In conversation: Edward Luce

On America’s decline and how bad parenting and mediocre schools hurt the economy

British journalist Edward Luce has worked both sides of the pond and both sides of the fence—as Washington-based writer for the Financial Times, and as a speechwriter during the Clinton administration. His book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, takes a hard look at the frightening ramifications of a gutted middle class. He frets that America is in a precipitous decline.

Q: I wrote a story for Maclean’s last month based on a poll of Canadians. In it, 72 per cent of respondents agreed: “American dominance peaked in the last century and [it] will soon become a first among equals.” Reading your book, even that seems an optimistic view.

A: The International Monetary Fund said the U.S. had about 31 per cent of world GDP in 2001. It’s now 23.5 per cent. There’s every sign the second decade of this century will bring America’s share to about one-sixth. To go from a third to a sixth in 20 years, that’s a big shift.

Q: You say a relative American decline isn’t bad. What is the larger issue for Americans?

A: There are two aspects. One is the relative economic decline, which isn’t bad news. Poor countries are becoming less poor and providing potential markets for American exports. The second is the inaction of Washington to the structural forces associated with America’s relative economic decline. Namely, hyper-integration and globalization and exponentially changing technology. Both aspects are fundamentally transforming how Americans live and work.

Q: If America didn’t create the middle class, it idealized it. You make a case it’s been gutted in the U.S. —the “mancession” where men’s wages have taken a hit, and the five million manufacturing jobs lost in the last decade. The middle class used to finance the good times, now they’re kicked out of the party. What caused that?

A: If you look at the 2007 business cycle, this was the first where the median household income, most of the middle class, were poorer at the end than at the beginning to the tune of $2,000. This recovery began in mid-2009. Since then the median household income has fallen by 6.4 per cent. It’s not what happens in recoveries. The more we progress into this recovery, the poorer people get.

Q: These same pressures—globalization, rising inequality, lack of social movement—hit Canada and other countries, too, but with less profound damage. Why is that?

A: I know you’ve got problems, but they’re not as big as America’s problems. I think it’s also partly to do with the fact that you have safety nets, and you have a more progressive income tax system. When people are laid off in places like Canada or Germany, they don’t lose their health care. And they do have better access than their American counterparts to worker retraining colleges and vocational opportunities. The U.S. budget for worker retraining is being cut at a time when it’s never been more desperately needed. It’s going to lead to way more deskilling, way more social problems, faster drops in labour force participation, and way higher cost to the taxpayer via the prisons, policing and the expenditures you need to clean up the mess.

Q: Once you lose the middle class, you lose good schools, worsen educational outcomes, erode the ability for critical analysis. You kind of foster a war on science, economics and even historical fact.

A: America is going through a bout of constitutional fundamentalism, for want of a better term. There’s always been a very strong strand in American political culture of not just distaste for elites but also for expertise. The less qualified a politician, the better their standing in the eyes of people who hold [that view]. This pathology, because of the way the American constitution works, has essentially a veto on any action. You’re going to see a deteriorating response, or non-response, to these really serious, really profound challenges to the way America makes its money and sustains its middle class. One of the reasons I didn’t provide a saccharine Hollywood ending to this book is because the polarization isn’t something that’s been conjured up in Washington. It’s a deeply rooted phenomenon from beyond the Beltway.

Q: Let’s go back to the cradle. As a boomer myself, and a parent, I cringe at your assessment of how we’ve imbued in our children this “obsessive cult of self-esteem,” as you put it. I can’t understand how it came about.

A: You have to start with the 1960s, and the rebellion against authority, and the laudable progress towards tolerance, and diversity, and the acceptance of multiculturalism. But it went too far into a cult of narcissism. There is a difference between giving a child confidence and giving a child a completely unreal sense of their own capabilities and powers, of celebrating a child to the point of unreality. I see the ’60s as a positive decade. But it morphed into a cult of individualism.

Q: You reference Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, with its nose-to-the-grindstone, work-before-play ethic. That book shocked a lot of Americans and Canadians, but she’s only the latest generation of immigrants to espouse this view.

A: Exactly. I think we all read that book with a mixture of admiration and horror. One of the reasons I think it was so popular was because a lot of parents who, to use an old-fashioned word, mollycoddle their children—over-praise them, never reprimand them— feel a sneaking sense there’s something missing. These are values not just of Chinese or Asian mothers, these are values of immigrant families, as you say. The first and second generation you have to work hard: nobody else is going to do it for you, but the trade-off here is this is a society of equal opportunity. Perhaps it’s no accident that as America has become less a society of equal opportunity and more a society of plutocracy, that sense that if you work hard you’ll get where you want to get, has also decayed.

Q: Bill Gates, whom you interviewed, has spent billions through his foundation trying to find the key to teacher performance and educational improvement. He seems confounded.

A: This is a bigger problem than whether teachers are rewarded or incentivized properly. This is about what happens in the home, and we all know that. If the signals they get at home fill them with a totally false sense of self-confidence, then they’re not getting the inoculation that they need about how the world really works. To segue, the other great problem with American education is the scandalously high college dropout rate. It is no surprise in that context that so many kids drop out, because at college you get the grades you deserve. At school, you just seem to get an A if you turn up.

Q: One of the teachers you talked to said, “Parents will be the death of America.”

A: You see it in politics. You see it in education, too. People want somebody to blame, other than themselves.

Q: You have an anecdote about the summer intern program at the U.S. State Department. The intern saying to a supervisor, “We don’t like to be criticized.”

A: The person who told me that was still smarting. It wasn’t just that one student said this, it was that the student had been designated to say this on behalf of them all! Can you believe it? This is America, the school of hard knocks where the best ideas win. The self-image just doesn’t fit the reality.

Q: How do you revitalize the school system? You say we have to stream students to vocational schools at an earlier age if they’re not likely to go to university. They need training that will see them get a useful job.

A: There are pilot schemes. But as a federal or state scheme it’s not a particularly American way of doing things. The President made a very American statement in his State of the Union address when he said, “I want every American to graduate from college by 2020.” Actually, not everybody needs to go to college. What he said was very egalitarian. I’m not sure it was very practical.

Q: Many come out ill-prepared, and angry, perhaps because they see their families falling behind. There seem to be two streams. One is the Tea Party crowd with its anger and fiscal incoherence.

A: I think the Tea Party is the most powerful recent symptom of the problem. If you look at the voting record from one Congress to the next, the polarization began about 1980. Now, if you stick your centrist head above the parapet it will get blown off. For politicians to talk to what I like to think are reasonable, Socratic, undecided voters—but who are usually the overworked, cynical and often apathetic floating voters—the incentive to address their concerns diminishes all the time.

Q: Then we move to what is loosely defined as the left. The Occupy movement seems a product of a lot of the things you described as being wrong with our schools. An incoherent agenda with a group that believes they can solve a problem by occupying space.

A: The Tea Party is as diffuse as Occupy Wall Street is, but the networks on the right are more organized and disciplined. Even if there is no leader, there is a sense of discipline and commonality. Within Occupy you have such a multitude of views from moderate trade unionists who want to see middle-class income restored or manufacturing come back to America, to anarchists. It’s hard to fashion a coherent platform out of that.

Q: What has the reaction been to your book, having a Brit poking into American affairs?

A: Americans are aware that their country is in trouble. A lot of them are confused about why. Fewer of them are confused about whether.

Q: That’s as optimistic as you get, isn’t it?

A: At the moment, yes.

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