Book Review: The Wrong Idea of America

A former White House aide and economist makes a surprisingly sloppy appraisal of US’ problems

The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail And How To Renew Them
Todd G Buchholz
Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
367pp; $29.99

Brexit has eloquently demonstrated what a terrible bummer nostalgia can be. Wallowing in a sense of persecution and aching for long-lost days of glory, British leaders ceaselessly campaigned to leave European Union; and, nostalgia made for a good tool to rouse, exhort and even to delude. But with “leave” leaders and campaigners increasingly abandoning ship, it is quite evident that nostalgia has limited currency in good governance.
Author Milan Kundera was rather cutting about it: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” When former empires and superpowers refuse to go gently into the fading light or remain steadfast in denial about reality biting their heels, nostalgia is a helpful analgesic that numbs the pain.
Todd G Buchholz uses this anaesthesia to quite remarkable effect. His latest adds to the growing list of works harking back to an imagined ideal period, keen to revive an illusory greatness. This sense of “greatness” is also quite unidimensional, with some of modernity’s post-War distortions embedded deep.Greatness of another kind
The author’s mission is simple: he sets out to diagnose what’s gone wrong with his great country — and here greatness is primarily a shorthand for prosperity — and how it can be revived. But do not be misled by the words “Rich Nations” in the title; this book is mostly about the US. His prescriptive analysis also betrays his politics, which often dips into partisan territory; ironically, he remains blissfully unaware of just how much this limited political worldview has eroded his “great’ nation.
For example, he laments how the Barack Obama administration has not taken advantage of current low interest rates by issuing long-tenor bonds of, say, 50 or 100 years’ maturity. Locking into long-maturity bonds at rock-bottom rates does indeed make sense. Instead, he sees White House opting for the shorter end of the yield curve because interest rates are usually lower at that end. And, here comes the conspiracy theory: lower interest rates help deflate debt-to-GDP ratios and provides an illusion of a lower budget deficit, “flattering the president’s fiscal profile”.
Strangely, the author ignores how a partisan Congress has dogged President Obama’s executive actions. Is there a possibility that the Obama administration issued short term bonds to avoid a combative and obstructionist Congress, which needed any excuse — including bonds longer in maturity and higher in interest rates — to trip up the president?
It’s also funny that Buchholz should complain about short term holdings: as former managing director of Tiger hedge fund, he should know a thing or two about them.The immigrant’s case
Buchholz’s starting hypothesis posits that as nation-states get prosperous, their birth rate drops. Consequently, there are more elderly than young working people. Who does all the work then? The immigrant, of course. And, then he remits his earnings home. Ergo: the immigrant should be integrated better into the American society, so that he can look up to George Washington as a forefather, even if he surrounds his Thanksgiving turkey with some ethnic dishes.
So there it is, Solution No. 1: a strange nationalistic formula that can cure numerous economic ills. His nationalism is also time-stamped: it must pay obeisance to only cultural icons adopted in the past 240 years; whatever existed before July 4, 1776, is not worth knowing. Nationalism also means regaining GMC — grit, mobility and confidence — which defined American exceptionalism in the past.
This is a strange salmagundi of suggestions, which flirts with patriotism without trying to sound too reactionary, strains to accept immigrants without sounding xenophobic. Anecdotal evidence makes up for actual facts, poor research leads to hypotheses, history is used to suit pre-determined conclusions.
Let’s look at poor research: “Traditional Hindu culture honours boys above girls, since the religion requires that parents be buried by a son.” Will somebody please educate Mr Buchholz on Hindu funeral rites, especially since Hindu Americans make up almost 1 per cent of the country’s population.Missing in action
And that’s exactly the nub of everything that’s wrong with this book. While dwelling upon patriotism and nationalism in good motherhood, apple-pie American style, Buchholz misses the US’ main fault-lines — growing inequality — or the myriad reasons behind stagnating real incomes.
It is glib to point fingers at outsourcing but how do you sort out Corporate America, with its flawed governance structures and undue focus on three-monthly profits (which rewards large-scale retrenchment if it helps nudge up stock prices)? Buchholz is silent. Not a single word about how strong, public institutions made the US a true liberal democracy and how their decay is perhaps an important cause behind the slip from “greatness”.
There is also no mention about the US’ hegemonic role in global negotiations, which has systematically eroded multilateralism. The US was one of the principal founders of the post-WWII global multilateral architecture which was then successfully subverted to suit narrow, partisan, private corporate interests. And, of course, Buchholz refers to the 2008 meltdown as a “global” financial crisis, which in itself is symbolic of how blinkers have narrowed the fabled American vision.
In trying to attempt a broad-brush future manifesto for the US, Buchholz may have bitten off a bit too much. There is a lot of research, but some of it fails to meet strict academic rigour and some of it is pointless. The book is readable, written in fast-paced prose and that is it’s only saving grace.

This book review was originally published in The Hindu BusinessLine. It can also be read here.  

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