Worn in the USA
POLITICS:Many ordinary Americans are finding it hard to survive, and their economy is under threat from China and India. But as long as money dominates the political system, can anything really change?
Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline By Edward Luce Little, Brown, 292pp. £20
MARK AND CONNIE FREEMAN both work full time at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, in a suburb of Minneapolis. He is a warehouse packager and she is an anaesthesia supply technician. Mark works part time in a liquor store to supplement the family income, which fell from $70,000 to $50,000 in the space of a year after he lost another part-time job. The Freemans are still paying their mortgage on a home that is now almost worthless, and with just $70,000 in savings, they calculate, they will never be able to retire. They worry about staying healthy enough to keep working and about the catastrophic financial impact of any future medical crisis and fret constantly about the future of their 22-year-old autistic son, Andy.
The Freemans are far from exceptional. As Edward Luce notes in this lively and insightful study of the condition of the United States, their situation is “disturbingly normal” in a society where those on low and middle incomes have paid the biggest price for the loss of national competitiveness. The middle class (which in the United States includes the working class) is getting poorer and more insecure every year while the richest Americans capture an ever bigger share of the nation’s wealth. In the last full business cycle, between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 per cent of Americans captured almost two-thirds of all economic growth, and the top 0.1 per cent took more than a third. During the same period, the median American household saw its income decline by $2,000.
Luce, who is chief Washington correspondent of the Financial Times, identifies the condition of the United States’ middle class as the truest measure of its economy and the ultimate gauge of the strength of its democracy. It is also the most painful symptom of the United States’ relative decline, which has seen its share of the global economy tumble from more than 30 per cent in 2000 to 23.5 per cent a decade later. Time to Start Thinking combines extensive reporting from throughout the US, including interviews with CEOs, senior military officers, academics, scientific innovators and working Americans, with an unsparing analysis of the country’s approach to education, innovation, immigration and government. It draws its title from the remark attributed to the physicist Ernest Rutherford when he took over the Cavendish Laboratory, in Cambridge, after the first World War: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It’s time to start thinking.”