Thursday, May 28, 2015

America Down the Chute

Note: This is a re-run, because my last post, about a book regarding the liberal class, a tragic book that, like Russian literature, you should only read in bright summer, has received more hits than the previous “poetics” post.
It’s still summer, so here’s a similar post for those who liked last week’s.

Time To Start Thinking
America in the Age of Descent
By Edward Luce, 2012

“Among many liberals there is a resigned type of nostalgia that yearns for the golden age of the 1950’s and 1960’s when the middle class was swelling and …
The right’s nostalgia tends to be angrier. But in their different ways both tend to blot out the sunlight. When a country’s narratives become this captivated by the past, they rob the present of the scrutiny it deserves. They also tend to shortchange the future. “America used to look ahead—we used to be good at that,” Craig Barrett, the former chief executive of Intel, which could lay claim to being America’s most consistently impressive company, told me. “Now we spend our lives reminiscing about the ‘Greatest Generation’ (i.e., that of World War II), We can’t stop looking in the rearview mirror.””
From the forward, p. 7

I was standing beside my friend Chuck, a fellow baby boomer, in the big box bookstore, when I saw Luce’s book on the top shelf. “Oh boy!” I said as I reached up. To Chuck: “I’ve been waiting for Americans to hit bottom.” I pulled it down, glanced at the jacket, and said, “Oh no!” For Luce, although a resident of Washington and chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times, was not American. He was British.

A few years previously I had been sitting in Sunterra restaurant (our favorite) with a university business school graduate, Christina. This was shortly after the Wall Street meltdown. We were both dismayed. Not by the still spreading waves of disaster, but by the undeniable fact, based on all we were reading and seeing in the public forums, that even after this terrible shock, the U.S. still hadn’t “hit bottom.” The phrase comes from the addictions field, where onlookers are horrified at how an alcoholic, regardless of the ever-increasing damage to his life, won’t admit he needs to change—won’t even see there is any problem, not until he “hits bottom.” Only then may he get humble enough to “see” and, perhaps, start the slow climb back up.

Television sometimes shows a family gathering to “do an intervention.” This is to help the addict to “see” and break through “denial” without having to go all the way down to the bottom. The everyday example, I suppose, for not having hit bottom yet, would be a neighborhood where the same people who, as children, had lived in bungalows while enrolled in Scouts America, are now adults in McMansions who live pay cheque to pay cheque, with ever-increasing debt, for their doodads. A lone voice might say, “A Scout is thrifty” but overall, where is the communal return to sanity?

From what Christina and I could see, there was a little tinkering, specific to Wall Street, but no widespread willingness to see the need for national change, a change desperately needed in so many ways, NOT merely a change in their personal credit buying—not to mention Wall Street credit. Relative to the rest of the world, America was clearly still continuing to decline, and the slope was getting steeper. Christina and I could see this about our dear U.S. cousins, perhaps because we were living across the border, up in Canada.

Luce writes with breadth. From the cover flap: “Luce’s research, analysis, and reporting covers areas from education to health care to politics to business and innovation. Luce frames the issues historically…”

Over ten years ago, world wide syndicated Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer pointed out that anyone with access to a hand held calculator (or graph paper) could look at the gross national products for China, India and (Germany?) and see how they were going to intersect and surpass the GNP of the U.S. I believe the American people are starting to see this fact, and starting to accept it. Not good enough. Much more serious than their relative decline, to which they contribute in many ways, is their absolute decline, a decline from things that are in their control and are no one’s fault but their own. Luce writes on both sorts of decline.

Is there any hope? Yes, a little. Luce would not have written his book if he thought we should write off America. I believe his phrase “age of descent,” not “decline,” was to help people avoid giving up. I think if they don’t soon succeed in changing, they are headed for a nation where the many are working to support the few to have a good life, with the middle class small and irrelevant. Unfortunately, the launch window is now barely ten years wide, and closing.

I have hope, not blind faith: I have seen Americans rise to the challenge before. In my youth there were scattered voices warning of something called “the deficit.” Not many voices, and not very loudly. Very few, if any, university students were going home at Christmas and warning their families. Finally, at last, a man in the White House, Ronald Reagan, roused the nation (and the universities) and put the D word into people’s vocabularies. Now we could see! Then came a lot of work. Initially, as I recall, politicians would promise to cut the deficit, and then find themselves merely slowing down the rate at which the deficit grew. Part of the problem, for the poor politicians, was getting the public to become willing to bite the bullet.

In my own province (state) of Alberta we were much like the folks over in Greece today: we who had silently endorsed a rising deficit would not immediately become willing to take responsibility for lowering the deficit. There were street protests. In my own city we had to blow up (implode) our biggest hospital because not only could we no longer afford to run it, we didn’t even have the funds to mothball it until the deficit could be slain. Thank God we had courageous leadership. At last we won. We slew the dragon of deficit… of course we never did get our big central hospital back.

Happily, I’m sure Luce is not the only voice. Two weeks ago I heard a CBC radio interview with a U.S. professor from New York, an expert on tribalism. The prof said something like, “We joke about how a big part of the U.S. problem with tribal politics is the ‘decline of drinking bourbon.’” He explained that without the excuse of drinking together politicians of the two main parties were no longer socializing together. The cover flaps to Luce’s book note the same problem:

“In domestic politics, things are also dire: conversation between Republicans and Democrats has all but ceased—Barney Frank call it “the dialogue of the deaf,” and the once noisy Senate dinning room, specifically designed so that members of different parties would be forced to talk to one another, is now empty most lunch hours. No surprise, when the politicians are busy talking to lobbyists and trying to raise campaign funds.”

I think it is important to remember that an empty lunchroom is not an “airy fairy” opinion: it is stark and measurable, as is the newest fundraising and lobbying. There have been measurable changes to the latter things, such as recently saying that a corporation, being legally “a person,” has the “free speech” to go and lobby without the lawful financial controls and legal constraints faced by any organization of citizens, changes that have led to a measurable change in the state of the lunchroom. In other words, throughout his book, Luce, a gifted financial writer, is not talking in generalities. And neither are the leaders he interviews. Luce understands laws and incentives; he writes about pragmatic opportunities; he is not some longhaired innocent. And if Luce says America is in descent, you had better grab a parachute.

At this point in my “book announcement” I can imagine an offshore reader eagerly asking for some examples of what Luce has seen and diagnosed. I won’t do so. For one thing, this is an announcement, not a review. Also, with a book of such breadth, I am sympathetic to the “addict thinking” of a few of my many U.S. readers. However hard I tried to give random examples, their temptation would be to think that I have shown the most important ones. As well, if an example could be discounted, it would be, by an addict eager to discount the entire body of research, sight unseen. I suppose I could show here the table of contents, but no: If a citizen picks up the book, and reads a page, then the contents page won’t matter, he will buy the book regardless. Yes, it is that good.

A final word on leadership: Peter Drucker, without using the phrase “rearview mirror” once noted how the U.S. people were alone in how they responded to the Wall Street crash. The Europeans all despaired: for years they kept glumly comparing everything to pre-depression times. It was only in the U.S., with the leadership of “nothing to fear” President Roosevelt, that people kept looking ahead.

Sean Crawford
Living in interesting times
May 2015, June 2012

I have deleted the 2012 footnotes; they referred to various essays of mine on Luce’s topics.
Next week I shall return to doing “poetic” essays.

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