company and the likeliest parent of disruptive technologies. But if the valley’s secret sauce is to be found in its distinct blending of place, money, and talent, only “place” can be firmly relied upon to stay put.
Chapter four looks at waning prospects for overhauling the US federal government, which, in spite of repeated efforts at reform, remains part of the problem. Chapter five highlights what is driving the continued polarisation of America’s politics. The bitterness in Washington might be seen as an analogue to the polarised economy outside the Beltway. So, too, is its disorientation. It has become fashionable to talk of America’s “broken politics”. Unlike most fashions, this looks to be more durable. The lessons taken in states such as Texas and California are not encouraging.
The next chapter looks at the increasingly debilitating effect of the “permanent [election] campaign,” a trend Barack Obama has exacerbated and in many ways come to embody. The final chapter deals with America’s dwindling options in a world where the pace is increasingly being set elsewhere. Many Americans believe it is still within their power to determine whether the country retains its global pre-eminence. That is probably a wishful thinking. But it is within America’s power to reverse its increasingly plutocratic internal character. The book therefore concludes where it begins, with America’s shell-shocked middle classes. Can their fortunes be revived? Must they await another shock, along the lines of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, for America to stir itself into action?
American history is rich with examples of shocks that galvanised big change (the Great Depression, Sputnik) and others that prompted much darker responses (the McCarthyite Red Scare and the invasion of Iraq).Who can say whether the next tipping point will be positive or negative? It is conventional wisdom in Washington to say, “We need another crisis. That’s when we’ll get things done.”
By Ashok Kumar