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BW Businessworld

Engaging The Malaise

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A series of books have dealt with the plight of the US economy in the recent past. They include Fault Lines (2010) by Raghuram Rajan and That Used To Be Us (2011) by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Time To Start Thinking by Edward Luce is a bit like Friedman-Mandelbaum, but different. For a start, Friedman and Mandelbaum were more structured in offering solutions (higher education, infrastructure). Luce is the Washington bureau chief of Financial Times. As a "foreigner", despite extensive stints in Washington (and not just with FT), Luce is more guarded and covers a broader canvas. Luce is known in India for his best-seller, In Spite Of The Gods: The Strange Rise Of Modern India (2007). His new book is a bit like the not-too-strange fall of the US. He says, "On pretty much every social indicator you check, America is off the charts… How long can this go on before something gives… The truth is that America's stock has been falling around the world for quite a while..."

Luce is interesting not for the fact that he describes the US model or identifies its problems and suggests solutions, but for his style. With his personalised and anecdotal style, Luce hooks from the first sentence. "The sun was shining. The last of the late spring cherry blossoms were still visible. All was well with the world. Or at least that is how it must have seemed to the three hundred or so graduating MBAs as they gathered for ceremonies beneath their university's clock tower." A talk by Robert Solow is described next. This is from the introduction, sub-titled ‘The Graduations'.

There are seven chapters, sparing the introduction, with the last one being sort of a conclusion. Luce's focus all along has been on the hollowing out of the middle class (‘The Lonely Middle'), education (‘Leaving No Robot Behind'), innovation (‘The Golden Goose'), bureaucracy (‘Gulliver's Travails'), governance (‘Against Itself') and lobbying (‘Maybe We Can't').

These titles are indicative of the good copy the book has. The concluding chapter, ‘An Exceptional Challenge', has the speculative proposition that the US today is a bit like Britain in the early part of the 20th century. Unlike many of its kind, this book does not focus much on immigration or public infrastructure. That's fair enough, because every author has to be selective.

Part of the US decline is, of course, relative to the emergence of Asia, and now Africa. That said, there is an absolute story of deterioration too, the a proposition (advanced in a different book) that with the end of the Cold War, the US no longer possesses a raison-d'etre and has, therefore, lost a sense of national identity, goal and vision. Thus, there is no coherent strategy and short-term considerations. There will certainly be more books on the malaise, but this is a very engaging one.

The author teaches at Delhi's Centre For Policy Research

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-07-2012)